As any nursing mother knows, there are just two ways to express breast milk: by hand or with a pump.
Expressing oneself, about breast milk or other things, presents infinitely more possibilities.
It takes only a brief tour of Jess Dobkin's website to conclude that the Toronto performance artist, who will play host to a free public tasting of six maternal vintages at the Ontario College of Art and Design this evening, takes a somewhat full-bodied approach to such opportunities.
There, on a page of photos from her previous 20 works, is 2003's Magic Trick, with Ms. Dobkin blowing a pink-gum bubble from her butt, up and over from Hangin' Out, from the same year, which starred the "Two Boobs" (her own) as puppets "negotiating the complexities of their relationship," which sits a couple of rows beneath 1996's Eat Out, a decidedly unconventional bit of dinner theatre.
It would be easy for the serious-minded to make certain assumptions about Ms. Dobkin, a 36-year-old lesbian and single mother who moved to Toronto from New York 3½ years ago.
Trickier, perhaps, is to ponder one's own prejudices after a chat with the artist, whose friendly, thoughtful manner belies the stereotype of the shrill shockaholic. It's exactly that sense of the unexpected, and the disquiet that can accompany it, that drives Ms. Dobkin's work.
"I don't expect everyone to feel comfortable at the milk bar," she said on a recent afternoon at Ice Lounge along the Danforth strip, not far from her home in Riverdale, one of Toronto the Good's more upright neighbourhoods, "but I want to explore that discomfort. I'm uncomfortable too, but I can't wait."
As waits go, this one has been relatively short for Ms. Dobkin, who came up with The Lactation Station Breast Milk Bar not long after the birth of her child last summer. Breastfeeding proved difficult, forcing her and her daughter to the bottle after three months of struggle. While she appreciated the abundant encouragement and education available to nursing mothers, she didn't realize there was such a wide variance in "the quality of the experience" among the moms she knew.
In her own case, she wrestled with "an unattainable expectation of what it meant to be a good mother" as her efforts failed. As she talked to other women, she became intrigued by all the issues around breastfeeding: when to wean; how women feel about their milk; the breast's dual status as "sexualized body part" and provider of infant nourishment.
As enlightened as we think we are, this last contradiction came into sharp focus in Toronto last year in the change room at Dufferin Grove Park's ice rink, when a nursing mother was asked to be more discreet. And this month, in an incident rife with irony, when a Victoria's Secret employee in Wisconsin asked a mom to feed her baby in an employee washroom, out of view of other customers. The request prompted an outcry and "nurse-in" at several outlets of the popular lingerie retailer.
These issues underscore the complexity and oft-contradictory nature of society's treatment of women's breasts, Ms. Dobkin said, and "I want to encourage this dialogue where people can talk about this complexity."
She hopes to accomplish this between 5 and 8 p.m. tonight, by offering three-millilitre servings of breast milk -- none of it hers, all of it screened for disease and then pasteurized -- in small tasting cups to whomever is game. She promised not to put pressure on anyone.
"If people do want to taste the milk, great," she said, "but why? And, if you don't want to taste it, why not?"
Yesterday Health Canada cautioned consumers that there are health risks associated with drinking breast milk from strangers.
Advance coverage of the performance has either been joke-laden or mildly mocking, due in part to the fact taxpayers helped pay for it through a $9,000 grant from the Canada Council for the Arts.
Ms. Dobkin has dealt with worse press in the past, particularly after a nudity-laden 2000 appearance at a feminist event at Pennsylvania State University, which inflamed religious and political conservatives. Still, she attributes any controversy to those reacting to her work, not to the work itself.
"I accept that it's challenging; I absolutely acknowledge that," she said. "But where it goes from 'challenging' to 'controversial' speaks more to the political climate."
Ms. Dobkin said she does not subscribe to the all-publicity-is-good-publicity mantra often attributed to provocative artists, because she does not want the content of the work to be lost in all the noise.
"In my mind, I'm just speaking from my experience," she said. "To others, it's controversial that I'm a single lesbian mother, but to me, it's not controversial; it's just my family."