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MILK FEVER

Jesse May Fisher employs the moving image and photography for the exploration of madness in her family history. In this interview she provides us with the interpretive context for her project Milk Fever (a folk term for post-natal depression) and touches on the questions of the body, femininity and herbal medicine passed down through generations.
MILK FEVER 1

About Milk Fever

My current work focuses on the term milk fever, a folk diagnosis of post-natal depression from the 1950’s. It was thought that the milk, trapped in the breast of the mother, stagnated in the body and fevered the brain, resulting in madness. Passed down on the tongue of my  grandmother, milk fever evades physical documentation, existing as an oral history – a matrilineal mythology. My moving image work Milk Fever responds to the inherited story of my maternal great grandmother’s forty-year institutionalisation after the birth of her fourth child.

My research has taken the form of primary interviews with my grandmother and subsequent investigations into the term milk fever. However, my enquiries offered very few references to milk fever, nor a concrete definition, often referring to it interchangeably with mastitis or puerperal fever. Milk fever’s illegibility and existence through word of mouth echoes the silencing of women’s histories and embodied knowledge. Through my oral familial history, whilst adopting methodologies of autofictioning, I align my practice with subaltern modes of knowledge which counter the medical or anthropological archive.

I’m concerned with the boundaries between the psychic and somatic, the material and immaterial, the real and the imagined within the myth of milk fever. This obscurity, this sticky in-betweenness, provides an entry point for me to speculate and fabricate stories, mythologies and rituals.

What style influenced you the most at the beginning of your artistic journey? 

During my undergrad at LCC, I was influenced by documentary and portrait photographers like Rineke Dijkstra, Alessandra Sanguinetti and Hellen Van Meene. Their haunting and uncomfortable representations of the female adolescent body hypnotically hold the viewer’s gaze. I find myself getting lost in these images. I’m particularly interested in how they pose, manipulate and fictionalise the body of their subjects. In this way, they speak through the body – a corporeal language. Around the same time, I was also looking at painting and drawing. Egon Schiele speaks of trying to find a perfect position or posture of the body in order to communicate an emotion. I always strive to create images that operate in this way. 

I also think that my upbringing in rural Catholic Ireland, with the drama of the high rituals of mass – the prayer, the song, the stained glass, the paintings – all had an influence on my work and overall aesthetic.

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 How would you categorize your work?

With my background in photography, all of my work, even the moving image, leans heavily on a photographic aesthetic. A lot of my films are still framed with minimal action, which moves them away from traditional filmmaking. 

With every piece, I am trying to cultivate and grow my visual language. My work intersects within fashion, film, fine art and music videos. I enjoy working in all these different capacities and borrowing from each genre’s language. It is important that my work is not read exclusively in a fine art context.

I am also slowly beginning to consider myself as someone who can write. Although I find it a painful process, writing allows me to flesh out the intricacies of my research. When I’m in despair over how to finish something, I can usually write myself into clarity. In the case of my recent moving image work Milk Fever, writing is what entirely activated the work. 

What is the essential message you want to convey through image-making?

There is definitely a certain affect I am attempting to induce through my work, but I don’t feel there is an essential message. My work is more an exploration of the body, it’s thresholds and materiality. 

It will also depend on what I’m shooting. I photograph my sibling often, who is non-binary, and I’m interested in the tension between my gaze and their self-representation within the image. 

My eye naturally looks for femininity no matter the gender of the person I’m photographing. My sibling will resist this or, after the images have been developed,  they are surprised at how femme they look in the image. I guess this is photography’s trickery and magic. It speaks to the power dynamics between photographer and subject and the ability for the image to obscure and manipulate. The camera can become a conduit for shapeshifting.

Suspiria

Our bodies are the only things we truly own throughout our lives. So what does the body mean for you in your work?

Perhaps this is true but it’s hard to feel like we have autonomy over our bodies when we lack ultimate control over what our bodies absorb, inhale or ingest. Chemicals and carcinogens in the water, soil and air infiltrate us and become a part of the fabric of our cells and tissue, linking us, willing or not, to the political environments in which our bodies move through. 

In the same breath, this way of seeing our bodies is quite beautiful.  The body is not a sealed, hermetic vessel, but an amorphous, porous entity, constantly absorbing, spilling, shifting, regenerating, decaying, shedding, extending out, merging and connecting to other bodies and landscapes. I think a lot about how our bodies are connected to water and therefore each other, and basically everything on this earth, in the sense that there is only a certain amount of water on the planet, and it flows through all of us in a cyclical movement, entangling us all together.

I’m interested in the boundaries of the body. Where one body stops and another starts. I guess this is why the theme of motherhood, birth and breast milk have been my focus in recent years. 

A folk diagnosis of postnatal depression initiated your latest project and is based on your grandmother’s interviews. Can you tell us more about your research and the process of creating the video Milk Fever?

I was always aware of what had happened to my great grandmother. I knew she went mad after the birth of her fourth child and was admitted to an asylum where she spent the rest of her life. Her story was a ghost story that served as a matrilineal warning to me. It wasn’t until a few years ago, through a conversation with my grandmother, that she taught me of the phrase milk fever in reference to postnatal depression. This ignited something in me. The words, from there, became  lodged inside me. A double haunting. 

As I interviewed my grandmother about her mother, she explained that in the 1950’s within her community in Newcastle, UK, postpartum insanity was sometimes thought to be caused by milk that went bad inside the breast of the mother which then stagnated in the body and fevered the brain. As I searched for more information on the term, I realised that neither a formal nor concrete definition existed. Milk fever was often used in relation to cow illnesses or, when in reference to the female human body, it was interchanged with mastitis or puerperal fever. I initially felt insecure about this aspect of my project. I thought I needed the bolstering of fact, archive and physical documentation to continue. 

Milk fever’s illegibility and existence through word of mouth echoes the silencing of women’s histories and embodied knowledge. From this point, I traced parallels between the witch hunts in medieval Europe and my great grandmother’s experience of supposed maternal madness. Clandestine information, such as knowing which herbs could stimulate a miscarriage, was passed down orally from mother to daughter, and for this reason we can assume much lost knowledge during the female genocide of the 16th to 18th centuries. The significance of the dissemination of verbal wisdom galvanized my research. My film Milk Fever is born of the resistance to disregard subaltern modes of knowledge, such as oral histories, particularly between women.

Gaze

Your source of inspiration is rich, personal and with many narratives behind it. You are concerned with the boundaries between the psychic and somatic, the material and immaterial, the real and the imagined. Can you tell us more about the visual part of the video? Why did you choose to illustrate the story/message about Milk Fever without emotions and with a dark colour palette? Is it again a game with duality in your work? 

Through performing the text, I am trying to emulate a trance-like delivery, in the same way that the close-up textures of fluids and herbs being slowly rubbed onto the skin attempt a form of visual hypnosis. 

Duality is a recurring feature within my work. I’m interested in what happens in the in-between sections. Not being unable to touch the ‘truth’ of the mythology of milk fever allows space for things to grow within the thresholds. The text for Milk Fever germinated in one of these cracks. By leaning into fiction through writing, I was also able to create some distance between my very real familial story and this piece of art that I was making. 

As for the dark aesthetic, I see Milk Fever existing in a oneiric, non-linear, and cyclical space (the film is supposed to be showcased physically on a loop). By having the speaker become possessed with this fevered maternal body and then give birth to her, I wanted to mark the reverberation of this history into the present  and close the gap between my body and the body of my great grandmother. 

BIO / Jesse May Fisher is an artist working primarily with the moving image, photography and text. She explores the female body as a site of pathology, abjection, seduction and healing, sublimating histories of trauma and oppression through images of ecstasy and sensuality. Her practice continuously enquires into the body and its internal landscapes and thresholds.

Jesse lives and works in London. She has just completed an MA in Contemporary Art Practice at the Royal College of Art. Her work has been published in Dazed, Hunger, Sabat Magazine, Suspiria Magazine and Aesthetica, and has been exhibited at Moving Image Artists and SISSI Club, Marseille. Jesse is a part of Artemisia, an artists’ collective whose work intersects within mythology, ritual, healing and embodied feminine knowledge. 

https://jessemayfisher.cargo.site/

CREDITS for Milk Fever video 

Writer/director: Jesse May Fisher  @jessemayfisher

Talent: Lara Mc Grath & Sanna Kelly

Cinematographer: Michael Hobdell

Hair Stylist: Pål Berdahl 

Hair assistant: Pia Maria

Make up: Mee Kee

Music: Arthur Taylor 

Colourist: Ollie Cartlidge

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