Camille Henrot

Wet Job
Reading time 3 minutes
Camille Henrot, Wet Job 7, 2019; watercolor on paper; 55.88 x 76.2 cm

An intermission is something that is put between two things. To make the minds readjust, to give the body a break. But, most importantly, it remits to the world of theater: it is the in-between moment in which the behind-the-scenes mecha- nisms operate. The intermission exists so that the onstage illusion will not be broken by insufficient stage management.

A pump is a machine that makes a liquid move from one place to another. The heart is a pump. In some languages, the word for “pump” and “bomb” is the same. In these languages, pumps can support life as much as they can blow it up.

A breast pump creates negative pressure (which causes the breast to believe there’s an infant sucking) at an initial speed of one pull per second. The milk comes out because there is a vacuum around the nipple. Sixty such pulls are a minute.

Like clockwork. Or almost. When I am in it, I don’t have such a measured sense of things. I don’t have a solid sense of the quantity and substance that will be delive- red: each time it’s different – in volume, in color, in consistency. Sometimes the ses- sion ends at twenty minutes sharp, some-

times it takes longer and is more uneven, interrupted by reconfigurations (improve- ments, I like to think) of the original setup. While I’d like this to go swiftly and fast, once I’m attached it becomes a rhythmic, lulling moment. I play out the cliché of cyclical versus linear time. Pumping occu- pies a time interval that (I feel) will end when it needs to end, when the circle is rounded. What’s more important, I believe, is the future, linear time this pumping pro- mises to open up.

Each time I sit down with the pump, lat- ching on for our THUMP Shh THUMP Shh THUMP Shh tango, I’m hooked into a very basic positive-negative dynamic. I’m the positive undoing the vacuum. Just like the pumping hum is becoming my built- in metronome, my once-per-second milk- release marks the passage of time. Even more, the carbohydrates, fats, and potas- sium stored in the milk will translate into energy for the child. As a lactating human being, my own eating now leads to fee- ding, my own lived time becomes someone else’s living time. It’s a loop as well as a future beyond my own time.

It’s a common tale that women who breastfeed cannot get pregnant. Their

periods, so it is said, are put on hold. But science tells us this is only the case when you understand “breastfeeding” as direct lactation (not pumping) that occurs at intervals of at least every three hours, day and night. Most breastfeeding nowa- days is a holding pattern of another kind: slowing down, if not fully interrupting, wor- king life; pausing one’s own bodily needs; prioritizing a singular relationship and put- ting others on the backburner.

Before the mechanical breast pump there was the wet nurse, a role hardly spoken about nowadays though still existent, and common for the elites up until the late 19th century, when “reliable” for- mula was invented. The wet nurse, who may or may not suckle her own children simultaneously, overproduces. She is to be responsive and on-site at all times. There is a painting of Louis XIV with his wet nurse: his rosy cheeks directly cor- respond to her sturdy nipple. The tableau is a baroque reprise of the Madonna- and-child theme: child becomes emperor, Madonna becomes outsourced. Louis’s nurse does not get a break, she is the one working behind the stage so that Anne of Austria can fulfill the royal illusion. She is the intermission.

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