Ex/Changing Families

Ex/Changing Families, a collaborative installation about adoption by Carol Flax and Ann Fessler, renders the places that both tantalize and haunt the lives of the artists. More specifically, the artists combine installation art, found photographs, video and a site on the World Wide Web to explore how personal history and identity function as social formations that inform their lives as adopted daughters. Whereas Flax is chiefly concerned with adopted children's pre-adoption fantasies and the discourses that inform how those fantasies are understood, Fessler's interest is focused upon understanding her own adoptive family.

The piece was installed twice, at California Museum of Photography in 1997 and the McKinney Avenue Contemporary in 1998. In both cases, the museum space was transformed into discrete rooms each representing an emotionally charged space--the Waiting room (for fathers waiting for their children to be born, for adoptees waiting for information about their birth parents), the Nursery/Orphanage (the home of the child awaiting adoption) and the Living Room (the place that adoptees live). The exhibition included a community outreach component and a space for a community installation to be called the Mail Room. The Waiting Room and the Mail Room were the joint creations of the artists. By contrast, the Nursery/Orphanage and the Living Room are the individual creations of Flax and Fessler, respectively.

In response to the artist's wonder at a society that contradictorily bandies about such loaded terms as "out of wedlock" and "illegitimate", while it simultaneously leaves women and children the victims of poverty and neglect, sensationalizes the discussion of adoption on tabloid television and attempts to criminalize abortion, Carol Flax imagines what she terms the "institution". Flax describes her vision as "Dickensian and bleak". In contradistinction to her experience as the happy child of loving and supportive adoptive parents, in response to the fears and fantasies engendered by the more negative discourses surrounding adoption, Flax creates what she describes as the "home of the unwanted child, the child for which society has no place". The Nursery/Orphanage presents an environment dominated by cold, steel, institutional style cribs. Images of animals that are neither warm nor fuzzy are painted directly onto the walls or contained within "framed, slightly amiss, portraits". Text panels explain the actual and emotional cost of adoption and a low-level sound track blends the voices of the institution, the voices of the society that feeds it and the voices of the (mostly) women and children who are both present and absent in the this scene. As viewers move through the installation, they trigger sensors which affect the audio. By entering into the space, visitors alter the site's audio environment, not only for themselves, but also for each other.

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