The Way of Transgression

There are concepts whose time has passed, and each usage now betrays or strays from the initial power of the term. “Transgression,” when deployed by such thinkers as Michel Foucault and Georges Bataille in the1930’s-to-late 20th century was a radical concept articulated with change and resistance. That is not to say that transgression wasn’t often a means for the homogeneous order to absorb elements marked outside of it and/or or at its limits.

The Currency of Transgression and Limit

Foucault maintained, as he gave currency to the concepts of transgression and limit that 

limit and transgression depend on each other for whatever  density  of  being they possess:  a limit could not exist if it were absolutely uncrossable and, reciprocally, transgression would be pointless if it merely crossed a limit composed of illusions and shadows (Foucault, 1977, 34).

Foucault questions: “can the limit have a life of its own outside of the act that gloriously passes through it and negates it?” “What becomes of it after this act and what might it have been before?” (34) One could answer that before, it was a latent possibility and after it is an event preserved in time as a memory, object and possible impetus for a new possibility. “Does transgression not exhaust its nature when it crosses the limit, knowing no other life beyond this point in time?” (34) Foucault settles on a spiral relation of transgression and limit: “their relationship takes the form of a spiral which no simple infraction can exhaust. Perhaps …like a Hash of lightning in the night” (35). Foucault’s description of the relation between the lightning flash and the night sky shows and quickly summarizes the spiral working of transgression; he writes: 

a hash of lightning in the night … from the beginning of time, gives a dense and black intensity to the night it denies, which lights up the night from the inside, from top to bottom, and yet owes to the dark the stark clarity of its manifestation, its harrowing and poised singularity; the Hash loses itself in this space it marks with its sovereignty and becomes silent now that it has given a name to obscurity (35).


The purposive role Foucault gives transgression is “to measure the excessive distance that it opens at the heart of the limit and to trace the Hashing line that causes the limit to arise” (35). What transgression is not for Foucault is resistance, although it can be articulated with and serve as a catalyst for projects of resistance, as Bryan Palmer so thoroughly demonstrates in Cultures of Darkness. Night Travels in the Histories of Transgression (2000). Inspired by Georges Bataille’s claim “we lack daylight to the extent that we lack the night that we are,” (Bataille, 1988 cited Palmer, 2000, 455) Palmer documents night transgressions and cultures of darkness from feudalism to contemporary times:

There are discrete chapters on peasants and witches in late feudalism; on Jacobins, libertines, pirates and slaves amidst the rise of capitalism and imperialism; on craftsmen and day laborers, prostitutes and tavern keepers, fraternal lodge members and anarchists in the cities of industrial capitalism; on lesbians, homosexuals and communists under fascism; on the mafia, youth gangs and race riots in modern American capitalism (Panitch 2000).

Palmer relates night transgressions with “the material world of production and exchange” and “widening socialbilities” (Palmer 457):

This book … does not so much champion marginalization and transgression as acknowledge their coerced being, explore their cultural resiliencies, and suggest that their historicized presence, constrained limitations, and capabilities to articulate a challenge to ensconced power are never islands unto themselves. They are always reciprocally related to the material world of production and exchange, where oppression and exploitation are universal attributes of night’s freedoms and fears as well as day’s more transparent politics of inequality. (457)

In fact, in many acts of transgression the intent is not resistance, it is only after the fact that the action may be framed as such. While the manifest acts of transgression change, “the experience of transgression brings to light this relationship of finitude to being, this moment of the limit” (Foucault 49).  

Transgression in the Political Economy of Expenditure

Foucault’s thinking on transgression and limit is developed in relation with George Bataille’s notions of excess and expenditure. Foucault’s essay “A Preface to Transgression” first appeared in “Hommage a Georges Bataille,” Critique, Nos. 195-196 (1963). Where Foucault goes to flesh out his concept of transgression is Bataille’s writing on the eye and inner experience. After juxtaposing Bataille’s eye and inner experience as a way of understanding “this moment of the limit which anthropological thought, since Kant, could only designate from the distance and from the exterior through the language of dialectics,” Foucault says: “The twentieth century will undoubtedly have discovered the related categories of exhaustion, excess, the limit, and transgression—the strange and unyielding form of these irrevocable movements which consume and consummate us” (49). 

I would concur that excess, the limit, and transgression are 20th century concepts and perhaps not as useful in situating 21st century theory and practice. Following Bataille, if transgression has indeed diminished in usefulness conceptually through overuse and depoliticization, and if transgression has been (re)relegated to the notion of waste economy of expenditure (for some it was always part of the waste economy), then perhaps redeploying it could be transgressive.

Expenditure stands in opposition to the productive mode, in which each action or element is in the service of an end beyond  itself. Nonproductive expenditure signals the triumph of waste over the principles of order and utility.

In 1933 Bataille published “The Notion of Expenditure” in a communist journal called The Social Critique. Here and later in The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, Volume One, Consumption, Bataille writes a political economy of expenditure. Bataille argues that classical economic theories (including Marx’s), because they focused on utility and production, were unable to grasp the deeper dynamic that underlies all social and economic arrangements: ‘the principle of loss’, ‘unproductive’, ‘non-productive expenditure’ or ‘unconditional expenditure’ (Bataille, 1997b, 168-81).  For Bataille this pure expenditure is the ultimate non-purpose of all activity in the universe, including human activity. 

Bataille says that what we have taken as political economy is restricted economy: it “restricts its object to operations carried out with a view to limited ends, that of economic man” (Bataille, 1997a, 184). Restricted to the human, it doesn’t take into account “the play of living matter in general” (185) – that is, energy with no limits. “The general economy … makes apparent that excesses of energy are produced, which by definition can not be utilized. The excessive energy can only be lost without the slightest aim, consequently without any meaning. This useless, senseless loss is sovereignty” (Bataille, 1981, 215-16).

“For living matter in general, energy is always in excess” (Bataille, 1997a, 185). Energy is solar for Bataille. “The origin and essence of our wealth are given in the radiation of the sun, which dispenses energy – wealth – without any return” (Bataille, 1991, 28). Living organisms receive this energy and accumulate it within the limits of the space time available. Plants do best, humans worst. The human is destined to useless consumption – either festival and monumental or catastrophic. Bataille argues that “if we do not have the force to destroy the surplus energy ourselves” (Bataille, 1997a, 185) it destroys humans, as we can see in the anthropocene or what Jussi Parikka so aptly reterms the anthrobscene to highlight “the vicious exploitative actions of corporations, governments and other agencies” ( in their squandering of wealth.

Bataille understands heterogeneity as “elements that are impossible to assimilate” (Bataille, 1997c, 125); the “heterogeneous world includes everything resulting from unproductive expenditure ….This consists of everything rejected by homogenous society as waste or as superior transcendent value” (127). Bataille includes in the heterogeneous “the waste products of the body; persons, words or acts having erotic value; the various unconscious processes such as dreams or neuroses; the numerous elements or social forms that homogeneous society is powerless to assimilate: mobs, the warrior, aristocratic and impoverished classes, different types of violent individuals or at least those who refuse the rule (madman, leaders, poets, etc.)” (127).

For Bataille it is these sovereign heterogeneous moments, individual and collective, that transgress the homogeneous. Sovereignty, for Bataille, is the domain of non-utility and non-objectivity; it is the useless, it disdains use, and it scorns the (bourgeois) world of things.

Freud’s “Polymorphous Perverse” Limit

In Sigmund Freud’s late 19th/early 20th century sexual worldview, perversion, transgression and unproductive sexual expenditure circulate together as a limit of homogeneous sexuality. According to Freud the human infant begins life with a sexual disposition which is “polymorphously perverse” and innately bisexual. Through heteronormative socialization (social repression) that includes ‘appropriate’ gendering these two main sites of perversions are given up – except, of course, for those ‘polymorphously perverse’ souls who retain adult versions of thumb-sucking and autoeroticism – the two sited ‘manifestations of infantile sexuality’ (Freud, 1904, 95). Freud noted in his 1930 work Civilization and Its Discontents that much of sexual repression was social and unjust –

As regards the sexually mature individual, the choice of an object is restricted to the opposite sex, and most extra-genital satisfactions are forbidden as perversions. The requirements, demonstrated in these prohibitions, that there shall be a single kind of sexual life for everyone, disregards the dissimilarities, whether innate or acquired, in the sexual constitution of human beings; it cuts off a fair number of them from sexual enjoyment, and so becomes the source of serious injustice. (Freud, 1930 [1961], 60)

In his early (1905) text Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality of which the essay “Infantile Sexuality” is a part, Freud presents adult polymorphous perverse sexuality as the “natural extension” of the child’s innate polymorphous perverse sexuality. The infantile disposition is one in which “the mental dams against sexual excesses—shame, disgust, morality” (Freud, 1905 [1953],109) have not been constructed or are still in the process of being constructed. Freud can be read as giving the “polymorphously perverse disposition” not only a gender base but also a class base: “it is an average uncultivated woman” (109) in whom the polymorphously perverse disposition can be found. However, in the next breath Freud implies that in every woman the act of seduction may bring out this tendency toward perversion. Freud’s trajectory of adult polymorphous perverse potentiality is interesting: first he cites prostitutes who, he says “exploit the same polymorphous, that is infantile disposition for the purpose of their profession” (109), then “an average uncultivated woman,” to finally marking the “disposition to perversions of every kind … a general and fundamental human characteristic” (109). Freud goes from gender, class, occupation to everyone as having the potentiality for perversion – the potential for transgression to the limit and perhaps past the limit of homogenous society. Of course, the limit changes as the homogenous  partially absorbs transgressions.

Body Expenditure: Transgression from 

1. The Thumb-sucking, Auto-Erotic Female Body to 

2. The Partialized Female Body – Growing Female Body Parts to 

3. Female Fluids, Fluid Feminism and 

4. Beyond

1. The Thumb-sucking, Auto-erotic Female Body 

A recent group exhibition, Solitary Pleasures, at the Freud Museum London, April 18-May 13, 2018 (  and the accompanying book Solitary Pleasures while definitely situated at the limit of Freud’s understanding of perversion was presented long after the material initially transgressed homogeneous standards. That is, the work presented the transgression of an obsolete limit, one that Freud himself had played a key role in molding. What better place to present work informed by and transgressing the limits of a key contender in setting out the 20th century concept of perversion, than in the master’s house. Though I wouldn’t say the exhibition dismantled the house; it could have done so but only in the early 20th century or at least in the late 1970s, 1980’s and early 1990’s when the work was created. Solitary Pleasures then is a retrospective of transgression in presentations of thumbsucking and autoeroticism. The Freud Museum London’s website Past Exhibitions section states:

 Solitary Pleasures challenges social taboos and contributes to the arts, sex education, and sexual health and wellbeing agenda by generating original, wide-ranging dialogues on this topic central to gender, sexuality, eroticism and mental health. 

The exhibition includes work by Shannon Bell, VALIE EXPORT, Chantal Faust, Antony Gormley, Jordan McKenzie, Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, Emma Talbot, and Michelle Williams Gamaker.

Together, they tell the human story, both ancient and modern, of our complex sexual, erotic, and intimate encounters with ourselves and others by way of masturbation as an all-inclusive – gay, lesbian, heterosexual, bisexual, trans, queer, + – practice. (


The curator Marquard Smith’s intent was to show work from the late 1970s and 1980s that altered the public discourse on sexuality and recontextualized sexual practices. This objective was more than fulfilled by the collection with a classic VALERIE EXPORT loop of water faucet genital stimulation, Jordan McKenzie’s  ‘Spent’ semen – green on yellow litmus paper prints, Chantal Faust’s thumbsucking watercolor, her ten line drawings of thumbs sucked which she combines with “10 Haikus on Thumbsucking” in the book and her close up head/thumbshot photo on black, which is the appropriate cover image for the book, and Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens homage “We made love with Marcel Duchamp,” with Duchamp’s R.Mutt signed urinal re-envisioned as a Magic Wand vibrator signed R.MuFF, and the relocation of Duchamp’s rectification of a Mona Lisa postcard – drawing a mustache and beard and titling it L.H.O.O.Q. – to rectify the classic flesh colored 7 inch engorged dildo with a mustache on the glans tip and L.H.O.O.Q printed the length of the dildo side. 

Two of my early works on female ejaculation were curated Nice Girls Don’t Do It (film 1989/90, K. Daymond) and images and how-to text from “Q: What Shoots and Sprays, Shoots and Sprays, Shoots and Sprays? A: A Woman,” Rites Magazine March 1989. 


As I write in two sections of my essay “Fluid Truth” in the book Solitary Pleasures – 


Female Ejaculator (FE) Militant Subjects

One of the political subjects that ruptures the logic of arkhê and the police sexual order is the ejaculating female subject, traversing the process of what Alain Badiou a la Jacques Lacan terms subjectivization—in the first instance, through a hysterical cut into, a noisy disruption, of hegemonic heterosexuality. This first cut was the body disturbances and genital mucous secretions documented by Sigmund Freud in his work with Dora and the neurasthenic female ejaculators that Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing found among a female prison population and documented in Psychopathia Sexualis. While these subjects were not mute in terms of the noise of resistance, they were not speaking militant political subjects. Rather, they were spoken about in dominant psychoanalytic and sexological discourses. Subjectivization, as understood by Badiou, “is that through which a truth is possible” (Badiou, 2005, p.393). For Badiou there are three dimensions to a truth-process: the event, the fidelity and the truth.  As Badiou states: “For the process of truth to begin, something must happen.” (Badiou, 2002, lecture) The truth process of female ejaculation began when Female Ejaculator (FE) militant subjects, such as myself (Shannon Bell) and Deborah Sundahl, started to and continue to speak on female ejaculation publically by teaching workshops, writing texts, producing our own films and doing documentary footage for television documentaries, such as Gilles Boyon and Segolene Hanotaux’s 2011 documentary film, G-Spotting: A Story of Pleasure and Promise.

Female ejaculation is an event for feminist thought and sexuality in much the same way that “Marx is an event for political thought because he designates, under the name ‘proletariat’, the central void of early bourgeois societies.” (Badiou, 2001, p.69).  Bell and Sundahl, and other FE militant subjects such as Annie Sprinkle and Carol Queen, designate under the name of ‘female ejaculation’ the central void of female sexuality.  

Female Ejaculation: The Event

What happened in the 1980s was the feminist sexual equivalent of the Apostle Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. The hysterics of Dora et al. converts into the politics of Bell et al.; the hysterical subject converts into the militant feminist subject. While female bodies have ejaculated throughout history, Female Ejaculation was not a truth-event until it was enunciated in multiple sites of queer feminist discourse that collectively and retrospectively rendered obsolete the hegemonic markings of the female body as submissive to the pleasures and desires of the male body. As Badiou notes, “the event renders prior markings obsolete” (2003, p.23).

Female ejaculation can be an incredibly powerful experience and image of the sexual female body. To see fluid shooting with velocity and force out of the glands and ducts that surround the urethra – what is called the “urethral sponge” of the clitoris, now officially the “female prostate” – through the urethral opening and from the two external urethral side glands (named by Alexander Skene ‘the Skene glands’) provides a new script for female sexuality and repositions the female body as powerful, active and autonomous. Female ejaculation educator Deborah Sundahl suggests, “[t]his is connectable to a broadening of women’s social and sexual roles” (Bell, 1995, p.273). I say, “[t]he visual image of female ejaculation relieves the phallus of its patriarchal burden” (1995, p.273-4).


While indeed it was a real pleasure to see my early work on the Freud Museum cabinet shelf above Annie Sprinkle’s sex tarot cards, performance programs and her book Planet Orgasm, and in the next cabinet on a shelf below Sprinkle’s queer feminist films, polaroid prints and political sex buttons, it was also unheimlich to see images and objects behind glass cases in the Freud Museum exhibition space; uncanny not because these images and objects no longer circulate as transgressive cultural pieces, but rather, uncanny because the presentation brings home that transgression when applied to the human body and its sexual actions of pleasure/pain is spent, fossilized and abandoned and then perhaps renewed differently.

Marquard Smith made this difference clear in the Solitary Pleasures “Introduction: Towards a Divergence Untold”: masturbation discourse has shifted from negative associations with the polymorphously perverse to inclusive acts of expenditure. Smith states: 

The premise of Solitary Pleasures is that as an act masturbation is all-inclusive; it’s gay, lesbian, nonbinary, heterosexual, bisexual, queer, +, +, and +. It’s universal and particular, reciprocal and personalized; a solitary pleasure, a shared exchange, an intimate encounter – with ourselves, and between couples, lovers, and strangers. It is also the great leveler (Smith, 2018, 3).

Smith cites Thomas Laqueur who wrote Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation (2003) and has an essay in the collection. Masturbation

historically … has been considered a ‘fundamental asocial or socially degenerate practice’ in which ‘healthy desire’ is channeled back to itself rather than in the regulative hetero-normativity of socially productive forms of heterosexual intercourse. That is to say, its dangerousness comes in the first instance from the fact it is a practice that can and is enacted (whether alone or in company) in and of itself rather than as an encounter on the path to procreation (4).

That is to say, autoeroticism is outside the restricted economy of utility, production and consumption and a driving part of the unproductive economy of expenditure where “the play of living matter in general” – “excessive energy can … be lost without the slightest aim.” “This useless senseless loss is sovereignty.” (Bataille, 1981, 215-16)  Energy is always in excess for living matter. Smith says:

masturbation is no economy of scarcity. It defies paucity, says no to bare life, to just-getting-by. As Laqueur writes, there is no bottom line in the masturbatory economy (Laqueur, 2003, p.290). You come, come, and come again. Gushing, Spurting, Trickling. Spasming. Shuddering. Quivering. Tingling. Cathecting. Ripples or crashing wave after wave after wave of release. And even if maybe there’s no release, even if there’s just desire frustrated, desire dashed, this is itself a surfeit of sensation-ing  too (5).

Smith suggests that masturbation is an anti-capitalist activity: “Fiscally-speaking, in our global economy especially, and against the vile coercive tendencies of emotional capitalism and the capitalism-ization and real subsumption of the erotic, and of desire, if ever there is an activity to participate in that’s anti-capitalist, masturbation is it” (6).  

Smith’s discussion of the delimitation of heteronormativity according to what is marked out as perverse is a brilliant example of transgression, in the way that Bataille sees the relation between the homogeneous and heterogeneous and in the way that Foucault sees the limit as simultaneously set outside from and defining what it is excluded from. Smith writes:

Masturbation is a challenge (and a danger) to the already crumbling edifice of ‘heterosexuality’ because also it draws attention to the fact that the ‘normative’ in heterosexuality is itself perverse. … let’s be reminded that the majority of practices designated historically as intrinsically perverse because they’re non-productive activities that ‘deviate’ from the path to (and don’t culminate in) breeding (masturbation, fetishism, sodomy, bestiality, Pygmalionism, and so on, even simple foreplay), are the very practices forming the taxonomy of perversions that ‘invent’ heterosexuality as itself polymorphously perverse (6).

Smith contends that 

masturbation as a heterosexual (as well as gay, lesbian, nonbinary, bisexual, trans, queer, +, +, and +) practice, because it is integral to the structure and economy of the hetero-normative also promises the staging of a critique of that system; even it works against the classical utility of the economy of heterosexual genital intercourse, and for  non-productive forms of generation (6).

This contention is precisely what the central contention of the Solitary Pleasures exhibition and book; much of the collection played a significant part in publically transgressing and ‘working against the utility of the economy of heterosexual genital intercourse’ and for the expenditure economy of ‘non-productive forms of generation’.

2. The Partialized Female Body – Growing Female Body Parts

What transgresses the ‘sovereign’ active female body shooting female ejaculate? Perhaps, free floating tissue-engineered micro female body parts growing in a bioreactor. 

During a tissue-engineering art residency with SymbioticA in the Department of Anatomy and Human Biology at the University of Western Australia, Perth Australia, bioartists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr taught me the process of tissue engineering: thawing cells, growing cells, feeding cells, seeding cells on biodegradable polymers and killing contaminated cells. 


My project Two Phalluses and Big Toe was a continuation of my earlier work on the female phallus and female ejaculation in a new medium – tissue culture. The female phallus originated from an alginate mold of my 7-inch (17.7 cm) internal erect phallus, the male phallus was modeled on a generic 7-inch dildo and the big toe from a cast of my big toe. 


Two Phalluses and Big Toe is more interesting conceptually than it is as an art object, that is until a new partial organ emerged and became contaminated. Conceptually the project implements Martin Heidegger’s approach to art as a means of ‘revealing’ new entities to ‘unconceal’ truth (Heidegger [1935-] 2002). It functions as a comment on Jacques Lacan’s claim that ‘no one can be the phallus’ (Lacan, 1977, 281-91) by showing that the phallus can be (alive) with no ‘one.’ It biotechnically realizes Georges Bataille’s “Big Toe” as a site of waste and dirtiness and the organ which marks us as human: 

The big toe is the most human part of the human body, in the sense that no other element of this body is as differentiated from the corresponding element of the anthropoid ape (chimpanzee, gorilla, orangutan, or gibbon). … In addition, the function of the human foot consists in giving a firm foundation to the erection of which man is so proud (the big toe, ceasing to grasp branches, is applied to the ground on the same plane as other toes) (Bataille, 1985, 20).

I grew these three organs (male phallus, female phallus and big toe) in a bioreactor where they formed into a neo-organ; the big toe anchored the two phalluses as their technobody rotated. The organs are partial life objects that can only survive in a nutrient solution filled bioreactor that mimics human body conditions. 

The phalluses and big toe grew in the condition of microgravity. Tissue- engineered objects exist in a permanent condition of free fall; they hold stasis as their technobodies rotate. Stasis or permanent free-fall is the most desirable state for cell adherence and evenly dispersed cell growth because the medium washes over the polymer structure. 

Three identities floated in the vibrant pink nutrient solution: the idealized male phallic form, the fetishized big toe and the emergent female phallus. In the bioreactor these forms modified and morphed into a new singularity. Contingent on the techno-will of the reactor and on rotation, it is a totally unique (irreproducible) organ. The same organs put into a bioreactor another time will result in a different form, undeterminable prior to its origin. We expected that the organs might cluster but there is no knowing before enacting. Tissue engineering involves control of the process by exaction and sterility, but the outcome has a touch of the techno-divine. 

Two days into their growing process I checked in on the neo-sex organ forming in the bioreactor. I opened the door of the incubator to find the emergent partial life turning in a urine-colored nutrient. The beautiful pink medium from which they get their nutrients had turned a golden-yellow color. It had become contaminated – a waste product of the bio-technical body. Once a semi-living or partial life is contaminated in a bioreactor it must be removed and killed.  

Here the trajectory of transgressions went from scaling down body parts to growing these micro body parts in a techno-body to the creation of a neo-sex organ to its contamination and ultimately the death of the neo-sex organ.

If the contaminated singular neo-sex organ transgresses as a philosophical visual image the embodied sovereign female engaging in solitary pleasure alone and with others – what follows from the partial sex organ growing in a bioreactor?


One could go a number of ways, I say after proposing seven principles of a Fast Feminist Manifesto (Bell, 2010, 174):

1) Critique the world quickly. 

2) Interrupt intellectual scholarship. 

3) Position the body as the basis of intellectual work. 

4) Write theory as art.  

5) Do art as theory. 

6) Do theory from non-obvious points of departure. 

7) Do violence to the original context.  

Fast feminism is a feminism of affect—of intensity and influence. As a feminism of affect, there is no way of predicting what those influenced by Fast Feminism will do as a result of that influence. 

3. Female Fluids, Fluid Feminism

Perhaps Fast Feminism shifts into Fluid Feminism where speed liquefies. The recent book Fermenting Feminism (2017) based on three 2017 international group exhibitions in Toronto, Kansas, Berlin, and one forthcoming in Copenhagen October 2018 is a bio-techno stream in fourth wave feminism.   Both the book and exhibitions are edited and curated or co-curated by Lauren Fournier.  Fournier situates the project:

In fermenting feminism, we bring together artists whose work responds to what it means to bring fermentation and feminism into the same critical space. These are works that approach fermentation through intersectional and trans-inclusive feminist frame-works, and works that approach feminisms through the metaphor and material practice of fermentation. As both a metaphor and a physical process, fermentation embodies bio-availability and accessibility, preservation and transformation, inter-species symbiosis and coevolution, biodiversity and futurity, harm reduction and care.


Fermentation as a process of transformation becomes both a metaphor and a material practice through which to explore important issues for feminist artists and researchers today, from the politics of labour, affect, survival, and care to colonialism, food, indigeneity, and the land (Fournier, 2017, 3).

Fournier stresses that fermenting feminism works “across the discipline of art and science” making “space for multi-disciplinary experimentation, including engagements with new materialisms, food studies, critical disability and mad studies, sexual diversity studies, and trans-inclusive intersectional feminist theory and practice” (3).

Fermenting feminism is working with living matter’s waste products; working outside the productive economy and cultivating within the economy of expenditure. The fermenting waste economy incorporates “human and non-human,” “sentient and non-sentient” entities obscuring “the line between illness and well-being, between science and witchcraft”. The stated aim is “to flesh out pressing political, theoretical, aesthetic, and ethical questions in the present” (3). 

Fermenting feminist Jessica Bebenek, “Something That’s Dead,” using her experience with the kombucha mother “which turns raw materials into something new while simultaneously replicating itself” (6) and her experience with brewed kombucha “which provides bacteria balance within the open ecosystems of our bodies” suggests that from this “we can learn the value in living symbiotically with non-human lives” and “act as responsible ecological collaborators with non-human lives” (9). “The bacteria consume our food and we absorb their waste.” “Humans thrive on waste. All life does” (8). It is precisely the system’s waste in the form of bacteria that keeps the system going – expenditure at the microbe level. 

Maya Hey, “Relating To, Working With, and Thinking Through Bodies” notes “we live in a tangled web of relations” at the microbe level. Hey writes:

When I eat fermented foods, my partial digestion of the live active cultures allows these microbes to occupy and live within my intestinal lining. Partial digestion enables others to ‘eat’ and they enable me to thrive. I incorporate them into my micro-biome and — just as important — they incorporate me into their ecosystem. From their perspective, my gut is not just a space to occupy but parts of me make up their ecology: my membranes become their borders, my metabolism becomes their rhythms, and my partially digested foods become their nutrient source. In this strange dance of eating/being eaten, we have — in effect — incorporated each other in our corps (Hey, 2017, 27).

WhiteFeather Hunter, “Pissed (blóm + blóð)” and AliceVandeleur-Boorerm and TerezaValentová, “Vaghurt” repurpose female body waste for art, clothing and food. WhiteFeather Hunter collects her body waste in a jar letting the urine ferment for weeks to be used as the fermenting agent for producing dye that she uses to color yarn, which she then weaves into a cloth; Hunter used her own Nordic genomic data as a code that became pattern as it translated into dyed yarn passes on the loom.  Hunter states: “This was my way of working my ancestral geography into my biogeographical data material (the woven cloth)” (31). Hunter says this of the process: 

Urine fermentation in natural textile dye methods is an example of embodied craft process, where bodily materials (in this case, my own) are collected and utilized for their biochemical properties, in order to produce aesthetic results. The act of collecting one’s own piss in a jar, allowing it to ‘ferment’ in a corner for a period of weeks, and then both handling and making use of the reeking sub-stance in order to produce objects of beauty and utility, is a process of scientific inquiry, as well as a methodology for self-knowledge and hands-on making (research-creation) (Hunter, 2017, 30).

 Alice Vandeleur-Boorer and Tereza Valentová produce and teach others how to produce what they named Vaghurt from vaginal secretions. They “began this project by making batches of wild vaginal ferments made with milk and their own vaginal juices. These creations were host to many unknown microorganisms. They named this … substance Vaghurt” (94). At “Waag Wet Lab in Amsterdam, they adjusted the methodology for Lactobacillus strain isolation, commonly used in Food Quality control and designed a Vaghurt recipe and protocol.” In the interest of open source knowledge “the protocol is available to anyone and can be found on the artist’s website” (96).

Rubina Martini, “Reflection” treats her full body as a waste site fermenting herself in a 75 gallon tank. Martini explains:

In life things usually get to the end of their life and decompose, I was and am still fascinated how fermentation prevents this end by creating new life out of old life. In my work it is my past, my trauma and the choices I have made from a place of trauma that I ruminate on and then turn into art, much like a kombucha SCOBY [mother] would take sugars and process them to probiotics, etc. (Martini, 2017, 49).

Body fluid waste has been apart of numerous artist’s works – working and doing politics in the economy of expenditure. Useless waste transgresses into economies of use. The artist Isabel Burr Raty is taking fermenting feminism further in her upcoming Beauty Kit Female Farm [BKFF 0.1]. “From June 21 to 27 2018, a group of artist women, led by Isabel Burr Raty, will take part in the first version of the Beauty Kit Female Farm, a residency project curated by Marta de Menezes and Dalila Honorato, taking place in Cultivamos Cultura at São Luís, Odemira, Portugal” (Burr Raty, 2018, 2).  

As Burr Raty’s website ( and the BKFF 0.1 booklet indicate 

The Beauty Kit Female Farm, a mobile research center, disseminates a sexual bio-autonomous farming system that instructs women to manufacture beauty bio-products using their own erogenous fluids. On this ground, this farm produces, harvests and disseminates transindividual knowledge about female sexual ecology and agency.


The participating artists body fluids will be used to produce such beauty bio-products as 

Clarifying Mist: 7 times filtered G-spot moisture collected at full body orgasm; Nourishing anti-Aging Lotion: cervical collagen collected at full ovulation; Fast Sleeping Spray: melatonin collected at brain orgasm; Contraceptive Gel: spermicidal fluid collected at pre-ovulatory phase; Revitalizing Tonic: sun-dried menstrual blood vitality capsules; Sexual Energy Equalizer Pendant; 15 Feminine-essences Therapy. (2)

Burr Raty’s project is at least triply transgressive: 1) it transgresses the economy of expenditure to repurpose waste as usable products for beauty; 2) it puts both the health and beauty industries that have for so long approached the female body as a passive entity to be manipulated on notice, from the position of the active female body turning its waste into beauty bio-products: “beauty bio-products fabricated with erogenous female fluids, expos[e] with scientific evidence that woman’s sexual organs possess powers that enhance beauty” (2); and 3) “The BKFF 0.1 bio-autonomous farming system offers a base to liberate the formatted femininity instructed by the beauty industry, which correlates to society’s dependency on gynecological-reproductive technologies and general unawareness of the female sexual organs’ full potencies” (2).

4) Beyond

A Flash of Lightning in the Night

An image or object in art space often immediately in a flash, what Foucault refers to as ‘a hash of lightning in the night’, reveals our (up to that point in time) absence of knowledge, lack of thinking connections, inability to formulate questions; an art work, installation, group show often provides the artists and audience the chance to think something new, rethink the limits of old knowledge, face what they don’t want to see and recognize. Take a relatively simple, yet powerfully transgressive 2008 act by the international bioartists Jennifer Willet and Kira O’Reilly – Willet and O’Reilly took their clothes off in a Biosafety Level 2 Laboratory and entered the laboratory’s sterile laminar flow hood.  It is in the sterile hood that cells are harvested and cultured. Here the harvested cells, tissue culture flasks, tools, and gloved hands are kept free of contamination while the human works, envisions, creates. In transgression of the hierarchy between cells and humans, O’Reilly and Willet place their nude bodies in the sterile hood, dwelling as cells do. While the images in their Trust Me I am an Artist – Be-wildering (Project) are beautiful, powerful, playful, and hot, they cause the viewer (artist, scientist, spectator) to think; that is, give thought to self, human, life, other, universe, infinite, and presence, all at once and in a flash of perception. We see we are no more and no less than cells, we see that we live under the not so sterile hood of the earth and world, we see the infinity of life contained in the finitude of the body scaffolding, all in a lightning flash.


I want to close with an innocuous understated work by Kira O’Reilly whose work I write about as a “Techné of Anxiety” for the recent book Kira O’Reilly: Untitled (Bodies) (2017).  I close with this because it relocates the transgression of animate and inanimate objects, body fluid, geolocations, seamlessly into a political action with an enduring statement, and I think the endeavor brings Foucault, Bataille and Palmer’s transgressive understandings together in a flash.

In late May early June 2015, for one week, I had the pleasure of being part of Just 40. Uma exposicão de Arte Experimental with Kira O’Reilly and others at Cultivamos Cultura, São Luís, Portugal. Kira had been working in studio with copper bodies and salt crystals using salt, water, pigment, vinegar, and copper. On her blog, Kira indicated that she was particularly interested in ‘experimenting with cultivating verdigris on copper with vinegar and salt’ (O’Reilly 2015a). 

Repeatedly examining Kira’s installation at Just 40, what was most striking was the colour she was able to obtain through combining rock salt, vinegar, and sometimes her urine, in an old copper container she found on the exhibition site. The exhibition space at Cultivamos Cultura was at one time a barn. O’Reilly notes the process: ‘I would fill the container, drench it in vinegar and allow it to dry under the hot Alentejo sun’ (O’Reilly 2015b). The turquoise blue color was vibrant and the stages from white to blue, to bluer, to turquoise was speedy beauty, as were the variously patterned erosions on connecting thin and thinner copper wires and nail heads. 


The copper, vinegar, water, occasionally urine, didn’t really match up with O’Reilly’s artwork as I knew it. There was a trace of previous work: an image from one of O’Reilly’s cupping performances framed on the floor in a brilliant turquoise salt frame. There seemed to be a dissensus between this current artwork, innocuous, low key, though gorgeous in terms of color and simplicity, and O’Reilly’s body ‘extreme’ works involving cutting herself and allowing audience members to make an incision on her body, slow-to-stasis falling downstairs backwards for hours, wet cupping, dancing with a dead pig whose shaved skin matched hers in color and the animal human bodies became one, and living with a live pig in gallery space, to name a few. On the one hand, I kept hoping, thinking that a nude O’Reilly was going to cover herself in the turquoise crystals, exfoliate her skin, place an incision on both ankles, add her blood to the now Kira turquoise salt copper vinegar urine chemical composition. This didn’t happen and this particular work of Kira’s faded in my conscious memory until five months later when I saw on her blog a piece she developed as part of the Love Letters to a (Post-)Europe performed at BIOS in Athens. The short works were to address ‘a rapidly changing Europe in a city whose country is currently bearing the brunt of austerity’ (O’Reilly 2015c).

O’Reilly’s piece consisted of Dimou Vassiliki dipping salt water from a clear glass vessel, using a clear drinking glass, placing the salt water into her mouth, saying the words: ‘I came to the sea and I was scared. My heart is broken,’ spitting the salt water out into a parallel clear glass vessel, and then repeating the action, alternating between English and Greek as a photographic slide of a calm sea with the words on it also shifted between English and Greek. O’Reilly explains: ‘I came to the sea and I was scared. My heart is broken’ were the words reported to have been spoken by a fisherman on finding the bodies of the small child Aylan Kuridi who drowned along with his five-year-old brother Galip and their mother, Rihan when they attempted to make the crossing from Turkey to Greece and hope of refuge in Europe (O’Reilly 2015c). 

This repetitive simple action connects those watching with the atrocity of the world, the absence of collective responsibility and the denial of collective anxiety induced by the repetitive looping global media coverage. Antonin Artaud  observed that: “What defines the obscene life we are living is that all our perceptions... have been distilled for us” (Virilio, 1995, 147). O’Reilly’s piece cuts into the symbolic homogeneous order where this is observed and allows what Jacques Lacan terms the Real, what Bataille terms the ‘impossible to assimilate,’ the ‘unnameable’, to slip through in the action of taking the salt water in and spitting it out. 

Kira repeats with a difference this performance for the December 2015 Dublin Live Art Festival; she says:

As a reiteration of the work made for Love Letters to a (post-) Europe, I made an action using the same elements inside the lobby of one of the buildings on the campus of Dublin Institute of Technology. 

For an hour I drank mouthfuls of salt water the ratio of seawater, with each mouthful I attempted to speak: ‘I came to the sea and I was scared, my heart is broken’

In front of me were two copper pipes resting and covered in salt and vinegar causing verdigris to appear over the duration of the action. 

Each mouthful of water either dribbled onto my shirt or was spat out washing over the salt and copper, I felt I was at sea (O’Reilly 2015d).

What O’Reilly brought forth out of the materials of salt, water, and copper was a break and interruption of the symbolic order of language and culture, a transgression of the homogeneous socio-political, where the geopolitical tragedy of displacement and death takes place, to allow the Real, the unknown and unimaginable, to slip through this cut by means of the individual human action of ingesting sea water and spitting it onto copper pipes covered in salt, vinegar, and saliva, leaving a remainder of the forever closing up and disappearing limit of the ‘impossible to assimilate’ in the verdigis of the copper as the chemical components oxidize. “The work will exist in its remains, memories and objects” (O’Reilly, 2000, 120). 

The Way of Transgression

‘The work will exist in its remains, memories and objects’: after the transgressive acts, after the ‘sovereign heterogeneous moments’ – the thumbsucking and masturbating body images collected in the master’s house, the ejaculating female body, the contaminated neo-sex organ part female/part male/part big toe, the fermenting feminist food and craft, full female body fermentation in a tank, in a sterile hood, and in the world, the production and consumption of beauty products made from female waste fluids – this is the way transgression exists.


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Shannon Bell is a performance philosopher who lives and writes philosophy-in-action. She is also a professor in the York University Department of Politics in Toronto. Her books include Reading, Writing, and Re-Writing the Prostitute Body (Indiana University Press, 1994), Whore Carnival (Autonomedia, 1995), and Subversive Itinerary: The Thought of Gad Horowitz (University of Toronto Press, 2013).