Panning for Gold

Cross posted at Fukshot
Marlene says:

I’m starting work on a new project and I plan to share some of my process here form time to time. I expect this project to take a while, maybe a year but I’m just guessing. This is the first installment.

I intend to make estrogen pills. I’ll probably only make a couple of pills, but the art is in the making rather than the pills themselves. Estrogen pills aren’t all that special otherwise. The bottom of my purse is littered with them.

One of the first commercial preparations of estrogen in a pill was Premarin, which is composed of a mixture of conjugated estrogens isolated from the urine of pregnant mares. That’s where the name comes from; PREgnant MARe urINe. Initially marketed in the 1940s, the drug development work was done in the 1930s and based in science that goes as far back as the turn of the 20th century. Premarin was the first estrogen I was prescribed in the 1990s, but has largely been replaced among trans women with estradiol, which is cheaper and seems to have a lower incidence of depression as a side effect.

Here’s where the art in my project will begin to become apparent. I will not be collecting the urine of pregnant mares. I will be collecting the urine of trans women on estrogen regimens. Otherwise, as far as applicable (lots of research to do here), I will be duplicating the isolation and purification processes developed in the 1930s for Premarin.

There are many independent pieces of this project that will be presented in various ways. There will be lab notebooks. There will be photo and film documentation of the various chemistry work. I am enlisting the help of a friend who is an analytical chemist, to determine the purity and composition of the final product. I will be asking the trans women who donate urine to write or otherwise express their thoughts and feelings about the whole endeavor (likely in a dedicated separate blog for the project). I might publish an instruction manual for anyone who would like to duplicate my work. In my wildest fantasies, I would be able to make enough pills that I could switch them for the pills I currently take for a week or a month or whatever. It might be even better to make pills that could be the first week or month worth of estrogen for a trans woman starting transition.

There are implications to all of these things. A trans woman starting transition by taking estrogen derived from the bodies of other trans women is an especially powerful possibility, with resonances in community and politics and biology.

The visual record of the work is open to many possibilities. I can decide not only how to record the work, but what the work will look like for the sake of recording. Will I work with plastic buckets from the hardware store and solvents from a paint store? Will it look like a meth lab? Will I use fancy kitchen implements? Will it be done in a proper laboratory? Will it be presented as a corny Ask Ms Science educational program? Will it be presented as though it were found footage of a clandestine bomb-making workshop? If I publish a how-to, will it be a scholarly work or the Tranarchist’s Cookbook?

With all of these possibilities and layers, the one thing that is clear to me is that the process is the most exciting part of this. I generally work (in any medium) in a way that presents a polished complete product, that seems to have been born that way. This project is very different for me. Because of that, I have chosen to share from the beginning. I hope some of you will have as much fun following along as I will in the doing of it.

I will be the executive of this project, but neither the only hands nor the only mind. It is common in the art world for someone in my position to take full authorship. I do not intend to. This feels like something bigger than that. In that spirit, I would like to thank Jerome Reyes for the title, Panning for Gold. Jerome is an accomplished artist who has done some amazing social practice work and has already been invaluable help in the early brainstorming portion of this project.

2 thoughts on “Panning for Gold

  1. This is an interesting art project, but I’d like to suggest a companion project of refining estrogen from cis-women on birth control pills.

    The problem I’m worried about is that trans-women will be demonized for polluting our water supplies. Cis-women taking hormones are more of a problem simply because there are so many more of them.

    I understand that you are probably thinking about the powerful effect this art project will have on trans-women. I’ve actually been worried about the effects of drugs in our sewage system and water supply for some time.

    And part of me is going, “You can do that? Outside of a commercial lab? Wow!”

  2. Vicki,

    I too am concerned about drug related water pollution. The levels of estrogen in the urine of people taking birth control pills to avoid pregnancy are actually similar to those of people who are pregnant. Trans women’s levels are likely similar or lower. There is a fairly wide variety in the estrogen regimens that trans women use.

    While I do not doubt that there is likely a systemic impact from urine borne estrogen, the greatest cause of drug related water contamination is the result of flushing as a disposal method for unused drugs, as I understand it. This is especially problematic in the case of antibiotics.

    Your “Wow” response is exactly why any possible expansion of the project will have to be secondary. I am fortunate to have some access to equipment that is generally only available in industrial laboratory settings, but the initial scope of this project is ambitious even with those resources. Some of this project, on the other hand, can be done with equipment and materials easily obtained at the hardware store.

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