Estrogen pollution, or more widely called endocrine disruption, is a largely unseen environmental concern. But agricultural plants worldwide that make use of growth-regulating steroids have found synthetic estrogen in their feedlots and their sewage treatment plants. The hormone has been detected in animal feces, liquid manure, solid waste, fertilizer and in our water.
For our predominantly heteronormative society, it’s an odd concept to grasp. How is a hormone socially associated with womanhood polluting our environment? Estrogen and our understanding of gender seems so distant from our understanding of toxicity, yet there is published evidence establishing environmental estrogen’s possible causal relationship with breast cancer as well as other health defects and imbalances.
Environmental justice is inextricably linked with queer justice. The drug is widespread and prevalent in our rivers and farms, but is somehow exceedingly difficult for trans-femme people who need it to transition to obtain. Synthetic estrogen is a major culprit in environmental toxicity mostly because the agriculture industry has easy access to it. So why is the drug so hard to access for trans bodies who desire the hormone for their own bodily autonomy?
Mary Maggic (they/them), a nonbinary Los Angeles born artist based in Vienna, makes their living asking these kinds of questions. Maggic’s work circles the intersection of gender politics and eco-heteronormativity. They emphasize non-institutional DIY ways of learning, and push their audience to sit with an “unknowingness” that forces them to think critically about the structures and cultural boundaries that define binaries between male and female, human and non-human, and normal and abnormal, much of which is linked to these irreversible changes to the planet.
I sat down with Maggic on Zoom to talk about their work, goals, and understanding of the current environmental crisis.
Maggic was researching the potential for an open-source birth control pill and asked a rather intriguing question about heavily regulated estrogen: what if you could make it in your kitchen?
“Just that one question opened up a million other ones. Who is currently controlling [estrogen] distribution, who is controlling the manufacturing of estrogen, and who gets to have access? Who chooses who gets to have access? There are all these kinds of questions of power related to estrogen,” they told me. “How did we arrive at this black box fact that estrogen codes for femininity? So there’s also that kind of excavation into our history of how gender and molecules became intertwined with each other.”
This was the beginning of a project called Open-Source Estrogen, meant to explore the possibility of DIY estrogen and critiquing hormone biopolitics through biohacking. Biohacking is an all-encompassing term for a type of do-it-yourself biology that boils down to manipulating your brain, body, and environment for your own purposes. The appeal is the control you have over your own biology. Biohacking can mean performing science experiments on yeast or other organisms to track your own sleep and diet, to changing your own biology by pumping a younger person’s blood into your veins in the hope that it’ll fight aging.
Maggic, more specifically, was interested in the political dimension of biohacking. “I gravitate more towards this idea of democratizing these tools and resources and knowledge and how knowledge is power,” they said.
“In a lot of my workshops, we use biohacking as the first step to see what’s invisible,” they said. “Whether it’s extracting molecules from the environment or extracting molecules from the urine, we are first seeing what is invisible and after we see it, then we can start to create these new subjectivities. What are these new relationships we can form with these molecules? Can we leave behind preconceived notions like ‘gender exists in a binary’ or ‘normative bodies have to look like this,’ ‘genitals have to look like this.’ Can we leave that behind?”
Born from the Open Source Estrogen project was the oddly charming satirical production “Housewives Making Drugs,” a fictional 10 minute cooking show where trans-femme cooks Maria and Maria walk their audience through how to cook their hormones at home while bantering about heteronormativity and gender politics. Maggic assures the audience that we are far from having the kind of resources and assurances of safety to make this film a reality, but that it is a commentary on body politics and institutional access to hormones.
According to them, the “project [Open Source Estrogen] mutated out of control,” so they and their collaborators decided to create a manifesto: a “six point plan for hormone resistance” that sets up a theoretical framework for projects that deal with the environmental ruin caused by the leaking endocrine disrupting molecules, or what Maggic calls a “molecular colonization.”
“When I say open source, I mean it in two different ways,” they said. “Open source in the way that all the protocols that we do are open source. You can mess with them, you can try them out yourself. There is this open sharing of knowledge when it relates to hormone hacking. The other definition of open source is the fact that it’s all around us. These molecules are literally open source because they’re everywhere, which points to the planetary ruin that we’re living in, but it also points to questions like what can you do with that alienation? What can you do with that planetary ruin?”
Their answer to the question of environmental degradation is rooted in a form of expression Maggic believes sparks an inherent questioning: art.
Bioart & DIY Science
Maggic graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 2013 with a degree in biology and art, which is where they started to work within the intersection of these two fields. One of their first bioart projects was inspired by the summers they spent in Costa Rica and Honduras collecting frog samples for environmental scientists studying rainforest diversity.
“Try to imagine it — you’re walking through this lush rainforest, and then all of a sudden, it’s just dead silence when you pass through a deforested area. This was one of my first encounters with mass death, in a way,” they said.
“When I came back to Pittsburgh, I knew I wanted to do a project talking about what it means to liberate the plants from the earth. What does it mean to achieve this post-natural state of existence? Technology is a byproduct of human construction, but it’s also a product of human fantasies. I had my own fantasy of releasing these plants from the forest, from the earth, so that they wouldn’t face deforestation. I created this sculpture using hydroponics that’s basically suspended in the air, releasing them from that link to the earth. But I think in the sculpture, you could still see how impossible this fantasy is: a kind of spaceship for plants.”
For Maggic, art is inherently political and a form of activism. Art isn’t didactic, but rather allows for a radical open-endedness. The DIY nature of science held a certain appeal for them and was a kind of natural progression from their exploration of bioart.
“It’s really empowering to perform these protocols without really expensive lab equipment or without a scientist holding your hand. It’s really cool to do it in a non-institutional way. You gain this intimate knowledge about a protocol or about a material that would be different if you were learning it in a classroom setting or you were doing it just for your professors’ PhD project. You really get to apply it to real world questions and real world problems. I hated chemistry, but when I started learning about chemistry in relation to extracting it from my urine, that’s a new form of knowledge that I gained and that I can share with other people.”
In 2019, Maggic researched in Yogyakarta, Indonesia on a Fulbright Scholarship and created an art installation that relied on the do-it-yourself mindset.
“In Indonesia, they have a total DIY culture. Not like in the US, where you’re waving this flag, saying I’m part of DIY bio. In Indonesia, they just do it because that’s their way of life. When something’s broken, you just have to fix it yourself. Working in a collective way, the way that Indonesian people do it, you can see that it’s really making up for whatever is lacking in government or lacking in education or lacking in resources or money. It’s a means of survival. Even in the Western context, maybe it’s not as dramatic as a means for survival, but I do think that we need to share knowledge with each other in order to survive together.”
The project Maggic worked on was based on researching the River Code in Yogyakarta. It involved understanding and evaluating the situation near the river with new eyes and a different cultural context.
“Working in that context where there is a lack of resources and government funding to really monitor the health of the river, it’s really important when as a citizen, you can monitor the health of your river. Issues that you really care about, they come more to your fingertips. You’re not just waiting around for a government official to do it for you. You can actually go and figure it out yourself,” they said.
The proposal Maggic wrote for the Fulbright program was titled “River Gynecology,” to represent the idea of diagnosing the river as you would your own body. The project was ongoing before they arrived in Yogyakarta to focus specifically on hormone toxicity. They discovered that even riddled with plastic trash and domestic waste, the river provided for all the people that live in its proximity. The villagers were reliant on this river for their daily needs, but still threw their waste in it.
“I had to kind of deprogram my Western thinking because we always hear stories about toxic dumping by corporations on marginalized lands. In this case it was the marginalized communities living along the river dumping trash into the river. It was really important for us also to not approach people with this kind of judgment because who am I to say you can’t live your life the way you’re living it. I’m an outsider. I don’t have that power to say that, you know?”
The explanation had to do with Javanese mysticism and the belief system of the villagers. To them, the river was just a highway connecting two spiritual kingdoms. They didn’t see the river as an entity to feel empathy for. There was a cultural disconnect between the water they used for cooking and cleaning and the river they believed to be nothing but a highway for spirits to cross.
The installation Maggic created for the Yogyakarta International Contemporary Visual Arts Festival was a product of trying to understand the circular nature of the pollution taking place in the River Code.
Maggic has their hand in several other art installations. “Genital Panic,” their ongoing project, seeks to normalize and redefine genital aesthetics. Their more recent exhibition was a machine object installation and performance project that explores relationship between technology and the human through fitness and the ever-persisting desire to reach an impossible state of perfection.
Maggic’s philosophy regarding much of the work they do rests on the idea of “queering” and xenofeminism.
“Working in this space and with the discourse of queering is a really messy space. We’re dealing with all of these old-world definitions that are given to us by hegemonic orders about gender constructs, normativity and things like that. We’re seeing that the world is not fitting in this old-world paradigm, although these patriarchal structures are trying to keep this paradigm in play. But we can see with all the toxicities, when you look at dark ecology, hyper objects, climate change, and things like that, we can see that this alienation is happening so much faster than we can really grasp.”
Queering, by one definition, is a method in which you analyze media or a specific topic specifically to find places where things such as gender, sexuality, masculinity, and femininity can be challenged and questioned. Maggic connects it to the value they find in art — that sense of unknowingness that makes art so effective to communicate an issue.
“It’s sitting with that uncomfortableness, just knowing that there are so many powers beyond our control. My body is changing faster than I can really process and understand it. That feels uncomfortable. There’s a lot of tension in that. That is queering. It’s acknowledging how porous you are because you’re constantly responding with the environment. It’s also understanding that at the same time we need it — we need to cross-contaminate with each other.”
Maggic has spent much of their work and life trying to settle with this sense of uncertainty. They seek to uncover democratic methods, focus on “freak science” and break through the haze of heteronormativity that stifles society.
Our world is closely intertwined, linked with conflicts and contradictions. We are in constant communication with our environment. As we change it, it changes us. Maggic’s research on synthetic estrogen pollution, a closely kept secret, is just one example of this phenomenon.
Whether it be synthetic estrogen, biohacking, deforestation, or pollution, if there’s anything to take away from Mary Maggic’s work, it’s that nothing is black and white. Their art is layered with hope and grit and a brief, cursory, glimpse at a brighter future.
If you want to learn out more about Mary, find them on their website and Instagram account or contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What do you think about Mary Maggic’s work and research? Do you agree with their assessment of the intersection of art and biology? Let us know in the comments down below!