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The Museum of Banned Objects Is Examining The Future of Reproductive Health

What does the future look like for reproductive health? The Museum of Banned Objects is a new exhibit that considers a potential dystopian future in which reproductive health products have been banned and are completely out of circulation. Conceptualized by young creatives Ellie Sachs and Matt Starr and organized in collaboration with Planned Parenthood, the installation is on display at the Ace Hotel in New York until April 30.

Calling attention to the need for increased resistance in protecting the access to birth control for everyone, eight reproductive health and contraceptive products such as Spermicide, an IUD, and Plan B, are seen behind glass vitrines in a gallery-like space while museum placards detail the cultural significance of each object, written in past tense to signify the banning of these items. To learn more about this project, Milk sat down with Sachs and Starr to find out about the inspiration behind this exhibit and what the artists hope viewers will take away from this conceptual project.

How did the idea for this project first come about?

Ellie Sachs: This project was the confluence of events, news stories, and a lot of sci-fi.

Matt Starr: What we were watching on TV and seeing in movies recently were starting to converge with what we were seeing in real life and on the news.

Ellie: A key idea in inspiring this project was when the story broke that the CDC had a list of Banned Words. (Even though that story was largely redacted—the fact that staffers have to censor themselves on budgets to appease republicans and avoid words like “diversity” “transgender” or “fetus” is pretty illuminating).  

Beyond that, the spending bills that have millions of dollars slated for abstinence training as opposed to teaching comprehensive sex ed really struck me. Reading about the budget cuts to programs like Medicaid and Title X that provide reproductive health care to so many people is so enraging. So many of these news stories we were coming across felt regressive, bizarre, and utterly un-modern.

What inspired you to approach the topic of reproductive rights from a dystopian angle?

Ellie: So many headlines now and especially when we were conceiving this idea (late 2017) felt particularly dystopic.

Matt: Right now the future isn’t looking too bright.

We wanted to create a reality to avoid another possible reality. Art helps us take abstract ideas that we’re constantly reading and talking about and visualize them into something that can help us understand the real severity of things now.

Ellie: It’s crazy to me abstinence is being pushed again. (When it clearly is so ineffective!) It’s crazy to me that abortion bills like the ones we just saw in Ohio and Mississippi are even on the table.  

Like Matt said—we’re interesting in providing a glimpse into a dystopian reality as a forewarning. Sometimes you have to completely reframe an idea for it to stick or take hold.  

How does the partnership with Planned Parenthood underline your goals for this exhibition?

Ellie: So many egregious actions happen, daily, that work to undermine reproductive health and reproductive rights. The content of the exhibit is extremely heightened which calls attention to a really important issue. My hope is that our collaboration with Planned Parenthood does just that.  We didn’t want this installation to exist in a vacuum. The collaboration with Planned Parenthood puts the installation in a different context. Instead of it just being a potential imagined scary future, it reminds the viewer of our current reality: this is already happening, albeit on a smaller scale. It creates a sense of urgency and—ideally—inspires the viewer to become more engaged.

Matt: We believe in Planned Parenthood and can only donate so much financially. This was our way of supporting them. It also elevates our message.

What are your aims for this exhibit? What do you hope viewers will take away from seeing it?

Ellie: I hope people feel a sense of urgency. We collaborated with Planned Parenthood for a reason—I hope people get inspired and find new ways of being more engaged.

Matt: We want people to take out their phones, open up the camera, take a picture, upload it to social media with the caption “PLEASE DON’T LET MUSEUM OF BANNED OBJECTS BE A REAL THING #istandwithplannedparenthood”.

We’re creating a reality in order to avoid another reality.

Ellie: Exactly—shaking up our current reality with something a few shades darker and more lifted.

How did you go about choosing the different reproductive products on display? Was inclusion a priority?

Ellie: We wanted to choose items that people had a connection to—that were actually a part of their lives. We made sure to appeal to different demographics and groups.   Inclusion was certainly a priority.

We are really interested in exploring re-contextualization. By placing these objects in cases they suddenly become more precious and important—by suggesting they’re banned, it creates an emotional response. It immediately heightens the person’s relationship to the object.

Matt: As opposed to it being taken granted in an aisle of a CVS or Duane Reade.

Can you walk us through the setup of the exhibit? What does the space look like?

Matt: You walk into a room with 8 glass vitrines with the objects locked inside.

Ellie: There’s some wall text that sets the stage, historically, in terms of how these items came to be banned.  The language is dry and scientific. There are also placards next to each item describing their significance—all written in the past tense.  

Why the Ace Hotel? What benefit does this serve?

Ellie: We chose to have it at ACE, because we were drawn to the layout and community aspect of the hotel. ACE’s lobby area is always packed with people working, socializing and hanging out.  It’s a space that engenders talking and thinking.

Matt: Part of the reason we wanted this in a hotel is also because you have hundreds of people coming and going everyday. If we were to do this on our own, we wouldn’t have had the same visibility.

Any future goals for this project? Where do you hope to take it next?

Matt: The plan from the beginning was to have this travel to other spaces.  We want to add to it, build out the world more, turn it into even more of a larger dystopian experience.

Ellie: Yes, exactly. This is, hopefully, just the beginning.  

In terms of locations of where Museum of Banned Objects could go next, context is everything.  Seeing this in a conservative state would imbue it with a whole new meaning.

How can art stir critical thinking and social activism?

Ellie: Well in an idyllic sense often the role of the artist is to show how the world can be— In this case we’re thinking how it could be (if we’re not careful).

Matt: It’s also important to take abstract ideas that are written about and talked about a lot and visualize them to help people see another and maybe not so distant reality from what we’re living in now.  To create images that didn’t exist before. And that’s part of the nature of art. It helps us understand the world a little more. We can’t fully rely on words to explain everything.

Ellie: Art helps us poke holes in existing narratives and create fresh ways of seeing them. Creating and introducing powerful images or sculptures (i.e. I love Zoe Buckman’s CHAMP) can galvanize new ways of thinking.  I see CHAMP and it stirs something inside of me.

Can you share more details about your individual and collaborative artistic backgrounds?

Matt: I created the viral internet trend Babycore and directed A$AP Ferg’s music video “Dope Walk” featuring Cara Delevingne on my cell phone. I put on an event where I ate an American flag right before Trump got elected and I do the “I’m Sorry” series with Pete Voelker.

I’ve always been interested in recontextualization. Putting things in places they don’t belong. So working with Ellie has elevated everything. She sees the larger picture and is able to take our ideas and build worlds out of them. We started our collaborating by hosting a monthly fancy dinner at Whole Foods on the Bowery.

Ellie: I’ve always been really drawn to narrative and creating “little worlds”—theater was a natural jumping off point. I went to school and studied sociology and how to be a theater director—and that’s exactly what I did for my first few years out of school. I was all over the country—working at different theater companies. I had some great opportunities—directing developmental readings of a play that made it to Lincoln Center, assistant directing a new play with Justin Long and Betty Gilpin.  I liked theater, but my heart wasn’t completely in it. I love making art in collaboration with other people—but I wanted it to be messier. I didn’t want boundaries. I wanted it to be more on my own terms and a more streamlined process with less gatekeepers.

I’ve also been making art in prisons since I was 20 years old—I’ve created and directed original plays at penitentiaries like San Francisco County Jail, Cooper Street Correctional Facility, and I recently starred in a production of On The Waterfront at the men’s maximum security prison, Sing Sing.  Perhaps most interestingly…  right before I met Matt, I had a brief stint working for a well known matchmaker.

How did you two meet? What other projects have you recently worked on?

Matt: I heard through friends that Ellie directed plays in maximum security prisons—I really wanted to meet her. She’s the hardcore one. I’m always attracted to people who work in fringe communities.

Ellie: Matt and I started working together about two years ago. Our first big project was our (ongoing) Wholesome Dinner series. Around the time we met, Matt also had the nucleus for this amazing idea—recreating a classic film starring senior citizens. We put our heads together and developed a pitch. We shopped it around to over 10 different senior centers and our pitch was only accepted at one place. A year later and we have a finished film— My Annie Hall. In terms of upcoming projects, we’re in the process of developing the My Annie Hall concept into something larger—possibly for TV.

For those who can’t see the exhibit in person can experience it virtually online:


Images courtesy of the Museum of Banned Objects

Stay tuned to Milk for more art stuff. 

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