The Poop Book: The Beginning of my Performance Art Career

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The Poop Book: The Beginning of my Performance Art Career

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Anne Mavor

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FSW 1976.
Suzanne Lacy, the performance art teacher at the Feminist Studio Workshop, perched on a stool in front of the fifteen of us. Her back was completely straight and her thin body didn’t seem substantial enough for the huge multi-layer performances art pieces she did that involved hundreds of people. As usual, she wasn’t smiling. “For next class,” she said, “I want you to create a piece using your body in some way.”

This was easy. By the time we marched out of the room, I knew what I wanted to do: a book documenting my bowel movements. You couldn’t get more physical than that. It only remained to figure out the details, which was the fun part. Plans flew around my head as I drove home to my little apartment on MacArthur Park. I chose the location because other women from the FSW were also living there, and the price was right: $65 a month for a furnished first floor studio, complete with a Murphy bed and bars on the windows.

Suzanne had done a slide show of the history of body art, an early form of performance art from the 1960s and early 70s that had been dominated by men. Their work was marked by shock value. There was Vito Acconci, who stuck his fingers down his throat until he gagged for one performance and in another, masturbated underneath a stage while the audience sat in its seats waiting. Dennis Oppenheim exposed his bare skin to the sun until it was burnt, except for the area covered by an open book. All these performances were carefully documented, of course, to prove that they actually occurred.
Starting in the 1970s, women began to make performance art their own. Like men, they used their bodies as canvases, but instead of challenging physical limitations, they merged autobiographical and personal content with political statement. Eleanor Antin walked the streets of Solano Beach, California, dressed as a king with flowing black beard, rapier, boots and cape. In another piece, she documented her shrinking body while on a diet. Martha Wilson took photographic portraits of her face made up as a male. Hannah Wilke placed miniature vulvas made from gum all over her naked body and photographed them.

I parked by my apartment building and walked over to the Alphabeta Market on Alvarado to get some film. I had also just learned about Chris Burden, who shot himself in the arm and Joseph Beuys, who lived in a room for a week with a coyote and a pile of greasy felt. If they could do those things, I could surely do this: a little handmade book documenting my bowel movements over the next week. It was right up my alley, so to speak.

The next morning I was ready with my camera and notebook, hoping that I could produce something to document. This was not assured since constipation was my ever-ready companion. But I did, after much effort, unload some hard pellets. “Perfect,” I thought, and snapped the picture. I liked the image of the yellow toilet seat and cover, the stained bowl, the white hexagram tiles and the box of generic laundry detergent in the corner.

I ate rice compulsively for 24 hours and was rewarded on day two by a soft long one. I took a close up. “This is a typical rice shit.” I wrote in my notebook. “I obviously hadn’t chewed the rice properly as there are rice bits evident.”

On day three, I woke with a cramp in my intestines and ran from my Murphy bed to the toilet. I wrote. “One’s state of mind contributes to the condition of one’s shit. When I am excited, my bowels become very loose. This is the first installment of three bowel movements over the course of that day.” This photo showed my right knee on the lower right corner as I knelt to take the shot.
Second installment. “I am a little concerned with the amount I am shitting. This yellow ochre color is very interesting.”
Third installment. “I know I have been in a state of nervous excitement, but this is ridiculous.”

Last photo. “Nothing.” I wrote. “I think I am tired of taking pictures of my shit.”
When I picked up my package of wallet-sized pictures with curved corners, the film technician didn’t say a thing. I was so glad I lived in L.A. I mounted the photos on heavy printmaking paper that I had folded into a book and handwrote the text under each photo in red ballpoint ink. Ta-dah!

In class, I was the first to present my work. I leaned back on an old trunk in front of the class and announced the title. “Sh-sh-sh-itting in f-f-f-f-ive m-m-mm-movements.” The whole class erupted with laughter. I turned to the introduction page. “I have been f-f-fascinated by shitting for about t-t-t-t-wo y-y-y-ears, ever since I started p-p-p-aying attention to what I put into my body. So I have b-b-b-been obsessed with what comes out of my body.” I held up the book so everyone could see the shot of my empty toilet and the detergent box. They could hardly stay on their chairs.

I turned the page and read, “I-I-It takes ab-b-b-out th-th-three days–“ The laughter was too loud for me to go on. So I held up the book again and showed the picture of the pellet poop. Patti Nicklaus was on her back on the floor kicking her legs into the air. Phranc was jumping up and down on a chair. Nancy Angelo had her head in her lap and her shoulders were going up and down and Jerri Allyn was screaming and slapping her hands against her thighs. “I love how you are reading it,” she yelled. Jerri’s performance idea was to live in a hospital bed for a month. I made my mouth into a smile. Either Jerri thought I was deliberately trying to stutter or she just liked it. Suzanne was cool. “Let’s let Anne finish presenting her work,” she said.

After the reading, I somehow got up and made my way to my seat beside Jerri. She grinned at me and mouthed some words. But my heart was pounding so loudly in my ears I couldn’t hear what she said. I pressed my hands on my legs to stop them from trembling and pulled my wet t-shirt away from my sweaty back. One by one the other women presented their projects, but I couldn’t say what they were. All I could do was replay my reading in my head, stutter by stutter. In theory, it was a perfect project. If only I was able to read it the way I heard it in my head, that is. Fluent and not stuttering.

At least they had laughed. I looked up when Anne Gauldin started her piece. She wore a waitress uniform made out of army fatigue fabric and was marching back and forth in front of the class barking out meal orders. I laughed along with the others. Maybe my piece was okay after all.

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Anne Mavor, "The Poop Book: The Beginning of my Performance Art Career," in Woman's Building: Doin' It in Public, Item #60, https://wbexhibit.otis.edu/items/show/60 (accessed June 21, 2018).

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