There is nothing more vulnerable than caring for someone; it means not only giving your energy to that which is not you but also caring for that which is beyond or outside your control. Caring is anxious — to be full of care, to be careful, is to take care of things by becoming anxious about their future, where the future is embodied in → fragility of an object whose persistence matters.
— Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness
Where and when does care begin?
I believe that museums have the potential to create communities based on the notions of mutual care, togetherness, solidarity, belonging, a shared identity and especially a shared experience in the context of visual and performing arts. During my professional career I witnessed a few institutional transformations and they were always connected to specific communities, mutual care and also to a changing role of the spectators who more and more often become performers and active participants in the museum programs.
It should be emphasised that the concept of care has become the central idea for many artists from the past especially in the context of early performance art practices developed by female artists as Yoko Ono, Carolee Schneemann, Joan Jonas and Laurie Anderson.
The notion of care could concern non-humans like we observe in the Carolee Schneemann’s films Fuses (1964-67) or images of her cat Kitch (Kitch's Last Meal, 1975) or the closest family members like in case of Lea Lublin’s performance with her 7 month old son "exposed" in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in the city of Paris (1969). The practice of care could be a result of engaging with specific communities as we witness in photographic works by Nan Goldin.
It also might arrive as a consequence of the state of illness like in the case of one of the key artists in the recent history of contemporary art in Spain, Pepe Espaliú, who died in November 1993 in Córdoba. Just three years earlier, he found out that he was HIV-positive.
The photo taken in 1992 during Pepe Espaliú’s performance The Carrying Society is memorable. We see the artist with bare feet carried by friends and passers-by. They took him on an unusual tour of the urban areas of the city. The act of carrying the artist's body on a strange parade became the gesture of exposing his vulnerability and corporal fragility. The action revealed his concern of being terminally ill. The body, non-heteronormative identity, power, illness, and inevitable death were progressively weaved together in his objects, performances and installations.
The Carrying Project could be perceived metaphorically. It shows the bond between the individual body and the community. “Carrying” sounds like “caring” – helping each other and protecting each other. In the collective consciousness of the early 90s, AIDS belonged to that group of illnesses which reflected on moral shame. Susan Sontag, in her essey AIDS and Its Metaphors, argues that metaphorical thinking about disease leads to placing the burden of guilt on the patient. As she states the transmission of AIDS is described in terms of pollution. This and reopens the concept of “disease as punishment.”
The ritual of carrying the sick body during Pepe Espaliú’s performance undoubtedly has magical properties and releases the moment of purification. This is the symbolic action when the solidarity and the caring society is born!
Who is responsible for taking care?
The contemporary notion of care is deeply rooted in the phenomenon of relational aesthetics and the performative turn manifested at the beginning of the 2000s. The concept is connected to the changing idea of spectatorship and it asks to be understood via performative and choreographic practices.
This also raises the question of the body and the ongoing work carried out in the course of extended performative exhibitions and public programs, reflecting on how art institutions take care of performing bodies and how they respond to the new challenges. Does altering the economics of the artwork and exhibition space affect audiences and the working conditions of all those involved? Or are we dealing with a new kind of constantly evolving performative institution that never sleeps, in the grip of a compulsion to create “nonmaterial” experiences that are the key to success in a globalised job market? The analytic scope includes the, broadly conceived, “body of the performer,” considered not only individually but also as a collective subject or social phenomenon. And this body needs to be taken care of.
What does the institution care about?
In 2018, the summer in Warsaw was quite hot. I remember a crowd of mostly young people gathering in our park next to the Ujazdowski Castle Center for Contemporary Art. The space where Dragana bar was open turned out to be too tiny to accommodate all guests. Hundreds of people took places under the trees and on the grass. Dragana bar was created in collaboration with the queer feminist collective called Kem (co-founded and run by choreographer Alex Baczynski-Jenkins, Krzysztof Baginski, Ola Knychalska and Ania Miczko) for which the concept of care become the central idea. The project was part of a one-year residency testing the institution itself and investigating how an artistic collective could inhabit its infrastructure for queer and feminist purposes.
As part of the Dragana bar project, we built an alternative temporary entrance to the Castle through the window. The place hosted the performance program and a series of small artistic interventions. The community around our institution was created by means of being together and dancing together. This idea was strongly inspired by the “social choreography” developed in performative works by Alex Baczynski-Jenkins. Unfortunately, after a few months, the project arrived to an abrupt end because of a radical change in Poland’s political climate and the institution itself. Only a few moments from Dragana bar have been captured on some amateur photos, but the memory of this joyful summer will stay forever.
A few months later, the Dragana bar was “staged” and presented at Ujazdowski Castle by Alex in his choreographic performance called Untitled dances based on the theatrical practice of Akademia Ruchu.
The Dragana bar becomes a testimony of how much mutual care and self-care is needed to sustain a community and how fragile and defenseless it could be.