Author: Ruthie Jenrbekova, on behalf of Krёlex zentre, 2021
Krёlex zentre is an imaginary art institution that doesn’t exist in reality, which is not completely true given the imaginary character of the reality itself. Our small collective is engaged in the production of all kinds of cultural events and artifacts, working in the grey area known as “intermedia”. Six years ago we produced a video called Layer that was shown in the framework of the Queer Asia roundtable on July 9, 2021. This video tells a story of a human-like creature who lays eggs once per lunar month. Despite of the seemingly fictional plot, this creature does exist in reality, or better say, in corporeality of Kazakhstani artist Ruthia Jenrbekova. This fact caused some controversy after the video was shown at the Flaherty Film Seminar in NYC (in Queer Transitions program, February 2016) and International Film Festival in Bratislava (2018).
As most of our works, Layer was a commission by Krёlex zentre, the agency I’ve been working for since around 2011, whose values I share and whose goals strangely coincide with my own personal artistic mission. My work as zentre’s employee is related to studies of various life forms—biological, psychic, cultural, and so forth. This research is a collective activity, implying that all parties could benefit from the mutually generated knowledge. We believe that such reciprocal research driven by genuine interest and compassion is the key for sustainable co-evolution of different life forms. An important aspect of this work is connected to the notion of “alterity” or “otherness”. In human societies “otherness” can be constructed on the basis of various classification criteria, such as skin color, language, income, age and so on. One of the important criteria is the reproductive system design. In humans, there are two major types of reproductive systems. These two types are used as the basis for quasi-universal division of human population into two large classes: men and women. Our film Layer was made to introduce another reproductive class — oviparous people — in order to test a new situation. We wanted to find out what kind of cultural interpretations and possible new meanings this simple ‘fact of nature’ may acquire? Our intention was to expand the queer diversity a little further, exploring new possible forms of human reproduction. We seem to agree that diversity is a key value and we’re accustomed to the idea that some societies are more homogenous than others, but what do we consider a standard of heterogeneity? Perhaps, an example of the society that is ‘truly’ heterogeneous is the planet’s Biosphere. Against the background of the diversity of sexual and asexual reproduction in nature, our own queer diversity looks somewhat poor and miserable. But even so, we encounter obstacles in our attempts at recognition and acceptance.
Layer was made as an amateur home video filmed on consumer-grade cameras to achieve a guerilla documentary-like effect, enhancing the perceived credibility of the story. The main character named Ruth is almost indistinguishable from one of the film’s creators, artist Ruthia Jenrbekova. In one of the key scenes where Ruth lays eggs her body is depicted in a very explicit manner, evoking a shuddering, visceral feeling. The “otherness” of her bodily functions is expressed as a biological reality, rather than choice, although she tries to frame her egg-laying practice within the rhetoric of “reproductive rights”. Not only does she lays eggs—she lays claims to her own body, no matter how alien it may seem or feel. Nevertheless, it is worth noticing that laying eggs instead of menstruating was in fact a kind of conscious decision on her part, the responsibility for which should be borne by the artist herself. The truth about Layer is that its main character was not “born this way”, as she probably wants to convince the viewer. This appeal to nature and biology was made rather as a standard LGBT+ argument that proved to be the most convincing in discussions with conservative public. But in case of Layer this strategy failed and even made things worse: we received a lot of criticism from both conservative and feminist circles, involving accusations in obscenity, appropriation of female experience and using of pornographic tropes. That’s why the egg-laying scene was remade in 2018, but apparently, this little amendment didn’t really help. This is the reason why Layer is not shown anymore, although it still serves as an example of the so-called “radical unreal”, following remarkable lines of argumentation set out by scholar and artist Toby Lee in the eponymous article in the Film Quarterly journal (Volume 74, Issue 4, Summer 2021). As for the real factors that caused Ruth’s body to develop new organs — ovaries, oviduct and ovipositor — this story still awaits an opportunity to be told.