:: Article

On Care

By Bridget Penney.

Rebecca Jagoe and Sharon Kivland, eds, On Care (Ma Bibliothèque, 2020)

In On Care more than forty artists and writers consider aspects of ʻcareʼ: unpicking it as noun and verb (both transitive and intransitive) across a wide variety of contexts in which ʻcareʼ can take place. Close focus on care involves considering its phenomenological and relational aspects simultaneously, since the complex experiences of ʻcaringʼ and being ʻcared forʼ can make it difficult to distinguish where those meet, blur or overlap. Rebecca Jagoe writes in their introduction ʻ[On Care] is not totalising, it is not complete (it could never be complete), but it maps a constellation of thoughts around what care is or could be: how it is interpreted, how this word might be manipulated, the power dynamics underlying its manifold manifestations.ʼ

On Care is an experiment in community: on relating to and caring with others. The ʻOn Care: Ex/in/troductionʼ, printed at the end of the book, consists of correspondence between the editors, discussing their own thoughts about caring and being cared for in the context of quite personal experiences, and was sent out to those invited to contribute work to the book. In addition to their ʻcontributorʼs copyʼ, the minimum an author would expect for allowing their work to be reproduced by a non-commercial organisation, contributors were offered a choice between ʻa modest fee, four copies of the book, four hours of labour from the editors (reading, copy editing, translating, performing…) or a drawing by either of the editors from current works at the time.ʼ That a project which has charged itself with investigating a variety of structures where care is administered, should account so transparently for the terms on which those contributing were engaged is important. Helena Ricketts writes — based on her experience in the art world, but it is a point that can be applied more widely — about how care has ʻto walk the walk and not just talk the talkʼ. The production of On Care demonstrates a non-hierarchical, respectful and interdependent model of relating to each other.

The back cover blurb describes ʻa complex web of assemblagesʼ. With the sole exception of Ruiz Stephinsonʼs text pertaining to their image on the bookʼs cover, which appears immediately after Jagoeʼs and Kivlandʼs introductions, the contributions are arranged alphabetically by authorʼs name. So there is no sense of a ʻreading orderʼ imposed by the editors, structured around themes or by genre. The knotty conjunctions formed by multiple applications of ʻcareʼ are teased out in memoir, essay, poetry, fiction and images, creating a polyphonic array. With no biographical details provided for the contributors, the focus is moved away from them as individuals and onto the unforced connections arising between the texts printed here. Questions and points of reference recur widely. Words that crop up repeatedly in the book: ʻCommunityʼ, ʻInterdependencyʼ, ʻConstellationʼ, ʻThreadsʼ. Nat Raha invokes ʻtributariesʼ. On Care contains far more excellent material than I can consider here. So Iʼll try to map out a few constellations and tug at some threads, which I hope will give an impression of how On Care might be used as a toolkit to further readersʼ own investigations.

The Introductions by Kivland and Jagoe were written in April 2020 and inevitably reflect on how the world in which On Care was conceived has been changed by the coronavirus pandemic. However, as many of the concerns and problems addressed in these thoughts on care are framed by the austerity policies that have been in place for the last decade in the UK, and the suffering and inequalities generated by these institutional failures of care have been thrown into much sharper relief by the pandemic, the project feels, if anything, even more timely and urgent. Working conditions in the hospitality industries where the role of providing customer care has been abruptly paused are also considered. Itʼs been hard to separate the idea of ʻcareʼ from that of ʻclosenessʼ, and to accept that, for the moment, you show your care for others by keeping your distance from them. But perhaps, while this is so much on peopleʼs minds, itʼs an opportunity to consider the relational space in which ʻcareʼ happens. Jagoe writes to Kivland, ʻit makes me think how care is less a set of discreet gestures and more a framework or boundary for how a person might meet the world, with compassion foremost rather than self-interest.ʼ

Jagoe writes in their Introduction that ʻFascism as a world view is fed by a scarcity mentalityʼ which would seem to be borne out by much of what weʼve seen in the UK since 2010. An impossible tension is generated when need grows exponentially but resources do not keep pace. So the giving of care becomes a question of prioritising, and only those who can demonstrate the most urgent need will receive it. Oisin Byrne and Cinzia Mutigli write about the perception of need, how it is not always visible, ʻperformingʼ sickness. Refusing someone care doesnʼt make their problem go away; Mutigli writes that being uncared for can make her sicker. Kivland writes ʻI am thinking about the relations of attention and care and the decisions that are taken as to where this should be directed — who is deserving of care, when all and everything should be cared for, despite merit (we hear too often of those who deserve and those who do not deserve care, and seek to blame the undeserving, in order to strip them of the right to care).ʼ If it can be established that a person does not need or deserve care, then it is not a failure of the system to leave them unprovided for. Dealing with those who have been adversely affected by such policies, Laura Godfrey-Issacs writes about her work as a community midwife with a group of asylum-seeking clients whose needs go far beyond what she can meet in her professional capacity. She and her colleagues find themselves providing additional care in the form of emotional support, food and clothing, recognising ʻWe connect…as people who are all vulnerable to events, structures and experiences beyond our control.ʼ

Recognising the individual as they wish to be recognised and treating them with respect is the bedrock of good care. The potentially disastrous consequences of ʻcareʼ decisions taken in a climate of austerity are made clear in the opening sentence of Rachel Gennʼs text. ʻWhen they cut the lunchtime visit, Joan became aware of her own incontinence and worried that it might affect her future in her own home.ʼ If ʻidentityʼ is constantly reaffirmed or undermined by relating with others, then removal from the community can be seen as a negative option. Tom Allenʼs ʻPreliminary Notes After Care Homesʼ touches on the idea that once upon a time moving into a care home might have been seen as entering a community. Now, he reflects, Care Homes are a microcosm of capitalist society; in which those citizens who are no longer productive have to use the capital built up over their working lives, embodied in their own homes, to pay for care. Allen adds that because of the increasing vulnerability of the ageing body to accident or internal failure, ʻthe care home is a place in which the senselessness of a certain notion of fairness, itself a historical relative of the illusionary logic of the age, is omnipresent and, as such, a care home is a place in which the prattle about dignity, work and earning are at their most intense and their most obviously false.ʼ Both these texts could be read in conjunction with Roy Claire Potterʼs nuanced, challenging portrait of a careworkerʼs contact with their client ʻan old man/husband/ex-boxer/father to several childrenʼ. In Potterʼs text, the domestic violence meted out by the ʻold manʼ in the past is revisited on him and the carer who tries to protect him from one of his ʻseveral childrenʼ, raising a knot of questions about ʻcaringʼ and the failure to care.

Justin Hoggʼs ʻResignation letter to ʼCareʼʼ also engages with the issues raised by a scarcity mindset. He rejects the idea of ʻCareʼ as commodified personal service and characterises structures of Care as perpetuating exclusion and oppression. He suggests replacing ʻCareʼ with an inclusive, relational and deep ʻconcernʼ. Hogg writes ʻRelation in some ways seems to be about saturation. More than you need, so much that you start to mistake the content for repetition. Repetition severed from the mechanical, from labor. Repetition much different from reproduction. Repetitions which do not serve or travel towards an eight-hour working day or a telos.ʼ Such repetitions aim to provide an environment in which everyone can flourish, everyday. Several contributions touch on how care and time relate: I hadnʼt thought about experience of time as so integral to ʻcareʼ but since one of the ways we talk about caring is to ʻput time intoʼ something I shouldnʼt have been surprised. Juliet Jacques contrasts the slowness of radical time with the accelerated time of capitalism. ʻIt sounds obvious, but the turbo-charged trap of capitalism wants us to forget — no one can meaningfully build toward social change if they are exhausted.ʼ Jacques identifies a shift in radical activism from earlier narratives of revolutionary struggle leading to regime overthrow and glamourised sacrifice to focusing on ʻcivil rights movements for minority groupsʼ. Considering Audre Lordeʼs reflections on self care as a radical strategy, Jacques writes ʻit is no surprise that Audre Lorde should have conceived “self-preservation” as an act of political warfareʼ, nor that much of the conceptual work about how self care is a critical part of long term radical engagement has primarily been done by people from marginalised communities, who experience discrimination that drastically exacerbates capitalismʼs structural inequalities.ʼ Jacques admits her reservations about ʻself careʼ as an overused term, redolent of self-indulgence and potentially even an instrument of abuse as when, she suggests, an employer might advise a worker to practice ʻself-careʼ rather than join a trade union. This underlines that care is relational, and a crucial part of self-care is through community, caring with others. Carolina Ongaro reminds us that ʻ[societal] problems are systemic, structural, but the individual is pressured to deal with them individually, instead of collectivelyʼ. Ongaro also engages with Lordeʼs ideas on self care, concluding ʻLoving yourself as a political act, is to connect the personal and civic responsibility of the self.ʼ

The provison of ʻcareʼ in the hospitality industry and ʻparadise economyʼ is explored in Rebecca Jagoeʼs interview with Mati Jhurry about her three year durational performance working as airline cabin crew and also in Rona Lorimerʼs story ʻWaitressesʼ. This care takes place in an environment where, in addition to the obvious purpose of the transaction, being transported between two places or being fed, the customer expects to be the centre of attention. Lorimerʼs exhilarating story addresses waitresses as revolutionary subjects and writes, ʻyou can be paid to serve but not to care, that is the beauty of wage labourʼ. Jhurry is very articulate about the clashes that arise between her role as cabin crew and her role as artist and how at times she may experience ʻimposter syndromeʼ in one role or the other, feeling that she is not ʻcaringʼ enough… Her analysis of the multiple pressures of performing care as cabin crew is extremely interesting. Jhurry has to ʻperformʼ not only to the passengers, but also to her colleagues: as she is unlikely to have met any of them before that dayʼs long-haul flight, thereʼs no sense of community. Playing a kind of 1950s fantasy of an elegantly groomed, subservient, ʻcaringʼ woman, she feels she canʼt challenge others about attitudes that produce discomfort. The sense of alienation from herself this generates makes the performance of care even more draining. The airline encourages staff to practice ʻself-careʼ so they can function optimally. They are required to leave their emotions at home. They are trained in empathy. ʻAll our human capacities are put to work, in this form of cognitive labour, when touch and communication become an exchange of monetary value, all forms of pleasurable, gratuitous, and erotic contact disintegrate.ʼ Cinzia Mutigliʼs musings on Lorraine Kellyʼs performance of ʻcheerinessʼ (is it genuine? What is genuine?) could be read across from Jhurryʼs interview. It also made me think about how disturbing it is that the feminised, subservient personae of chat bots and virtual assistants are modelled from these performances of care. Jamie Sutcliffeʼs text, exploring ʻcareʼ between the player of and a character in a computer game, is the only one to touch on a relation between a human and an artificial being. The ongoing debate about developing forms of artifical intelligence able to provide care isnʼt addressed in On Care, probably because in the UK robot carers are not yet part of our everyday experience.

Interdependency with other than human life forms is considered mostly within the domestic sphere. Such a limited focus could be criticised because interdependency, by its nature, really needs to be considered comprehensively. However as ʻcareʼ is concerned with paying close attention as a way of relating, perhaps itʼs just realistic to concentrate on what is immediately at hand and try to build outward from that. Daisy Lafargue retells the story of Beritola and the Doe from The Decameron; Oisin Byrne considers the problematic issue of ʻcaringʼ for cattle being led to the slaughter; disgruntled members of the National Society for the Protection of Wolves kick up a fuss in ʻWaitressesʼ; Sharon Kivland writes about caring for her dogs by giving them medicine, Nina Wakeford writes about the use of honey to help bedsores heal. Ruiz Stephinsonʼs image of a bouquet on the cover of On Care may suggest the giving of flowers as an act of ʻcaringʼ but their accompanying text, detailing the medicinal properties ascribed to each plant in the bouquet, shows how plants can be used to care for us in a more concrete way. Isabella Streffen unpicks problematic notions of ʻcareʼ associated with gardening. ʻAbove all things [the garden] is about controlʼ. But she also characterises ʻthe garden [as] the local that touches on and is touched by a myriad of global concerns: climate change, fuel transition, community, genetic modification, food policy, health, disability, and so on. In this context, growing a garden is a manifestation of the determination to engage with those global concerns on an immediate local level.ʼ If carried out with care, in a way that recognises as they wish to be recognised and respects the populations most immediately affected by these global concerns, that could be a little bit of reparation for the part played by gardening — exemplified by Kew Gardensʼ long-running programme of ʻEconomic Botanyʼ — in Britainʼs colonialist exploitation.

Victoria Sinʼs ʻSteamed Three Eggsʼ details preparing their own version of a dish that both their parents had cooked for them. They describe how these differing techniques exemplified the way each had cared for their child. By carefully combining their parentsʼ methods, Sin addresses the familyʼs history and creates a moment which looks both forward and back. Holly Graham carefully examines two very different sets of images for her essay ʻBe/hold/en – A Duty of Careʼ. An archive of portraits commissioned by sitters of mainly African and Carribean descent, photographed at Harry Jacobsʼ studio in South London (c.1960-1997), fulfils the criteria of recognising their subjects as they wish to be recognised and treating them with respect. A collection of images of eighteenth century sugar bowls and rum caddies flanked by ʻcaricatured sculpted forms…intended to represent Africans and indigenous Americans, displayed symbolically beside the products of their labourʼ definitely does not. Graham writes very perceptively about relating to both sets of images and the duty of care that her engagement with them bestows. She explores the haptic quality of the studio portraits, inviting us to think about the ways in which sharing copies with friends and family would have been a way for individuals to relate and care. Graham goes on to consider how today these portraits might get treated as a community, ʻindividual histories and narratives compressed into a single story of migration and settlementʼ. However, when a selection of anonymous images was exhibited at Lambeth Town Hall in 2018, ʻvisitors were encouraged to identify any individuals in the photographs they could using Post-it notes, small regenerative acts of interventionʼ. Graham then goes on to consider whether it would even be possible to intervene in and display the uncaring images of sugar bowls when the poisonous legacy represented by these objects is still blighting lives today. Both Sinʼs and Grahamʼs engagements highlight that ʻcaringʼ for the past is not just about conservation but involves, in Grahamʼs words, ʻan accountability towards careful looking, with considerable caution, to listening, to annotating with care.ʼ



Bridget Penney‘s most recent publications are Licorice (Book Works, 2020); Athena B at Pamenar Press online magazine; in Denizen of the Dead (Cripplegate Books, 2020) and a story co-authored with Jeff Noon in Best British Short Stories 2020 (Salt). Currently she is guest-editor for Book Works’ new series, Interstices. A number of her texts loosely centred around Abney Park Cemetery in North London have previously appeared in 3:AM Magazine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 11th, 2021.