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Penultimate Post


Hello cyber world,

I have taken a bit of a break from the blog to focus on finishing up my projects here in Paris. Sometimes its just good to push through to get to the place you need without over-thinking. As my residency is almost over, Id like to share with you the two projects I’ve completed here. If you’ve read previous posts you know that my time here was spent really thinking about the nature of cultural comparisons, “otherness,” and  social policy and the female body, among other things. Artistically, I’ve experimented with new approaches to printmaking and photographic documentation, which has been incredibly satisfying, if a bit frustrating along the way.  I’m loathe to present the work in its entirety on the blog, as I feel it needs to be framed, installed, given a space to live in before really being finished. But I would like share some snippets and photos!

The first project is inspired by the contrast between the French social service system’s policies on reproduction and the American reproductive landscape. The French state encourages multiple children, financially supports families regardless of income, provides free education and low cost childcare, and allows for generous leave. This system is viewed by some as a successful example of socialized support, and by others as oppressively maintaining the existing French patriarchy by privileging the woman’s familial role over professional achievement. Conversely, the American system, in which reproduction requires considerable personal economic cost, offers support only to the very poor (as long as they stay that way) and those in the military. Reproduction is viewed primarily as a decision for which the parent(s) should bear the cost and responsibility, and currently many Americans cannot theoretically afford to have or care for children. The “Right to Choose” has traditionally meant abortion rights, but I believe it could be expanded to include the impact of the economic, personal, and professional unfeasibility of reproduction on large segments of contemporary American society. My project takes the form of performative actions on my own body, specifically the temporary embedding in my own body of numbers crucial to the reproductive decision- making process in both the USA and France. The results are documented by black and white photographs that I hope to print very large. These images, along with an accompanying text, will examine notions of choice, oppression, freedom and the body with respect to these two countries’ reproductive policies.

Heres a crop of a larger image to give you an idea!

The second project is a combination of text, image and audio – a fictional dystopian narrative accompanied by a set of Rorschach blot-inspired prints and a (still in progress) sound piece. The project addresses one possible future resulting from “the Singularity” - the moment when Artificial Intelligence surpasses human intelligence, hypothesized to occur around 2040. Here is a print and some ttext - ive been playing with how they work together, i think the text will be side by side with the prints. 



Posted by Sara Shaoul on 8/20/14

You do the math

Hello everyone!

As I talked about in my last blog, based on my research I have been really focused on thinking about systems that encourage or discourage reproduction – economic, social, political. This week I have been trying out several different visual modes to express both the specificity of national attitudes and policies about motherhood and birth rates, as well as the randomness – we humans come into being, ignorant of, but because of these factors.

Im focused today on the numbers – the data I’ve collected about the various incentives and discouragements to reproduce. In France, children bring money -a family with three children, regardless of income, is given $4,757 per year, with additional amounts per child if their income is below 50,000 for a single parent home and $61,112 for a two parent home. There are additional monetary supplements for birth/adoption fees, housing costs, school supplies, the needs of disabled children, as well as the child care costs I described last week.

In America, state funded daycare had a brief day in the sun during WWII, when the Lanham Act of 1940 allowed for grants and/or loans for child care in order to support women working for the war effort. The Lanham Act was in effect for four years, during which it provided $51,922,977 in funds, matched by $26,008,839 from individual states, allowing for the care of approximately 600,000 children in 3,102 day care centers.

There are only two federally funded programs providing childcare for working mothers and fathers – one is Head Start. In order to qualify, one must be under the poverty line – a single parent cannot make more than $11670, and a household of two adults cannot make more than $15,730. The other option is the US Military. Servicemen and women are entitled to sliding scale childcare based on household income, funded by the Department of Defense. The costs range from $194 to a maximum of $556 per month (at the $125,000 income level,) covering care from six weeks to six years through either Child Development Centers (daycare) or Family Child Care (home-based care.) From ages 6-12 after school childcare is provided. One of the most noteworthy elements of this program are the strict guidelines for care. One caregiver can only mind two children under the age of two, and no more than six children under the age of eight. A staggering 98% of military CDC meet the standards set out by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, as opposed to only 10% in the private sector.

These numbers (and many more ) are so critical to reproductive choice and lack of choice. They speak to decisions about working, not working, resources and lack of resources, and how a child changes  financial circumstances. And yet when taken out of context these numbers become abstracted amounts, an idea I am working on rendering through visual means. This side of “choice” becomes about running the numbers, using the numbers, fixing the numbers, fudging the numbers. It becomes about population numbers, immigration numbers, real estate numbers. Numbers that make reproduction constructive or destructive, a gain or a loss. The resonance of that feels powerful and relevant, especially looking at new York and Paris, and what their differences mean. 

Posted by Sara Shaoul on 8/4/14

Reproduction Medals

Greetings one and all!

I’m almost halfway through my residency, and right on time, I’m really feeling themes emerge in my “research,” (which is less formal research and more a combinations of conversations, impressions and observations.) I’ve met some amazing women who’ve shared with me a wide range of their experiences. French women, Americans married to Frenchmen, Americans not married to Frenchmen, people who’ve been here for years, and those who’ve just arrived.  Talking to one person leads to an introduction to another person, and the web grows. One of the main threads that cnosisitently comes up is motherhood. 

Motherhood is a hot button topic in America, and one that I’ve followed closely although I don’t have a child. Helicopter parenting vs free range kids, overprotection, the risk of dry drowning, vaccine debates, limited family planning options, hyper-judgmental peers, good mom blogs and bad mom blogs, arresting parents who leave a kid unattended in a car for five minutes, or a park for five hours. The list goes on, the issues are wide ranging.  Economics, class, guilt, social expectations, and peer judgment all play a part. What’s become clear to me is that having children has become a careful choice many middle class Americans often make later in life, and it’s loaded with consequences – emotional, financial, professional and social. Women seem to become, first and foremost, mothers in the court of public opinion, whether that’s the only focus of their identity or not. The safety of their children becomes not just their priority, but a legal obligation with no room for personal preference. The choices they make for their children (breast feeding, pre-school education, childcare, vaccinations) will determine a child’s future success and hold them accountable for any failures. Of course I believe children should be loved and cared for by conscientious parents, but care seems to have become a set of mandates, as opposed to instincts or decisions.

On a practical level, childcare costs are soaring, and in two income households, its often questioned whether the money made by the lower earner (often a woman) is worth the money spent on “someone else parenting your child.” Having a child in NYC is so cost prohibitive that it is truly a massive lifestyle decision. It requires resources and sacrifices. Even with insurance, birth is expensive. Day care costs $2000/month and up, way up. I’m not telling anyone anything new here, but when its put into relief by the French system, the differences are rather mind-blowing.

Here’s what I know: the French government pays for all the costs of health care, from birth to physical therapy for the pelvic floor muscles afterward (several French women could not believe we don’t do this in America.) From three months to three years, several day care options are available, all regulated by the government, all on a sliding scale. As one mother told me, if you make very little, you pay 40 dollars a month. For full time daycare. At three years, a child begins school, which is free. There are several options for maternity leave, which is much longer, including a provision to stay home for three years, with a guaranteed job at your base salary when you return. Childcare is not considered a bad parenting decision, it is considered a right, and in some cases, a privilege, if you get your child into a crèche – the most sought after form of daycare. I am in no way suggesting that this means making the decision to have children is simple, or easy, or that daycare is right for all children, or that it’s a perfect system, as I’m sure it has many faults, but my God, to me it seems like they have 4000% more resources than are available in the US. Quite a few French women that I met had children at various ages, with or without a marriage, and while some spoke of challenges, it was not the American narrative. Nobody's life has been "ruined" or was "over." They had not given up on jobs, social lives, or self-care – all three of which seem to be a major part of French life.  At the base, the government wants more French children, and many of their policies have been in place since WWII. Whether or not people care about them, there are medals given by the state to mothers who have 4-5 children (bronze) 6-7 children (silver) and 8-? (gold.) This in particular fascinates me on a symbolic level. While there has been a lot of attention on French styles of parenting in the popular media, I find myself more interested in the economic, social and professional provisions for the actual act of reproducing. 

With all this in mind, I’ve been thinking about reproductive choice, and what that actually means. There is a body of work out there around abortion, birth control, and the conflict of work and motherhood ("oh my god i forgot to have a baby!" etc)  but I feel there is a new level of stratification to be explored around reproduction in the US. I’ve been playing with some cut out images, which is one of the key forms I use, and am excited to think about French and American reproductive rights  through the layering of visual ideas. I'll be working hard on this for the next week. 

Posted by Sara Shaoul on 7/28/14

20140103191003-img_1828 Giving birth in New York
Thanks for the infirmation. I know exactly how much it cots to give birth in NY. My son who was born 23 years ago in Lenox Hill hospital was worth 7,000 or 8,000$. I cannot imagine how much it cots today.
wow that's really fascinating about the medals! I'd never heard of that before...

Otherness and Apocalypse

Hello everyone!

This past week I made it a mission to see Paris galleries before they close for the August holidays. I was happy to see a lot of emerging artists, as well as some more established ones whose work I know from New York. I went to quite a few places and didn’t make it to half the galleries on my list, so I have some more work to do this week! Amongst my favorites were some playful yet deeply ominous paintings of young men by Norbert Bisky at Galerie Daniel Templon (see below,) and Luka Fineisen’s tank of fans and golden confetti at Claudine Papillon Galerie (a giant version of which I’d seen at PS1.)

My favorite work so far has been an installation called Stanby at Galerie Marine Veilleux by a duo called PLANETE MIRAGE. I loved their futuristic proposition of objects placed sparingly in the underground lower floors, and the script that they offered as text. I am a big fan of non-traditional text as an accompaniment to art, or perhaps as another piece of the art, which by its very nature makes each viewers experience unique, based on how their brain interprets and analyzes language. Here's a shot from the show, below. 


Perhaps one reason I was so drawn to Stanby is that I’ve been conjuring up something of a post-apocalyptic vision myself, thinking about ways that cultures might merge when forced together, by cataclysmic event rather than slow tectonic shift. Perhaps all the horror going on in the world right now has something to do with that. I have always been a fan of science fiction, especially the work of Aldous Huxley, John Wyndham, and more recently, Octavia Butler, for its ability to reflect society back to us through the lens of the “other.” The “other” plays a key role in my explorations of Frenchness, Americaness and culture, and I’m interested in exploring possible intersections of otherness with crisis.  In addition to writing a good deal of text, I’ve been experimenting with the form of the Rorshach blot. These blots are the visual symbol of projection, one of the psychological processes at the core of the consideration of “otherness.” They also are supposed to be entirely symmetrical, a fundamental element I am shifting. I’m excited to be working with ink, and to be rethinking a classic form through color and shape. My intention is to show ink pieces in conjunction with text. 

Posted by Sara Shaoul on 7/21/14

Varieties of Simulacra

Hello, again! Wow, the time passes fast!

This week I’ve been drawing, cutting out and arranging text, and in general playing around with themes and visual elements. I’ve been thinking about how cultures absorb each other, whether uneasily or wholeheartedly. If I were to imagine a Venn diagram of French-American cultural absorption, the shape would be awkward and squiggly, with dramatically incomplete or partial overlaps. The phenomena that I’ve been tracking, the media onslaught of female French-ification seems to run on a continuous loop, which is giving me ideas about presentation. Looping audio, looping filmstrips, ancient looping microfiche machines, a continuous looping hamster wheel grinding away.

 I have been watching video that I shot in NYC of friends and acquaintances talking about their relationship to French culture and their level of absorption of the popular culture onslaught. Most people began by saying they aren’t aware of any specific messages about French women, and then, as we humans are wont to do, began to unravel their ideas to reveal the information they have received. I think the initial resistance is the common sense mind talking – no intelligent, fairly cultured New Yorker feels they are mindlessly going to receive and accept things they know to be caricature. And yet, it’s amazing how much we do receive.  Here are some sketches I’ve been making to help me work out ideas.  I've become enamored with the symbolism of Hamburger and the Macaron.

II’ve also been musing on an old anthropology reading that I have yet to locate on the internet – its hard copy resides in a file cabinet, in a storage unit, in New York, from my days as a PhD student in Cultural Anthropology. It was a seminal text in describing the forging of states into the French nation, as opposed to nations into states. In other words, the effort to create a cohesive, unified culture, language, and nationality out of a series of independent cultural entities that were unified by a political and geographic state, La France. I’ve been thinking about how that kind of massive nation building would look and function now. Some would say the U.S., with its  giant outreach of cultural production, is endeavoring to make a worldwide nation of believers who covet and purchase the music, movies, clothes, food and other products of American-ness, occasionally authentic, often simulacra. A core belief that I retain from Anthopology is that culture is dynamic - it will by its very nature change.Of course,  this simple assertion has complex manifestations in the real world - often "change" means the introduction of a power structure in which that one group loses their ability to maintain culture out of need for economic sustenance. As I think about cultural dynamism in reference to France and America, it takes on a differnt shape, one that I am just beginning to pull apart. 



Posted by Sara Shaoul on 7/14/14 | tags: installation mixed-media sculpture

Viola, Sugimoto and "Bientot La Corde Au Cou"

Hello again!

This week in Paris has been a busy one. On my way to the Palais de Tokio, I was sidetracked by the Bill Viola exhibit at the Grand Palais. Although I’ve read about his work before and I’ve seen bits and pieces, this is my first experience with a Viola retrospective, and I found it completely mesmerizing. While I’ve never been deeply moved by his work, this show was so well curated, or perhaps so effortlessly designed so as not to have palpable curatorial interruption, that I was able to move from piece to piece without awkwardness or distraction, intuitively engaging more in those that resonated with me, moving through those that didn’t. I found that in this format, with so much space for each piece and so little editorializing, I was able to have a continuous, authentic understanding of his consistent approach, themes and references.  Although his technical process is quite a feat and remains a mystery, after a while I forgot about it and just immersed myself. At the end of the show there was a timeline that I might have expected at the beginning, outlining career highlights and formative experiences. It was refreshing to have that appear at the end, to make intellectual connections AFTER the visceral experience.

Needless to say, I was pretty over-stimulated by the time I reached the Palais, which is a vast space with many exhibits by many curators, so I could not manage to see everything. The space itself, at once sprawling and crumbling, lends itself to the post-apocalyptic, and at times competes with the art itself, leaving the viewer unsure of how much of the buildings raw state is intentional.  My favorite exhibit so far is definitely the Hiroshi Sugimoto exhibit  “Today the World Died,” a confusing, disarmingly imperfect, fascinating collection of disintegrating tableaux made up of artifacts, objects, text and, almost unbelievably, the pristine black and white photographs the artist is most often known for.  Organized into confessional pockets narrated by various personages, each describing the end of the world through text and objects, it was impossible to tell what fossils were actual specimens, and which were imagined and made.  The Soviet era cosmonaut food could have been painstakingly sourced, or completely fabricated. One detail I found fascinating was that the exhibition was lit solely by natural cources, and that evening visitors would receive flashlights to see by. Merging aesthetically with the Palais itself, which seems at turns woefully neglected and purposefully distressed, the exhibit blurred the line between dystopian artifice and legitimately fugitive materials.

Next to the Sugimoto there was a seating area dotted with textile sculptures by Sheila Hicks. Set up as a tiered platform, it presented very much as a stage, in which the audience is performing as “art viewer,” with art as a backdrop.  Perfectly well executed, it invited my ire by its wall text description as a place to “exchange ideas,” which never sits well with me. I feel like it's code for  a social area to stop for a break and take Instagram pictures. Nothing wrong with socializing or relaxing, but I’m frustrated that beautiful, well lit spaces that thoughtfully allow for rest within art institutions must assert their importance as “art” by insisting there is an all-important  “exchange of ideas” happening. That phrase “ exchange of ideas” has become egregiously overused as a blanket assertion that there is a challenging social engagement or interactive technology at work that encourages a specific kind of more intellectual, or more intimate, communication. Fueling my frustration is the fact that while art installation as meeting place and social space has becom de rigeur in many contemporary art venues, due to the changing landscape of modern communication,  these spaces often just become a point to interact with devices and produce image as proof of culture experience. Perhaps that is the exchange of ideas, then, on the visual internet interfaces rather than in person,  and I'm the one who needs to relocate my expectations. Never fear, my friend and I took some appropriately silly pictures of each other to illustrate the photogenic lure of the space, of course!

I also had the pleasure this week of meeting artist Veit Stratmann though Nathalie Angles of RU (Residency Unlimited) which is partnering with Artslant.  We had a great chat on what alternative art spaces to visit in Paris, our strong opinions on Thomas Hirschorn, and the machinations of the French police force, among other things.  He counseled me to have a look at Brussels as a cheaper (than Paris) city with a growing art scene (I plan on it.) We also exchanged American and French art school jargon: I offered up theatricality and OOO (object oriented ontology) and he suggested I experiment with “protocol” and “activée.” Will do.

In terms of my project, I’ve been meeting up with and discussing my ideas with various Paris residents, and observing, observing, observing.  I thought this humorous text exchange with fellow artist Naomi Miller on a late night train was interesting when I reviewed it the next day. She knows my project well, and has seen my source materials insisting on the physical perfection and cultural superiority of the French woman, including specific references to the fact that they would never wear nude pantyhose, so our exchange was very much tongue in cheek.  I was at the time surrounded by a group of French women in tiaras, one of whom wore a sash that said “ Bientot la corde au cou” (Soon the rope around the neck.) The bachelorette party is a situation I’ve been in many times before in the U.S., and it is a loaded construction that’s deeply problematic for me. What I’ve been struck with most in the last week, is the deep familiarity of certain female behaviors, which might be made of different materials, but at the root have the same computations at heart. My hypothesis about the complex insecurities that plague contemporary feminism continue to develop. See you next week!

Posted by Sara Shaoul on 7/7/14 | tags: performance installation mixed-media Palais de Tokio bill viola feminism


Hello one and all, 

Welcome to my blog, my residency in Paris, and my ongoing project, described formally above in the very first blog post! I hope to share with you my process, my discoveries, my works in progress, and whatever seems interesting that I see or hear.  I hope very much that you'll chime in with ideas, opinions and thoughts in the comments area!

As some of you know, I'll be here in Paris for two months, making art. The idea that got me here was one that I've been noticing and tossing around in my head for quite some time - the obsessive coverage in the American media of the French woman as an ideal from which lessons can be, and should be, learned. I've been collecting examples for a while now, and before I left the States, I printed out some selections just from the last month - over 175 pages. It seems like 20 new articles with the theme " BLANK like a French woman" pop up each week. Once I began talking to friends about this, they began sending them to me - it's the kind of thing that, once you start paying attention, you begin to see everywhere. Because, it seems, its became a go-to attention grabber, the kind of headline that makes people buy a book or click on an article, and ultimately, that means ad dollars and book sales. 

Here are four out of thousands of  examples - of course, the visual affect of the text, the ads that accompany them, and the photography choices are fascinating, especially to someone like me, who as a photo editor for a time, found stock photos for a living. (" Get a pretty girl, you know, who looks French!" "Does it matter if she is?" "Of course not! This is the internet!" ) As a fan of using "recognizable forms" like advertising as material in art, and a fan of artists who do it well, like Ken Lum and Barbara Kruger, I am drawn to these visuals that accost us at lightning fast speeds and need to grab our attention to survive. 

There is even humor backlash from this meme - like this hilarious stream of consciousness piece on the Toast  - ( "French women take one thing off french women don’t throw out shoes they get them resoled french women don’t take twenty euros out of atms french women don’t look at car accidents french women don’t get firedfrench women don’t care what you think french women don’t eat over the sink french women don’t sag french women don’t sweat french women don’t perspire french women don’t need him french women don’t forget you’ve met french women don’t need you to remember them french women don’t mistake basic courtesies for affection"  Ha ha!!! 

In any case, my loftier ambition is to use this phenomenon as a stepping off point to examine issues of the female body, cultural difference, and the importance of "the other" in the politics of aesthetics. And of course the capitalist mechanism that feeds off this is of great interest as well. I'm not sure yet how this will all come together, but it begins with what I have now - a bunch of raw, interesting material that functions on ideological and visual levels, and a collection of conversations that I've had in New York, and am begining to have here in Paris. Talking to women is a way for me to think with others about a topic that is at once individual and profoundly social. Often our conversations lead me to the next level in my thought process. My conversations here hopefully will give me even more insight and cultural information. As is often pointed out, talking about "the other" is a way of defining onesself, and it is in the process of self-definition that things get complicated, contradictory and elucidating. I think ultimatley I'll zero in on visual ideas that interest me as I sift through information - visual, personal, narrative and ideological.

I plan to post every monday religiously, with extras when something great comes up. See you next week!



Posted by Sara Shaoul on 6/30/14

20140304042120-remypic Baudelaire
In "Le Spleen de Paris", Baudelaire, who had a dark and pessimistic view of life, both admires and debases women (and many poems reference death). I think the admiration of Frenchwomen as an ideal is peculiarly American (it is different in England) and I suspect dome also for commercial reasons, perhaps?
Thanks for the thoughts Remy, your mention of the women/death conflation also made me think of Baudelaire..I will check out the Bronfen book!
20140304042120-remypic Idealization of Women
The idealization of the Frenchwoman is an extension of the idealization of women in general. The general theory is that femininity and death are linked and the French obsession with death may have given rise to the idealization of women in France - Jacques Derrida conflates women and death in one of his passages: "She bestows the idea. And the idea withdraws, becomes transcendent, inaccessible, seductive. It beckons from afar ... The dream of death begins. It is woman." Elizabeth Bronfen in her book "Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic" does a beautiful job of analyzing this connection. So there is a dark side to this, after all. As one anonymous put it: "A pedestal is as much a prison as any other small space." Remy du Bois

Georgia Fee Artist | Writer Residency Summer 2014: Sara Shaoul


The Project:

My project takes as a starting point the growing presence in the middle class American consciousness of a structured binary relationship between the French woman and the American woman. Perhaps jump-started by the success of the best selling book French Women Don’t Get Fat, in 2004, magazine articles, books, blog posts, and other forms of popular media have increasingly positioned the French woman as a kind of “other” who has completely avoided the minefield of neuroses most American women are in some way navigating.

I am fascinated by the location of this binary in the female body - its self-care, its sexual, reproductive and parenting experiences, and its relationship to other bodies and to the state. The material of my work will be the visual and ideological collection of truths, myths, fantasies, and projections that I have been collecting in the U.S. and will now have the opportunity to research in France. How do French women view themselves with respect to these bodily terms, and how they construct or consider the American woman, if at all? I will be creating drawings, sculpture, audio, video and text pieces that explore this complex intersection point of history, feminism, cultural codes, and social, economic and political systems.




About the artist: Born in the U.S., Sara Shaoul was raised in Hong Kong, Singapore, the Ivory Coast and Japan. In 2009, she began focusing on visual art as the natural integration of her studies in art history and cultural anthropology and her experience as a musician and a photo editor. Her practice explores the scaffolds of human interaction and experience, from bureaucratic institutions to the family. She creates installation, performance, audio and video, often in combination, and is focused on how personal narratives intersect with social history.



Posted by Sara Shaoul on 6/21/14

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