Curating With Care?

An Excerpt from “Curating, Care, and Corona” 

The booklet “Curating, Care, and Corona“ (2020) by Sascia Bailer is many things: a critical questioning, a doubting, a reflecting, sometimes also a plea. But above all it should also enable insight into Sascia Bailer’s curatorial programme 2019/20 on Care at M.1 Arthur Boskamp Foundation in Northern Germany, and invite readers to continue with their own related lines of thought. The text unites five fragments that engage with artistic works and curatorial formats from her programme, each in the context of societal discourses surrounding care, curating, digitality, alternative economies and the necessity of new social infrastructures. For Reading Assembly: CARE, the excerpt from the booklet “Curating with Care?“ is featured below. The full publication can be downloaded here. A printed version can be ordered at info@arthurboskamp-stiftung.de. The publication is part of the kuratieren-series of the Arthur Boskamp-Stiftung.

Curating as Care?

Sascia Bailer 

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Care for Caregivers: Impression from a workshop on trust with the performance artist Myriam Lefkowitz at M.1 (September 2019). Credit: Sascia Bailer 

In the spring of 2019 I moved for four months to Hohenlockstedt with my then-three-year-old son and with my almost eighty-year-old grandfather as support. Because over the next one and a half years I would initiate a participatory, curatorial programme on the topic of care in this municipality in the middle of Schleswig-Holstein. However, before I planned individual events and formats, I wanted to get to know the place and its people, understand what their concerns were and what needs would come up during conversations. What does care mean in Hohenlockstedt, who looks after whom and in what form?  

It was important to me that the programme speak to the people – above all to those who were performing care work in a wide variety of forms – and that their themes be heard, that the questions not be far removed from their day-to-day lives, finding instead their origin therein. Even if the conception and organisation of the events were designed institutionally, the programme lived from togetherness: exchange, collective care and solidarity were present on varying levels from the outset as elements of community spirit. For, without the participants’ constant attendance, without their contributions in action and thought, the programme would have missed its mark. What role does curating play in this context, what potential lies within curatorial praxis in order to renegotiate collectivity? To my mind, an especially central role was and still is played by the following question: to what extent can curating function as care in that it pushes back against the care crisis by means of support networks and visibilities?     

In posing these questions, I make a link to a discursive field that is described as activist, feminist, or also as socially engaged curatorial praxis [1]. In this context, the often-cited etymological origin of the verb to curate can be seen in a different light (Lat. curare = attend to, take care of, look after): it is no longer primarily about taking care of and maintaining art objects; it is instead a matter of inquiring (critically) into the extent to which curating can function as a critical praxis that cares for artistic and sociopolitical processes. This association of curating with care is, however, not uncontested. Nanne Buurmann identifies ‘modesty, restraint, and the negation of authorship’ [2] as codes of conduct which permeate the fields of both care work and curating. Both continue to be romanticised as fields of feminised, devotional activities [3], which veils the working conditions as well as the inherent power relations of ‘care and control’ [4]. According to Elke Krasny, in the context of contemporary art the connection between care and curating is often suppressed, the insinuation being that ‘care as invisibilised and feminised labour does not yield aesthetic and intellectually relevant production’ [5]. She proposes the concept ‘caring activism’, an interweaving of curating with feminist care theory, in order to render frequently invisible co-dependencies in the context of art legible, thereby offering resistance to the concept of the curator as independent author [6]. Maria Lind too describes the curatorial as ‘a range of relational and infrastructural activities’, as ‘a way of thinking in terms of interconnections’ [7] between objects, people, processes, places and discourses. Nora Sternfeld points out that it cannot be ‘about the mere representation of social relations’ [8]. Instead, post-representative curating ought to create a foundation for intervening in the social fabric and practicing solidarity with existing social movements [9]. Therefore, Dorothee Richter demands that we understand feminist curating as an ‘alternative to traditional (patriarchal) models of authorship, production and community’ [10], so that deeply entrenched societal patterns can be uncovered and made visible. Through these approaches, curatorial spaces for thought and action grow far beyond the traditional art venues like museums and galleries. Here, curating as a sociopolitical and spatial praxis stands in close dialogue with the local situation.

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Impression: Informal conversation between participant Laura Mahnke and artist facilitator Myriam Lefkowitz at M.1 (September 2019). Credit: Sascia Bailer 

For the participatory curatorial programme 2019/20 at M.1, the 6,000-resident municipality Hohenlockstedt constituted the social, political and spatial context. In the 1950s, the former military campground ‘Lockstedter Lager’ acquired its civilian name, Hohenlockstedt (Holo for short), but it continues to be characterised by its past both architecturally and in terms of its social order. During my time as newcomer in Holo, I had several conversations and learned from Hohenlockstedters that unlike the other surrounding villages the place doesn’t have a town hall, that there is a lack of meeting spaces, places where community would be able to blossom informally. The highly active life of associations and clubs in Hohenlockstedt as well as that of various church associations usually have their own established spaces. But smaller clubs, especially those unaffiliated with religion or established associations, have difficulty finding spaces for encounter, particularly since pubs and restaurants in the village are increasingly shuttering. It was therefore important to me in Hohenlockstedt to fathom the possible depths of curating as a relational praxis that attempts to create non-hierarchical spaces for encounter, to make meshworks in the social sphere visible, to strengthen and expand support networks. Through almost two years’ involvement of artists, activists and residents from Hohenlockstedt and its surroundings, a participatory programme took shape, striving for collective care, solidarity, interpersonal relationship building and community on local and regional levels and beyond. The idea was to open up alternative collective courses of action which counteract the societal marginalisation of care work.       

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The first Social Muscle Club in Schleswig-Holstein took place in April 2019 at M.1. Image Credit: Bettina Winkler-Marxen (top image); Soyka Foto Design (bottom image). 

 According to the motto ‘Training our social muscles; practicing giving and taking’, Jill Emerson, artist and cofounder of this initiative, brought the first Social Muscle Club to Hohenlockstedt. At the opening event of the curatorial programme in spring 2019, over 100 people formed several small exchange collectives as part of moderated roundtables. Gestures, assistance and objects were offered and accepted as part of an activity where participants wrote their wishes, as well as what they were able and willing to give, on slips of paper. Thus was the construction of a microsocial network which transcended the spaces of the art institution thanks to the appointments made between people – to take walks together, play chess, mow the lawn or practice Spanish. Some months after the Social Muscle Club, I met two older women whom I had sat next to at a table. I was delighted to see them again. They explained to me that they had become friends at the Social Muscle Club and now took walks together regularly. So this experiment was an invitation to strengthen actions of solidarity in everyday life on a local level, making it possible that new encounters also produce relationships of care.    

The workshop Everyday Strategies against Isolation, directed in July 2019 by the artist, researcher and mediator Manuela Zechner, focussed on the question of how participants, based on their everyday lives, could strengthen and expand their own care networks. A facilitated mapping exercise aimed at more closely analysing and then drawing one’s own relationships according to different categories (bodily care, financial support, emotional connection etc.). Through the multilayered quality of the exercise, the twenty participants, ranging in age from their mid-twenties to mid-eighties, became conscious of what kinds of support already existed and where there were still gaps.   

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Care for Caregivers: Flyer for workshop on strategies against isolation in everyday life, with the artist Manuela Zechner (July 2019) [What kind of support and relationships do I wish for my everyday life?] Graphic Design: Michael Pfisterer

Since the beginning of 2020, on the regional level the initiative Holo Miteinander (Holo together) searched as part of an open process for collective approaches to expand and fortify solidarity networks in Hohenlockstedt and the surrounding region. The initiative was one of 100 funded by the Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung (German Federal Agency for Civic Education) within the framework of the idea competition MITEINANDER REDEN (Talking to one another) and was dedicated to supporting rural actors through new dialogue formats. Since M.1 has a café space that had already been used for local formats, we wanted to open it further as a social space and allow various groupings from the region to gather there. The inclusion activist and moderator Antje Hachenberg, my colleague Claudia Dorfmüller and I initiated a storytelling café series revolving around the following question: How do we want to live, work, eat, move, and spend our leisure time together in Holo?      

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Storytelling-cafés at M.1 as social spaces of encounter. Credit: Sascia Bailer 

Each storytelling café was grouped under one of these five ‘big’ focusses, which was meant to enable a gathering of the widest possible array of perspectives. The more diverse the group and the stories, the greater the possibilities of identifying gaps, supporting others in their day-to-day lives and practicing solidarity. One to two representatives of local initiatives were also invited to speak about the thematic focus at each storytelling café. Regarding the theme of mobility, for example, the Bürgerbus Kellinghusen (Kellinghusen citizens’ bus) was represented, and the theme of food was addressed by the LandFrauenverein Hohenlockstedt und Umgebung e.V. (Rural women’s club of Hohenlockstedt and surroundings). The project thereby became networked with existing local social initiatives, was able to make existing knowledge from the community available and offer it as groundwork and inspiration for further initiatives.

The storytelling cafés were accompanied by the artist duo Polyphrenic Creatures (Ulrike Bernard and Amelie Marei Löllmann). For their artistic work, they initiate performative situations in which listening assumes a central role. They (over)write stories and enter into dialogical encounters, into an exchange of thoughts with visitors. As part of the storytelling café Holo Miteinander, they themselves became listeners. With different artistic interventions, they not only designed this process but also recorded it for their sound collage Umrisse – in den Rissen (Outline – in the cracks). Statements, atmospheres, ideas, connections were captured in the process – not in the sense of a definition but rather as a possibility of developing new ways of seeing, creating connecting points for encounters and sensing impulses towards getting involved.

This form of dialogue-based curatorial praxis initiates a process that potentially elicits more questions than it can answer [11]. In this way, however, the field of tension around art, audience and the community opens a social space too – one which, as the theorist Nina Möntmann notes, makes architectural boundaries fade into the background while foregrounding human relations and interactions. Thus in an art context such as M.1, this sort of group of visitors can form open spaces for action and reception. The social space can be regarded as a partial public which is dynamic, heterogeneous and temporary. Möntmann speaks metaphorically of museum walls that develop into ‘porous membranes’ [12] and squeeze out artistic actions into the local political and cultural space. These processes are not material or tangible. They are ephemeral and they are characterised not through the visible but through the experiential.

What, however, does remain of an encounter, of a conversation, of a social space? Personal memories, sensory impressions, emotions and perhaps some notes? Both the storytelling café and the workshop series Care for Caregivers can be understood as social spaces, within an art context, that manifest a transitory character. How can these fleeting moments be captured – and how can the experiential also be made accessible to people who were not there?

This question was approached by a group of students from the Studio Experimentelles Design at the HFBK Hamburg (Prof. Jesko Fezer’s class), who accompanied the curatorial programme for over a year in order to develop an Archiv der Begegnungen (Archive of Encounters). Every event was followed documentarily by the students and artistically interpreted afterward. This gave rise to eight interpretations in the form of cases that provide access to the happenings for outsiders as well. The archive is mobile and participatory: through cooperation with the town library in Hohenlockstedt, the cases can be borrowed like other media. The archive invites users to investigate the traces, engaging at their own pace with the themes, impressions and experiences and developing their own encounters with the cases’ contents. 

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The Archive of Encounters is participatory and mobile. Conceptualised and designed by Veronica Andres, Pablo Lapettina, Laura Mahnke and Skadi Sturm. Image Credits: Laura Mahnke (top image); Skadi Sturm (bottom image). 

With these initiatives, a special value is ascribed to the local, to the lived everyday realities on site and to each individual audience. The varying formats reveal the attempt to illuminate, on the one hand, the autonomy of different local lifeworlds, artistic practices and global academic discourses and, on the other hand, to place them in dialogue with one another. This often resembles a split or a balancing act whose successful outcome is never guaranteed. The stretch between local accessibility and international, academically characterised discourse became especially clear in the cooperation with the Berlin-based Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW). The fourth edition of the New Alphabet School on the topic of caring was originally planned as a four-day event that was supposed to take place both at HKW and at M.1 in Hohenlockstedt as well as in transit between both locations. Due to Covid-19, however, the event in its original form had to be cancelled. Through the travelling format, the event would have enabled an exchange on site which would have given a platform to these fields of tension between urban/rural, local/international, art/community through dialogue, exhibitions, workshops and shared meals.

The digital event, co-curated by myself and the curatorial collective Soft Agency (Gilly Karjevsky & Rosario Talevi), was held in the form of conversations, lectures, workshops, performances, films and letter correspondences [13] and conceptually engaged with the question of how care is organised on different scales. For the opening of the online symposium, the women artist collective Polyphrenic Creatures developed the sound work N E P O <. Based on conversations which happened as part of Holo Miteinander, the artists created a sound tapestry that wove subjective experience into a rhythmic re-assemblage to create a collective storytelling. This performative gesture thereby offered the opportunity to take the local, intimate conversational elements, the collective process of feeling for a togetherness in solidarity in Hohenlockstedt, and make it accessible to international listeners. Even though the online event proceeded without any technical difficulties, even though interesting conversations took place and riveting artistic contributions came through on the screen, one question still persisted: what form of collective are we experiencing in digital space at this moment in time?

REFERENCES

For further references, see the curatorial and academic work of Angela Dimitraki, Janna Graham, Megan Johnston, Elke Krasny, Helena Reckitt, Maura Reilly, Dorothee Richter, Nora Sternfeld.

2 Buurman, N. (2017). Angels in the White Cube? Rhetorics of Curatorial Innocence at dOCUMENTA (13). On Curating (27). Retrieved from https://www.on-curating.org/issue-29-reader/angels-in-the-white-cube-rhetorics-of-curatorial-innocence-at-documenta-13.html#.X23WZi2B0n1.

3 On the romantisation of care work see texts by / Zur Romantisierung von Sorgearbeit siehe Texte von Shannon Mattern und Joan Tronto. 

4 Fowle, K. (2007) in Reckitt, H. (2016: 7). ‘Support Acts: Curating, Caring and Social Reproduction’. Journal of Curatorial Studies (5:1), 6–30.

5 Krasny, E. (2017: 3). Caring Activism: Assembly, Collection, and the Museum. Retrieved from https://collecting-in-time.gfzk.de/de.

6 Ibid. 

7 Lind, M. (2010) quoted in/nach Reckitt, H. (2016: 2).

8 Sternfeld, N., & Palladini, G. (2014: 1-2). Taking Time Together. A posthumous reflection on a collaborative project, and polyorgasmic disobedience. CuMMA PAPERS (6), 1-14.

9 Ibid. / ebd. 

10 Richter, D. (2019: 184). Feministische Perspektiven des Kuratorischen/ auf das Kuratieren. In S. Adorf & K. Heinz (Eds.), Zeichen/Momente. Vergegenwärtigungen in Kunst und Kulturanalyse, 183–202. Bielefeld: transcript.

11 Johnston, M. (2014). ‘Slow Curating: Re-thinking and Extending Socially Engaged Art in the Context of Northern Ireland’. On Curating (24), 23–33. Retrieved from https://www.on-curating.org/issue-24reader/Slow_Curating_Rethinking_and_Extending_Socially_Engaged_Art_in_the_Context_of_Northern_Ireland.html#n1.

12 Möntmann, N. (2002: 10). Kunst als sozialer Raum. Andrea Fraser, Martha Rosler, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Renée Green (Art as social space). Köln: Walther König.

13 For Letters to Joan (June, 2020), the editors Gilly Karjevsky, Rosario Talevi and Sascia Bailer invited eight artists, writers, and scholars to write to the care ethics scholar Joan Tronto. The publication can be accessed here: https://newalphabetschool.hkw.de/letters-to-joan/. For the full program please visit https://www.hkw.de/caring.

Contributor

Sascia Bailer, PhD candidate, University of Reading (Department of Fine Arts) / Zurich University of the Arts

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