With new films released daily throughout July, we spoke to visual artist and performer Carolyn Defrin about her latest project 28 Days Greater, finding empowerment in periods and the link between narrative and the menstrual cycle.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I make work across the performing and visual arts as a writer, director, performer, and producer. Originally from the US, with an early career in Chicago ensemble theatre, I’ve been based in London since 2012. For the last few years, I have focused on creating multimedia projects drawn from interviews with people about social issues. From housing and migration to social-political identities- my work centres less heard stories and strives to do that in a visually intriguing and accessible way.
And what made you want to create28 Days Greater?
Right before the pandemic I was reading the trending literature around period power. After 25 years of having a period, I never once considered it to be positive, let alone empowering. As I learn more about the menstrual cycle, I feel I am uncovering a secret female code that holds insight not only for living a healthier life personally, but for re-imagining leadership, power and creativity on a public scale. What if the cycle were revered for all it has to offer, rather than shamed or begrudged? There are obvious connections between the menstrual cycle and other natural cycles i.e.: day and night, the four seasons. With 28 Days Greater, I wanted to artistically express the possibilities for leaning into the value of each temporary state of being- as a mode to resist the suffocating narrative of constant/consistent production no matter the cost.
And purely from an artistic point, I was curious about what the dramaturgy of the menstrual cycle could offer in terms of a narrative (and non-narrative) structure. In what ways could it reveal a departure from more patriarchal ways of making art that are, of course, ingrained in me?
Can you tell us about your research process and the experience of working with the people you interviewed?
Inspired by the books ‘Wild Power’ (by Pope and Wurlitzer) and ‘Period Power’ (by Maisie Hill), I’ve spent the last year writing in response to my own menstrual cycle. Journaling and writing poetry then led to a process of collating and designing images and beginning an artistic collaboration with the incredible filmmaker Rosie Powell. Along the way, I interviewed 28 people across gender, age and life experience about their relationships to menstruation, cycles and power. These interviews were particularly insightful in terms of finding alignments with my own thinking and provoking new images and ideas for the films.
Film 23 (rage) is inspired by a conversation I had with a young woman who felt most powerful in her own rage. She shared how she is learning to slow down with it in order to truly be able to articulate and express it. Her wisdom conjured the image for that film, which Rosie then edited into a mesmerising mirrored meditation. The combination of that conversation with our artistic composition helps me understand how these films are aspirational. I’m learning to slow down my own rage, but I’m not always (and often not!) there.
Film 26 (trace) emerged from an interview I had with a woman who is now post-menopausal. She talked about the relationship between making art and ovulating. As she approaches the potential of retiring, she wonders when will be her last project? When will you know it’s your last egg?
Film 27 (return) is inspired by two interviews: one with my mother and one with a trans artist. Growing up in 1950s America, my mother was taught to never talk about periods. The extent of her education on the subject was being handed a brochure with a young, pouting girl on the front. Only recently (at age 75) has she considered that periods are a metaphoric restart each month. She shared a longing to go back and relive her menstruating years with that powerful idea—or at least to pass that notion onto her granddaughter. And in speaking with a transwoman about her experiences with hormone therapy, she illuminated how puberty and menopause have happened on a completely different timeline than society deems ‘normal.’ I was particularly struck by the beauty and power that can become possible if we listen in to our true timelines and live by those- rather than the linear ones that have been placed on us.
I could probably write an essay about each film- but the point is that each one illuminates an aspect of humanity through the lens of the menstrual cycle. Whether people menstruate or not, we move through so many different states all the time. Our bodies and the natural world signal the need to listen to each of them.
Have there been any surprises for you in creating 28 Days Greater? What have you learnt from the process?
I ended up writing lyrics and melodies for two songs! (Film 14 ‘I feel fantastic’ and film 16 ‘with and for you’). Totally unexpected and something I’ve never done. I was very lucky to work with the wonderfully talented multi-instrumentalist Callum Grant. We had a great collaboration throughout and worked quite quickly together over 6 weeks. On two occasions he sent through tracks for developing ideas and as I listened to them I just started to sing. I have never done that before and I absolutely feel imposter syndrome about it. But something I have really leaned into with this body of work is to be less precious and to take my time to listen to where the work wants to go.
You make 28 short films at once and there is a kind of inherent forgiveness built in. I know several of the films really work (for me) and that has given me a confidence to let the more experimental ones live without so much judgement.
Also as I began sharing the films with a small group of friends they each responded with a different set of numbers they resonated with. That really gave me permission to accept the work where it currently is. I know I’d like to redo some of the films—but I also know art is never finished—and like the menstrual cycle—we go deeper each round. So whether I continue to iterate these specific films, or that iteration shows up in the next thing I make—I’m building some peace with imperfection.
What’s next for you?
I’d love to work on this project for a little while. I dream of it being in a gallery space where people can be immersed in the cyclical journey writ large. And I envision this particular cycle I’ve created spiralling out to include lots of other participants and artists. Imagine 28 Days Greater growing exponentially greater with 28 artists in 28 countries over the next 28 months… Get in touch if you want to fund that!
The most rewarding part of this project thus far is the discussion it’s provoking amongst women, and across gender. From the interviews to a post-show Q+A we had after premiering at Camden People’s Theatre’s ‘Calm Down Dear Festival’ on July 1, the purpose of the work for me is in opening up a space for people to talk openly about the taboo subject of menstruation and to feel like they belong in that conversation- whether they menstruate or not.
Beyond 28 Days Greater I’m starting research on a new project about family trees, migration and sustainable food practices. And I continue to develop Kissing Project- a multimedia storytelling platform I co-founded and run that celebrates difference through meaningful stories of kisses and art made in response. Follow all the things: carolyndefrin.com
28 Days Greater is being released daily throughout July as part of Camden People’s Theatre’s Calm Down Dear festival. Follow @CarolynDefrin for more information