Love in a Mist: The Politics of Fertility

Love in a Mist: The Politics of Fertility explores several evolving narratives on the spaces and politics of fertility, triggered by the “heartbeat bills,” which recently passed into law in states such as Mississippi, Kentucky, and Georgia to criminalize abortions from as early as six weeks into pregnancy.

The exhibition explores society’s quest to control women and nature, and the resulting environmental degradation. It brings together issues such as the historical use of synthetic hormones in women’s bodies; measures to super-size farmed animals and domesticate plants; and techniques to accelerate fertility and extract natural resources.

From the treatment of women’s bodies to the exploitative human relationship with nature, Love in a Mist examines spaces of fertility including abortion clinics, artificial wombs, court rooms, farmed landscapes, and swamps, as extrapolated from diverse accounts and imaginaries by scholars, activists, legislators, ecologists, biologists, artists, and designers.

The artworks in the exhibition number, among others, Women on Waves’ portable abortion clinic, Lori Brown’s maps of clinics in Texas, Bernie Krause’s audio recordings of the diminishing soundscapes and extinction in nature, and Desirée Dolron’s video art featuring Caddo Lake State Park in the town of Uncertain, Texas and how a flock of starlings illustrates complex systems.

Excerpt 1: Reproductive Rights
From antiquity until the Renaissance, women cultivated a relationship with the natural world. The intimate knowledge of plants, medicinal herbs in particular, was passed down to enable future generations of women “to regulate fertility” and “function with some measure of independence in respect to reproduction” (John M. Riddle). From the thirteenth century on, however, women’s control over their bodies and reproductive knowledge has been increasingly criminalized. Women have been punished and terrorized, their bodies burned, and their teachings obliterated through church-led inquisitions and in civil courts. The pursuit to govern reproductive know-how and rights with impunity is an attack on practices of care, women’s rights, health, socio-economic freedom, and knowledge itself.

In the United States today, new compounded efforts by pro-life activists to criminalize abortions and prevent women from having access to reproductive healthcare are being backed by the federal government and legislators. In 2011, there was one attempt to outlaw abortions, in Ohio; in 2019, there were 39, including moves to pass the heartbeat bill in Missouri, South Carolina, Kentucky, Florida, Mississippi, Minnesota, Tennessee, Maryland, Texas, West Virginia, New York, Ohio, Illinois, Georgia, Louisiana, and Michigan.

To provide some foundation, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 2542 in 1969, proclaiming the Declaration on Social Progress and Human Rights, which states:

All couples and individuals have the basic right to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children and to have the information, education and means to do so; the responsibility of couples and individuals in the exercise of this right takes into account the needs of their living and future children, and their responsibilities toward the community.

In 1973, U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade affirmed that access to safe and legal abortion is a constitutional right.

While the pro-life movement promotes the heartbeat bills, the Trump administration has nominated over 150 conservative federal judges and two Supreme Court justices, gaining further support for these measures. And, as of March 4, 2020, Title X, which has provided federal funding for family planning and women’s health clinics throughout the country since 1970, will be under “Gag Rule,” effectively curtailing aid to women:

Clinics that receive funds from the federal family-planning grant program Title X will no longer be able to perform abortions in the same space where they see other patients. Abortion and other health-care services will be required to be physically and financially separate entities. Title X participants will also no longer be able to refer patients to abortion providers, though they can mention abortion to their patients (Planned Parenthood report).

The intrinsic connection between spatial design and human rights reconfigures the spatial typology of women’s health and family planning clinics, the report continues: “about 20 percent of Title X providers would potentially have to renovate their clinics to meet the new guidelines. . . . It will likely cost each of these providers $20,000 to $40,000 to come into compliance with the physical-separation element of the new rule.”

Excerpt 2: Accelerated Growth
During and after the world wars, hormones and fertilizers were being developed to increase reproduction of resources and accelerate growth in the natural world. Diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic form of the hormone estrogen—important to reproduction especially in women—was discovered in 1938. Just a few years later, doctors began prescribing it to pregnant women as a dietary supplement that could prevent pregnancy-related complications including miscarriage and premature labor. In 1947, Harvard University physician and biochemist George Smith and endocrinologist Olive Smith published studies linking the use of DES in high doses to miscarriage prevention. Their studies were used by drug company representatives to convince doctors to prescribe DES to pregnant women (DES Action Organization).

In the agricultural world, DES was used as a growth hormone to improve the ratio of feed to desired weight in livestock. Three decades on, however, empirical studies linked the hormone directly to increased breast cancer among the over 4.8 million women prescribed DES, cervical and vaginal cancer in their daughters, and congenital disabilities and deformation in their children generally. Its use in intensive livestock farming gradually led to the contamination of land, water, plants, and consequently also other living species (Paola Ebron and Anna Tsing). A ban on the use of DES was issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1971.

Excerpt 3: Extinction
On May 6, 2019, the UN released a report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, warning that nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history. The pace of species extinction is accelerating, gravely impacting people across the world. The report emphasizes the need to improve and strengthen practices of care between humans and the natural world of which they are part by recognizing the positive contributions of women, and indigenous communities in particular, to nurturing human relations with the environment and to regenerative sustainability. It recommends incorporating indigenous wisdom, values, and technology into conservation, restoration, and sustainable use of land and resources, as well as including indigenous peoples, women, and local communities in environmental governance.

Excerpt 4: Compost
The final part of the exhibition is a homage to Donna Haraway’s “Children of Compost” fabulation and her plea to reimagine a different relation between humans, the Earth, and other living entities. The shared fate of human and non-human life on Earth in this time of environmental destruction and social injustice requires joining forces across disciplines, across old wisdom and contemporary knowledge, and across cultures and species to decenter the human and reimagine symbiotic living and sustainable and equitable futures.

Love in a Mist: The Politics of Fertility is curated by Malkit Shoshan, Area Head of the Art, Design, and the Public Domain (ADPD) concentration with the Master in Design Studies program at Harvard GSD, and founding director of the Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory (FAST), an Amsterdam- and New York-based think-tank that develops projects and campaigns at the intersection of architecture, urban planning, design, and human rights.

The exhibition includes artworks and projects by Yael Bartana, Lori Brown, Desirée Dolron, FAST, Rebecca Gomperts, Bernie Krause, Joep van Lieshout, Tabita Rezaire, and Women on Waves.

*Love in the Mist or Nigella sativa is a purple flower with black seeds. The seeds are known for their diverse health benefits for the heart, brain, and liver. It is also said that in ancient times they were used to help regulate fertility or induce contraction of the womb and abortions.


Curator, research, and exhibition design
Malkit Shoshan

Participating activists, artists, and designers
Atelier Van Lieshout
Yael Bartana
Lori Brown
Desirée Dolron
Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory (FAST)
Rebecca Gomperts
Bernie Krause
Tabita Rezaire
Women on Waves
Women on Web

Graphic design
Sandra Kassenaar and Anna Moschioni

Elizabeth Ignota by Sriwhana Spong and Sandra Kassenaar

Copy editor
Janine Armin

Research assistant
Carolina Sepúlveda

Dan Borelli, David Zimmerman-Stuart

Ray Coffey, Jef Czekaj, Anita Kan, Sarah Lubin, Jesuś Matheus, Joanna Vouriotis

Production assistant
Inés Benítez Gómez

Thank you
Mohsen Mostafavi, Rebecca Gomperts, Krzysztof Wodiczko, and Matthijs Bouw for the invitation, inspiration, and support.

Atelier Van Lieshout, Yael Bartana, Inés Benítez Gómez, Dan Borelli, Lori Brown, Ray Coffey, Jef Czekaj, Desirée Dolron, Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson, Jennifer Hamilton, Anita Kan, Sandra Kassenaar, Bernie Krause, Zacharias Kunuk, Sarah Lubin, Jesuś Matheus, Ian Mauro, Astrida Neimanis, Tabita Rezaire, Carolina Sepúlveda, Diana Whitten, Joanna Vouriotis, and David Zimmerman-Stuart for your generous contributions to the exhibition.

The books, essays, lectures, and activism of Paola Ebron, Barbara Ehrenreich, Deirdre English, Silvia Federici, Donna Haraway, Ann Hibner Koblitz, John M. Riddle, Our Bodies Ourselves, Carolyn Merchant, Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, and Anna Tsing inspired and laid the intellectual foundation for this exhibition.

Love in a Mist: The Politics of Fertility is generously supported by the Consulate General of the Netherlands in New York as part of the Dutch Culture USA program.