Surrogate – Bodily autonomy at the age of rapidly developing reproductive technologies

Created by Lauren Lee McCarthy, Surrogate is a body of work centred around issues of reproductive technology and bodily autonomy.

As Roe v. Wade is overturned (landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court) and gene editing opens entirely new reproductive futures, the project asks: How much control should we have over a birthing person’s body, and over a life before it’s born? What does kin mean when rapidly developing reproductive technologies—including IVF, egg and sperm donation, embryo freezing, DNA testing, and gene editing—shift our relationships? What happens when our industrialized drive for control collides with the process of birth?

The Surrogate project began with Lauren offering herself in a 40 week performance where she would serve as a gestational surrogate for a parent who would have an app to monitor and control her 24/7. What she eat, what she does, what thoughts she meditates on, and more. The parent would have complete control over her body in which their baby is growing. What began as a speculative proposal became real when a close friend of Lauren communicated her desire to enact this with her.

This deeply personal work offers my body as physical, emotional, and conceptual surrogate for understanding reproduction and technology’s role in it. The act of becoming a remote control surrogate serves as a metaphor for the control we may soon hold through processes of genetic engineering, as well as the immediate infringement on our bodily autonomy enacted by the legislation of reproductive rights worldwide.

Lauren Lee McCarthy

Through an intense process working with doctors, psychologists, fertility specialists, surrogates, doulas, midwives, and geneticists, Lauren and Dorothy have produced a series of physical and performative inputs and outputs to engage/provoke and create conversations about the topic. This process involved creating the Surrogate app, searching sperm donor databases, completing psychological evaluations and health exams, freezing embryos, talking with family and even though the project is still in progress, it yields an impressive documentation, comprised of softwares, films, sculptures, installations, publications, and live performances.

The Surrogate iOS App consists of a parent and surrogate version. For the surrogate, the app syncs with an Apple Watch to automatically track data including heart rate, sleep, physical activity and step count, as well as self reported data including mood, meals, water intake and weight. A calendar feature allows the parent to view the surrogate’s calendar and schedule activities, tasks, and meals. A snapshot feature enables the parent to request a current snapshot, allowing them to view the surrogate’s immediate environment. A message feature enables and documents parent and surrogate conversation over the course of the pregnancy. A notes feature allows both to privately record their thoughts throughout the process. The visual design of the app references a digital notebook, departing from the slick tech aesthetic of current life tracking apps. While the app and performance began with a provocation of extreme control and surveillance, through the development process, the app became a tool for understanding an evolving and nuanced relationship.

The iOS app was made with Swift, making use of HealthKitl, EventKit, and Watch Connectivity framework. A Firebase server connects the parent and surrogate apps.

Womb Walk is a (training) prosthetic, a virtual baby, describing everything Lauren sees. The ‘future parent’ remotely join the walk as baby, listening to her voice. They can control her movements through an app, triggering small internal kicks to the sides of her belly, directing her when to turn. Together, the participant and artist navigate the city, with imagined baby as interface. This custom fabricated prosthetic belly contained a Raspberry Pi and motors, receiving the kick signals and transmit them as vibrations to the sides of the belly. Raspberry Pi uses Python, Flask, ngrok, and the Motor Driver HAT to control the servos.

Project Page | Lauren Lee McCarthy

Credits: Dorothy R. Santos (Collaborator), Gabriel Noguez (Cinematography), David Leonard (Intended Parents Film, Director), Stefanie Tam (Surrogate App, Design), Paul Esposito (Prosthetics, Design and Fabrication), Eunice Choi (Placenta, Design and Fabrication). A Creative Capital project, supported by Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Story Lab, and a Pioneer Works Tech Residency.