Amber Doll > Tilikum Project Statement (in progress)

Tilikum Day Seven

I am forever in search of community. I join these communities, not as an artist, but as someone who wants to belong. The needs, identities, personalities, quirks, and outliers of each community become my obsession. Part of this obsession revolves around the performances of individuals belonging to the community and the reception and interpretation of these performances from outsiders. These communities shape my work, my perceptions, and myself; incidentally, they often lead me to new communities.

My performance and video,  Amber Doll >Tilikum, is a result of moving into and out of several different communities. For the piece, I transformed my identical, life-like sex doll into a replica of the bull orca, Tilikum, who lives in captivity at SeaWorld Orlando and has been involved in the deaths of three people. To create my replica of Tilikum, I assembled his anatomy from similar, either in look or function, parts from Amber Doll. She and Tilikum share a PVC skeletal structure, posable steel joints, styrofoam filler, silicone flesh, and eyes. Her belly button became his blow hole, her breasts and hands evolved into his tail, and I used part of her skull to create Tilikum’s broken teeth.

I conducted the ten-day, fifty-hour Amber Doll > Tilikum transformation alone in my studio, but broadcast every moment of it on my Livestream Channel  to an audience of thousands worldwide.The live audience viewer minutes watched totaled 33,100 in the US as well as: Armenia, China, Ecuador, Estonia, Germany, India, Israel, Korea, Oman, Peru, Turkey and Venezuela. I blogged, Facebooked, and Tweeted my progress, and relied on my viewers’ in-the-moment responses to carry me through the physically and emotionally difficult performance.

What is the link between a synthetic sex partner and an organic captive whale? And why Tilikum? These are the questions that I began to answer through the process of the transformation.

Amber Doll came to life after the unwanted sexual attention and objectification I received after completion of The Feminism? Project which involved imaging myself in provocatively sexual contexts during reenactments of a variety of women's definitions of feminism. After completing the project—lonely and seeking the companionship of a girlfriend but not yet out as queer—I discovered an online forum maintained by a community of primarily hetero-outsider men who own life-like sex dolls, RealDolls, made of a PVC skeleton and silicone flesh and penetrable in three ribbed orifices. Inspired by the fulfillment they found in their relationships with what they termed “synthetics” over “organics,” I ordered a RealDoll of my own. I acquired Amber Doll, herself a literal object, as a prop for my work and academic interests but also to become the companion I desired in my personal life. I abandoned Amber Doll at a number of venues, allowing the public to explore and interact—often violently—without interference. Amber Doll was able to act as a surrogate to my own experiences of objectification.

Two years later, while Amber Doll’s severely damaged body was hanging, alone, on a stand in my studio; I learned of Tilikum.

On February 24, 2010, Tilikum made headlines for killing Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old trainer with sixteen years of experience at SeaWorld. The trainer was dismembered following a popular “Dine with Shamu” show while twenty tourists looked on from above a whale tank and from an underwater viewing area. As I learned more about Tilikum, and orcas in captivity, the furtive violence inflicted on these intelligent mammals became apparent. Orcas thrive in communities; they spend the entirety of their lives within these tightly-knit families. Tilikum was captured in the wild, and removed from his community. The trauma and stress of this captivity have been documented in nearly all captive orcas, including Tilikum. Signs of stress include broken teeth, often from chewing on the metal bars of the enclosure, and collapsed dorsal fin, often accredited to the physical deterioration from lack of adequate space to swim. Tilikum’s body, much like that of Amber Doll’s, presents a physical manifestation of emotional trauma.

The story of Tilikum and his body as a spectacle shared remarkable similarities with my relationship with Amber Doll. By allowing others openly to explore and violate Amber Doll, I disrupted the social norms of public and private space. The deviance Tilikum performed through his body, by killing his trainer, was an act of defiance against those who objectify him. The trainer’s body becomes a spectacle that takes the attention away from his body—the focus is still on Tilikum—but he now owns a presence.

The idea of this shift from object to action and spectacle to presence gave Amber Doll new purpose. I no longer needed Amber Doll to be my object; I needed her to be an action. Through the action of her transformation I could give voice to Tilikum, and, begin to give presence to the community of the objectified.

Do you have suggestions on the above? New perspectives on my work you'd like to share with me? Write me, I'd like that. amber@amberhawkswanson.com