Period Piece: telling menstrual tales

Dr Alana Harris is a Lecturer in Modern British History at King’s College London. From the 7th to the 13th November she will be based in the Haemotel on Collingwood Street, ready to greet visitors to Period Piece, an audio-visual installation which brings to life the internal rhythms often hidden by secrecy and taboo.

Here she tells us about Period Piece, and gives us an insight into what to expect…

Most of us who came to sexual maturity as women have ‘first period’ stories. Situated in the context of the awkwardness and painful self-consciousness of early adolescence, these are often shrouded in acute embarrassment, feelings of bewilderment and recollections of discomforting sex-ed conversations with parents and teachers. For me, the ‘arrival’ of my first period came at one of the most inopportune moments: a school camp in the Aussie bush in circumstances that meant it did not remain a private affair for long. Even now, I slightly squirm remembering.

Our new audio-visual installation, Period Piece, explores this same fraught and freighted emotional landscape – seeking to break the stigma and taboo that, for some, still surrounds the discussion of women’s menstruation, fertility and contraception.

3D image rendering for Period Piece installation, by Nestor Pestana
3D image rendering from Period Piece installation, by Nestor Pestana

It stems from my research interests, as a historian of sexuality and religion, from the debates around the morality and medical safety of the ‘pill’ in the 1960s through to the intriguing developments in contraceptive technology now with the invention of period tracker apps. Are young women today – and perhaps even their male friends – more confident in their conversations about women’s health? How well do we understand, even now, the cyclical patterns and biometric indicators of our fertility? What implications would better knowledge have for our contraceptive choices?

The creative process behind Period Piece has helped us to investigate these questions – not only in responses to the installation itself, but also in the creative process of putting it together. The music, which Ion Marmarinos has written and Steph Bickford-Smith has animated, is based on four women’s menstrual cycles – one of which is mine. Every morning, on waking, I put a thermometer in my mouth (to take my basal body temperature or BBT) and charted my temperature on a piece of graph paper. Other collaborators did the same and fed this data into their phone apps.

In all women, their BTT fluctuates depending on where we are in our cycle and our lifestyles (sleeping patterns, stress, alcohol consumption etc.). When women ovulate, our BBT goes up by 0.5 to 1.0 degree – unless we are not ovulating, through (for example) the use of hormonal contraception or with the onset of menopause. For the four of us in involved in ‘data collection’, our BBT lines were different and highly subjective – and Ion ‘translated’ the ebb and flow of these interior rhythms into musical notes, harmonies and cadences. The music presents four women’s ‘period pieces’ – but equally it could be that of one woman, ‘everywoman’, at different stages in the lifecycle.

Our experience recording our BTTs for a month led to fascinating conversations about our varied cycles, their visualization and the musical notation. Period tracker apps offer millions of young women a similar opportunity to tell their own ‘period tales’, chart their monthly cycles and explore varied ways of regulating their fertility.

In the research I have done around Period Piece, and the conversations it has stimulated, there is a new preparedness to debate and discuss new forms of fertility tracking and contraception. It seems to me that the ubiquitous nature of these apps on our phones and in plain view is facilitating more frank and better-informed conversations amongst women (and men) about our bodies, blood, and the nature of our embodied lives.