In 1941 during the Second World War, progesterone and estrogen molecules were first obtained from pregnant mares’ urine.¹ Around the same time, the use of chemotherapy to treat cancer emerged as the unanticipated result of research into the effects of mustard gas as a warfare agent.² These advancements in the biomedical field, along with countless others, have transformed how our bodies are medically and socially treated, in ways both good and ill. Chemotherapy can save lives, though its effects are harrowing. Hormone therapies have helped some transgender individuals develop bodies that align with their gender identity; however, the risk of cancer from these treatments remains unclear. Even as definitions of gender shift, the effects of exclusion and pathologization remain.
The intersection of gender, illness, and contamination is the focal point of the video installation Weed Killer (2017) by Patrick Staff (b. 1987, Bognor Regis, UK; lives in Los Angeles and London). Staff was inspired by artist-writer Catherine Lord’s memoir The Summer of Her Baldness (2004)—a moving and often irreverent account of the author’s experience of cancer. At the heart of Staff’s work is a monologue, adapted from Lord’s book, which reflects upon the chemically induced devastation of chemotherapy. This text is enacted with unrelenting intensity by actress Debra Soshoux, who recites Lord’s description of taking chemotherapy drugs as akin to “mainlining weed killer.” In other words, deeply toxic substances must be ingested, paradoxically, in order to stay alive. Throughout Weed Killer, Staff intertwines notions of affliction and contamination with the demand for survival on one’s own terms.