The tactical media campaign Abortourism took the form of a fictional travel agency operated by a group of artists in Budapest, and supported by the Studio of Young Artists’ Association and the Patent Society Against Patriarchy, a human rights organization that works on issues of violence against women and sexual minorities. The project was preceded by thorough research: its creators surveyed abortion laws, pregnancy termination and contraception technologies in various European countries. Based on this research, the agency set up fictional travel packages containing the costs of abortion (be it an operation or a pill), travel, and accommodation. The project called attention to the existing phenomenon of abortion tourism, a special form of health tourism, and, through this, to privileges, repressions, and taboos surrounding reproductive rights. Started in late 2014, Abortourism raised important questions about the formation of contemporary subjects, the interrelations between individual, society, and technology, and the position of the artist.
By the end of 2015, the website was banned by Hungarian authorities who argued that its contents count as advertisement, since “every form of communication, information, or public announcement is an advertisement if it aims to promote any kind of service.” However, Abortourism did not actually organize any trips, and no real offers were featured on its website amongst the articles meant to give the viewer an overview of international differences in abortion regulation. Since then, the group has published on their website a press release and the official documents detailing the reasons for banning the page.
Júlia Laki: Abortourism is a very diverse project. What were its most important manifestations, where and how could the audience encounter the fictional travel agency?
Abortourism: The project’s most important surface was obviously the virtual platform itself, through which we created the profile of the fictional enterprise. We didn’t want to tell people what to think about abortion; we simply aimed to gather the data on reproductive rights from various countries and publish them in a new, creative, and easily understandable manner. Apart from the website, we organized numerous public actions with the involvement of many volunteers, and, as the project’s closure, we organized a public forum in the Studio Gallery that featured experts on the topic, a forum theater, and a performance gala. Besides all this, we gave out loads of leaflets in Budapest and had an Abortourism car, decorated with branded stickers, which we traveled around with in the city as if it was a company vehicle. We organized a protest in the middle of a night run, published an open call for gay slash fiction, and on November 1, visited the Kerepesi cemetery dressed as nuns. We took protest placards with us with slogans like “Let’s pray for the victims of spontaneous miscarriages.” It’s a fact that in the case of 50-70% of conceptions, the Lord summons the innocent zygotes to himself, and the inseminated egg is ejected or is absorbed into the uterine wall. I think this is a strong enough counter-argument to the claim that life begins at conception. Separated from the pregnant woman, the fetus as a self-standing entity, and, consequently, as a subject of law, is nothing but a cultural construct.
JL: How would you define the role that you assumed during the project? Can we go with the customary interpretation and say that the artist takes on an activist position and becomes socially sensitive? Or is it rather a hybrid phenomenon in itself, a tactical position that isn’t simply in a different mode of operation temporarily, but is actually indigenous to this transitory state?
Abortourism: Our case is definitely the second one. Abortourism couldn’t have been carried out in any other way, because every art project is very interdisciplinary today, and is mostly about the recoding of cultural messages. As artists, we have a set of tools developed by other artists, and we partake in further expanding this toolkit.
I would like to emphasize that we’re not saying that art’s task is to be socially sensitive—and parading as a social worker is absolutely the worst. However, turning one’s back on the world is also a form of taking a political stance, and since in every kind of neoliberal system, anger in itself is already a taboo, it is precisely this kind of self-censorship that will stand in the way of radicalism. I don’t think that not taking offense is a right, nor that we, as artists, owe it to anyone to affirm their beliefs. The question might arise why we, as feminists, make fun of other women?
One of the project’s internal dilemmas is how to avoid directly blaming the women who have completely internalized patriarchy, and have become its enthusiastic handmaidens. For us, the archetypes of this behavior are, for example, “the quality woman” or “the responsible woman.” We are trying to make sure that we’re blaming the system itself for producing these unfortunate figures; the myth of the self-sustaining, quality woman, an individual separated from the world by clear boundaries, diligently engaged in self-management. Through this, we reach the issue of the contemporary subject once again—and after all, at what address shall we turn up if we want to protest against ideologies? The concrete personification of systematic interrelations is a mistake, since one might create the illusion that what makes so many social phenomena problematic are not structural, but individual factors. Abortourism primarily takes a stance on our relationship to technology, and aims to do this in a way that sheds light on the structural dimensions of the situations in question. For me, it’s a little ironic that what people first snapped at was the abortion thing, but of course this could be expected.
JL: By condemning these women, however, and by employing a ”choice-rhetoric” regarding abortion, aren’t you reproducing the liberal myth of the self-standing and rational subject capable of decision-making?
Abortourism: I also disagree with game theory and the rest, and I don’t think rationality is some kind of an ultimate, holy purpose in life. However, there definitely are situations in which one can call for rationality, especially since Western medicine supposedly operates within this paradigm, and is meant to be evidence-based. One such situation is that of the abortion pill: it can be purchased in one half of Europe, but not in the other half—so what does almighty evidence really mean in this context? You need a prescription to buy the morning-after pill in Esztergom, but if you walk across the bridge, the Hungarian-Slovakian border, in Štúrovo, it somehow miraculously turns safe enough to be bought without one. After all, these are simply technologies that happen to have been developed for women. I think it’s ridiculous that in order for someone to become an active subject with regard to these technologies, she has to constantly subvert the whole arbitrary moral structure, including the patient’s passive role and the paternalism saturated with well-meaning sexism. One can argue with whether the proper caring of the self is the best thing we can do, but why shouldn’t the elements of this caring be defined by the subject? Just because she happened to have been born a woman?
JL: So should we, as active biological citizens, select those elements of the techno-scientific discourse that we can utilize for our own freedom, healing, and happiness?
Abortourism: Yes, since we shouldn’t forget that what we’re talking about here is nothing more than technology. It isn’t God’s gift, it doesn’t grow on trees; it is made by people for people, and therefore it embodies and solidifies social norms. This is why it’s such a big taboo to by-pass the rules and use these technologies differently than the prescribed way. I agree with Nikolas Rose’s stipulation that there is a biological dimension to a citizen’s existence, and the relation to new medical technologies is a central element within that. These human/nonhuman assamblages are primarily about optimization and normalization. It would be a mistake to assume that our project is nothing but feminists tittle-tattling amongst ourselves about women’s ridiculous problems. We live in an age where the difference in opportunities between an average citizen and those in power is more immense than ever before. This is why it’s so scary that, on the one hand, they’re attempting to discipline citizens through risky and unnecessary medical procedures, while access to other technologies, such as certain reproductive ones, is restricted on the basis of moral reasoning. And no one should get too comfortable: today the abused are women who don’t want to have children, homeless people, and people with disabilities on welfare, but it could be anyone else’s turn tomorrow.
JL: The project is almost anonymous; it is wrapped up in a fictive corporate identity. This is obviously a critical element in itself. The artist-subjects behind the project thus remain invisible.
Abortourism: I think that the primary task of this project is to create a new node in the local feminist network. And this network will spread and reproduce itself, in order to make sure that the information we collected reaches others. The hydra is the main metaphor for our strategy: if one head is cut off, it’s important to have six others, so that everyone can make their decision about how to phrase the things they want to pass on to their community. It is on purpose that no one participant can talk in the name of the whole network; we didn’t want to personify it. We were doing a lot of different things, and not all of them were integral parts of the campaign. It was a conscious decision not to make a brand out of the Abortourism travel agency—apart from the fact that we hate brands, we also don’t want our network to be simplified in such a manner. This has been an experiment in how one can raise their voice about this topic in a situation where it is women themselves, and the media aimed at them, who will be the first ones to try and silence this voice.
JL: What is the next step? What will happen if this hydra multiplies itself?
Abortourism: An important part of this multiplication is the reproductive blog. Here, we have collected and translated into Hungarian numerous foreign publications on the topic of reproductive rights. We are planning to continue with the project and focus on other topics as well. But for now, I think that it’s very important that we showed that such an action is possible at all—if one is bothered by a social phenomenon, instead of sitting in a corner crying, one has the option to do something.
The interview was conducted and first published on tranzitblog.hu in Hungarian in February 2015.
Translated by Julia Laki
About the author
Júlia Laki holds a Master’s degree in Gender Studies; she currently works as a translator and editor while co-managing a small olive oil company based in Greece.