Lauren Lee McCarthy Swaps Stories of Saliva and Surveillance

LA JOLLA, California — The walls, shelving, and chairs in Lauren Lee McCarthy’s solo exhibition, Bodily Autonomy, are painted a soft yellow-green that reminds me of phlegm. It’s an appropriate color because I’m here to exchange my saliva with a stranger.

McCarthy’s show at the University of California San Diego’s Mandeville Art Gallery is based around two series of works, Surrogate (2021–ongoing) and Saliva (2022–ongoing), both of which encompass videos, phone apps, prosthetics, installations, performances, and workshops. In these projects, the artist explores how people are surveilled when they exchange biological substances like sperm, eggs, embryos, and saliva.

Surrogate kicked off McCarthy’s fascination with voluntary biosurveillance. In the video “The Intended Parents” (2021) she meets with different sets of couples who are looking for a surrogate, none of whom are prepared for what McCarthy actually proposes. She immediately offers them access to an app she has created that shows real-time updates to everything from her daily exercise and diet to private thoughts and feelings. As the video unfolds, McCarthy reveals that the surrogacy process is something like role play, in which, over nine months, she will wear prosthetics (the hyperrealistic silicone “Prosthetic Belly Devices,” 2021) and let the parents dictate how she lives her life: she offers to take prenatal vitamins, embrace a spiritual lifestyle, and even start smoking, if the parent requires it. Perversely, the film is shot from a distance, behind foliage and railings, positioning the viewer as a voyeur.

Installation view of Lauren Lee McCarthy: Bodily Autonomy at UC San Diego’s Mandeville Art Gallery

Another video, “Surrogate App” (2021), goes through the app prototype, showing what the parents would have access to. The app details McCarthy’s schedule down to the minute. Some of the biometric data make sense for a prospective parent to monitor, like blood pressure or heart rate, which could indicate complications during the pregnancy. But information like a phone call with her dad or journal entries that reveal intimate thoughts exploit the right to privacy. McCarthy’s app erases all boundaries and indulges every intrusive thought parents might concoct about the supposedly responsible, upstanding person gestating their child. Yet, the idea of total control appears appealing to some couples in “The Intended Parents,” demonstrating the entitlement these parents feel over the surrogate’s body, even though the agreement — a baby in exchange for a large sum of money — is supposed to be mutually beneficial.

Though offering up the services of reproductive organs seems vastly different than swapping saliva, many of the moral quandaries that arise in Surrogate reappear in Saliva. The focal point of  “Saliva Bar” (2024) is an arced shelving unit containing hundreds of vials filled with saliva. Visitors are encouraged to donate their own and take home a stranger’s. Though people routinely part with their saliva for DNA tests, health screenings, and forensic investigations, rarely do we see where the spit lands. This installation counters that mystery, thereby humanizing the process, but also turns it into a type of audition.

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Lauren Lee McCarthy, “Saliva Bar” (2024), performative installation, sculpture, software

The gallery attendants, wearing neon green vests and blue rubber gloves to take on the personas of medical professionals, explain that donors need to tag their samples with personal descriptors and agree to certain terms and conditions. Even though I wasn’t offering to birth a child, I felt pressure to portray myself in a positive light, and even convey my physical features so the receiver could visualize me and be drawn to my profile. I shared that I am intelligent, love dogs, and have red hair. 

When it came to choosing which anonymous saliva to receive, I scanned a QR code, pulling up another custom-made app, and looked for a profile I clicked with. I saw that a “TMJ Haver” and “Twink Lover” had also written “1058 Levels in Gardenscape,” an embarrassing matching game I play on my phone, and I selected them based on our kinship. The attendant printed out a long, CVS-like receipt and slipped it into a frosted envelope, along with the vial of saliva.

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Lauren Lee McCarthy, “The Intended Parents” (2021), video (color, sound), 4:38 min., direction: David Leonard

The spit is now on my nightstand, and I don’t know what to do with it. McCarthy devises a long list of uses to which the donor can agree or deny. I and the Gardenscapes player agreed on most of the terms; we said our DNA couldn’t be used for determining ancestry, criminal tracing, or reproducing biological matter, nor could it be shared with insurance providers. We diverged on whether or not it could be used for research. UCSD is an acclaimed research university so I thought, why not?

The terms of use are illuminating as to the extensive possibilities of biosurveillance. One line asked if it would be okay to use saliva to create weapons, which I had not considered previously. Elsewhere on campus, 40 UCSD students had just been arrested for setting up a Palestinian solidarity encampment, and the county police had threatened them with mace, a chemical that’s been tested on human DNA to reduce its lethality.

Bodily Autonomy takes advantage of humor and hyperbole to demonstrate a very real world in which biosurveillance is prevalent. It can be a voluntary action, such as offering surrogacy or taking a COVID-19 rapid test, or something more covert, buried in the terms of service of your 23andMe sample. 

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Lauren Lee McCarthy, “Saliva Bar,” detail
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Lauren Lee McCarthy, “Choose a Donor” (2022), video (color, sound), 2:11 min., cinematography: Gabriel Noguez
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Lauren Lee McCarthy, “Saliva Terms of Exchange” (2024), two digital prints, framed

Lauren Lee McCarthy: Bodily Autonomy continues at Mandeville Art Gallery (UC San Diego, 9390 Mandeville Lane, La Jolla, California) through May 25. The exhibition was curated by Ceci Moss. Saliva Bar activation is on Thursdays from 6 to 8pm.

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