I am a Birth Machine.

H. R. Giger's Birth Machine

I still remember the first time I saw H. R. Giger’s Birth Machine in one of his books, I was totally captivated: the beautiful metal, the little babies wearing goggles, the outline of a gun. So many meanings leaped into my mind – overpopulation, child soldiers, reproductive control … an endless flow of interpretations and ideas.

Nearly 6 years ago I was in Germany on research for my PhD, and during that time I also traveled briefly through Switzerland and stayed for a couple of days in a small village called La Gruyère. In that village, with the scent of fondue ever-present, I found the Giger Museum and the Giger-Bar. There I came face to face with Birth Machine, and once again my mind was spinning. Upon returning to Marburg, Germany where I was staying, I went to a local tattoo artist – Gandi @ AllStar Tattooz – and told him I wanted the Birth Machine tattooed on my body. He was all too happy to do this, being a fan of Giger as well, and so he inked Giger’s Birth Machine on half my left thigh. (Thanks, Gandi!) 🙂

I have been asked several times why in the world I’d want a giant gun on my thigh. And while I greatly appreciate Giger’s work aesthetically, this piece does have some philosophical importance to me. I think Simone de Beauvoir best explains it, this time looking to Ethics of Ambiguity and some of her early work. It’s all about freedom, baby. I have already blogged about Beauvoir, alongside Bettie Page and Iris Marion Young, and here I will pick up on some similar themes from that post. No stilettos here though, only a gun.

Simone de Beauvoir

According to Beauvoir, people experience freedom through a spontaneous internal drive and this drive is crushed by the weight of the world. Human existence is an ambiguous mix of a wanting to transcend the given conditions of the world and being confined or defeated by it – a world with events you have no control over, at times no choices or options as to what happens. Beauvoir says we must accept this ambiguity rather than run from it or mask it. In order to have freedom and live authentically, we must engage our freedom in projects that arise from spontaneous choices in the face of this ambiguity. Our goals or ends must never be absolute or concrete, not only because this makes them less about freedom and choice (and less spontaneous), but it also cuts them off from us – the ones who choose. Static goals become absolute, less about choice, and are often easy to escape into. To be free is not to do whatever the fuck you want. Freedom, for Beauvoir, is the conscious assumption of freedom through projects which are chosen in a moment and acted upon, and renewed moment to moment. Freedom is action and self-making choices, and accepting the ambiguity we live within. One self-consciously chooses to be who one is at every moment of every day, in every project. This implies that the meaning of our actions is not derived from any external source like God or society, but in the person’s very act of choosing. We are ethical beings in so far as we accept the consequences and responsibility that our choices have : “to will oneself moral and to will oneself free are one and the same decision.”

Beauvoir strongly believed that the freedom of oneself required freedom of others to be actualized. As much as individuals make choices, they live in communities with other people, who also are free to make choices. Our freedom is always at the crossroads with the freedoms of others. This idea was discussed in detail in her 1944 work Pyrrhus et Cinéas as well. Since there is no god, it is up to humans to create ethical bonds with each other. These bonds require the creation and execution of projects that express freedom, our own and that of others. Rather than seeing “the other” as a threat to freedom, which her partner Sartre did (he was a bit paranoid), she sees others as a necessary axis of my freedom. Without others, I could not be free. My choices are often a call to the freedoms of others, so they can respond or ignore me. Without others, my actions are useless and absurd – they fall back upon themselves. Problems arise in a world of freely acting people of course, things like slavery, tyranny, and oppression, but these too are choices people make. Bad or hurtful choices, but choices nonetheless. One always has a choice to act against social evils like these: whether one remains silent or joins the protest against oppressive forces, it’s all a free choice. It’s your choice. No one escapes from freedom!!

According to what I have read, Birth Machine is a statement about overpopulation: every woman’s womb is essentially a loaded gun. If this power is abused it could be the death of everyone. With a woman’s choice to have lots of children comes consequences – on society, on the ecosystem, on the food chain, etc., and on the woman herself as well. In other words, her choice to have a large brood affects the freedoms of others and herself. I say ‘woman’ here because the idea of a gun with its chambers and barrel, the bullets resting inside all comfy, the bullets being babies … screams ‘womb’ to me. There are also a lot of feminine forms, female genitalia, or symbols of woman depicted in Giger’s art. Women are often depicted as sexual, sometimes maternal, but always strong. Giger’s Birth Machine in particular speaks to a woman’s freedom to choose not to have children. Populating the world is a choice, it is an exercise of freedom (most of the time, we won’t count rape here). In the very least, it is a warning, a call to control her fertility in ways that do not lead to the end of humankind. Once again, freedom and choices. Now, this freedom could not be realized without sperm, even if from a sperm bank some other (guy) had to deposit it in a cup, some nurse had to collect it, and some lady had to pose naked for a magazine, some company produced the hand lotion and the cup, and … you get the point. So, the freedom to procreate requires others, without them a woman could not make the free choice to embark on ‘project pregnant’. But this freedom to procreate also affects others, directly and indirectly – there is only so much food to eat and grow, water to drink, clean air, natural resources to use, only so many teachers, doctors, and so many vaccines. And I only have so much patience on the plane or in the store with screaming kids … So, maybe pop 1 bullet out instead of 4, 7, or 10 … and let’s keep the safety on, ladies!

Giger’s piece also speaks to the power women possess concerning life itself – the creation of it, sustaining it, and the freedom that life will possess after the baby is born. In this way, Giger’s art speaks to the machine post birth, so to speak. Children are more than bodies on the planet sucking up resources, they also grow up to become productive members of society. They affect change, and the choices they make affect others’ freedoms. This is a part of the risk of having children – odds are the same you can give birth to a future Hitler or a future Sister Theresa or a future accountant. This is part of the choice. So, your ‘bullet’ could grow up to destroy the world through her/his actions, not just by being one too many for the world to handle.

So, could we call Giger’s Birth Machine a feminist artwork? I’m not really sure. I want to say ‘yes’ because I think part of the message is about reproductive rights, and the power reproductive rights have. A woman able to control her reproduction is good for herself and the world. If the Catholic Church had its way, there would be no birth control and no abortion, and sex would only happen for the purpose of reproduction. This renders women as ‘guns without a safety’ (as well as purely baby factories), maybe even machine guns in some cases … rapid-firing all over. What comes to mind here is the ‘lady’ in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life who casually delivers a baby while doing the dishes, and has so many children that she must give them up for scientific experiments. However, this work of Giger’s is about the potential destructive power ‘creating life’ has, a message to everyone and for everyone – men and women. In this way, I want to say Giger’s Birth Machine is more than a feminist work – it is largely a social and political artwork, like Picasso’s Guernica or the framed pair of soiled panties I saw at his museum, upstairs in the personal art collection (the woman who wore them had been viciously raped). Sorry, I don’t remember who the artist was but the art left an impression on my psyche. But, instead of saying yes or no here, I think it’s best left up to the viewer to interpret. Gadamer would agree here.

Would Beauvoir have liked Giger’s Birth Machine? I think so, for many of the reasons I have stated here — Woman might be the second sex, the ‘other,’ but she’s got the power to create and to end life. Stick that in your fucking pipe and smoke it!

My Giger Birth Machine Tattoo


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