Issue 8 / Bodies

August 03, 2019
A person reaches into a river.

Water sampling in Madrid to look for estrogenic pollution, part of Mary Maggic’s Open Source Estrogen project.

Toxicity is Never Consensual: Mary Maggic on Open Source Hormones

For the last four years, Mary Maggic has been making freak science performance art videos and hosting do-it-with-others workshops about hormones. One of Maggic’s central questions is: why is it normal for capitalism to poison our bodies with xenoestrogens—a chemical compound found in plastics and pesticides—without our consent, but trans bodies who want to choose estrogen are policed every step of the way?

Their video “Housewives Making Drugs” opens in our current world, with two trans women lamenting the hoops they had to jump through to access estrogen before their health insurance stopped covering it altogether: transphobic doctors, body exams, notes from therapists. When one woman wonders aloud, “I wish there was a way to get hormones without a prescription,” the viewer is transported to another world populated by fabulous trans biohackers who host an estrogen-making cooking show.

We sat down with Mary to hear more about what’s real and what’s fictional about sex, gender, and hormone hacking.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up, study, develop your interests? How did you come to want to work on open source hormones?

I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles, which has the densest population of Chinese inhabitants in all the US. From early on I already loved both biology and visual art, and chose to study both as a combined degree at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. I was very lucky to get exposed to “bioart” as a self-aware practice through one of my professors Rich Pell who taught a course called Post Natural Studio. 

After graduating, I began an amateur documentary project, filming interviews with other bioartists and biohackers. Critical Art Ensemble and subRosa were very influential for me because their projects demonstrate how biology and biotechnology could be used for social and political resistance. In 2014, the documentary project led me to Yogyakarta, Indonesia where I met a much more subversive group of practitioners in the global Hackteria community, such as noise artists, fermenters, and of course the Transhackfeminists, who were making DIY sex toys and performing DIY gynecology. Following this trajectory of do-it-together science, critical hacking, and its possible “emancipatory potential” I think it was only logical that I would stumble across open source hormones. 

What were your most important sources of inspiration? 

My sources of inspiration for the Open Source Estrogen project are plenty: 

  1. Paul B. Preciado and his book Testo Junkie, where he outlines the meaning of the “pharmapornographic regime” that governs our subjectivities especially in relation to gender, sexuality, and reproduction.

  2. Anne Fausto-Sterling whose writing fights static notions of gender and the body.

  3. Giovanna di Chiro and her paper on “polluted politics,” which made me aware of how cultural dialogue manifests around something like hormone disruption.

  4. Heather Davies and her writing on “the Plastisphere,” which brilliantly outlines the symbolic and the material of plastic as a queering potential.

  5. Legacy Russell on “Glitch Feminism” and the idea that bodies could “glitch” and resist traditional binary code.

  6. Laboria Cuboniks on “Xenofeminism”: “If nature is unjust then change nature!” 

  7. Astrida Neimanis’s essay “Hydrofeminism: Or, On Becoming a Body of Water.”

My sources are quite broad because the project is not a finite and finished one, but rather an open framework for addressing the multiple layers of the molecular colonization that currently traps us and the planet in a collective mutagenesis — mutation to our bodies, sex, gender, fellow non-humans, and environment. 

How did you start to work on your open source estrogen project? What materials did you need? What kinds of collaborators, if any? 

Initially I collaborated with a Canadian artist Byron Rich who introduced me to the possibility of an open source birth control pill that contains primarily estrogen or progesterone. Although we are far away from an open source platform for producing hormones, through this journey I was able to form collaborations with many others in the open source community, such as Paula Pin from Transhackfeminists and Gynepunk Lab; Ryan Hammond, who is working on Open Source Gendercodes; Spela Petric, who I collaborate with in a collective called Aliens in Green; and most recently with the Lifepatch citizen initiative based in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where we investigate various strategies for addressing the most polluted river in the city. The materials of our bio hack sessions are usually low-cost and easy to find, and have ranged from transgenic yeast biosensors to silica gel, urine, cigarette filters, methanol, plastic, and of course, hormones. 

Why estrogen, in particular? Are you working on other hormones, or would you consider doing so?

Estrogen is interesting because not only does it code for our social and cultural ideas of “femininity” and regulate so much of our basic endocrine function in the body (for example, reproductive development, mood, and metabolism), but it can also be mimicked by hundreds of other toxic industrial molecules of our late capitalist efforts, molecules we call “xenoestrogens.” 

Some popular examples of these molecules are plastics — BPA and phthalates — synthetic hormones, PCBs, dioxins, pesticides, and soaps. For decades since the 1930s, these molecules have caused much of what Rob Nixon called the “slow violence”: environmental degradation and the marginalization of bodies and communities. There have been severe population declines in certain marine vertebrates because they can no longer reproduce, and humans as well are directly affected. The question is how our cultural notions of sex, gender, and reproduction will shift if we are surrounded by molecules that mutate our bodies and physiology. Ultimately this is an issue of body sovereignty and agency. Toxicity is never consensual! 

What materials does a person need to make open source estrogen? How much knowledge of chemistry, and how much of code?

It is currently out of reach for the average citizen to make estrogen in the kitchen. But even if it were possible, there are many risks involved with dosage and purity. Nonetheless I collaborated with two trans-femme artists, Jade Phoenix and Jade Renegade, and the production team Orgasmic Creative to make the short film Housewives Making Drugs, a speculative fiction piece that performs a urine-hormone extraction protocol as a way to make DIY hormones for you and your trans community. 

Although based in both fiction and in reality — the protocol originates from some of my estrogen geeking sessions where we extract hormones from the urine by a column chromatography method using cigarette filters, silica gel, and methanol — I wanted to show the possibility that we can create alternative pathways to access our own health, especially as marginalized people who don’t usually have a voice in the scientific or medical community. At the same time, the film shouldn’t take away from the already long and enormous efforts by the LGTBQ community for gaining greater access to hormone therapies.

What are the social or political obstacles to such a project? What are the social and political reasons to undertake it? How do you see your work on open source hormones in the current environment, in the US or elsewhere?

The obstacles for open source hormones are plenty, the primary one being the science, since it’s currently not possible at the citizen level. I think the artist Ryan Hammond may be the closest example, since they are currently developing transgenic yeast or tobacco plants to be biofactories for hormones, which are organisms that are easy to cultivate and share once they can be properly engineered. But I hope Ryan doesn’t run into a patent or copyright infringement battle with larger pharmaceutical companies — it would be stupid of them to go after a sole independent artist. 

As for my own work on open source hormones, my practice exists primarily as “workshopology” with the public. Now I’m on a ten-month Fulbright scholarship in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where I’m collaborating with the Lifepatch citizen initiative and Gadjah Mada University, focusing on environmental hormones (xenoestrogens) in the Code River, and how we can form strategies for manufacturing embodied affect in the local citizens who live intimately with the river. 

I think working in open source doesn’t always have to produce a practical result. It can also be used as a discursive exercise for generating new subjectivities. I think it’s great that with hormone hacking protocols, we can open up the cultural discussion about sex and gender — what is female and male — and how has molecular colonization also extended to our social ideologies of (eco)heteronormativity, the idea that nature also follows rules of purity and male-female reproduction. We can hack the hormones themselves, but it’s equally interesting to hack our social ideologies that are related to hormones. These are all deeply entrenched and subconscious notions, when you look at something like the gender binary. Bringing them to surface, like the way we do with detecting hormones in the local river, is what I try to strive for.

This piece appears in Logic's issue 8, "Bodies". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.