Source: Vanity Fair
A box of Plan B. A pack of birth control pills. A bottle of Truvada. A condom. Now, sequester these products behind glass vitrines, à la a Mike Penceian fever dream, and you will have the makings of the equal parts unsettling and hyper-relevant installation on display at the Gallery at Ace Hotel New York, beginning Tuesday through April 30. Welcome to the Museum of Banned Objects.
With reproductive rights under siege in more surreptitious ways than ever before, the new installation—the brainchild of emerging young artist duo Ellie Sachs, 25, and Matt Starr, 29—envisions a particularly chilling scenario. Sachs and Starr, who teamed up nearly a year and a half ago, sought to construct a dystopian art space for their latest collaboration. But in this future, reproductive and contraceptive products have been officially banned and are no longer in circulation (thus the use of past tense on the accompanying placards).
The creators said that the amped-up attacks on reproductive health that have unfolded since week one of the Trump presidency have lent their initial conversations, around this collaboration, a palpable urgency. As Sachs told Vanity Fair by phone in the week leading up to the opening, there was not necessarily one moment or incident that inspired the installation, but rather “a lot of stuff building up over time.” (Among several policy decisions made in the past year, the Trump administration decided to roll back the ObamaCare requirement that employers include birth-control coverage in their health-insurance plans, as well as to defund the United Nations Population Fund, a global maternal-health organization that provides contraception and pregnancy care to low-income women in 150 countries.) “For us, the moment that science becomes relative—that’s a really terrifying thing,” Sachs said. “From there, we were talking and thinking about what other things could be banned or risked being shuttered. And of course, Planned Parenthood and birth control came to mind.”
Through the “Museum of Banned Objects,” Sachs and Starr hope to recontextualize products that people use on a daily basis by placing them in glass enclosures, fully removed from the proverbial bedside drawer. From an artistic standpoint, “We wanted them to vary visually,” Starr said, “so it wasn’t just the same products over and over again.” They also thought critically about choosing the products for maximum inclusivity and engaging people—gay and bisexual men, transgender women, and heterosexual men and women—across communities. “These products and objects—they’re a big part of peoples’ lives,” Starr said, “and sometimes they’re easy to take for granted.”
In terms of bringing Planned Parenthood on board as a collaborator, Sachs and Starr explained that they want this installation to stretch beyond thinking about these products in a new light—the key lies in figuring out how to protect people’s access to them now. “Planned Parenthood is at the forefront in terms of sex education and advocacy. We didn’t want this installation to just exist in a vacuum,” Sachs said, noting that their collaboration "puts this installation in a totally different context; instead of it just being this imagined, potential, scary future, it reminds the viewer that this stuff is actually happening.”
For Kelly Sawdon, partner and chief brand officer of Ace Hotel Group, bringing this installation to their New York property felt like a particularly relevant addition to the ongoing discourse around reproductive rights. In an e-mail to Vanity Fair, Sawdon wrote, “Being a site for the intersection of art and community is one of the reasons we feel lucky to collaborate with artists who are keen and creative observers of past, present, and unknown futures.” She also considers Planned Parenthood’s mission to be in alignment with the Ace, calling it “a shining example of compassion and empathy, the core tenants of hospitality.”
The artists are confident that the hybrid hotel-slash-gallery will serve as the ideal space to present this installation to the diverse cross-section of New Yorkers and tourists that steps through its doors each day. Speaking of the vast lobby area at the heart of the hotel, Sachs said, “it just engages people in such a great way in terms of talking and conversing. . . . Our hope with this is that people genuinely engage—not just that they’re talking about it, but really engaging in a meaningful way: taking action, getting involved, volunteering, [and] learning more about Planned Parenthood.” For Starr, who boasts a social-media savvy given his background in creating viral Internet sensations like “Babycore” and “Amazon Boy,” that engagement can be as straightforward as sharing an Instagram post: “We want people to take out their cellular device, open the camera, take a picture, and post to social media with the caption in big letters, ‘Please don’t let the Museum of Banned Objects become a real thing. #PlannedParenthood.’”
Sachs and Starr are no strangers to shaking up societal norms through their artistic collaborations. Most recently, they created a 30-minute short called My Annie Hall, whose cast is comprised of seniors at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, in an attempt to combat pervasive stereotypes about actors of a certain age. In addition, they regularly stage black-tie, potluck dinner parties at Whole Foods, in another attempt to disrupt quotidian spaces and reconsider what we think we know about them. And Sachs has even directed plays in maximum-security prisons, which originally inspired Starr to reach out to her. “A lot of what we do is politically charged,” Starr said. “We try to use humor as a means of access, because it’s intrinsic.” Although, he added, “the humor is more subtle here than in some of our other pieces.”
Ultimately, the pair would like this installation to travel beyond the New York bubble, and potentially to other Ace properties. Imagine, Sachs wondered, what this would look like if it was being shown in a more conservative space, in a more conservative city? What would the “Museum of Banned Objects” mean to people who are actively working to ban those objects? “It would imbue this with a whole new meaning,” she said.
As the pair prepares for their opening reception on April 5, Starr compared the thesis of the “Museum” to The Terminator. “Not in the Schwarzenegger sense,” he clarified, “but in terms of the movie itself and the story. Instead of going back in time, we’re going to the future to show you what the world will be like—and here’s our chance to possibly prevent that. Ultimately, we’re creating a reality in order to avoid anotherreality.”