TBDWBAJ is an audiovisual portrait of drug-addicted women in 5 countries in Central Europe. As a marginalised as well as perhorresced fringe group, their lives usually proceed far below the radar of social interest. Their drug use with all its consequences is seen as their personal failure and they are far more morally condemned and ostracised than their male fellow sufferers. TBDWBAJ is an attempt to make the situation of imprisoned women in Germany, Austria, Croatia, Switzerland, and the Netherlands publicly perceptible and together with them to move into different social spaces and perspectives. Using series of identical baby dolls made of porcelain, which are the audiovisual carriers of the biographies of the participating women, the arts-based research becomes an intervention: by abandoning the dolls in public places and thus leaving them to society, the accidental finders decide on how they will be treated and where they will end up. After the Baby Dolls have disappeared physically from the public sphere, the biographical audio recordings remain accessible in the project archive on the OUTCAST REGISTRATION website.
Destined to be a “Junkie”? Collective Predetermination vs. Individual Self-Determination
The title of the project already formulates its central concern: THIS BABY DOLL WILL BE A JUNKIE. On the one hand, this contradicts the common notion that every individual has the right and the freedom to develop independently and in a self-determined way. On the other hand, the Baby Dolls’ life paths seem predetermined: they will be junkies. This also highlights the other side of this common view, which goes hand in hand with the supposed justification of condemning drug addiction as a purely individual matter of personal failure. TBDWBAJ contradicts this idea, and instead researches causes and connections in the lives of the women involved and searches together with them for ways to recognise and publicly articulate them. The aim is not to deny the ideal of individual self-determination, but to focus on its dynamics, causalities, reciprocal influences, and also its incoherencies and imponderables, which are beyond the will and wishes of those affected.
Theoretical and Artistic Reflections
“Some human lives are grievable and others are not,” Judith Butler writes in her 2005 political essay on the American public’s reactions to the attacks of September 11, 2001. It is this “differential allocation of grievability” “that decides what kind of subject is and must be grieved, and which kind must not be grieved.” The determination of this, in turn, serves “to produce and maintain certain exclusionary notions [...] of who is human according to the norm: What counts as a life worth living and a death worth grieving?” (Butler 2005, p. 10) TBDWBAJ rejects the premises of this hierarchical normativity and engages with ostensibly “non-grievable life”. Who can judge the relevance of the violence experienced and who can claim to be worthy of being mourned? Despite the overwhelming, statistically verifiable presence of various forms of violence in the lives of women who are dependent in many respects, they are denied the interest of society in their suffering, and what is more: they are discredited as socially dysfunctional.
The gender-specific focus of TBDWBAJ also encounters considerable skepticism and stands accused of post-feminist approaches; this only makes the far-reaching problematic of this neglected, marginalised group all the more apparent and confirms the necessity of its approach. Therefore, TBDWBAJ is an intervention that understands artistic action in the same sense as Hannah Arendt: for Arendt, the vita activa, the active life, is based on a broad concept of human action that “takes place directly between people without the mediation of matter, material, and things” (Arendt 2020, p. 24) and thus fundamentally takes into account the “fact of plurality” (ibid.); that is, it always takes place in connectedness together and, moreover, publicly. The approach of TBDWBAJ is therefore—using an expression of Karl Jaspers, which Arendt adopts—a “venture of the public sphere”, the outcome of which is open, yet is carried out with a fundamental trust in humans, without which it would be impossible to act at all.
Methodological Innovations: Matrix and "Basic Biography"
The development of the so-called matrix method arose out of necessity, so to speak, or more precisely, because of a specific need. While working with the women participating in the project, it became apparent that they have enormous difficulties in describing the experiences and events of their lives chronologically or coherently, let alone putting the traumatic experiences of (sexual) violence into their own words. Suggestive inquiries or the interpretation of innuendos are therefore to be avoided at all costs. A pre-printed catalog of terms that can be contextualised both positively and negatively, which are selected and assigned to the respective stages of life, enables the women to provide information about events that had previously been incommunicable without being emotionally fraught or judgemental. In the next step, sentences are formulated from these biographical word collages in the present tense, so that the events of the past are brought into the present—and thus the enduring gravity of the events mentioned remains present. The resulting "basic biography" resembles a protocol that gathers facts as soberly as possible. The dominance of factual information makes it easier for those affected to confront what they have experienced, and the mismatch between the linguistic form and the biographical content renders the import of the experiences described clear to outsiders. The subsequent process of reading out and recording their “basic biography” by the participating women is accompanied by a remarkable effect: for the first time in this way, they experience a kind of legitimisation of their life story, combined with the need to articulate it publicly.
Baby Dolls: Objects Representing Subjective Experiences
The recordings of the "basic biographies" are then installed in a series of porcelain Baby Dolls. The women learn how to make the dolls as part of the TBDWBAJ project. This process includes working out theoretical issues as well as technical skills issues. Porcelain is the finest and most sensitive of all malleable ceramic materials; it functions here as a cipher for a “blank life” that is to be freely and self-determinedly shaped. As an artefact, the porcelain-white Baby Doll embodies the fragile “innocence” of a child that must be protected, which contrasts strongly with the far from “flawless” or pristine biography of the human being she represents here. Each Baby Doll wears a bracelet bearing the title of the artwork and the URL of the audio files in the OUTCAST REGISTRATION archive.
Drop-Off: Installation and Intervention in Public Space
To be “dropped” repeatedly and thus to be exposed defenceless to the control and violence of others is one of the central experiences in the lives of female junkies. The Drop-Off references this experience of being abandoned by installing the Baby Dolls in the public sphere. Both well-known and lesser-known figures from politics, science, and culture are invited to this intervention to drop off the Baby Dolls of a biographical series in various public places—“drop zones”—that are associated with the author’s sphere of life. Groups of two to four “droppers” take the Baby Dolls by taxi to their destination and there—without further supervision—they are simply left to the public. In this way, the object becomes the property of the general public and at the same time the subject of a public affair. The encounters with random passers-by decide what will happen to them; whether they will be accepted or rejected, ignored or destroyed.
If the passers-by ignore the Baby Doll, nothing happens.
If the passers-by pick up the Baby Doll, a fragment of her biography will be heard.
If the passers-by turn the Baby Doll over, the author’s name and year of birth can be read on her back.
If the passers-by put the Baby Doll down, she stops speaking.
If the passers-by take the Baby Doll with them, her further existence will take place hidden from the public in private space—protected or unprotected like the life of a real child within a family network.
If the passers-by destroy the Baby Doll, its existence ends.
Expert Meetings: Collaboration of different perspectives and competences
Collaboration on several levels is a core element of all artistic and scholarly work of the OUTCAST REGISTRATION. First, collaboration with the imprisoned women drug-addicts; second, cooperation with the numerous institutions involved; third, combination of different competences in art, culture, and technology; and four, partly discursive, partly cooperative engagement with the public via artistic interventions in public spaces. Finally, fifthly, the close complicity with representatives from various fields of practice and scientific disciplines, who both critically accompany individual stages of the project and discuss and reflect on the country-specific results as well as appraise the effectiveness of artistic intervention in sociopolitical issues during the Expert Meetings.
Aims of the Project
TBDWBAJ initially conducts basic research at the periphery of society: the focus is on the lives of female junkies, which biographical patterns and structural factors are involved in their situation, and how these can be made perceptible. Significant in the lives of the participating women is the “vicious circle”, which comes about because escaping from the cycle of violence, drug use, prostitution, and imprisonment is almost systematically prevented. This form of seriality is reflected in the individual components of the project, in the creation of the matrix and the Baby Dolls, and finally in the drop-off. The conceptual architecture of TBDWBAJ is based on the investigation of different social spaces: the isolated space, the cultural space, and the public space. Each of these spaces describes a phase of the project and adopts a different perspective, which on the one hand seeks to shed light on the processes involved in the actual implementation, and on the other to clarify the expectations and life conditions of different social groups that—often unconsciously or even unintentionally—ultimately share the same space. In this way a modular system is created that can practically be applied anywhere, regardless of country-specific conditions. By drawing together various artistic and media forms of expression as well as theoretical discourses, TBDWBAJ does not maintain existing asymmetries of social relations nor the demarcation of different spaces, but seeks instead to open up an area of reflection in artistic and scientific practice that reveals commonalities and differences. In so doing, TBDWBAJ also addresses the question of what art is capable of doing at the interface with science; indeed, what it must do if it is not content merely to address social issues, but seeks to engage and intervene. This, in turn, involves the challenge of uniting scientific objectivity as an ideal and artistic subjectivity as an equally necessary prerequisite, but without completely levelling their different premises. The far-reaching network of different expertises covered within the framework of the OUTCAST REGISTRATION is both an accompanying instrument and the goal of the project’s implementations, which are intended to generate the circulation of knowledge through communication and reflection.
Complementary to the continuously updated project archive OUTCAST REGISTRATION, the entire project thus far has been published as a dissertation: Ulrike Möntmann, THIS BABY DOLL WILL BE A JUNKIE: Report of an Art and Research Project on Addiction and Spaces of Violence, published in German and English by de Gruyter in 2017.
Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London: Verso, 2004.
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958.
to be aware of outsiders, that is, marginalised groups in a society, to register and research conditions they live under, and to demand public visibility for them, is the main concern of this arts and science research project. Such groups all suffer from similar systematic exclusion procedures that push them over and over again further to the margins of society. Unlike their male fellow sufferers, drug-addicted women in European prisons are considered a “negligible phenomenon”. The work of the OUTCAST REGISTRATION counters this by recognising the need of the participants to make their lives a public affair, which ultimately also means laying part of the responsibility for their illness at society’s door.
initialism for the project title THIS BABY DOLL WILL BE A JUNKIE, which suggests that drug addiction is an unavoidable fate—an ominous prophecy for a human life that has barely begun. On the one hand, it contradicts common notions of freedom, independence, equal opportunity, and individual self-determination as guaranteed, indisputable rights of every individual. On the other, it also criticises a fatal consequence of this ideal, which often goes hand in hand with supposedly being justified in condemning the illness of addiction and the resulting violations of the law as a purely individual matter of personal failure. This failure to mourn those who have already been denied being regarded as a life worth living discredits connectedness and solidarity, that is, the willingness to engage in a shared world in equality and diversity.
the projects of the OUTCAST REGISTRATION operate in different topological spheres, that is, in spaces that reflect specific social functions and all have a private (individual) and a public (communal) meaning. The fact that private space is largely excluded highlights the problematic fact that the private sphere in democratic systems is fundamentally—and constitutionally—hidden from public view. While this does protect from state control and interference, it does not protect those who are exposed to (sexual) violence behind closed doors. For all the women who participated in the projects, the private space has never been a protective space, as is clear from their respective biographies—on the contrary. Since access to private space is denied, the OUTCAST REGISTRATION projects concentrate on social spaces that are accessible but under normal circumstances strictly separated from each other, and it is there that encounters or even confrontations are initiated between their inhabitants: — in isolated spaces, where segregated life far away from society is imposed, for example, in prisons, therapy facilities, psychiatric wards, and asylum seekers centres; — in cultural spaces, that is, institutionally legitimised and supported spaces and facilities, including museums, art halls and galleries, as well as, for example, playgrounds, parks, and zoos; spaces that are categorically in contrast to subcultural, secret, or even forbidden spaces for ideas, thoughts, and life styles, which are rejected by the majority and/or officially banished from the public sphere; — in the public realm, which ideally expresses the need and obligation of all people to be able to articulate in public everything that concerns all us, independent of whether they have been granted, have acquired, or have coerced authorisations and privileges. In the sense of Hannah Arendt, the sphere of what is public is not only a possibility, but rather a call to action.
a pre-printed catalogue of terms, both positively and negatively contextualisable, which are selected and assigned to the respective stages of life, and enable the women involved to provide information that is not emotionally charged or judgemental about traumatic experiences that had previously been impossible to communicate.
a core element of the artistic and scientific research approach conducted for all projects, which distinguishes the collaboration with women convicted of drug abuse, with colleagues, scientists and institutions, as well as the dialogue with specialists from various fields such as philosophy, art (theory), psychiatry, sociology, political science, and law. The circulation of findings in the OUTCAST REGISTRATION network is expanded through the partly direct, partly mediated linking of different expertises.
a biographical protocol that uses the Matrix Method to collect facts as soberly as possible which is devoid of emotional suggestion. From the resulting collages of words the biographers formulate sentences in the present tense, so that the events of the past are brought into the present.
an informal U.S. English term of the 1920s used here with the express agreement of the women involved. Its use is intended to make people aware that the terms “addiction” and “dependence” used in connection with people suffering from drug addiction have been—and still need to be—problematised over and over again, both from a medical and a legal perspective. The World Health Organisation recommended in the 1970s that the term “addiction” should be replaced by “dependence” in order to avoid negative connotations of moral disapproval. However, in the early 2000s it was argued that “addiction” focuses more concretely on the underlying disease of being compulsively dependent on taking substances or performing certain actions, whereas “dependence” rather refers to a relationship of superiority or subordination in human relationships. Depending on the context of the specific use of these terms—for example in medical studies or legal texts—the respective accentuations shift, so that even today there is no adequate formulation for a “junkie” that is free of misleading or overtly negative meanings. For example, after their conviction or imprisonment, they are currently officially referred to as “lawbreakers who need to withdraw” or “narcotics-dependent offenders”, which only reinforces the need for discussion about an appropriate designation and also shows that social processes of exclusion and degradation of junkies are ongoing.
a partially public meeting at which the project work is discussed and reflected upon on an interdisciplinary basis attended by specialists from the fields of art, science, politics, and administration. In this way, the presentations of the project in cultural spaces as well as the interventions in public spaces (see Drop off and Speech Activity) are monitored critically.
the place chosen by the project participant according to her biographical statement where her Baby Doll is to be “dropped” (dropped – abandoned). Each sentence in the basic biography is assigned to a Drop Zone and mapped on a map. If the chosen sites are no longer available or accessible, comparable ones in the public realm are selected.
the act of installation and intervention by TBDWBAJ in public space. Each Baby Doll of a series is dropped off by a small group (participants of the Expert Meetings as well as locally known and lesser known persons from politics, science, and culture) at places, which belong to the life sphere of the junkies, and abandoned without further supervision. From now on, the passers-by decide what happens to the Baby Dolls—whether they are accepted or rejected, ignored or destroyed.
a porcelain doll, fragile not only because of the material it is made of, but also because of its iconographic connotations and psychosocial attributions, which is made by the women participating in the project. Each Baby Doll bears the facial features of its maker and wears a bracelet giving the title of the artwork and the URL of the autobiographical audio statements in the project archive of the OUTCAST REGISTRATION.