Interdependence and care
At the beginning of 2020, our public programmes began a journey of sharing thoughts, perspectives and practices that expressed a counter narrative to the intertwined ideologies of individualism and competition. These ideologies have obscured the rather basic, if not obvious fact that we are interdependent beings existing and indeed thriving in tangled webs of mutual reliance. When the pandemic hit, the very act of breathing the air was shown to be caught in relations of mutual responsibility, while there also emerged the recognition of how competition over air itself has developed along lines particularly of socio-economic status, race, age and disability.
Perhaps it is worth reiterating examples of interdependencies if only out of exasperation at how these powerful ideologies of individualism and competition persist despite being so obviously unsustainable. Surely, if human (and it is human at the forefront of this ideology) success, dubiously defined as the acquisition of more (land, capital, etc.), is predicated on the failure of someone or something else, existence can only lead inexorably to an unsustainable and asymmetrical future of a few winners and many losers. Of course, those who have ‘failed’ are sometimes those who have been able to see how mutual flourishing does not come from fighting off competitors but from acknowledging and fostering our interdependencies and keeping life going together. Etymologically, success means ‘what comes or yields after’. In one sense, it is about keeping life and futures open. The cults of individualism and competition narrowed the definition of success from the open generosity of passing on to the guarded project of the inheritance of entitlement and privilege for the few at the expense of others; colonialism and its aftermaths have shown how dead and deathly such a definition of success is.
Care is an ongoing project of cultivating attention to our interdependencies. In one sense, care is never completed or resolved. We are grappling, to use one of Eli Clare’s favoured verbs, with each other, configuring and reconfiguring how we are aligned in this ever emerging world as we continually move all together. Care is ongoing and relational, we have to keep working it out by listening carefully, unlearning what we thought we knew. In this sense, care is an act of commitment.
The first issue in Rupert’s Journal tries to keep going the things we learned and unlearned over this year. Like the five-year anniversary publication published in 2019, the journal is an act of gathering and gleaning, an ongoing editorial project of passing on and sharing. This first issue is rooted in the public programmes of 2020, themselves held by ideas of care and interdependence. As we read through this issue’s contents, let us not allow these words of care, interdependence and commitment become mere ‘themes’ that we pass over, but the beginnings of thoughts, conversations and practices that we pass on.
1st issue editor: Yates Norton
Texts authors: Àngels Miralda Tena, Artūras Tereškinas, Rob Crosse, Eli Clare, Yates Norton, Jaakko Pallasvuo, Jussi Koitela & Yvonne Billimore & Viviana Checchia, Oli Mould, Samantha Lippett, Sarah Lippett, Sophie Seita, Vaiva Grainytė
Language editors: Dangė Vitkienė (LT), Yates Norton (ENG)
Translators: Erika Urbelevič, Paulius Balčytis, Rimas Uzgiris, Darius Sužiedėlis
Design: TAKTIKA Mantas Rimkus and Nerijus Keblys
Programming: Andrius Zupkus
Thanks to: Gabrielė Marija Vasiliauskaitė, Rugilė Miliukaitė, Simona Šulnytė
Eli Clare is a poet, writer, activist and educator. Eli gave a talk titled, ‘Brilliant Imperfection Amidst the Pandemic’, as part of the public programmes for Rupert’s exhibition, Other Rooms, 2020. More information here. This text is an extract from Eli’s book, Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling With Cure (2017).
Troubled and Troubling Body-Minds
The trouble that the network of diagnosis, treatment, management, rehabilitation, prevention, and cure revolves around is multidimensional. Within a white Western worldview, many body-minds contain trouble. Or they are defined entirely by trouble. Or they cause trouble. Or they are deemed both troubled and troubling.
These notions raise the question: which realities are defined as trouble by whom and for whose benefit? The answers extend far beyond exam rooms and research labs, public health policy and diagnostic codes. This query requires us to think about power and privilege, corporate greed and medical understanding. It touches on the intimate relationships we have with our own body-minds. It engages with realities played out in schools, prisons, and emergency rooms.
The answers can be straightforward and widely agreed on.
Culturally, scientifically, and materially in the dominant system of medicine in the United States, certain body-mind conditions have been easily defined as trouble—a common cold as inconvenient, bronchitis as more urgent, and pneumonia as plainly dangerous. Almost no one will disagree with these assessments. Defining body-mind trouble is seemingly simple and intuitive.
But this simplicity is a façade.
The medical-industrial complex declares muscular dystrophy to be nothing but trouble, apparently as clear-cut as pneumonia. Yet this pronouncement is simple only if we disregard voices from inside disability communities. Listen again to Harriet McBryde Johnson, born with a neuromuscular condition similar to muscular dystrophy:
‘At age 15, I threw away the back brace and let my spine reshape itself into a deep twisty S-curve. Now my right side is two deep canyons. . . . Since my backbone found its own natural shape, I’ve been entirely comfortable in my skin. . . . I used to try to explain that . . . I enjoy my life, that it’s a great sensual pleasure to zoom by power chair on these delicious muggy streets, that I have no more reason to kill myself than most people. But it gets tedious. . . . Most people don’t want to know. They think they know everything there is to know just by looking at me.’ 1
If she and the many other disabled people who claim comfort, pleasure, and value in our lives were heeded, it would be much more difficult, maybe impossible, to cast muscular dystrophy as unmitigated trouble to eradicate.
Too often the medical-industrial complex names our visceral experiences trouble regardless of what we know about our own body-minds. But sometimes this dynamic shifts.
On the one hand, people with muscular dystrophy resist the notion of body-mind trouble as it is repeatedly foisted on them, and on the other hand, people with ME/CFDS [myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome] work overtime to have their body-mind trouble acknowledged while doctors and the media ignore and trivialize it. These two dynamics appear to be opposites, but actually they converge, pivoting on the ways the medical-industrial complex wields authority and dismisses what we know about our own visceral experiences.
Indeed, who defines which realities as body-mind trouble? Sometimes the answers are multiple and conflicting.
I think of the contentious issue of height, especially boyhood shortness. Is being too short body-mind trouble, particularly in the absence of health issues (however they might be defined) and material conditions such as malnutrition? The answers are conflicting. Eli Lilly, makers of synthetic human growth hormone (HGH), has one answer. Some doctors and parents agree with the pharmaceutical company; others don’t. Short statured people, both children and adults, have a mix of answers. The organization Little People of America has yet another response.
At best, the determinations of body-mind trouble are fraught.
So much hangs on these definitions, including millions of dollars of profit. Over the last sixty years, the pharmaceutical corporations that sell HGH have framed shortness as grave trouble that must be addressed as early as possible in a child’s—particularly a boy’s—life. They’ve actively worked to expand the market for their drugs, shifting the criteria used to determine who is unacceptably short. In 2003 Eli Lilly petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and won approval to sell HGH for use not only by children who are short because of a diagnosable “disorder” but also by those in the bottom 1.2 percent of height for their age group. This change added 400,000 potential customers to Eli Lilly’s market. Three years after this decision, the HGH drug Humatrope made $460 million, up 40 percent from 2002. 2 All of this means that redefining the body-mind trouble of shortness increased Eli Lilly’s earnings by $130 million.
Sometimes the response to the question, which realities are defined as trouble by whom and for whose benefit?, is transparent. And other times, the answers are considered so intuitively obvious that no one bothers to articulate them.
I think of heterosexuality, whiteness, and wealth, particularly when two or more of these conditions exist together. The high rates of neglect and violence in heterosexual nuclear families could easily be defined as trouble. The multigenerational delusion that white people hold about our superiority could definitely qualify as trouble. The hoarding of resources in upper-middle-class and upper-class homes, as reflected by an overabundance of clothing, cars, houses, food, money, and lavish vacations, could undoubtedly meet the criteria for trouble. And yet the “heterosexual nuclear family disorder,” the “white entitlement syndrome,” and the “wealthy greed dysfunction” haven’t been invented. 3 Nor do I actually want them to be. Disorder, syndrome, and dysfunction have been used against far too many people.
Still heterosexuality, whiteness, and wealth simply aren’t defined as trouble. I feel almost silly writing something so obvious. And yet in a world where queer and trans people, people of color, and poor people pay an intense price every day for being deemed troubled and troubling, this obvious state of affairs needs to be called out. Queer and trans youth are kicked out of their families and homes. Immigrants of color are detained and deported in record numbers. Black men are four times more likely than white people to be diagnosed with schizophrenia. Poor people are called lazy, shiftless, and demonized for their poverty. The consequences for being deemed troubled and troubling pile up fast. And through it all, heterosexuality, whiteness, and wealth escape undiagnosed, no one locked up or kicked out solely because they’re straight or white or rich.
Many answers to the question of who defines which realities as body-mind trouble are bound up with power and privilege.
The relationship between cure and trouble is entirely enmeshed. In Normal at Any Cost, the journalists Susan Cohen and Christine Cosgrove tell the story of HGH, Eli Lilly, and how girlhood tallness and boyhood shortness became known as trouble. Midway through the book, they write, only partly tongue in cheek, “Sometimes cures went in search of diseases.” 4
If muscular dystrophy wasn’t deemed trouble, the last fifty years of research sponsored and encouraged by the Muscular Dystrophy Association wouldn’t exist. If being gay, lesbian, or bi wasn’t defined as trouble, ex-gay conversion therapy wouldn’t exist. If being a person of color wasn’t considered trouble, skin lighteners wouldn’t exist. And if synthetic HGH didn’t exist, “non-growth-hormone-deficient short stature” (the phrase Eli Lilly used at the FDA hearing) wouldn’t be framed as trouble. 5
Cure both depends on and creates body-mind trouble in all of its different forms.
Variations on Cure
Once the medical-industrial complex has defined, named, or created trouble, we as clients, patients, and consumers don’t face a singular monolithic intervention. As an ideology, cure presents an inflexible set of values. But as a multifaceted and contradictory practice, it multiplies into thousands of different technologies and processes. Each variation comes with its own cluster of risks and possibilities.
Some medical technology works most of the time for most people. The use of antibiotics for infection, synthetic insulin for diabetes, synthetic estrogen and testosterone for trans folks who need or want to reshape our gendered and sexed body-minds all produce reliable and consistent results.
Other kinds of technology offer glimmers of possibility but present high risks or ambiguous outcomes. Will chemotherapy and radiation eradicate the cancer, push it into remission, buy a bit more time, or just create more misery? Will operating on the brain tumor stop the seizures and end the brain-exploding pain, or will it decrease the pain a bit and probably cause vision impairment?
Still other cures and treatments are boondoggles or experiments. When the growth hormone treatment, the hip-stabilizing operation, the $1,000-per-month regimen of vitamins and herbs goes awry, leaving us chronically ill, even more mobility impaired, or in debt, we sometimes reflect back and pinpoint how we were taken for a ride. Or we feel gratitude for the risk that changed our body-minds for the better.
And then there are the imaginary cures. I think of my parents’ unending desire to repair me. It was nothing but a fantasy fueled by shame and grief. Although the medical-industrial complex has been known to manipulate people’s hopes and desires, no one, except the evangelical Christians who prayed over me, ever offered my parents the possibility of an actual cure for mental retardation or cerebral palsy. Pure imagination drove my mother and father.
The medical-industrial complex is unwavering in its commitment to cure’s ultimate goal—ensuring that body-mind trouble no longer exists as if it had never existed in the first place. Yet in practice there is a routine acceptance of potential cures, partial cures, and failed cures. I think of fat people and all the technology designed to make them slender: fad diets, prescription weight loss drugs, gastric bypass and lap band surgeries. In a fatphobic culture, it doesn’t seem to matter that dieting, more often than not, results in weight cycling rather than long-term weight loss. Nor does it matter that surgery outcomes range widely—from death to permanent difficulty with eating, nutrition, and digestion; from significant long-term weight loss to weight loss followed by weight gain. The quest for slenderness, for an eradication of fatness, is seemingly worth all the failures, dangers, dubious medical procedures, and direct harm.
The unquestioned value placed on cure in general provides cover for all the variations, whether they be reliable, risky, ambiguous, experimental, boondoggles, or imaginary. And when cure plainly fails, we—the consumers, clients, or patients—are often blamed, either subtly or blatantly, for these failures. We didn’t try hard enough. We were lazy. We were drug resistant. We were noncompliant. Or we’re told that if only we wait, a reliable cure will emerge sometime in the future. Somehow, amidst it all, the very notion of cure remains undisputed.
Skin Lighteners and Hot Springs
The tools of cure include cochlear implants and skin bleaching creams, vaccinations and hot springs. Many of these technologies are embedded in the medical-industrial complex—produced by pharmaceutical corporations; matched with users through diagnosis and treatment; shaped by researchers, doctors, and health insurance companies; and distributed by pharmacists. However, cure also extends beyond what is considered medical, some of its tools existing in cosmetic drawers and spas.
Skin bleaching products are designed to answer the trouble of dark skin. Sociologist Amina Mire lays it out clearly: “Throughout western colonial history . . . the dark body has been represented [by the dominant culture] as the least virtuous and aesthetically least appealing. . . . Constructing colonized people’s culture and body images as pathological, backward and . . . ugly has been central to . . . white supremacy.” In other words, the trouble of skin color is created fundamentally through racism and bolstered by the medical-industrial complex’s notion of pathological.
In cure’s long tradition, this declaration of trouble paves the way for selling repair. Feminist scholar Margaret Hunter writes, “Women and men of color have ever-increasing opportunities to alter their bodies toward whiteness. They can purchase lighter-colored contact lenses for their eyes; they can straighten kinky or curly hair; they can have cosmetic surgeries on their lips, noses, or eyes. But one of the oldest traditions of this sort is skin bleaching.” Products used for this purpose are called Ambi Fade Cream, Esotérica, Porcelana, Vantex, Venus de Milo. They are claimed to lighten, brighten, and whiten the skin. They are marketed to dark-skinned women of color with taglines like “Fair and Lovely” and increasingly to dark-skinned men of color with promises like “Fair and Handsome.” Sold exclusively as beauty aids, some of these creams are nonetheless available only by prescription, existing on the boundary between cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Many of them are made with toxic, body-mind-damaging chemicals strictly regulated or banned by the FDA. But ultimately they are only loosely connected to the medical-industrial complex, in need of neither diagnostic categories nor medical authorization to sustain themselves.
The market for these creams is rooted in racist-sexist definitions of beauty and depends on women (and men) of color who have internalized the notion that the darkness of their skin is wrong and troubling. One twenty-two-year-old, when asked why she’s willing to risk her health to lighten her skin, responds, “I want people to think I am more than a ghetto girl. . . . I want to walk into dance halls and feel like a movie star, a white one.” To be blunt, the manufacturers of skin lighteners profit from shame.
The products and treatments sold to us to fix what is deemed broken, wrong, or shameful range widely. Some, like skin lighteners, are designed for this purpose. Others, like hot springs and fresh air, are adopted.
I think of the water in Warm Springs, Georgia, and Saratoga Springs, New York; the air in Brattleboro, Vermont, and Saranac Lake, New York. Disabled and sick people with enough money to travel have long taken to the road, looking for cure, comfort, or both. They’ve landed at the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, the Brattleboro Hydropathic Establishment, the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium, the Roosevelt Bathhouses. Water bubbles hot from the ground, oozes up laden with calcium bicarbonate, sodium chloride, carbon dioxide. Air wafts fresh and cool. Travelers have arrived to soak, breathe, and restore.
At Warm Springs, they occupied hospital beds for months at a time, coped with multiple surgeries, cried themselves to sleep at night, wrestled with pain, misery, loneliness. They completed their physical therapy routines in pools heated by the springs. Some polio survivors relearned to walk; many did not. At Saranac Lake, they rested eight hours a day outside on porches, breathing the air that supposedly cured tuberculosis. Some of them lived; others died. At Brattleboro, they lay wrapped in water-soaked sheets, shivering and sweating, drank gallons of water, floated in private baths, lived half their time outdoors, taking in the good air. Some left revived, feeling better for their sojourn; others did not.
The Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk), Creek, Cherokee, and Abenaki used to frequent these places, lie in their waters, each nation with its own healing rituals and spiritual traditions. On this land, white people have built resorts frequented by other white people; employed African Americans as cooks, maids, chauffeurs; sold physical therapy, water therapy, fresh-air therapy. At the same time, many Indigenous peoples have been removed from these homelands. They’ve died of tuberculosis and smallpox; become disabled by war, hunger, poverty, alcohol, heartsickness. They’ve continued on, practicing and adapting their traditional systems of medicine.
I take a trip to Saratoga Springs, wanting to indulge in a long warm soak. Hot water relaxes my body-mind in a way that nothing else does, tremor and tension dissolving into the heat. I join the many people who, over the centuries, have flocked to these mineral baths. I expect the New Age aroma therapy and the outlandish hourly rates but not the big, old brick buildings that look like state-run hospitals and psych facilities.
I stop at a bathhouse built in 1935, named after the first, and to-date only, wheelchair-using U.S. president, who had an abiding interest in the power of water to cure. After his bout with polio, Franklin D. Roosevelt took to the road both hopeful and desperate, following rumors of healing waters at a resort in Warm Springs, Georgia. It only took him a few days in the eighty-eight-degree pools to declare progress after years of searching. A wealthy, white northerner, he bought the seventeen-hundred-acre resort in 1927, transforming it into a rehabilitation center and gathering spot for white polio survivors. The old photos show rooms full of disabled people and their mobility equipment—high-backed wheelchairs, canes and crutches, rolling beds, braces. Everyone is white, except the people cooking and cleaning. Black polio survivors went to Tuskegee, Alabama. Although he never found a cure, Roosevelt surely benefited from that disability accessible community and the warm, buoyant waters running under Pine Mountain. Years later as president, he helped find the money to fund the building of bathhouses near the curative waters of Saratoga Springs in his home state.
Stepping into the still-open-and-operating Roosevelt Bathhouse, my gait lopsided and rattling, I wonder if the staff thinks I’m yet another traveler, desperate to “take the cure.” I’m looking for comfort and the delicious feeling of warm mineral water on my skin, but they may expect I want to be fixed. I’ve left my crip pride button at home.10 A wooden wheelchair, wool blanket draped over one arm, decorates the lobby, even though there are two steps to get in and no sign of a ramp. Nor do I see any acknowledgment that we are on Kanien’kehá:ka land. The woman at the front desk tells me she has no more openings for the day. It’s just as well. I don’t really want to spend money at this place that turns a profit by selling mineral water from deep inside the planet, capitalizing on our need for comfort and desire for cure.
Encounters with the ideology of cure can be as daily as a cosmetic cream and as comforting as a long soak in hot mineral water, as life-saving as antibiotics and as difficult as chemotherapy, as nonmedical as the fresh air in Brattleboro and Saranac Lake and as medicalized as liver transplant surgery. No one technology epitomizes this ideology. Rather it latches on to many different tools, some of them as old as the planet and others on the cutting edge of science.
1 Johnson, Harriet McBryde. Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales from a Life. New York: Picador, 2005. pp. 1–2.
2 Cohen, Susan and Christine Cosgrove. Normal at Any Cost: Tall Girls, Short Boys, aand the Medical Industry‘s Quest to Manipulate Height. New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2009. pp. 279–81, p. 351.
3 A telling exception is the use of affluenza, which was leveraged in a 2013 court case to defend Ethan Couch, a rich white teenager who killed four people in a drunk-driving accident. The Guardian describes affluenza in this context as “indicating that [Couch’s] behavioural problems were influenced by a troubled upbringing in a wealthy family where privilege prevented him from grasping the consequences of his actions” (Dart, “Texas Teenager Suffering ‘Affluenza’ Avoids Jail for Second Time”). This “disorder,” not officially recognized by the medical-industrial complex, is being used here not to define wealth or class privilege as body-mind trouble but to protect a rich white teenage boy. Thanks to Alison Kafer for bringing affluenza to my attention and helping me think about it.
4 Cohen and Cosgrove, Normal at Any Cost, p. 65.
5 For more details about the FDA hearing, see Cohen and Cosgrove, Normal at Any Cost, pp. 269–305.
‘Structure of Cure’, in Brilliant Imperfection, Eli Clare, pp. 67-80. Copyright, 2017, Eli Clare. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder, and the publisher, Duke University Press.
I don’t care
Artist and writer Jaakko Palasvuo was selected as a Rupert resident in 2019.
Sometimes to make art was to practice not-caring.
To practice closing the door between yourself and your child, who was crying and needed you.
To make art was to take your child to the daycare center where trained carers would do that work, while you did the work of work, the work of whatever your artistic practice was. Your child was cared for, while you sat in a room alone staring at nothing.
But that is what you wanted to do, your nature, to be in that room alone and draw and write. Wasn’t that a kind of caring? A care for the ether, a care for some over-historical conversation, a care for the speculative reader or viewer in the future?
One can feel cared for by dead authors. When one is alone, one can be with the authors’ words and to be not-alone.
Art cannot ‘respond’
Art cannot ‘respond urgently’
Art cannot respond.
When art responds art becomes a response.
And a response is really necessary. Change is necessary. A complete cultural shift in direction is absolutely necessary. Art cannot respond. Art cannot be care. Art is a demon. Art is the east wind, the exterminating angel.
I close the door between the world and myself.
When I write, when I draw, when I edit a video, I am in fact present in the world. I am not isolated. Sometimes when I’m with other people I feel isolated in my social role, trapped in what I imagine are others’ perceptions of me.
The fantasy of closing the door and being in the private room. To not be seen, to do things without an awareness of the gaze of others. The needs of others do not distort the field of gravity in this room.
The demand circulates for artists to step out of their rooms. To join each other in the streets, to embrace each other, to finally facilitate that workshop.
But radical change cannot be achieved through professional means. To imagine a revolution is to imagine the death of the people we are now, the roles we play. In the revolution the artist dies, the private room becomes common, or..
Maybe we weren’t looking for care, maybe we were looking to be saved.
The art world wanted care without commitment, without spirit or cosmology, without duty or any other old shit like that.
Maybe care was work.. care was work of course, and they wanted to be cared for at work, they wanted to believe that they wouldn’t have to let go of the context of work in order to be saved.
Sometimes I think of the previous art world. It probably still exists somewhere, a little bit submerged. The art world of narcissism, cocaine and gossip, of nervous breakdowns, of merciless jetlag and heels that fuck up your feet, of harnesses and money and big ugly paintings made of toxic plastics.
Rotting carcasses in formaldehyde made by some dumbass artist, purchased by botoxed investment bankers. Where did these monstrosities disappear to, now that art is ethical, non-hierarchical and at one with the mushrooms and the lichen?
In order to write you have to close the door in the face of your crying 3 year old. Their father carries them away. The cries retreat into the distance. You are alone in your room.
You have to let the panic go. You have to resist the urge to get up. You want to stay in the room. You want to sit still and listen. You sit in front of a typewriter in an itchy grey wool jumper. There’s a draft in the room. It is autumn. It is raining.
You listen. Sometimes words come. You type. The words come from a supportive emptiness. The words come from nothing. Writing is a way for nothing to speak. This emptiness is your mother. Your actual mother is dead.
Now it is thirty years later. Your child is not happy that you took time to write all those novels instead of taking care of them. Has your child read your books? No. The child says they’re not interested. The child is an adult.
The child has a hard time letting go of the past. The child is angry. You are calm. You observe your child’s negativity. You accept it. Maybe you will write about it. You know what your child doesn’t. They know the closed door. You know what was on your side of that door. The emptiness was there, and words were falling from it, and you had to catch the words.
As the child’s mother was writing of emptiness, the child’s father was curating a biennial about microplastics or whatever.
The child’s mother and father HATED being called Mother and Father. It’s too heavy, too Freudian. We have names you know? It doesn’t feel right, energetically. I feel like I’m more of a host of multiple gut bacteria than a father, really, the father said, and got on a flight to Lisbon.
The child was alone, playing video games, the babysitter was browsing Tinder on the living room couch. Everyone wanted to get fucked, everyone wanted to be destroyed, by a person, or an idea, or a social dynamic, or something.
What if we stopped caring and the world would fix itself?
I don’t care:
the sentence, the attitude, the serenity!
Art was something angry queers made in Reagan’s America. A spitting in the face of.
Art was something asexual Marxists tried out in Berlin in 2003, completely removed from visual pleasure.
Art was something you could win prizes for: there was video evidence of the Lithuanian art scene dancing around a golden calf.
Art was beautiful frescoes by Fra Angelico, painted in the cells at Convento di San Marco, something for the other friars to contemplate on. Maybe that was care.
Did you believe me when I said:
I don’t care.
Art seems to require not-caring. A kind of detachment from the business of the world. Maybe caring and attachment are not the same.
Art becomes distorted, artless, when the artist cares too much (about collectors, curators, activists, their parents’ opinions, etc.)
Art is scrambled, harebrained, careless. Art hurts people with its carelessness. It consumes lives. It can misrepresent reality, it can paint something fragile into a corner, foreclose it.
The discursively anti-institutional biennials were still brutal juggernauts. Next to the workshop on the commons? The café and the gift shop.
I care about the moment at hand. I shift my attention here. I am here. It is cold. I am in a park. People are caring for a communal garden set up in a corner of the park. I am cold. I watch them. I care.
Someone is pushing their child in the swings. The child swings back and forth. This is care: cyclical, ticking.
Care cannot be an event. Care cannot be a creative EU initiative. It is cold I am in the park.
I have this scarf on and it’s trying to warm me, but it’s not enough. This scarf cost a 160 euros. Buying it was kind of an accident, I didn’t read the price correctly. I felt like I couldn’t back down when they were already asking for payment. I can never lose this scarf. Everything will lose its form and return to formlessness. Money isn’t real. The scarf cost more than this text did.
Is it possible to think of care without thinking of austerity? The way resources are being taken away from care work, how care is being privatised, speculated on.
When public health becomes private luxury, we end up here. Care becomes extraordinary, rarefied and cool Unusual like a sculpture. What a sad thought. It is cold. I have to get up and walk around.
A parent wearing a yellow raincoat is jumping up and down on the weird soft asphalt of the playground.
The reason everything looks beautiful is because it is out of balance, but its background is always in perfect harmony. This is how everything exists in the realm of Buddha nature, losing its balance against a background of perfect balance.
– Shunryū Suzuki; Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
An Interview with Oli Mould
Oli Mould gave a talk titled ‘Anti-individualism, empathy and solidarity: toward a collective common creativity’ at Rupert as part of the 2020 programmes on care and interdependence. More information here. In this interview, the curator of the public programmes, Yates Norton, speaks to Oli about the ideas he explored in that talk in relation to the pandemic.
Q. It’s been several months since you spoke at Rupert and explored a need to recognise interdependence and care as foundational aspects of living ethically. You charted a history of the rise of self-interest and individualism and how these tendencies had become naturalised in and by Western culture. Now we are in lockdown in a global pandemic and much of what you have written about has come into sharp relief. Can you speak about your experiences of this crisis in relation to the ideas of care, creativity and love you have been exploring?
The first wave of the pandemic, back in February and March 2020 was horrible for many people, not least because of the fear of the unknown situation––economically and biologically––that presented itself very, very quickly. But certainly here in the UK there was an explosion of mutual aid projects run by local communities, concerned residents, faith groups and even local youth clubs that swiftly mobilised to get food and shelter to the most vulnerable. While it was a horrific time for many, the outpouring of care and protection to the most vulnerable in our society was almost automatic. It showed that in times of acute crisis, people do mobilise in the right way. This has waned a bit in the subsequent months, or perhaps it has become more institutionalised as ‘bigger’ units have mobilised (like the government and NGOs) to replicate the services. Either way, the self-interest that characterised the rampant neoliberalism and governmental policy of the first two decades of the 21st century seemed very fragile indeed during the pandemic.
Q. Both cultural and healthcare systems have been systematically devalued by many governments pursuing a neoliberal agenda. In what ways do you think the cultural and healthcare sectors learn from each other?
Through practice. Healthcare requires a holistic approach that requires multiple skills, people and crucially time. A broken leg may be easy to fix but the suicidal tendencies that caused that person to jump off a bridge and break their leg in the first place is not. There are multiple strands to caring for people, but too often it is compartmentalised and therefore not properly addressed. The same is true of cultural provision and participation; it is a collaborative social effort that cannot be atomised for profit. Cassie Thornton’s book The Hologram speaks very convincingly of a mutual aid style health care system that is collaborative, holistic, long-term and crucially democractic, and as such has proven to be very effective in not just curing people but curing communities. Cultural co-operatives have been created during the pandemic too that operate along similar lines.
Q. In your book, Against Creativity, you argue that creativity isn’t found in an individual, but in the relations in which we are embedded and how those relations are configured in such a way that ‘something is produced out of nothing’. Throughout the book, you disentangle creativity from specifically artistic practices and from the ways it has been co-opted by neoliberalism. As I understand your thesis, creativity can be regarded as socially and environmentally conscious work as well as acts of organization that support mutually beneficial and supportive relations that are in opposition to individualism and competition. You note how such truly creative modes of working can be found in care work and the NHS, not necessarily the arts. In a truly creative world, would we be able to do away with the category of artist completely and, actually, creativity itself? Is there a way in which both these categories are inextricably tied to capitalism and neoliberalism?
I have become increasingly exhausted with the use of the word ‘creativity’ in capitalistic and related discourses. I still think the word is worth rescuing, but it is tiring to hear it uttered alongside things like fast food consumption, Brexit, fossil fuel production and other massively damaging processes. The same is true of the word ‘artist’. I am adamant that there are important socio-economic processes that require rescuing; institutions and people that are pushing for a more just, common and sustainable world need to use the notion of creativity more. Climate activists for example are extremely creative, but too often they are labelled as subversive or deviant. Co-operatives or those championing UBI are creative but they are never narrated as anything beyond ‘political’. I think there needs to be a bigger effort to characterise those actions and politics that are striving for a utopian world beyond capitalism as engaging with creativity and art. It has been done before with the Situationists etc. and can be once more.
Q. In your formulation, creativity today is ambiguously situated between a creativity that involves finding creative ways to survive and make do––as so many marginalised and oppressed communities know––and creativity as an imposition as you find in neoliberal ‘flexibilisation’ of work that has been called ‘creative’. Consequently, is there a way in which creativity is inextricably tied to exclusion, marginalisation and exploitation? For instance, often in periods of austerity and crisis you can find truly creative acts of DIY hacking.
Indeed! I think creativity is very much part of the political process of change beyond the status quo. What was considered ‘normal’ has been thrown out of the window in the last six months, and as we look for whatever a new normal might be, we are being creative. And as you say, I think it is those on the margins of the ‘old’ normal who are fighting most vociferously for a radically different ‘new’ normal, while those in power struggle to maintain the status quo: go back to work, open the shops, keep university campuses open, the billionaires have made more money than ever etc; it is the powerful that are fighting for the same, the rest of us are pleading and fighting for change. That to me, is what creativity is about.
Q. Although you don’t use the word ‘imagination’, it seems to be also key to your work and understanding creativity, especially if we think of imagination as both individually embodied and social. Can you speak a bit about imagination and how it might relate to creativity?
I think imagination is an important concept here. Max Haiven does some very good work around that in relation to creativity and the commons and I think it is worth exploring. Imagination though does seem to have more of an individualistic strand to it than creativity, at least in its original conception. Creativity now, of course, as we’ve seen, is very much individual, but imagination always has been. But you’re right, it hasn’t been co-opted as much (although it is still a word you hear very much in advertising motifs) so maybe there is some merit in using it more politically.
Q. You have explored creativity in relation to disability or what you call ‘diffability’ to emphasise different forms of ability. Can you speak a bit more about this?
I think that those of us who are disabled will often experience the world beyond that which the ‘normal’ allows. Or putting it another way, I think that capitalism thrives off a very singular consumption pattern. It has variation within it of course, but ultimately, we all consume the same products generally the same way. Anything or anybody that doesn’t or can’t experience the world in the way that capitalism operates, to me, is inherently creative because they provide a door to a new way of living in the world. As we understand more about the experience of disability and other oppressed identities, the more access we have to worlds and experiences to which capitalism is (so far) unconcerned. Taking advantage of this to disarm capitalism and create more democratic and just worlds, to me, is vital. This is why we need as much diversity as possible in powerful positions. Change won’t happen at all if these experiences are not articulated beyond how they are individually experienced.
Q. Your next book will look at ethics as guides for our life today and I remember you emphasised the importance of love here. Can you tell us more about this project and how you are looking at love?
The new book, The Seven Ethics Against Capitalism: Organising a Planetary Commons, will be out in the autumn of 2021 with Polity Press. One of the most important of those ethics is love, the theorisation of which I build with Sreko Horvat’s work in his book, The Radicality of Love. Based in the Christianarchist tradition, I see love as vital to propelling the commons as a viable way of organising society instead of capitalism. But not love as is narrated by Disney or Hallmark; love as a truly compassionate and unconditional act. Love is about forgoing the comforting ground, to deliberately make yourself uncomfortable to make those less fortunate than you, more comfortable. In so doing, you are spreading privilege around instead of hoarding it. It’s a simple idea, but one that is incredibly difficult to operationalise largely because we often lack empathy and the ability to ‘feel’ people’s position in society. But by acting lovingly with everyone we meet, and scaling it up to institutional level––something that we’ve seen done with the explosion of mutual aid in the wake of covid-19––then anything is possible, even a world beyond capitalism.
Small Signs of Hope: A Conversation on Relapse
Curator, Samantha was selected as a Rupert resident in 2020. Here Samantha speaks with her sister, the artist and author Sarah Lippett, about finding ways of articulating, communicating and recording changing states of health and illness.
I was isolating in Vilnius when Sarah messaged to say the news was worse than we had expected. The possibility of relapse that edges closer each year had finally happened and she was to start a course of steroids to control the protein levels in her kidneys caused by FSGS. 1 She told me patients call it the ‘devils tic-tac’.
The relapse has acted as a stark reminder of the uncertainty of living with chronic illness, the temporality of ‘good health’ and how abruptly life can change. A sea and two hours apart, this conversation is one of many we have had as friends, sisters and collaborators where we consider the parallels between time in relapse and in crisis. We have spoken about the wisdom gained through endurance and finding kinship with strangers, as well as our shared hope that alternative structures of care will be sustained post Covid-19.
As the world functions in slower time, there is perhaps an opportunity to learn from the wisdom of those who have already accepted the fragility of human life through living with illness. Sarah said that once you do, there is a freedom found in simply controlling what you can rather than what you can’t. The following words touch upon some of the hope and appreciation that has emerged from our remote support structure and, by making a record, will perhaps remind us of its significance in the future.
1st November 2020 (Zoom)
I recently read about the notion of caring promiscuously and I started to connect it to your new drawings and how they might be supporting others. The Care Manifesto describes promiscuous care as experimental, extensive––a kind of care that doesn’t follow the prewritten rules of who you are expected to care for but rather suggests that care can be provided for the strangers we observe kinship connections with. 2 For you, this could be others who are experiencing the side effects of Prednisolone. 3 I think simply reading that someone else has endured how you are feeling could provide so much warmth in the anxious moments you have described to me.
This is what I was trying to do. When I was googling my symptoms all I could find were medical journals filled with vague data, lists and statistics––non-specific clinical descriptions of what might happen to you. What I was really craving were human anecdotes. I thought that if I could make something about what was happening to me in real time it could provide the support that I was seeking but couldn’t find. The initial side effects caused my legs to swell, I developed what they call ‘moon face’, insomnia, intense alertness, euphoria, mood swings…the intensity of what is happening to your body can get lost when you write retrospectively and so I think documenting in real time is actually extraordinary. I’ve never done anything so immediate before and selfishly, it’s helping me. It’s cathartic.
What did you hope to find from reading someone else’s experience?
I wanted to find reassurance. I felt as though I was having an extreme reaction and I needed to know if anybody else with FSGS had experienced this. I didn’t find much about my disease but I discovered how evil the side effects of the drug are. I don’t necessarily think his patients have fed back precisely how sick it can make you.
We have previously talked about censorship and how we perhaps have a tendency to tone things down when we talk about experiences retrospectively. This is different to your last book that relied on ephemera, your memory and the memory of others. This time the work is becoming the ephemera through daily records that contain a rawness I didn’t observe in A Puff of Smoke. 4
When I look back on the notes I made in the initial weeks of treatment I feel as though I am reading back the words of another person and that’s fascinating to me. I poured my mind out in those pages with detailed descriptions and thoughts I would have otherwise forgotten. They provide a document, in real time, of how my perspective has shifted. I am normally someone who throws hospital letters away but I have kept them as part of this growing collection of relapse documentation so that I will remember the intensity of my experience when it happens again.
When I found out about your relapse, I tried to approach it with this same stoicism. This ‘matter of fact-ness’ I observe even in your more vulnerable moments. I didn’t tell you it would be fine as I didn’t want to exist in the false belief it would be. From you I have learned not to hold on to a certainty that can never be certain. Both the pandemic and this relapse have made me think about our habit of seeing life in a linear way and I believe illness can force a person to acknowledge there will be intermittent ruptures to this lineage irrespective of who you are. The way you’re approaching your relapse, how you say you’ve never been happier, is significant to me and it makes me know you’re okay in a way that you can control.
I’ve never been in a better place in my life and it’s just getting through this health stuff that makes me cry sometimes. I don’t even think it’s unfair anymore and feel lucky about the small things, like how I went for a walk this morning. Although I’m not well, I appreciate and look forward to every day.
This makes me think about Martin O’Brien who lives with Cystic Fibrosis. He created the notion of ‘zombie time’ in order to think about what it means to live beyond your life expectancy. 5 Perhaps when you are not moving towards anything in particular you become more aware of the significance of each day.
It’s made me think about what an idiot I was for allowing trivial things to bother me only a few months ago. I am calmer and happier now because something so huge has been taken away from me. Life is both smaller but longer due to my insomnia and I have developed a heightened awareness of the everyday. Intimate moments at home like dancing with Duncan in the kitchen, mundane things like a disused gate where nature has taken over, watching the interactions between wild swimmers on the beach or changes in the coastal skyline. This experience has provided me a new mindset that I’m hoping to maintain when I get things back at some point.
Wisdom could be one word for it. I want to return to that exciting conversation we had where I floated the idea of a new universal hope. I believe there has been an awakening to our fragility as human beings that I think could function positively in the near future.
I think we have realised there is an alternative, or a new balance of work and life. I’m thinking of colleagues who have children and commitments and have found ways to navigate them around working remotely. People have been more accepting because everybody is suffering at some level.
There are definitely silver linings.
Carrying on is really important to me. It provides me space outside of what I call my ‘isolation station’ and I enjoy feeling part of something external to me. I don’t just want to sit at home and feel sorry for myself.
I want to talk about the days when you refuse to rest and your resilience of needing to carry on.
It goes back to when I was ill in my childhood and gave in for a while. At some point I realised I had to change my focus and I threw myself into becoming an artist and from that point, I’ve been really driven. I don’t want to return to that weakness and if I can find the strength to do something, then why lie down? If I can sit in this chair, be in pain but still talk to you, then why not do it?
You told me that rather than letting it rot inside of you, get it out.
Yes, externalising. I stopped googling my symptoms and instead I made drawings about it. It allowed me to see what I was doing and how damaging it was. Getting it out of my system is a real process. It’s about making a choice.
You were telling me about this Henry Miller quote you’ve been inspired by: “Everything is begging to be discovered.” 6
Yes, quite literally. I’ve been noticing that I’m so much more observant than I’ve ever been. I’m just really enjoying ‘looking’ [laughs]. In fact, the other day I sat at my window for half an hour writing down everything I saw and felt.
You’ve also been documenting the changes to your body…actually, as I look at you right now, your face doesn’t seem bloated at all but obviously these steroids have had some extreme side effects. It made me think of the late artist Jo Spence who made a whole decade of work about her experiences of breast cancer through what she called ‘photo-therapy’.
It’s so helpful. I look back at the pictures when my legs were so swollen, I could hardly bend my knee and now I realise they’re almost normal again. Or when I was weighed at the clinic and was heavier than I’d been in ten years. It was just fluid retention. I like to make notes of that. These small signs of hope that my body is perhaps accepting the drug. You have to keep those small hopes going.
There is a tendency to be so critical of our bodies when they’re misbehaving, so to have a point of comparison must be helpful. We talk about hope a lot but I’m interested in the moments where I think hope has been cruel, like at the very beginning.
There was the moment just before I started the treatment. My doctor said there was a ‘miracle chance’ that if my blood results came back with an improvement, I wouldn’t have to start the steroids. I held on to that hope for a whole week because I didn’t want it to happen so badly. When the inevitable happened, and actually the results were worse, it was even more crushing to me. Now I have learned to live each day unknowing when it’ll end. You can’t live for a deadline.
I remember trying not to celebrate that miracle chance. You have been documenting your body but what about the daily routines?
I can’t help but make art out of my pills now and mum does it, too. It’s a really sweet daily exchange. I look forward to seeing what mum makes each morning.
There’s a playfulness you can find in these everyday tasks.
It’s what I keep trying to find and the humour in my circumstances. I mean, if there was a time to have a relapse this is the time to have it because nobody can do anything anyway.
There isn’t the same fear of missing out you had before. I was thinking about how we are always working towards time limits or feel we’re running out of time. Lisa Baraitser talks about suspended time and it reminded me of your relapse but also about the pandemic. 7 I was thinking about stretched time. Time interrupted. The other day you messaged in the morning to say the clocks had gone back and that you had ‘even more time today.’ Your current experience of time must feel infinite.
Infinite but I’m also never bored. It’s likely the treatment but ideas are just coming. In the beginning, I was just waiting for positive results but now I think more about phases and how this is just one of many I will endure on my journey towards remission. I only become frustrated on the days when I feel so unwell that I have to pause and stop making. That is my interrupted time and I am angry at that time and my body, as it’s already stopped me from doing so much.
I can relate to this idea of being mad at ‘time’ and yet it is so unattainable. What about waiting for recovery?
I had one moment last week when I told my doctor I needed some realistic expectations. He admitted I was going to have to be closely monitored for at least two years once I’m in remission and initially that idea was unbearable but now, I’ve just decided to accept dip sticks will be part of my life for a while. It’s just good to know, isn’t it? 8
Ha, we do talk about piss a lot. I feel as though in the past you’ve had these periods of rebellion where you tried to ignore your illness.
There was one period of time where I stopped taking my pills in my 20s.
It was discussed in the final drawings you made for the exhibition last year. They talked about the process of learning to take care of your illnesses as an adult and to me it reinstated the true nature of chronic as lifelong…how it doesn’t end at diagnosis. Don’t you think there is this dangerous tendency to always fight illness?
I hate that word fight! It’s especially used in the cancer world but I hate it because for me it’s not a fight. You put it really well, it’s endurance. You learn to live with it because it doesn’t end. Mine is never going to end, anyway. If I get to the end of kidney care and I have to get a new one, it isn’t the end. I haven’t battled or fought it. I will have to be monitored because the replacement could pack in. You don’t fight until your death, do you?
We can’t box illness up like that. Illness is messy. Health is messy.
We take a piss break.
I had a conversation with my nephrologist the other day and he said what I’m experiencing now must be so different from what I remember as a child. When you’re young, your parents take charge of things and it’s true. All I had to think about then was being ill or at most, being at school.
Mum and dad took care of the administration.
It’s like I need a PA now I have adult responsibilities. I’m fussy about being taken care of but Duncan is brilliant because he knows exactly when I need help and when to let go. I go to the hospital on my own but I still rely on mum and dad being at the end of the phone when I come out. I like to talk to them because they understand things in a way nobody else ever will. There’s something in me that really needs the family but it works best at a distance.
This relates to something I experienced during lockdown and how I would call different friends when I was in various states of emotion. The history I share with an older friend was at times precisely what I needed but often I just desired something lighter to soften the reality of what we have all been living through.
I totally get that. I have a new friend who just checks in with me. I have friends that live abroad who provide distraction in the small hours because I can’t sleep with insomnia. Then there are close friends who I talk to when I’m walking my dog in the morning. They each provide for different needs.
One person can’t provide for them all.
You’ve got to spread the load, haven’t you?
What you’ve said about doing it alone makes me return to this sense of rebellion I observe in you and how you are resisting the associations we attach to illness of reducing, stopping, giving in. But also, how you go about so much of this independently. I’m often telling you to accept help.
I think it’s because when I was a teenager, I got annoyed with the amount of questions mum and dad would ask. I wanted to take control over my own body. The hospital still gives me anxiety, so going on my own is my mechanism. I can sit with the anxiety and pace out my questions. If Duncan, mum or dad had been there they would have asked about the long-term future that I’m not able to think about yet. I do reach out for support when I need it but it has to be on my own terms.
When I was sick in my teens, I just wanted to know how to get through to the next week. I believe we function better when working towards smaller milestones. It’s like when you were saying you had to be better by a specific date and later described that as a dangerous way of thinking. Now it’s more about getting through to the next day.
I put too much pressure on myself at the beginning and then I realised the importance of pacing myself. My collaborator friend Lucy McKay says ‘control what you can and everything else falls away’ and that’s become my mantra. It’s about letting those things go. 9
That really summarises everything. This is what I meant about the rebellion I see in you. You’ve found the ability to control your outlook whilst feeling out of control with your body. At the same time, you have asked if I think others are dealing with it better but I don’t think you can measure it like that. It’s okay to feel angry, Sarah. I actually think you reached a new level of acceptance when you wrote the description of what’s happening to you.
I read it aloud and cried because if I hadn’t, I’d have felt like they weren’t my words. It felt great to get it out. My lunch is ready, by the way. Bye, love you!
Love you too.
A note from Samantha:
I was born within weeks of Sarah falling ill. In 2019 I curated an exhibition at The Centre for Better Health to mark the launch of ‘A Puff of Smoke’, a graphic memoir that tells the story of the eleven years Sarah and my family endured to find a root to the cause. The book ends with brain surgery when I was just ten and Sarah eighteen.
Today she continues to live with two rare diseases, Moya Moya and FSGS, and the texts we have put together over the last year aim to reinstate the enduring nature of them as lifelong. Our collaborative work considers the role of creative practice in breaking down boundaries between patient and medic and often, from the perspective of the unique kinship we have formed from living through illness together in adolescence and the candidness this offers to discuss these topics in a human light.
1 Focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS) is a disease in which scar tissue develops on the parts of the kidneys that filter waste from the blood (glomeruli).
2 The Care Collective (2020) The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence. Verso Books.
3 Prednisolone is a steroid medication used to treat certain types of allergies, inflammatory conditions, autoimmune disorders and cancers.
4 Lippett, S. (2019) A Puff of Smoke. Jonathan Cape.
5 O’Brien, M. (2020) You are my death: the shattered temporalities of zombie time. Wellcome Open Research.
6 Miller, H. (1957) Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. New Directions.
7 Baraitser, L. (2017) Enduring Time. Bloomsbury Academic.
8 Dipstick: The urine protein dipstick test measures the presence of proteins, such as albumin, in a urine sample. Sarah tests her levels every two days. Once the levels decrease and change from a dark green colour (high level) to a yellow colour (low level) she will be weaned off the steroid medication.
9 Dr Lucy McKay is Chief Executive of Medics4RareDiseases, a UK registered charity which is driving attitude change towards rare diseases in the medical profession and encouraging medical students and doctors in training to ‘Dare to think rare’.
My Lazy Laboratory
Sophie Seita is an artist and academic working with text, sound and translation on the page, in performance and other media. Sophie led ‘Rupert Reading Session #3: Sophie Seita ‘Reading with Material’. More information here. In this text, Sophie writes about knowing as an experimental practice that is situated and relational and how knowledge, understood in this way, is configured by responsibility and interdependence.
I want a lazy laboratory. I want an abstract space and concrete place for experiment without yet knowing where I’ll end up. In many ways that’s the very definition of experiment, from the Latin experior, to attempt but also ‘to experience’. An experiment can in itself be an experience, rather than just a conduit for it.
But in writing, in art, in relationships, even Experiment is her own little bureaucrat. And for someone living in fear of its actualisation, laziness has the appeal of diving with sharks. You can be enamoured with the idea of languor but not with its practice. Say, you’re on holiday somewhere sunny and humid and when you ask the owner of your little guest house what there is to do apart from going to the beach, he says: not much; just relax; feel the heat. You might reasonably or not so reasonably panic.
So sometimes you just land somewhere. You find yourself in a place that falls into place. Falling into place is an action that requires acceptance. A downward gesture, a drop into cushions, a sound of soft suction, like drawing an imaginary line down your windpipe; or the pleasure when things fit, when the deck of cards glides into its case or a sliding drawer clicks shut.
laziness in a new key
A couple of years ago, I began to fantasise about an alternative school in the form of a lazy laboratory, a languorous salon, in which ‘menopausal she-dandies’ (Lisa Robertson) and ‘feminist killjoys’ (Sara Ahmed) could ‘teach [us] to transgress’ (bell hooks). What would we transgress? — our imbibed desire for order, clear directions, strong work ethic, rigour, and individual genius. Instead, we’d celebrate collaboration, listening, care, and play—of variable rhythms, meandering directions, loops, and returns.
Let me present to you my pitch, my melodic invitation to tune in.
In the laboratory, we would practise a kind of doing that is about responsiveness and openness, about tuning in as a state of being attentive. We would query our impatience and welcome sleepiness, not to discredit the fiery rush of restlessness or the kick of precision but to expand our emotional palette, our vocal range, for thinking and making. As creative practitioners, we often have to justify what we do, be legible, find labels for our practice. In a cultural moment in which we’re under the regime of excessive celebration of self-image, of daily documentation, of either stark or faux-nonchalant professionalism, we might want to get stuck a little, be a little confused, even delirious, like when we’re sick. Give our eyes some soft focus. In a languorous state, we take pleasure in dreaming, inactivity; we let things happen, which is necessary for collaboration and experimentation. Laziness and languor etymologically signal exhaustion, weakness, faintness. So a lazy eye, a sluggish movement, might offer a different organising principle for the body. Sometimes your body doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to and sometimes you actively resist what it means for something to ‘work’. For that not-working to work we need others in the room. We sometimes wouldn’t know what to do, what to say, but we would be reassured by the poet Nisha Ramayya’s invitation to ‘not know together’. We would drum along to Raphael Sbrzesny’s teaching style in the form of a ‘polyphonic studio’, a term he borrows from German theatre scholars David Roesner and Clemens Risi for non-hierarchical co-creation. Polyphony recognises difference. It’s several voices coming together, harmonically interdependent.
I have experimented with some of the above ideas in a number of practice-based workshops, sometimes under the rubric of ‘Reading with Material’. These workshops were driven by a recent inspiration (Pauline Oliveros) and a long-term inspiration (the singing method I learnt at the Lichtenberger® Institute of Applied Physiology of the Voice in Germany), and were focused on movement, writing, and some simple voice work.
Here are some of my questions and prompts:
Voice exercise 1: Imagine your tongue is a dolphin. Your nervous system will know what to do with that image. It will translate it. Now speak or sing or hum with that image in mind.
Voice exercise 2: Remapping organs. Walk around the room and imagine your feet have ears. The larynx and the ears are twins; both vibrate at high frequencies. Can you imagine your larynx with ears? Do the ears have a larynx? Can your ears give up a habit?
‘The ear is a faithful collector of all sounds that can be gathered within its limits of frequency and amplitude. Sounds beyond the limits of the ear may be gathered by other sensory systems of the body.’ (Pauline Oliveros, Deep Listening, p. 19)
Movement or voice prompt 3: The tongue, the tips of our fingertips, and the soles of our feet have a tendency to become soft. All sensory organs want to experience softness. There are floral principles in the receptors of our finger tips. Now allow these receptors to be oriented towards resonance, towards vibration. The vocal chords have a similar sensitivity to our fingertips. Can they have an encounter that resembles the receptivity of our sensory organs, a sort of self-touch? Our habits and our drive towards discipline and achievement limit our sensory awareness, bodily experiences and expressions of ease. Instead, let’s ask ourselves: What happens when nothing happens?
In each of these exercises, I asked myself and the participants to observe the experiment with curiosity, free from judgement.
I also invited participants to bring a material and to explore that material’s characteristics, its textures, what response it asks of us.
Here’s Anni Albers in On Weaving:
‘Concrete substances and also colors per se, words, tones, volume, space, motion — these constitute raw material; and here we still have to add that to which our sense of touch responds — the surface quality of matter and its consistency and structure. The very fact that terms for these tactile experiences are missing is significant.’ (chapter on ‘Tactile Sensibility’, in On Weaving (Middletown/CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1965; repr., London: Studio Vista, 1974), p. 45)
What adjectives would we use for our material? Is it chewy, bendable, pliable, or wiry, or perhaps brittle, or permeable; is the surface burnished or grainy or dull? Suddenly we’re in the realm of poetry. What kind of knowledge can this encounter, this touch produce?
In Touching Feeling, Eve Sedgwick suggests:
‘To perceive texture is never only to ask or know What is it like? nor even just How does it impinge on me? Textural perception always explores two other questions as well: How did it get that way? and What could I do with it?’ (Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), p. 13).
To touch is to perform, to trouble what it is that we do, but it also sets up a relation, a dialogue, with someone or something:
‘to touch is always already to reach out, to fondle, to heft, to tap, or to enfold, and always also to understand other people or natural forces as having effectually done so before oneself, if only in the making of the textured object’ (p. 14).
For Sedgwick, feeling can be grasped, in both senses of that word: physiologically and intellectually. Touch is thus something we can actively do. As such, it’s connected to agency.
One of the materials I’ve worked with in workshops is clay, playdough, which appeals to me for its easy pliability. If writing were playdough, then… then we could see where that too-easy metaphor would take me by trying it with our hands; by getting little bits of green-red-yellow dough under our nails, as evidence of some material engagement; a sticky trace of a sticky process. “Think of a sticky object; what it picks up on its surface ‘shows’ where it has traveled and what it has come into contact with” (Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), p. 40).
All these exercises were about the capacity to receive, to let the body respond and self-organise, to imagine what’s possible, to not-know and not-plan the experience in advance.
In 2018, I attended an artist workshop on ‘not planning’ at the Southbank Centre, funded by the Live Art Development Agency, and organised by the late Katherine Araniello (who harnessed humour in her engagements with disability, agency, and queerness), and Teresa Albor (who connects feminism and questions around ageism in her work). Nothing was planned, or hardly anything, and so I and the other artists and workshop leaders practised and performed our not-planning, spontaneously, irreverently, comfortably, for ourselves and for the public, as part of Unlimited, the Southbank’s Festival celebrating the work of disabled artists. Before the workshop, my control freak heart couldn’t quite imagine how such a weekend would ‘work’. Well, it worked, precisely because we didn’t work hard, and had permission not to.
The week following the workshop, I attended a voice seminar at the Lichtenberger® Institute in Germany on the concept of hysteresis. In physics, engineering, and biology, hysteresis describes a state of belatedness when something has an effect after we expect it, and possibly not where or how we expected it. It’s an effect that retains potency long after the cause, to the extent that the cause becomes untraceable. We were asked to apply this concept of lag to singing and learning. Systems with hysteresis are nonlinear. You see where I’m going with this. For our voice to function healthily we cannot over-plan. Our nervous system reacts much better to stimuli that are playful, that induce rest rather than tension. The singing method I learned—which I now also consider a much broader pedagogical method—is about openness, patience, responsiveness, and resisting the urge to do something quickly and reaching a particular ‘goal’.
Artists can often become overly goal-oriented, and as such, like athletes, unstoppable, tireless, competitive. An effective piece of advice you might give the artist-as-athlete: become the best at resting.
In January of this year, I went to a class at Movement Research intriguingly titled the Athletics of Intimacy, with the dancer K.J. Holmes. What was athletic about the class was the rigorous dedication and discipline in letting go. A discipline of discovery. We became disciples of slowness.
To be moved and touched by strangers in dance demands and bestows trust. It felt gentle and soothing. My body became material. The class focused on improvised movement with K.J.’s prompts as invitations for internal physiological experiences rather than external athletic demonstrations.
These kinds of exercises and somatic experiments rubbed something in for me, namely that touch is knowledge—a non-linguistic form of knowing. It’s a physiological toolkit that you can learn through your body.
One prompt was to allow our body parts to move like magnets. A play with resistance for which we occasionally turned up the volume. You move the other’s body and let the other’s body move you.
What are the support structures that allow you to rest? The dancers became my support structure following a tiny panic earlier that day. Small panics can accumulate in your body. And the skin tightens and reddens; the lung collapses. One singing prompt given during a seminar at the Lichtenberger® Institute was to imagine the collapsing lung. A fellow singer panicked. At the time, I did not see the threat that the collapsing lung posed. I understand it now, but I also sense the promised liberation when we let systems collapse, when we surrender to an image or an idea that your body translates. A paradoxical freedom emerges when we let go of all that holding. That holding onto. Which gets under your skin.
‘MAKE IT PITHY’, proposed K.J. Holmes, in another prompt for movement.
The pith is the spongy white tissue of the orange, the bit under the skin. You have to get under the surface to be pithy, that is, to be concise in your expression. But pith is never pithy. An orange pith in its spread of interlocking parts of tissue is always excess. Surfeit. Abundance.
The theme of this movement class was wandering. I wanted to get lost in the wandering of my thoughts and I wondered how the wall and ground could support my wandering. How could other bodies?
Or did I want to interrupt, intersect their path? Follow a path and then bend away from it before a possible collusion. Like a tangent.
And, of course, despite or amidst all this magnificent malleability, you sometimes get stuck. You fall out of place. You find that things don’t fit. Perhaps something is jabbing out, is askew, is wobbly, slant, careening. And then you do or don’t realise that this is where the learning takes place. When the foundations are a little shaky.
If I had to picture the lazy laboratory, my idea of collaboration, as a room, it would look like this:
My collaboration is an attic with a big window seat with seats for innumerable bodies and with cushions with flowery patterns and bobbles and tassels. My collaboration is a room full of soft furnishings for lounging, for following the languorous trails of our thoughts, for fumbling, for movements without fear of edges. There will be no sharp edges. No cold corners for a corner can be turned. My collaboration is a miniature paper theatre with paper clothes and paper tea cups and paper beds and paper lanterns, easily made with our hands. In my collaboration there is never a shortage of paper. My collaboration is a disco ball full of language, a bathtub full of language, a fridge full of language, and my collaboration is a room that vibrates with the molecules that are ideas that are invisible, but perceptible, when you listen carefully, when you feel into your feet. My collaboration has underlying pipes that give it structure, history, a past. My collaboration is one gigantic veranda swing, always in motion, or always already containing the possibility of motion. This swing, which is my collaboration, is airy and the air on my skin is the same that blows through the window in the attic, through the chimney, the pipes, the paper… A polyphony of objects, of bodies, that loll around, with language.
Care from the Underground
Curator and writer Àngels Miralda Tena led a workshop as part of the alternative education programme in 2019. More details here. In this text, Àngels looks at care, commitment and solidarity in relation to cultural institutions.
What measures, protocols or statements should naturally form part of cultural institutions’ core values? Fashions and trends in curating and contemporary art often follow urgent necessities for reform only to become aestheticised and de-politicised by overuse while ultimately failing to be implemented. Aestheticising forms is a tool for dismantling the revolutionary potential of militantism within artist communities by placating demands with superficial victories of rhetoric rather than substantial institutional change.
Today, concerns around inclusion, diversity and holding onto a plurality of perspectives are continuously debated. Additionally, concepts of care, solidarity and support have become standard in exhibition texts and themes for biennials. However, institutions that purportedly promote such debates and concepts are themselves resistant to or remain reticent about structural change because, as a rule, institutions are themselves built on the concept of self-preservation. In the case of equality and safety for women, institutions have only slowly included feminism as a core concept and stance following several decades of struggle for equal representation and visibility. However, such institutions are still a mirror for the world everyone inhabits––one of patriarchal laws that seek to prevent the institution itself and activist groups from addressing and speaking about the lived realities within the cultural sector. In the following text, I wish not only to denounce the conservative structures of institutions that still often refuse to offer even a minimum of equal representation, but also the lack or slow implementation of infrastructures of safety from and resistance to structural abuse. This is only compounded by a cultural industry that often draws on exploitative contracts for freelance or temporary workers. We must begin by addressing institutional drives to aestheticise, de-politicise and mute political urgencies.
‘Women were also brought to court and fined for “scolding,” while priests in their sermons thundered against their tongues. Wives especially were expected to be quiet, “obey their husband without question” and “stand in awe of them.” … Then, in 1547, “a proclamation was issued forbidding women to meet together to babble and talk” and ordering husbands to “keep their wives in their houses.” Female friendships were one of the targets of the witch hunts, as in the course of the trials accused women were forced under torture to denounce each other, friends turning in friends, daughters turning in their mothers.’
– Silvia Federici, Witches, Witch-Hunting and Women, 20181
In Federici’s account of how women’s solidarity became demonized as an illicit activity met by punishment or death, she provides historical grounds for the persistent lived reality of women. Today, in a society that considers itself progressive, women’s ‘babbling’ rumours and underground whispers remain illegal. For instance, laws against slander in Germany and the Netherlands prohibit the public distribution or posting of ‘insulting’ content and provides a sure escape for any accused.2 A judicial arsenal exists to break up any self-organised group premised around the simple act of collecting and sharing information on the grounds that women speaking is tantamount to ‘libel’ or ‘defamation.’ This legally enshrined oppression of women’s voices and solidarity is itself almost impossible to resist or address because it would depend on collecting and sharing information.
Discussions of solidarity and care in institutional contexts generally refer to the aesthetic form of bodily comfort and the creation of safety. These discussions fall into neoliberal guidelines of self-help and mindfulness rather than concepts of collective care. This institutional failure of the imagination means that the brutality of our lived environment is not addressed. Solidarity, care and support is a game full of dangers and necessary sacrifices. When we speak of solidarity and care we need to acknowledge that our safety is the institution’s danger and that acts of care will always be described as ‘violence’ by the patriarchal orders which they threaten. Referring back to Federici’s exposition of the demonization of women who speak, we can say that the speaking aloud of information which is legally meant to be suppressed is tantamount to language described as of a demonic nature such as the hex, curse or incantation.
In a climate where feminism and its various branches (such as eco-feminism or trans-feminism) have become institutionally normalised as a political value, we run into the problem of an essentialist and tokenistic idea of identity-politics replacing political determination. In museum programming, exhibitions which recover the work of women artists in the 20th century have become common-place, but at the same time they have lost their initial political edge. What began as a militant and political affront to patriarchal art history has become a routine devoid of political motivation. Fulfilling quotas of women artists doesn’t necessarily mean implementing change. In the context of reflecting on current issues and representations of artists of colour, Seph Rodney recently argued that it may even be part of a strategy to keep existing power structures in place or simply arbitrary.3 A real exponent of care and solidarity can only be performed at deep institutional levels where accountability and responsibility are addressed in a meaningful political way that seeks confrontation rather than avoid awkwardness.
In 2017 I visited a retrospective exhibition of Rosemarie Castoro at the MACBA in Barcelona.4 Castoro was one of the women artists developing work in the New York City scene of the late 20th century who suffered from the ‘wife of artist’ syndrome, overshadowed by her famous husband Carl Andre. At the same time as the opening of Castoro’s exhibition feminist groups were organising around the world to protest Andre’s exhibitions over the disputed death of his first wife Ana Mendieta.5 Castoro married Andre after the episode of potential femicide and took a strong position against feminism in defence of her husband. In the vitrines of the MACBA exhibition diary entries and letters written by Castoro railed against feminist colleagues, calling the political position ‘segregation’ and defending her marriage. Although her own solo exhibition at this world-renowned institution was the outcome of feminist practices in art history, did she deserve the benefit of a practice she was politically against?
In the exhibition, although her political position was not hidden, neither was it highlighted and it remained just a footnote in the annals of her career. I could not help but read this removal of politics and the omission of a clear outline of social circles and how they interacted with each other as anything other than a de-politicisation of feminist art history. A tokenistic approach to representation via essentialism uses the structure of feminist exhibition practices but without its militantism, a dressing of the work without delving into personal politics. It is important to remember that making a solo exhibition of Rosemarie Castoro gives a very different political message than programming one by Judy Chicago, Zilia Sánchez or Senga Nengudi––women artists of the New York art scene who doubly suffered from patriarchal and racist systems and actively fought against them rather than submit to their hierarchies of oppression.
In the case of Rosemarie Castoro, really doing the work of caring for fellow-women means acknowledging the fact that Castoro’s position was born out of oppression. As a woman artist in the shadow of a violent man, she suffered from the patriarchal reality in which she lived.6 Castoro’s position is one that could be interpreted as self-preservation, survival next toderived from manipulation, abuse and gaslighting by an artist with an established track-record of degradation and abuse against women; in such a situation, she was led to denounce the very people who cared for her. Would it not have been useful to contextualise this history rather than bury it and continue the failure of addressing a history of post-modern art that was defined through violence, aggression and discrimination?
On Sunday the 4th of October 2020, I read several passages aloud on De Appel’s livestream of the new publication, Audre Lorde: Dream of Europe (2020).7 The idea of ‘care’ that is so popular today stems in part from Lorde’s political and personal philosophy of militant combat. The practice engages in Lorde’s philosophy of acknowledging plurality and reading the words written by a black, queer, feminist is one way to embody the politics of Audre Lorde whose intransigent intersectionalism is based on an acceptance of difference, the richness of plurality and an acknowledgement of privilege. Lorde’s philosophy on the acknowledgement of difference was not a segregational one but a militant activism to create space for unheard voices against the conservative notion of assimilation.
Formulations of care are deeply rooted in feminist and anti-racist struggle because women, and especially women of colour, have historically occupied the role of carers. Care for the elderly and care for children is a domestic task relegated to the unpaid female workforce as defined in the early work of Federici.8 Initial texts on care were outlined by Nel Noddings in a seminal but often criticised work Caring (1984) as a network of societal well-being based on relational identities.9 From this, Lorde’s appropriation of care from outward-facing societal impact to inner-facing reworking is understood as a breaking of ‘the master’s tools.’10 Appropriation is therefore turned around and used to disrupt patriarchal society and break its cycle of oppression.
When speaking of care, it is necessary to highlight the criticism and development of this concept by black feminism and queer feminism in order understand that first, care is a necessity brought about by constant physical brutality perpetrated most harshly against POC and non-conforming female bodies and second, that feminism is not a single cohesive unit but one full of diversity and differences in experience. Therefore, care is neither a common experience nor a common necessity, but a malleable term with many meanings and uses. Considering the long centuries when care-jobs were forced on women (especially POC and working-class) we cannot use it as an intrinsic good, but must recognise the role of care in and as oppression. The forcible work of care towards others is here weaponised as solidarity against regimes of socially-imposed violence.
‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’ – Audre Lorde
Shortly after the Me Too movement in 2017, a Facebook group opened that circulated widely among cultural practitioners in Spain called La Caja de Pandora (Pandora’s Box). The group was centred around the court case of Spanish artist and choreographer Carmen Tomé’s allegations against curator Javier Duero for using his position as the director of a residency to watch as she changed her clothes in the laundry room before entering the room and attempting an aggression.11 The group served first as a support network and later used to compile more accusations against Duero from various women who had experienced similar scenarios. Finally, with hundreds of testimonies, the group began to recount the extent of physical, psychological and emotional patriarchal violence that exists within the Spanish art world and how such violence had become normalised and silenced. This group constituted a ground-breaking moment, what in Spanish can be referred to as an acontecimiento, translated in the terms of continental philosophy as ‘the event.’ This breaking moment began not because of feminist discourse in the art word, but out of a lack of it and not because of the tolerance of the art system but in spite of its hyper-conservative structure.
This group embodied Silvia Federici’s arsenal of whispers. It became a place where people could speak and expect support rather than instant rebuke. It rendered apparent the fear and consequent silence that exists for women who are constantly accused of lying, embellishing or speaking only for their own benefit. This societal-scale form of gaslighting was, in this particular instance, combatted through communal listening, believing and responding; that is, through the aggregation of individual actions of care and sacrifice.
But like all groups with the aim of seriously discussing aggressions against women, it ended with the initial case. Other cases were deemed too delicate, too vulnerable to go through legal processes and the limitations of the group became clear. At the end of the day, La Caja de Pandora achieved its initial goal and its eventual disappearance is not the fault of the group but rather a structural problem of these initiatives disintegrating before they can create new goals. Speaking with activists in many different cities who have been associated with groups advocating for women’s freedom to speak, similar results repeat across the board: too often there is the complete dissolution of a group which lacked the resources to compete with a fully-functioning repressive legal and police system that protects the mechanisms that implement female silence. Over the years, silence has become part of our identity. But whispers can be loud when there are many of them.
And if the group was pushed back down below, it lies now within the earthy humus, where decomposing bodies create the richness which feeds the world of air.
In 2019, an anonymous group called Soup du Jour filled headlines ahead of Berlin’s Gallery Weekend as people read and reacted to their first open letters. Examining the list of galleries and artists presented at Berlin’s premier event, the group highlighted that 75% of artists showing work were white men––not a representation of Berlin’s progressive, diverse and plural population.12 Another protest called ‘Whitey on the Moon’ sparked a media storm in the fall of 2019 when the group directed media attention to a group exhibition at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien that drew on ideas of Afrofuturism without inviting any black artists.13 The group staged successful protests in both cases and raised awareness of the reality behind Berlin’s progressive face and the conservative market structure (or outdated directors) that tighten discrimination rather than helping to combat it.
Soup du Jour has been a success in its various initiatives. International media focused on continuing racist and patriarchal patterns in culture and intense discussion was sparked. Importantly, it produced consequences rather than sticking to commentaryquiet bad opinions, it took the form of visible critique and it raised the stakes for institutional curators who have yet to announce a clear stance.
The group has recently developed a strategy to combat more persistent and difficult issues within the German artworld, collaborating with government agencies including the Federal Government Commissioner and the Citizen Centred Government in the Federal Chancellery.14 The survey produced in conjunction with these government agencies is a 100% anonymous platform that gathers accounts via official channels. The result will show the extent of abuse and harassment in the cultural world but also proves that anonymity of both victim and abuser is a prerequisite for legal data management and public diffusion of information. The legal structure requires keeping the names of abusers confidential, it requires the cradling and protection of those who perpetrate constant violence.
Care is militant combat, solidarity is a dangerous commitment, support is caring for others but it also might mean emotional draining the self. Care has become a popular word in culture because it is so necessary, but it needs to be defined because of its still-contested nature and problematics that are far from solved. The care I still see embodied in institutions is the aestheticised apolitical notion of ‘Care’––a sort of false-care, an opportunistic care, one that uses the word without considering its implication and philosophical roots. It can be a term with great meaning, but also fall into meaningless overuse and become a non-militant and non-political care that creates crutches for the frail despot of tradition.
During this year of great uncertainties, political regression and general stoppage, a sea-change in artistic work has been taking place. A new dematerialisation is occurring that changes the metaphysical implications of the work of art. The future of art after 2020 is not one of institutions, biennials and fairs. It is one where the artwork is a militant confrontation towards the structures that have ideologically constrained it. It is one where plural voices, collectives and open statements will take the place of monuments. Care, solidarity and support feature here in an important way, one that combats the self-centred tradition of the individualist artist, one that creates a community where competition had previously ruled. The idea of exhibitions will mutate in form into one of real-care, real-solidarity, real-support––and most importantly, one of militant combat.
1 Silvia Federici, ‘How the demonization of “gossip” is used to break womens’ solidarity,’ In These Times, 31 January 2019. (http://bit.ly/3qondwf)
2 ‘Media Laws Netherlands Database’ (http://legaldb.freemedia.at/legal-database/netherlands/#:~:text=Defamation%20remains%20a%20criminal%20offence,of%20making%20that%20fact%20public.)
3 Seph Rodney, ‘How Woke are the Fall Shows at New York’s Blue-chip Art Galleries?’, Hyperallergic, 25 September 2020. (https://hyperallergic.com/588549/fall-at-nyc-blue-chip-art-galleries/)
4 Rosemarie Castoro: Focus at Infinity, curated by Tanya Barson, MACBA – Museu d’art contemporani de Barcelona, 9 November 2017 – 15 April 2018.
5 Carolina A. Miranda, ‘Why protestors at MOCA’s Carl Andre show won’t let the art world forget about Ana Mendieta,’ Los Angeles Times, 6 April 2017. (https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-ana-mendieta-carl-andre-moca-protest-20170406-htmlstory.html)
6 Helen Holmes, “Actress Ellen Barkin Accuses Artist Carl Andre of Assault in a Series of Tweets,” Observer, 21 January 2020. (https://observer.com/2020/01/ellen-barkin-accuses-carl-andre-assault/)
7 Audre Lorde, Dream of Europe: Selected Seminars and Interviews: 1984-1992, Kenning Editions, 2020. The reading group is performed weekly on De Appel’s live stream: https://new.deappel.nl/nl/pages/197-droom-over-europa
8 Silvia Federici, Wages Against Housework, 1974. (https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentstudents/postgraduate/masters/modules/femlit/04-federici.pdf)
9 Nel Noddings, Caring: a Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, 1984.
10 Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools will never dismantle the Master’s House”, 1984. (https://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Lorde_The_Masters_Tools.pdf)
11 Carmen Morán Breña, “El MeToo Español se llama la Caja de Pandora,” El País 25 January 2018. (https://elpais.com/cultura/2018/01/24/actualidad/1516819549_185849.html)
12 Arsalan Mohammed, “Too White and Male? Not for Long,” The Art Newspaper, 30 April 2019. (https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/berlin-gallery-weekend)
13 Will Fredo Furtado, “An Afrofuturism Show With No Black Artists: What Went Wrong at Berlin’s Künstlerhaus Bethanien?” Frieze Magazine, 8 August 2019. (https://www.frieze.com/article/afrofuturism-show-no-black-artists-what-went-wrong-berlins-kunstlerhaus-bethanien)
14 Soup du Jour (https://www.facebook.com/SdJcollective/posts/344613716878738)
Running with Scissors: Between Damage and Discomfort
Artist Rob Crosse was selected as a Rupert resident in 2020. In these edited extracts from an email conversation, Rob talks with sociologist and author Artūras Tereškinas about intergenerational care, intimacy and finding ways to remember and record collective histories of older gay men and LGBTQ+ communities. The conversation is interspersed with images from a film Rob is currently making. As part of this conversation, you can also read here an extract from Artūras’ novel, Endless Summer: A Memoir of Love and Sex with images by Adomas Danusevičius.
I’ve been meeting with a group called Anders Altern in Berlin who meet once a week to discuss topics of their choosing. Often, these discussions revolve around the idea of disappointment in relation to the body and insecurity around their desires. Although Berlin is certainly one of the most liberal cities in the world when it comes to sex there remains discrimination, often around age and ageing bodies.
Last year I met with a group in Hong Kong called Gay and Grey who also meet regularly to discuss topics of their choosing, and many of their discussions had similar topics. The older men felt they never fully experienced a sense of liberation from the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1991 because the bars and clubs built since then are aimed at the younger generation. Therefore, with the opening of designated spaces for meeting other LGBTQ+ people, many of their public spaces (such as toilets) for meeting other men were taken away.
From your essay it seems there are similar beliefs around the threat to family structures with the rise of LGBTQ+ rights in Lithuania, with those in Hong Kong. The younger generation, whilst being more sexually open minded seem reluctant to separate duty with family and sexuality with desire. There is very little presence in terms of imagery and discussion around older LGBTQ+ people. I wonder if this has an effect on the younger generation’s unwillingness to think outside of the patriarchal family structure.
I have a number of friends I’ve been keeping in touch with who are older and unable to rely on support from their biological family during Covid-19. Berlin has been very organised with many grassroots organisations establishing support networks for older people. I hope these intergenerational support systems will remain in place. Are you aware of any groups in Vilnius to support the older LGBTQ+ community in a similar way?
It was interesting to hear your ideas about older gay men’s groups in Berlin and Hong Kong. I don’t think we have anything similar in Lithuania. Everyone is left to fend for themselves. One of my young friends had an idea to do interviews with older gays (in their 60s) but he’s not a sociologist and I am not sure whether he will do it.
I am myself approaching that ‘gay and grey’ age but my biography is rather different from other older Lithuanian gay men since I spent my formative years (1992-2000) in the US and did not witness a lot of social changes that took place in Lithuania in 1990s. That’s why I would be interested to record people talking about ‘gay spaces’ such as toilets and other cruising grounds, underground clubs etc. and write something that remotely resembles a Lithuanian queer history. I hope it will be possible one day. Three years ago, I wrote a novel, Endless Summer: A Memoir of Love and Sex (in Lithuanian) which, to a certain degree, explores the intimate lives of Lithuanian gay men.
There are a lot of issues related to both younger and older generations of gay men in Lithuania. Although the younger gay generation is more open and adventurous, very few are active politically or participate in any civic initiatives. Many people are satisfied with merely being private. This might also be the reason for why the younger generation thinks within the framework of heteronormative patriarchal family/support systems.
I read the reference to Endless Summer from the essay you wrote that Yates sent previously. The idea of perpetuating precarity through seeking anonymous sexual encounters is something I can identify with.
I attended a talk in Berlin earlier this year about ‘the rise of masculinities and nationalism.’ One particular speaker gave a talk in support of drug-fuelled sex parties as an act against the heteronormative alternative models of seeking connections. He argued that these meetings often involve traveling across various parts of cities bringing people together from different ages and backgrounds. But the reasoning felt very neoliberal in the way the connections don’t seem to be maintained beyond the immediacy of these moments, plus the dependency on drugs and the apps with which to meet men weren’t fully explored.
Are you aware of any existing collective history from older gay men in Vilnius or Lithuania? I would be very interested in exploring this. I’m fortunate in Berlin with the openness of sexuality here but I can imagine that just finding one’s way in the privacy of your own space is hard enough when sexuality is not openly discussed. I had the feeling in Hong Kong that people don’t want to discuss the situation of older gay men because they had this image that everyone ended up lonely, which isn’t true, but can become a self-fulfilling prophecy without an awareness of an alternative.
I’ve been looking after a friend who is 83 here in Berlin since March. We met last year but since Covid-19 I’ve been offering more support as I knew he lived alone. As well as running errands for him and collecting shopping, we’ve become quite close and speak twice a week. I think these kinds of support structures are very frequent but not widely visible. I also met a friend the other day who lived in New York from 1983 to 1994 and the trauma of that experience remains with him to this day. What were your experiences of the U.S during your formative years and how did that shape your relationship to Lithuania?
I agree with your argument that a lot of talk about sex and gender falls into the trap of neoliberal reasoning in which self-management or management of relationships according to the economic demand-supply model prevails. On the other hand, it is still difficult to talk about sex and sexuality without escaping the power-resistance paradigm when short-lived sex parties are conceptualised as a way of resisting heteronormative culture or even sometimes a revolutionary act. I don’t know if you ever came across Tim Dean’s book Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking. It’s a good read but I am not sure whether he escapes these traps and paradigms.
I don’t think there is a collective history of older gay men in Vilnius or Lithuania. Unfortunately, there are no historians interested in this topic. I know that currently a Lithuanian historian wrote a book about red-light district and sex work in interwar Kaunas, a temporary capital of Lithuania. It is indeed very heteronormative. Non-normative sexualities remain out of reach of any history or historical research here because, first, it is a dangerous topic for a researcher and, second, very few historical sources on largely invisible LGBTQ+ people are available.
I haven’t read Tim Dean’s book but I’ve heard about it. I think a revolutionary act requires a goal that goes beyond the act itself. My difficulties with sex party spaces were in the lack of ending or goal. Chasing desires only ever resulted in more chasing, at least for me. At some point that act becomes destructive when the purpose is only for the desire to be maintained.
Is there a lack of interest in the history of gay men because there isn’t an awareness of their presence? Or is there a lack of people wanting or willing to talk about their experience for fear of being visible?
By speaking with men within the groups I’ve attended there are often discussions about the lack of visibility for older bodies, particularly in terms of what is considered desirable. So, without a presence of those bodies or even a collected history of their existence I wonder what that does to one’s sense of self-worth.
Part of a project I’m working on at the moment involves looking into the system of value and desirability in historical cars as a way to talk about the body. I’m interested in the idea that restoring a car is also a way of re-owning a place in time (as well as a status symbol) and how something that might be considered undesirable becomes more desirable with age. But what gets lost during the process of restoration if all the damage is removed and is no longer visible? In the same way, what happens if collective experiences are unrecorded or removed?
I don’t know many older gay men in Vilnius but I have friends who do. Perhaps they could help me to get in touch with these people and to conduct interviews/conversations with them. The Lithuanian case might be interesting (even in comparison to a German one) because those LGBTQ+ memories/spaces experienced considerable political transformations and shifts from Soviet to post-Soviet, socialist to postsocialist, etc. A lot has been lost in the process of these transformations. Our memories and the sense of queer history are as fragile as human lives. Some of gay men whom I had known died in their forties and fifties.
As far as I remember there is some research on this topic done in other postsocialist countries but I cannot recall any artistic projects that focus on it. It is most likely that I am simply not aware of such artistic work that must exist.
I attended a discussion with a group of older men in Berlin the other day in order to invite them to an exhibition I have in November in Berlin. This was part of the series of discussions I attended last year before Covid-19 struck. It was about forgetfulness. Sometimes they can be quite sad when someone is discussing the loss of a partner and their struggles dealing with the new situation, other times they are funny and light-hearted.
My presence in the group feels like an awkward one because, on the one side, I’m interested in the topics and what they have to say, as well as contributing to the discussion, on the other hand, I am researching by listening to their stories and collecting them. It feels like both a violent and caring act. So, I was thinking about this in relation to what it would mean to collect the history of gay men in Lithuania and how that information is documented. Who gets to tell the stories and why is such an important topic. It feels important with any process of documentation to acknowledge the framing.
As a sociologist, I have done hundreds and hundreds of in-depth interviews with people of different groups (many with people at risk of social exclusion). Almost every time one feels uneasy in the face of misery and suffering. It adds up to one’s own depression and sadness. It is easier to say than to do, but one needs to be careful not to ‘do violence’ to the interviewees’ narratives. It is difficult because, as you have mentioned, even the process of retelling other people’s stories is framed by our own biographies and interests.
Moreover, very few people are comfortable talking about their intimate lives. When I question my respondents, I myself often feel like peeping through a keyhole and broadcasting what I can see there. But in my interactions with others, I attempt to transgress myself and, in the anthropologists Don Kulick and Margaret Wilson’s words, ‘to emphasise with and participate in the feelings and ideas of others’, particularly in same-sex erotic desires and longings.
Yates emailed me the other day and apologised for the delay. I think they have been very busy preparing for the opening of the new exhibition. He sent me an extract which you will present in the journal. He proposed to lead a conversation which could act as a pretext for your extract. Perhaps I could include some stills from the new video I’m working on, though I’m not sure it’s so related. I’m making a video of someone stretching and bending a piece of metal into a curved form. I’ll show this alongside a video of an older man’s back. At least, I think that’s what I’m showing. I have a week to decide.
Finding acceptance in the discomfort is something I always think about when I’m entering a space to film. I’m often in spaces which feel highly charged with testosterone and masculinity, but this could also be my assumption. In every room of the car garage where I’m currently filming there is a topless woman calendar hanging on the wall. Perhaps this makes repetitive work more exciting, when time is always marked with sexual fantasy.
I can imagine that’s a very difficult and sensitive position to be in when you’re interviewing, particularly in relation to trauma. I’ve never engaged in interviewing people as I don’t know how to distance myself from the situation. But when I’m behind a camera there is an immediate distancing which doesn’t seem to require an explanation. Though I think this role is problematic unless the position of the camera (in this case me) is visible.
My boyfriend is an investigative journalist and it’s taken him a long time to learn how to distance himself from people, because the expectations of the other person can be very high. I can see he’s trained himself on this a lot and it requires a constant awareness which uses a lot of energy. But I think the frame for a television documentary is already quite clear and he at least has a defined structure for how to filter information.
I guess on some levels when reading a text written by someone there is always the assumption, that parts of those words have been drawn from experience. How to frame them and translate that into something else is the art.
Extracts from the novel, Endless Summer: A Memoir of Love and Sex
That February night we meet by the Zara store. Hubert gives me a big smile as he shakes my hand. My hands are numb from standing outside in the minus ten degree air. All I have on is a thin leather jacket. Hubert invites me for coffee at his place in Šnipiškės. “I baked an apple cake today,” he says. He doesn’t look threatening, but an invitation for coffee at eight o’clock at night could be read many different ways. For Americans, it would simply mean sex. “Would you like to come upstairs for some coffee?” the woman asks George Costanza, the chubby, balding neurotic friend from the hit series Seinfeld. George stammers: “I can’t drink coffee late at night,” and then proceeds to torment himself for misreading the woman’s invitation. His friends console him: “Sometimes coffee is just coffee, not sex. Some people drink coffee that late.” I’m not one of those people, but we catch the bus together anyway. Several stops and a five-minute walk later, we reach the wooden door to his flat in a dreary prefab five-storey. “I have a roommate, but he’s not here today. Went to see his girl,” Hubert explains.
We smoke over a faded red tablecloth draped over the table in his pocket-sized kitchen. Hubert slices his apple cake, but instead of coffee, he pulls out a bottle of tequila from the cupboard.
“Drink?” he asks.
“If you make a margarita, I’d take one,” I answer through a smoke ring.
His margarita is strong – not enough lime juice – but its good enough with the sweet cake. After the limes run out, Hubert pours the tequila into a mix of mango and orange juice. “Mango margaritas are my favourite,” I tell him, a cigarette still burning in my fingers.
I grow tipsy as I listen to Hubert tell me how, at eighteen, he was brought to Vilnius from a small village by an older man with whom he lived for a decade. How he had all of gay Vilnius in the palm of his hand: parties, exotic trips, new friends, even casual sexual partners. They split up when the man found someone younger. Then Hubert spent a few years with a jealous man from Klaipėda – their arguments often ended in fights. The scar on his forehead was from a shard of glass broken off an old Soviet door. “He drove me to the hospital himself. I thought I was going to bleed to death. After the wound healed, I told him to move out.” Such was the short history of the scar.
“I like you,” Hubert says, stroking my shoulder, pouring more mango margarita into my glass. A few more sips and I start to see myself through a camera lens: a pale-skinned man lying on a mattress in a room with faded floral wallpaper. Hubert’s plump lips are on my nipples, navel, cock. I close my eyes.
When I returned to Vilnius from Stockholm in May, my flat had a distinctly southern radiance to it. The polished and lacquered floor smelt of freshly cut timbre. Maple trees rustled outside the window in the undying light of a waning crescent moon. I couldn’t get the memory of my night walks around Stockholm out of my head – to strange gay bars where Swedes danced to Eurovision songs, with Anna Bergendahl belting out: ‘’’Cause this is my life, my friend, and this is my time to stand… and I can’t be no one else!”
I saw Dmitry/Apollo the first time through a window at the gym. One brief glance left my entire body quivering. My friend Hubert was standing by the window with Dmitry. He was pointing to me doing a back exercise. I pulled the long cable toward my chest. Dmitry’s eyelids dropped a bit and he winked. He was wearing small eyeglasses with thin frames. He was looking at me, I at him. It was a recognition of a strange kind of intimacy. That was all it took – that moment of recognition. Hubert waved at me and they walked off.
Sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Eva Illouz claim that our bodies accumulate social experiences, which are then conveyed back through the body. So, when I felt that physical attraction to Dmitry, my body instantly recreated the mechanics of social intimacy: I immediately recognised myself in him. The body is the best, and probably the only way of getting to know another person, to experience the attraction to that person. Which is why I always laugh at those who feel it necessary to constantly remind me about spirituality and kindred spirits.
I finally met Dmitry later, on my way home from the gym. I was going to visit Hubert, and they were both there, drinking tea and eating Dutch cheese sandwiches. We talked about Dmitry’s medical studies. He was Russian, but he spoke Lithuanian without the slightest accent. His voice excited me. Dmitry “flexes” it as he speaks, like I do, hitting the consonants hard. His eyes turn me on even more: blue, vibrant, under big eyelids. They remind me a bit of Jake Gyllenhaal’s eyes – one of my favourite actors. Only Dmitry’s face is much more striking than Jake’s.
According to Lauren Berlant, an American English professor, the object of our love is like a promise, or a cluster of promises to which we have a certain obligation. The things we cherish are like unfulfilled promises – but we can love more than just people. Words, scents, books, sounds, trees – all of them are capable of muting the loneliness that constantly flutters around our hearts. They stay with us even when all we want to do is kill ourselves; they rouse me when I’m too lazy to get up. But are the things we love nothing more than sweet hallucinations peddled to us by romantic songs and stories?
“Love is intoxicating and manic, but in the end, it is toxic: a never-ending exercise in self-deception.” You desire it, even though you know it’s like a drug. And you want to believe that, even as you deceive yourself, you’ll be deceiving another. Falling in love is like a crying child who’s just received a beating from his mother. The wounded pride dissipates and only red belt marks on the back or behind remain. It hurts only as much as you are capable of convincing yourself that, as you loved, it didn’t hurt at all.
Those who know me know that I like the French writer Michel Foucault. Like him, I studied philosophy at first, but then Foucault chose psychiatry and I – sociology. His big, piercing eyes remind me a bit of Dmitry’s. Sexual desire is nothing innate or natural, Foucault believed. It’s more likely a culturally or historically dictated way to feel, admire, flirt, fall in love, fuck, break up and suffer. It is a combination of actions, sensations, experiences, knowledge and body parts that make me who I am now, and that stimulate me to fantasise about sex. It is a combination by which I measure all my successful and failed sexual encounters.
Thinking about Dmitry I try to think about how I’ve lived, trying to imagine a life that would be more meaningful than the one I’m leading now. Sitting in a comfortable leather armchair, my computer on my lap, I keep catching myself poking fun at my own expense, finding the irony in my life’s failures, including Dmitry, as the most prominent hallmarks of my life. Sometimes I feel as if I’ve never had a life that had any actual meaning to me. My entire life story is a collection of unexpressed gestures, unsaid phrases, things I never had the courage to do, and constant interruptions, breakthroughs and recovery. Perhaps I could claim I had a life if I joined it to Dmitry’s?
I’ve lived in this exhausted country for over thirty years now, with the occasional break. I know it’s not easy here for people like me. Their lives are usually dismissed because they don’t conform to the generally accepted ideal of a “real” life. But I cling to it all the same – to that illegitimate, misunderstood, frightening and unreal life.
Would you even want to repeat the lives of others? To speak with someone else’s words, walk along already trodden paths, crave the comfort that everyone desires? Would you want to follow and justify those who call your life an unbearable failure, to listen to that daily refrain: you’re strange, unpredictable, unplanned, lost, fake. You don’t pray for us, or have children, or drink vodka on Saturdays, or pick up girls, or play cards, or watch basketball. Which is why you are plagued by a constant sense of unease. Your entire body radiates it: I love you, discomfort.
Now that I’ve tamed that feeling of discomfort, I know that it not only helps me to survive, but it also helps me craft a life that doesn’t involve blindly following the paths of my parents, or grandparents, or sisters, or other people my own age. When I can’t make peace with the reproachful looks of others, when I wake up alone in the middle of the day, when I feel the uncertainty of the future weigh on my shoulders, and when I remember my failures and cry my eyes out, I laugh to myself: “Lada lada lee, where will the road take me?” Probably nowhere.
Memory is an imperfect thing. It’s like those abstract drops on a Jackson Pollock painting – all blended colours, tangled lines, spots and spilt paint. A multi-coloured, messy memory. Sometimes I’m shaken awake by those intoxicating colours and ask myself: how do I write about all of my sexual relationships without making them sound vulgar? How do I show that all of these encounters were a way of coming to know myself, to experience pleasure, to find the erotic within that vulnerable state into which my body, my imagination, my curiosity and my doubt have plunged me?
He meets the man from Kaunas at the bus station. He’s an unpleasant sort of man – tall, large, with a shaved head. His face is angry and harsh. He reminds him of those guys who attack you on the street for no reason. They shake hands and walk toward Naugarduko Street. “I thought you’d be taller,” the man from Kaunas says. Realising the skinhead doesn’t fancy him at all, the pale man stops. “I brought some brandy, let’s go sit somewhere,” Kaunas says to him. “Let’s go.”
They snack on smoked sausage, grainy black bread and bad canned olives. The pale man opens a bottle of Pinot Grigio, as he doesn’t care for cheap Latvian brandy. The man from Kaunas is mysterious. He says he knows a lot of influential men there, but he doesn’t reveal what he himself does for a living. “Import, export,” he says, but exactly what he trades in remains unclear. He washes down bites off the sausage with big gulps of brandy. And even though he’s much larger than the pale-faced man, it doesn’t take long before he’s tipsy. “You wanna go over to my friends who live in Šnipiškės?” he asks. “One of them is an amazing top. He’ll fuck you good. They’re really friendly.” An interesting proposition.
They get off the trolleybus near the small Aibė shop to buy vodka and wine. They turn off Kalvarijų Street, the main road in Šnipiškės, into a narrow alley, walking down the hill toward a shabby five-storey dormitory. There’s a room on the first floor with a tiny corridor, kitchen and toilet. No shower. No bathroom. Alfonsas, the man Kaunas told him about, is a small, lean construction worker whose wife lives in Gargždai, a town in Western Lithuania. He only comes to Vilnius to make extra cash, but he’s been spending most of this time here for the past three years. He goes back to Gargždai every third weekend – he never invites his wife along to Vilnius. The pale man understands why. Alfonsas’ lover is an Armenian who speaks perfect Lithuanian. He’s lived here for over ten years.
A porn video plays on an enormous television set in the corner of the room. The man sits down on a footstool while Kaunas finds a spot on the extended sofa, next to the Armenian. “I’m like a porno myself. I need to wash off,” the pale man says. “The shower’s at the end of the hall, on the right,” Alfonsas says with a wave of his hand. There are several shower stalls, and the pale man goes into one and starts the water, standing on a plastic bag he’s laid down over the thick layer of dirt coating the tiled floor. He wishes he didn’t have to go back to the porno film, but he left his bag in the room.
He comes back from his shower and finds the men going at it. Alfonsas is still dressed, but he’s stroking the thick penis he’s pulled out of his pants. Kaunas is kissing the Armenian. The pale man, dressed only in his t-shirt and underwear, sits down next to Alfonsas. He doesn’t want to kiss, so he touches the other man’s penis and pretends to be into him. Alfonsas pulls down the man’s briefs, tells him to stand up, and shoves his face into his butt. Forceful thrusts of his tongue are accompanied by strong slaps from his rough hands. The sound of the smacking merges with the moaning coming from the video.
Standing there, the pale man watches the Armenian suck off Kaunas. Alfonsas cums from spanking his ass. The porno plays on, and Kaunas and the Armenian, caught up in each other, pay no attention to the man as he dresses to go. He shakes Alfonsas’ hand and runs out of the room. It’s not even eleven o’clock yet and buses are still running down Kalvarijų Street. It’s a warm, late August night. His trolleybus is empty – just the driver and the man, hastily recording this thoughts into his telephone about the pitiful offerings of the Lithuanian sex market and his pleasant failures. One more badge to pin on the lapel over his fit chest.
Translation by Darius Sužiedėlis
Images by Adomas Danusevičius
1 E. Illouz, Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), p. 100.
2 L. Berlant, “Cruel Optimism: On Marx, Loss and the Senses.” New Formations 63 (2007), p. 33.
3 L. Kipnis, Against Love (New York: Vintage Books, 2003), p. 99.
Vaiva Grainytė is a Lithuanian writer, playwright and poet.
Every year it’s the same:
The colder weather doesn’t bother to ask,
And ignoring the concept of borders,
It drives the spiders into my home.
The pregnant ones get first picks:
Almost as soon as they break in
They take up the best corners
Or the warm bathroom ceiling,
Give birth, give birth, give birth.
The colder weather isn’t inclined to cool down
The night moths’ passion for illusion:
‘Light is our natural ID card,
Our special invitation to a wellness celebration!’
Or so they think, as they fly into my home and
Flutter, flutter, flutter
Until they sizzle
In the suicidal sauna of the lamp.
But here now is a landscape new to this year:
On the window sill, the inflorescences
Of face-masks stretch and air themselves out.
Those who don’t know the news and context
Of the relatively new pandemic,
Might see them as
The shells of some kind of nuts––already husked,
Or as old, abandoned breast implants,
Or even as an extinct colony of expired protozoans.
Masks are a kind of police patrol.
And they regulate not only the length of my own life:
If I didn’t come home each night,
Or fell seriously ill,
There would be no one to open the windows.
Entire generations of spiders have reason to honour these masks.
Entire generations of moths now have reason to curse
Not only the light of the lamp.
Translation by Rimas Uzgiris of Vaiva Grainytė’s ‘Naujienos’
Extending Beyond Ourselves: Invitations within Invitations
An Invitation to Jussi Koitela, Extended to Yvonne Billimore and then to Viviana Checchia, to Explore Curatorial Relations and Collaborations of Care.
To be part of a whole does not, by default, mean to be a fraction of something. To begin with, a fraction is often expressed by two numbers having a small horizontal line between them and we are three authors, so that would not work. Furthermore, to be a fraction of something, would not correspond to our intentions: we do not wish to be separated even by a small line, we want to merge, we want to cross pollinate our ideas in space and time. Therefore we extend beyond ourselves to become parts of a whole in a text co-written and co-edited by six hands reflecting on collectivity as means of solidarity.
From a blank page we started to articulate our ‘whole’ progressively, bit by bit, by addition of ideas. Then we began to reshape one another’s words, and through doing so the parts disappeared and a contaminated whole was created.
Our departure point for this collaborative text reflects back a reading group with the School for Civic Imagination hosted by Viviana and Yvonne last December.1 We read the text, Composting Feminisms and Environmental Humanities by Jennifer Mae Hamilton and Astrida Neimanis. We kept going back to it— ‘re-turning’ it.2 The text ‘turns over’ practices of care, politics of citation and the (un)containable body. Rather than a close reading, the text held a space for the group to sift through questions of independence, inter-dependence and intra-dependence. Let us depart onwards from here.
For the last few years, Yvonne has been developing a project (of sorts) called Feminist Collective Research Practices (FCRP). In part, this project acts as a set of conditions or guidelines that most of her work falls under or is held by. In this sense it also extends to our various collaborations together including this text. One of the key principles of FCRP3 is to explore ways to map and call attention towards the fact that rarely do I-you-we-they research or practice alone, but always with, through or alongside some(body). So while there is a call to practice collectivity there is equally a call to develop deep referencing and politics of citation along the way. Rather than simply placing collectivity and individualism as dualistic or in tension, dismantling the myth of the individual—the genius, independent, self-sustaining, containable body—also requires acknowledging practices and work of inter/intra-dependency. Citing where and who knowledge comes from with more care, more generosity, and with more diversity is precisely a move towards de-centering the individual because it actively disrupts who that central figure has historically been.
This can take us to Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s idea in The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins where the author claims for contamination, where contamination makes diversity: ‘contaminated diversity’.
‘Contaminated diversity is recalcitrant to the kind of “summing up” that has become the hallmark of modern knowledge. Contaminated diversity is not only particular and historical, ever changing, but also relational. It has no self-contained units; its units are encounter-based collaborations. Without self-contained units, it is impossible to compute costs and benefits, or functionality, to any ‘one’ involved. No self-contained individuals or groups assure their self-interests oblivious to the encounter. Without algorithms based on self-containment, scholars and policymakers might have to learn something about the cultural and natural histories at stake. That takes time, and too much time, perhaps, for those who dream of grasping the whole in an equation.’4
Contamination interests us, and this text is an attempt to embed it as a method for exploring the narratives and possibilities of thinking-with contamination, particularly as a resistance to ideas of purity, ecological or otherwise, which are strongly linked to racialised and colonial narratives. In turning to contamination it is useful to draw out the relations between sometimes seemingly disparate matters, to see them not in isolation but as enmeshed. For example, the narratives and meanings of contamination, purity, dirt (and dirtlyness) are heaped together and understood through each other.
Going back to the text mentioned before, ‘re-turning’ it, Composting Feminisms and Environmental Humanities by Jennifer Mae Hamilton and Astrida Neimanis—which was interestingly developed in the context of a reading group and continues as one—is an abundantly rich site for thinking about the importance of acknowledging all the different components and contributors. In the text ‘composting’ is used as a material metaphor for telling a story about the relationship between Feminism and the field of Environmental Humanities. They trace which labours and lineages have been included/excluded, made visible or invisibilised, which have surfaced, decomposed or grown into something altogether different. Drawing from Donna Haraway, they describe composting as ‘the “dirty work”, grunt work, and care labour of cultivating “unexpected collaborations and combinations”’5, continuing they write:
‘composting as a practice demands that we pay attention to what goes into the compost bin. It implores that we attend to our critical metabolisms—to notice not only what is being transmogrified but also under what conditions, why, and to what effect.’6
Both composting and contaminating have got a rather negative connotation in our current society. Not only, as Donna Haraway suggested, they suggest something dirty or a dirty job, but they bring along some potent and irremediable consequences apparently out of human control: bugs reproducing, bacterias infesting, germs and viruses infecting.
It’s interesting how these matters, metaphors and practices can extend towards other fields, for one these feel particularly potent concerns within contemporary art and curatorial work.
Picking up on an earlier thread, in response to intra-dependence Jussi has been looking to Karen Barad’s notion of ‘intra-action’ in relation to curating.7 Curating is always collaboration and co-curating with ‘things’: humans, art works spaces, contexts, histories… What Barad suggests with the concept of intra-action is that there are relations existing before definitions and differences between ‘things’. For Barad, relation is the point where subjects and objects are both separated and connected. Relation is where difference is made.
Applying Barad’s thinking to practices of care within curating and cultural programming places an emphasis on care of relations over ‘things’ that are often defined in the art world as individual objects, art works, artists, institutions. If care is focused towards the relations between things it allows the ‘actors’ to move and act beyond differences and categorisations. Care becomes a tool for changing the power structures that place subjects, identities, humans and nonhumans in rigid normalised order.
This leads us away from the metaphor to the matter of ‘how curators and artists can work through interdependence and solidarity to challenge individualism and competition’. It’s a good point to draw attention to Viviana’s work on this matter. During the debate, ‘How to Stay with the Trouble? Art Institutions and the Environmental Crisis’ part of the exhibition Plasticity of the Planet at the U-jazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, Viviana proposed that the art field must first begin to address its own ‘trouble’ before turning outwards to social and ecological issues, whilst acknowledging them as interdependent. Viviana pinpoints that much of the art world ‘trouble’ results from mirroring industrial processes of progress and production and developing a monoculture which centers artistic protagonism. Her proposal to derail hegemonic culture is for institutions to become socially engaged and to consider curatorial work in relation to wider society, which has ecological implications too. In addition, Viviana calls for arts institutions to take up an ecology of care model: the proposition is for an alternative set of methods, tools, and considerations: for a situated model of curatorial practice. It challenges existing definitions of ‘the curatorial’, taking a multidisciplinary understanding of curatorial practice and evaluating curatorial methods in light of recent geo-political developments. This proposal seeks models that enable local engagement in cultural production, allowing culture to flourish independent of larger hegemonies. The objective is to build a theoretical understanding of situated curatorial practices that can inform alternative approaches and would, in effect, decrease autonomous curatorial vision and power, to find modes which are anchored in local practices, methodologies and understandings.8
It is interesting to think what care and nurture towards relations—the intra-action of things— can mean within arts and curatorial practice. Maybe it can offer a route beyond certain rigid forms of representationalism and bureaucratic understandings of equity work within institutional practices and collaborations. Caring about relations makes it possible to focus on the potential forms artistic practice, curating and art works can take. Not specifically what these are but what they can become with each other. Artworks can be policy, instituting can become artwork and anything can become anything which does not yet have existing definition or predefined ways of practicing.
Concretely this can mean working with individuals and ‘things’ without pre-existing working roles and even with multiple roles. Care towards meaningful relations can provide safer situations which allow for the redistribution and redefinition of identities, roles, power and resources. For example, marginalised groups of people can not only gain visibility and more financial resources within normalised institutional power structures but redefine and practice their working role and life beyond arts within new justice systems.9
To acknowledge we are the sum of our parts, and must care for all those parts, takes us full circle. We set out to follow a process of contamination and experimentation by adding, adding, bit by bit, ontop of each other, until our different parts became a whole. As we reach the end of this text, it seems we have been quite successful in heaping together a range of thoughts, approaches and relations to create a bit of a midden (a compost heap but also a Scottish word for a mess, a muddle, or chaos). In this act, we have thrown in some potentially conflicting ideas such as co-authorship and citation, but hopefully we have actually articulated them equally as practices of care and solidarity.
This porous and transmogrifying text may not have reached conclusions or explicitly defined practices of care and interdependence within curatorial work, but has experimented with enacting them through collaborative writing and editing. For us, this was an exercise intended to lay the foundations for another collaboration that now has further substance in which to grow.10 If we are to draw any tangible threads it would be to continue to strive towards adopting an ‘ecology of care’ model within our curatorial practices and institutions. Where, without hegemony, multiple forms of collaboration can grow and thrive, in relation to and even in tension with one another.
1 The School for Civic Imagination was an alternative pedagogical platform based at the Centre for Contemporary Arts: Glasgow as part of the Public Engagement Programme. It was launched in September 2017 and ran until March 2020.The School represented a support structure for the further development of deeper connections between socially engaged art practice and civic life, delivered by a multitude of contributors. It was structured around different topics, including how socially engaged creative practices can be used in urban and rural contexts. It is as responsive and flexible as possible to the needs and desires of everyone taking part in the programme, as well as local issues that are brought to light over the course of the events. The School for Civic Imagination had a limited capacity and was free of charge – places on the programme were allocated through an open call, with additional events open to the public.The School welcomed 15 participants per year.
2 This is a reference to Karen Barad’s concept of “re-turning” (see: Karen Barad. “Diffracting Diffraction: Cutting Together-Apart”. Parallax 20:3. 2014.) which is situated as an essential practice in Rehearsing Hospitalities Companion 2: the second in a series of readers co-edited by Yvonne and Jussi and published in the context of Rehearsing Hospitalities, Frame Contemporary Art Finland’s public programme 2019-2023. (see: Yvonne Billimore and Jussi Koitela. “‘re-turning’ hospitalities”. Rehearsing Hospitalities Companion 2. Archive Books & FrameContemporary Art Finland. 2020.).
3 see: fcrp.cargo.site
4 Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. “The mushroom at the end of the world: on the possibility of life in capitalist ruins”. Princeton and Oxford UK: Princeton University Press, 2015. (pg. 33-34).
5 Jennifer Mae Hamilton and Astrida Neimanis. “Composting Feminisms and Environmental Humanities”.Environmental Humanities 10(2): 501-527. Duke University Press. 2018. 503.
7 “The notion of intra- action (in contrast to the usual ‘interaction’, which presumes the prior existence of independent entities/relata) represents a profound conceptual shift. It is through specific agential intra-actions that the boundaries and properties of the “components” of phenomena become determinate and that particular embodied concepts become meaningful.” Karen Barad. “Posthumanist performativity: Toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter”. Belief, Bodies, and Being: Feminist Reflections on Embodiment. Deborah Orr (ed). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers: 2006.p 815.
8 Viviana Checchia., 2019. How to stay with the trouble? Art institutions and the environmental crisis [online] Available at:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HOTP8iwWRLw ( link accessed 29. 10. 2020)
9 As an extension of this thought: Dimitris Papadopoulos refers to justice as a “material, processual and practical issue before its regulation through political representation. Alter-ontology: justice engrained into cells, muscles, limbs, space, things, plants and animals. Justice is before the event of contemporary left politics; it is about moulding alternative forms of life” Dimitris Papadopoulos. “Insurgent posthumanism:The state of things” Ephemeral Journal 2010.
10 This collaboration is in the context of Rehearsing Hospitalities, Frame Contemporary Art Finland’s public programme for 2019 to 2023.