Care as Cure: Individualism vs. Community 

Care understood in relation to the idea of curing has its roots in the monastic form, evident in the monasteries of Medieval Northern Europe, with their physic gardens for medicinal plants. One of the only major architectural drawings to have survived from the Middle Ages is the plan for Switzerland’s Abbey of Saint Gall, known as the Plan of St. Gall. While the unique 9th Century document depicts a design that was never actually built, it shows the ideal of a well-supplied monastery. Indeed, it proves the importance of herbal gardens during this period in history, sitting together in this Benedictine monastic compound with an infirmary, a physician’s house, stables, brewery and a bloodletting house, among other things. Such cloister or monastic gardens were extremely popular until the Industrial Revolution, not only for monasteries but for communities; in manors and peasant communities alike there was the collective cultivation of vegetables and healing herbs. Ironically, the community care providers (or healers) primarily using these herbal remedies were often burnt as witches at the stake, sometimes by the same monks who wanted to safeguard self-healing and self-helping knowledges. Silvia Federici’s seminal 2004 book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation marks another modification of care as cure through the patriarchal mandate: confined and contained at home, unpaid labour as love and the obligation of the mother-cum-carer. 

The concept of healthcare as a public service has been very gradually improving from the 17th Century to the 1950s. However, the concurrent rise of globalisation substantially impacted standards of healthcare in the late 20th Century, with welfare and other forms of care provided by the state having decreased since the 1970s. With neoliberalism, care has morphed from being a basic human right into being a service – one very much associated with free-market capitalism – because of the privatisation of healthcare systems and cuts to state benefits. The “curing process” provided by the medical system of white patriarchy recognised a very specific subject (while and male), while failing to adequately address the needs of Others, as pointed out by white feminists, black feminists and those in civil rights movements. Each of these groups focused in particular on reproductive rights and care labour, considering how healthcare defined the way the female body was to be understood and taken care of. Feminists have continued to campaign for abortion rights and demand an approach to healthcare that recognises the rights of women over their own bodies. 

Since the 1970s, health activists have decried the “doctor-knows-best” model of care, citing its exclusion of women as both providers and consumers of medical care. (1) Underground services such as the Jane Collective (officially known as the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation) in the United States – and similar groups in other countries – sought to address and provide active support for the increasing number of unsafe abortions being performed by untrained providers during a time when abortion was illegal in most of the United States. With a number of the collective arrested in 1972, each was charged with eleven counts of abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion, although the charges were dropped with the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe vs. Wade the following year, which overturned many abortion restrictions. 

Seminal texts such as Our Bodies, Ourselves, which was produced by the non-profit organisation Our Bodies Ourselves and was first published in 1970, contained information related to many aspects of women’s health and sexuality, including sexual health, sexual orientation, gender identity, birth control, abortion, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause, as well as violence and abuse. Numerous feminist health centers were also initiated in the United States as part of the women’s health movement in the 1970s, as well as in various other countries where women’s groups are still operating to the day, clandestine or not, such as Ecuador’s National Coalition of Women, which continues to fight for safe abortions given that recently abortion was dicriminalised in the country, but only in the case of rape (2). These are just a few examples that serve as testimony to such collective approaches to care for one’s community, underlining methods of self-care as cure. Such collective efforts fight against conservative patriarchal legislations that continue to forbid many types of abortions, as demonstrated by a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2015. (3)

As poet and theorist Audre Lorde wrote in her 1988 essay “A Burst of Light”, which was written during her first battle with cancer, “[c]aring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” (4) The focus on the self here is not in contradiction to the conception of community, but, rather, is integral to the notion of “the personal is political”, which was used as a slogan of the student movement and second-wave feminism from the late-1960s. By the late-1980s, the LGBTQIA+ community also demonstrated how the personal is political with ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a grass-roots organisation working to end of the AIDS pandemic through direct action, medical research, treatment and advocacy, as well as working to change legislation and public policies. In fact, its Treatment and Data Committee was directly responsible for redressing much of the negligence of Ronald Reagan’s careless state. Some members of the committee left in 1991 to form the Treatment Action Group (TAG), advocating with government scientists, drug company researchers and FDA officials to hasten the development of new HIV therapies. The group produced an influential policy report on the government’s investment in basic science, which recommended increasing funding to the National Institutes of Health (part of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services) and reorganising the national AIDS research effort. Following approval of several effective antiretroviral drugs in 1995, TAG pressed the government and the pharmaceutical industry to conduct research into understanding the long-term effects of the new drugs. Their work continues to this day, and in 2020, in coalition with Doctors without Borders, they exposed the very high profit margins of big pharma companies, specifically Cepheid, which is accused of overcharging and undersupplying rapid tests for COVID-19 in the Global South. (5) They also fight for the worldwide dissemination of safe and effective diagnostics, preventives and cures for other viruses and illnesses such as HIV, tuberculosis and hepatitis C. (6) 

Nonetheless, when considering care for the future, it is vital to understand that care enacted by the thousands of people around the world, from volunteers to unpaid and underpaid workers, many of whom are women, cannot and should not replace the care that governments offer to their citizens and denizens alike. As noted by the sociologist Emma Dowling in her 2021 book The Care Crisis: What Caused It and How Can We End It?, although the idea of community care can fortify a radical political position, it can also be used as an excuse for lack of governmental care. In lieu of legislation that ensures and fortifies care, citizens are left to their own devices. The concept of community should be carefully considered, as underlined by Dowling who poses questions such as, who constitutes the community and what relations of power inform its logics? For this reason, I prefer to discuss care through the notion of collectivity rather than community. So, how can we think of the collective in an art world that is defined by individualism?

Art and Collective Care: Institutional Remedies 

Where do art and the art institution come into this? The 1960s and 1970s were important decades in which questions around the ethics and politics of care and their collective approach were brought to the fore. Feminist artists such as Mary Kelly and Mierle Laderman Ukeles, as well as artists from the civil rights movement like Emory Douglas, Rasheed Araeen and Lee Wen, who were known for their collective art-making trajectories, enacted care as a collective political and radical act and left an important mark in terms of mobilising communities. Indeed, critics like Griselda Pollock and Lucy Lippard, as well as publishing initiatives like The New Woman’s Survival Catalog (1973), to name but a few, were also crucial to this project. Unfortunately, with rare exceptions, the art institution continued to propagate legacies inherited from the Enlightenment, even after the advent of institutional critique. The concept of collectivity stands in contrast to an art world that is built on individualism. I could attempt to create a linear timeframe indicating where it all went wrong, be it commodity capitalism, dubious arts patronage, speculation in the art market, and so on. But given that we are at a critical point in time, especially since the pandemic has further exposed the problems of care that are endemic to state systems and, subsequently, the cultural world, I will focus on our predicament today, considering how to approach the necessary next steps that can change our current conditions. 

Art workers now are becoming increasingly vulnerable given the precarious conditions under which they must function. Art institutions seem rigid or unable to rise to the challenge of caring for the staff that sustains their existence: educational and administration staff, flextime workers and volunteers are the ones who have been hit the hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic over these last two years. What steps can we take in the future to re-address this? How can we ensure care-full practices? The lessons learned from the histories of the ethics and politics of care are many and, therefore, can offer a constructed collective approach to care. 

Both Lorde and Joan C. Tronto’s ideas of the multifaceted components that ensure collective care are very useful: attentiveness, capability, responsibility, responsiveness; a radical act of politics. Indeed, breaking up the individualist approach to care can be considered for all aspects of institutional art practices. We need to begin with the way in which we approach care as a burden or a paid privilege. Healthcare should be a universal right for all precarious cultural workers, not a privilege of the few who hold institutional positions. Governments could introduce more concrete healthcare packages for all freelance and precarious (art) workers; institutions can ensure that all positions, even temporary ones, guarantee healthcare for staff. And the way that funds are distributed within the arts certainly needs to be re-considered. How can funds be allocated to ensure collective enactments of care? The hierarchical top-to-bottom structures of decision making, the fragmentation and lack of communication between departments in institutions, as well as the care-less way that programming is decided vis-a-vis the constituencies and geopolitics of the institution itself, is the ground on which experimentations for collective care can start. Providing and enacting collective care might arrive through activities and initiatives that have rarely been thought of in terms of their institutional scope. By founding the research platform The Bureau of Care, my colleagues and I have found that for a majority of care workers – volunteers or otherwise – the idea of the assembly where horizontal power structures prevail is a pivotal way in which to operate. If considered as a model for art institutions, it could prove to be one that innovatively replaces exhausting staff meetings, in which decision-making powers are held by the few behind closed doors, and only later announced to the many.

The notion of the “artist genius” as a singular entity that is prized and exists in fierce competition with her peers should also be reconsidered. It feeds on an individualist idea of care, where institutions, galleries, patrons and foundations enact care as benevolent charity, as awarding “self-development”. Breaking the competitive format of prizes is one way of doing this, as exemplified during the 2019 Turner Prize nominee process, where Tai Shani, Oscar Murillo, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock insisted that they share the award. (7) Re-thinking artistic excellence as an interdependent process is a step in this direction; another is offering more space for collaborative processes that do not create competitive environments, which are damaging for the mental and physical health of cultural workers. 

The very idea of care labour, which was a core part of second-wave feminism and is a favourite subject of institutions and curatorial narratives the world over, receives a lot of attention in the discursive and public programmes of institutions. However, it can hardly be found in the infrastructures that these institutions create to acknowledge care labour. It is paradoxical that theorists such as Silvia Federici are so revered by the very same art institutions that are unwilling – or disinterested – in applying her theories to their actualpractices. The hostility of the art world towards parenting, for example, is a subject that has been previously discussed and has surfaced again today. Collective care practises towards people who are active childcare labourers can be achieved and implemented in many simple ways: free childcare provided by institutions during openings or public programmes would be one such way. Other examples include providing childcare as a direct expense when inviting a parent-artist for an exhibition, residency or other such programming. The art critic and writer Hettie Judah recently introduced some very useful proposals as part of her project “How Not to Exclude Artist Parents”. (8) I recently also came across Verdensrommet (“World Space”), an artist-led grassroots care network for non-EU/EEA artists and cultural workers in Norway that works to find solutions for artists with a temporary-residence permit in Norway, and who find themselves without access to crisis support, including financial and social assistance, as well as unemployment benefits. 

A more care-full approach to subject matters that pertain to specific political and social struggles, alongside other issues, should also be reconsidered, since appropriation remains the big thorn in the content creation of curatorial and artistic narratives. In the words of theorist and filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-Ha, how can we “speak nearby”, how can we approach subject matters respectfully? Collective care demands the sharing of power. Stepping aside and giving the floor (and our power) to others is an act of collective care. Sharing power is another. The organisations and foundations that are responsible for large-scale exhibition making, for instance Manifesta or documenta, as well as biennials, are being re-approached, and we are seeing more collectives leading such events. The upcoming 2022 iteration of documenta 15, curated by ruangrupa, the Jakarta-based artists’ collective, is one such example. It breaks with the format of the individual genius curator – a white male heteronormative idea – offering instead a way of practicing that has collectivity at its heart. Other examples that give testimony to their collective practices of care are the space in Jakarta that ruangrupa founded with several artists’ collectives in 2015, Gudang Sarinah Ekosistem, as well as Gudskul, an art school in south Jakarta that they co-authored with Serrum and Grafis Huru Hara. These projects maintain, cultivate and establish an integrated support system that focuses on collaborations through an open public access learning space. It was established to practice an expanded understanding of collective values, such as equality, sharing, solidarity, friendship and togetherness. It is such practices that are now taking centre stage, despite the fact that the art institution was perhaps too afraid to initially approach these, due to their radical take on co-authorship and horizontal structures.

The examples are there. The slowing down of the art world due to the pandemic offers a timely and urgent opportunity – dare I spin the “limited-time offer only” line – to collectively re-draw the rules of cultural making as a collective radical act of care.

This text was written by iLiana Fokianaki and was originally published at Gropius Bau Journal 2021.