Shock and Care

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Shock and Care

an essay about art, politics and responsibility

Content note: includes discussion of sex, violence and self-injury in an artistic context.
Cover image from Flickr user wallsdontlie, licensed under Creative Commons.

I. Proposition.

Learning how to care for your audience is actually far more aesthetically interesting and politically disruptive than working out how to shock them.

II. Shock

The history of art is often told as a history of shocks. The first performance of the Rite of Spring being so dissonant and suggestive as to provoke a riot. Duchamp’s urinal (which may have actually been Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’s) forever changing the course of what is considered to be art. The publication of Ginsberg’s Howl changing what it’s possible to print. Though this way of telling history might have limitations, we often expect art to continue advancing through this kind of creative rupture: socially proscribed acts and new creative forms which continue to push artistic and social possibility forward. This way of thinking about art encourages artists to pursue social shocks and creative ruptures in their own work.

Meanwhile, certain artistic theories also depend on the revolutionary potential of the shock. The Situationists, for example, advocated a range of disruptive creative strategies – forms of street theatre, repurposing existing art objects, engaging in deep psychological and creative improvisation – designed to wake an audience up from the torpor of everyday life, from the numbing spectacle offered to them by capitalist society. This tradition has also given us the idea that the shocking artistic act can be revolutionary for the audience or artist, can inspire an awakening of self- and political consciousness, can be reparative through disruption.

But in the present political moment, we can understand neoliberalism as a state of constant shock, of constant stimulation. Extremes of violence confront me whenever I look at a newspaper, a television, a website. I am faced with constant excitation, a thousand interruptions which demand my attention, many of which make a claim to changing my life to the better. My generation reads more language than ever before, consumes more culture than ever before. My generation in my country experiences higher reported rates of mental illness than ever before: whether its source is in daily experience of violence, the high presence of reported violence, the economic demands of high productivity, the bath of constant stimulation, the saturation of surveillance and self-surveillance in daily life – whatever its source, the dominant affect of the 21st century in the West is not boredom but anxiety. If the current cultural moment is dominated by shock, we need to question what role the idea of the artistic shock can now have.

Moreover, we need to look at how the idea of the artistic shock is itself complicit in the development of neoliberalism. The idea of “disruptive innovation”, which can be seen as much in the idea of art progressing through creative ruptures as through Uber forcing down wages, heightening precarity and fighting worker organisation, is central to the functioning of the neoliberal project. The creative focus on newness and artistic innovation is hard to distinguish from cycles of new iPhone releases driving consumer demand. The idea of constant excitation, constant attention demand, constant need which requires constant fulfilment, is central to a consumer-driven society. And the situationist idea that a rupture in everyday life can bring about a revolution in consciousness has been very easily repurposed into a way to sell exciting products. Culture has perhaps been more complicit in than resistant to the onward march of neoliberalism.

And moreover still, it becomes harder and harder for artists to find material which has the capacity to shock. Expression through self-injury is as much a feature of Jackass films as it is a move in performance art; naked flesh is as much a huge portion of internet traffic as much as it is the cliché of performance art festivals; accounts of suffering, of trauma, of violence, of horror are all a search term away and are free to access. While there are still and will always be taboos to break, more often than not they have already been broken on the internet; while there are acts which are still socially proscribed and punished, they are still freely shared and talked about on the internet; so what role can art have now in engaging transgression? In an age of total cultural saturation and ease of access, what is it worth art’s time talking about? What can art provide that the rest of the world cannot? Is there still a role for shock?

III. Care

One of the defining features of neoliberalism is the dramatic erosion of structures of care. Whereas care for family members was previously often managed within domestic settings, most often reliant on the unacknowledged and unpaid labour of women, care is now more likely to be outsourced to public or private institutions, which are most often reliant on the underpaid and overstretched labour of women, particularly migrant women. Meanwhile, austerity economics has involved the defunding and privatisation of the welfare state, reducing individuals’ access to the economic resources required for good care, and attacking the infrastructure and institutions which provide care to the public, from hospitals to libraries to home visitors. Emblematic is the case of mental health: while the end of the asylum system was widely welcomed because of its institutional sheltering of abuse and violence, the promised Care in the Community has often failed to emerge, with mental health service consumers, survivors and ex-patients left with even less support to access. An abusive and hierarchical model of institutional and domestic care, after a brief interlude in which the idea of social security and social care was welcomed, has been replaced by the defunding and demolition of care, by precarity as the norm.

Moreover, we can also observe the devaluing of the act of care as a social good. Neoliberal society values individualism, self-actualisation and achievement: it economically rewards these actions, and economically punishes those who choose to devote time to looking after others. Though the parent-child relationship of care is still often maintained, broader family or community relationships of care have been undermined, as has intergenerational care. And when, as an example, a child chooses, against the grain of society, to care for an elderly parent, they might find that they do not have the skills and training to do so, and have very little access to forms of support which could help them. There is no investment in care as something a person might want to do.

So, in a political situation in which care is both exceptionally necessary and exceptionally underprovided, acts of care begin to look politically radical. To care is to act against the grain of social and economic orthodoxy: to advocate care is, in the present moment, to advocate a kind of political rupture. But by its nature, care must be a rupture which involves taking account of, centring, and, most importantly, taking responsibility for those for whom you are caring. Is providing care thus a valuable avenue of artistic exploration? Is the art of care a form of radical political art? Is care, in a society which devalues care, itself shocking?

I want to explore what the art of care might look like. My thoughts are partial and exploratory. It is not easy to take responsibility for the audience; it is not easy to provide care in a way which centres the desires, needs and agency of the audience; it is not easy to make good art about anything, including the art of care. Learning how to care will always involve asking questions, trying experiments and making mistakes.

IV. Interlude: Some Things That Happened At Buzzcut

(Content note: this section includes examples of sexual coercion and genital violence in an artistic context. The essay returns to more general discussion in the next section.)

In that spirit of learning, I want to talk about a few incidents in which I experienced both dramatic failures of care and dramatic provision of care at an art event. Buzzcut is a performance art festival in Glasgow. It has become an iconic event in the UK scene, and is often talked about as a hub of the performance art community, as a community in itself. This year their increasing focus on deeper accessibility was very evident. Two of the questions they asked in their programme were: “How do we welcome and look after the most vulnerable?” and “How do we celebrate diversity, rebellion and risk?” In my conversations with and about Buzzcut, I have often found that the idea of caring about and caring for the artists and audiences is central to the festival’s philosophy. So, unsuprisingly, many things I experienced there this year made me think about shock and care:

Kris Canavan is angry about trigger warnings. They read three times an essay consisting of short statements which take the form, “If you think that censoring art through trigger warnings is more important than the fact that poor people are suffering, please fucking leave the room now.” These statements attempt no genuine engagement with the ethics or politics of the safer spaces movement and have the same level of analysis and reaction as a Telegraph editorial. These statements foreclose all possible action by the audience and prevent the audience from having any agency over their meaning: to stay is to indicate agreement, to leave is to acquiesce to the artist’s definition of why you are leaving. The action is self-consciously tyrannical. Several people leave. I contemplate actions of refusal such as taking the microphone to speak or standing and turning my back on the performance, but do nothing bar refusing to clap at the end. After repeating the essay three times, the artist pins their mouth closed through their lips, and then staples up their genitals. This has the unfortunate effect of implying that being prevented from saying whatever you want whenever you want is similar to not being allowed to put your genitals wherever you want whenever you want. They stare at the audience accusatorily for a while. Then the performance ends. It takes the audience a long time to understand that this is what has happened. There is no opportunity given for discussion or any other form of aftercare.

I go to see a quiet and thoughtful piece about gender performativity by Lucy Hutson called Bound. Before I enter, a woman outside says, “Just so you know, there are breasts.” The woman ahead of me in the queue says “That’s OK, I have some too.” This is the only content note I hear at the whole festival, and also the least necessary. (I was only there for part of two days.)

The producers have organised a quiet room. It has mattresses, rugs and some soft chairs. There is a sign outside asking people to respect the room as a space of silence, rest and recuperation. I am absurdly glad of its existence. When I do not feel able to talk to anyone between performances, I go to the quiet room. This enables me to stay for longer at the festival than I expected. The quiet room is my second favourite artwork of the whole festival.

I go to see Gavin Crastin‘s Rough Musick. There are lots of interesting psychosexual tableaux I find hard to interpret: a person vacuum-sealed inside a plastic packet like a chicken fillet, a person in a fetish mask and boots goose-stepping and queen-waving to the national anthem, a burial of a fake puppy corpse in salt. It’s all a bit ridiculous and is aesthetically indistinguishable from the parodic performance art event in Spaced, but I still more or less like it. Towards the climax, the most mobile performer, in a fetish mask, performs sexual dancing very close to audience members. Then he pulls an audience member onto the stage, dances close to him, and begins grabbing at his crotch. The audience member pushes the artist away from his crotch. The artist persists. The audience member resists. Eventually the artist gives up and tries another man. The artist succeeds in extracting items from the audience members’ pockets. He scatters them amongst the performance art debris on the floor. Eventually he finds what he is looking for, a credit card, and swipes it through his arsecheeks. The audience members he has interacted with have been pressured to accept these interactions, have not been given an opportunity to clearly refuse consent, and have had to forcibly and repeatedly refuse in order to prevent sexual actions from happening to them. A large section of the rest of the audience laughs very loudly at each of these interactions.

I go to see Katy Dye‘s Baby Face. It is about the connection between sexualisation and infantilisation for women. It is disturbing and funny and well-made. At several points the artist asks an audience member to help her do things on stage. She picks the most Dadly-looking audience member: he is big, friendly, balding, and has a knitted jumper. He is respectful and solicitous of everything she asks. It is clear that her requests are a critique: she asks him to do things she is capable of doing herself, and she has spoken to us about how men in her life have infantilised her by, for example, carrying her around, which she then asks the audience member to do. She is making fun of him, but she always asks clearly if he will do something for her: it would be difficult for him to refuse, but there is a space for it. Towards the climax of the show she talks about the complex feeling that sometimes she might want to be infantilised, might want to be cared for in a deep but non-agential way, might even have a sexual or romantic connection to this idea. Then she asks the audience member to spoonfeed her baby food. Before each spoon, he looks at her for acceptance and she nods. Eventually she puts up a hand and he stops. The sequence is tender and horrifying.

The crowds at Buzzcut are huge, loud and intense. They fill the performances, the intermission spaces, and the corridors. When I go to Buzzcut, I know I have to save up energy and plan recuperation time, because I know I will find these crowds immensely difficult and draining. (My brain does not cope well with large human crowds and is liable to have panic attacks in them, along with other responses such as going non-verbal.) I have several friends who have been to Buzzcut once and will not go back because they find these crowds so unpleasant. The crowds are a direct result of Buzzcut’s approach to audiences: the events are not ticketed, and the door staff of each performance try to fit as many people in as possible. This approach enables the largest number of people to attend the festival, but at the cost of limiting access for people with mental and physical disabilities, and for people who just find entering a room which is wall-to-wall in-crowd artists quite intimidating. I do not know how I would resolve this contradiction, apart from giving the producers all the space and money they could need to achieve their wildest goals, because I believe they have the right intention and effort, even when it fails.

I go to see The Robot and Bob’s DRONE DANCE, a piece about robots and Morris dancing. Early on, they ask for volunteers. I jump up like an eager schoolchild because I love robots and country dancing. We and the robots are given instructions by a robot voice in how to do a morris dance. The instructions are given very badly: I think this is part of what the piece was about, and I like it very much. Halfway through my volunteering. I realise I am beginning to feel quite tired and overheated. At that moment, serendipitously, the parodically intimidating robot voice says, “Remember, there is water available if you need it.” I see where the water is, grab a bottle, drink half of it, and so enjoy myself much more.

I am queueing, in the middle of those difficult crowds, with a friend who has said to me that he too finds them very difficult. He is holding his thumb up to his mouth. I smile at him. He says, “I’m blowing on my thumb to relieve social stress. Sometimes I do this until I get dizzy.” I do not speak, because the crowds have made me non-verbal. Instead, I roll up my sleeve and show him where I am, at that moment, pinching very hard the skin on my forearm, because the focus of that pain is what will prevent me from having a panic attack. He smiles. The queue moves forward and we lose each other. This interaction was my favourite moment of the festival.

V: Care as Shock

I now want to talk about other performances I have seen which explore how we can positively, creatively and with deep meaning care for the audience. I want to look in more detail at what caring for the audience might mean.

I first properly learned about caring for the audience from Adrian Howells. Adrian’s later practice focussed on intimate and one-to-one performance. His 2008 piece Foot-Washing for the Sole involved washing the feet of strangers as part of a confessional ritual: other work involved holding, bathing, dancing and otherwise physically caring for audience members while sharing deeply of himself. Adrian helped me develop the initial idea, and later the full performance, of What We Owe, my one-to-one performance about debt. This show involves an intimate conversation with audience members, asking them to discuss their debts to people and the world. When we spoke about the piece, Adrian would ask me questions not about how to push the audience, but how to lead the audience into creatively interesting and productive spaces of conversation. He wanted me to think about how looking after the audience in the conversation could help the work be better. My instincts were to be puckish and to ask difficult questions; Adrian nurtured those instincts by showing how a caring frame could make those approaches work better artistically. I learned how to give audience members space to refuse to answer a difficult question, and how by giving them that space I made them more able to answer or otherwise engage. I learned to have tissues available for when someone cried and how to provide space for sadness in the performance. While early performances focussed on uncovering debt, later performances moved towards talking about how we could manage debt, and often ended in rituals of personal debt forgiveness. I remember feeling like this learning, at each stage, revolutionary.

One of the most shocking performances I have ever encountered was Verity Standen‘s Hug, a choral work in which each audience member is blindfolded, sat individually, and held by a singer. The choral bath delighted and astonished my ears, and the musical effects were heightened by the physical presence: I felt my singer move as they sang, I felt the vibrations of their body, I was held by their hands and by their voice. I wept hard. It was beautiful. And yet the same actions could have easily led to panic for me: the disorientation, the touching by strangers. This was avoided because what was going to happen to me was explained and I was given time always to adjust and to object if necessary. In testing the tightness of the blindfold, in leading me carefully to my chair, in touching me lightly in a way that indicated a check on my wellbeing – in all these ways the performers looked after me so that the performance could cut into my heart. I was shocked by how held I felt, by how looked after I felt. I very much needed this holding at that time in my life.

The curatorial project I have learned the most from is SEEP, presented by Cachín Cachán Cachunga. The two SEEP exhibitions and event programmes have centred the work of LGBTQ artists, with an added focus on disabled and Deaf, migrant and racialised communities, and have taken a radically deep and intersectional approach to disability: venues have strong physical accessibility, all events are BSL interpreted and audio-described, content notes are provided, seating provides space to move and breathe, there is quiet space to escape to – accessibility has been properly thought through in multiple dimensions. I attended an exhibition tour in which each exhibit was described and conceptually introduced, and in which many exhibits had a tactile component we were encouraged to explore. It was an exhibition for multiple senses at once, which respected the different senses of different people. As a result, the art was revealed to me in completely new and surprising ways: my experience of the our was a creative shock. In addition, I’ve attended an Open Barbers session with Cachín which offered pay-what-you-can haircuts respecting many genders and presentations, and a post-apocalyptic holiday comedown party which respected different sensory and mental needs enough (quiet music, no scents, welcomes, quiet space) for weirdos like me to attend and enjoy (I never go to parties) – in other words, an accessible community is being built around the art, which matters to the art.

While writing about these ideas on Twitter, I was introduced to Lily Einhorn’s work with the Young Vic Two Boroughs programme. She describes the many ways local audiences are welcomed and invited to participate in the theatre building, and in particular talks about an adaptation of Happy Days with local groups of unpaid female carers. It was a project in which carers were asked to talk about care, and needed to be looked after or taken responsibility for by the theatre in order to do that work, as part of the theatre’s work in looking after and taking responsibility for its local communities. The result, by all reports I’ve read (though I did not see the show), was an artistically stunning exploration of ideas around care.

The argument I’m trying to build through these examples is that experiences of deep and genuine care are themselves shocking, shocking through their incongruity with a wider uncaring world. They are also necessary, because so few of us have the option to be cared for. And they define your audiences, because to choose not to care – to not take account of – audiences made up of different people with very different needs, whether those are needs based on disability, class, mental health or otherwise – is to limit your audience, which is to limit the conversation your art is having and thus the possibilities of the art you can make.

VI: Shock as Care

But, as many readers are no doubt thinking, there are limitations and complications to this way of thinking. Does focussing on care preclude other vital political possibilities? Am I suggesting shutting out what’s difficult, what’s uncomfortable, what’s unpleasant? Am I trying to create a safe and sanitised world for only art that feels nice? Am I trying to censor art?

I do think there are important questions to be asked (and I finish on these below), but I think this set of common objections is a little too simplistic. First, I want to be clear that I’m not advocating banning art that in some way fails to take care of its audience: rather, I’m encouraging artists to think about the ethics of audience responsibility as a means of making more interesting and more radical art. Second, I also want to suggest that developing these ethics actually makes it more possible to perform art that’s difficult, uncomfortable and unpleasant, and more possible for that art to find its audience. And I think this is important because difficult and painful art – art that’s shocking, even – can itself perform acts of care.

I remember seeing the vacuum cleaner‘s Mental, an autobiographical show about state violence and mental health. The artist intertwines his police surveillance reports with his medical record, using the documents to uncover how his psychological history and the interventions of the state are intertwined. It is, of necessity, a harrowing narrative, coming at great emotional cost to the artist and the audience. The artist is asking us to bear witness to trauma, and to be part of that trauma: it is not an easy thing to ask. But what I also remember about this piece is the context the work was given: as a small audience we were driven to a special location, we mingled in a foyer, and we were given cups of tea and biscuits before heading in. We were forewarned of the content of the piece, and given considerable opportunity to connect with other audience members. For the show itself, we were sat around the artist in his bed. The result of all of this was to create an audience which had responsibility and vulnerability to each other and to the artist: we were more present, more involved, and more able to look after ourselves. If someone needed to leave, they could: if the artist needed to leave, he could. I remember, almost more than the content of the show, feeling an extraordinary generosity of spirit between the artist and the audience, each supporting the other to continue.

But shock-as-care can extend beyond difficult autobiographical material. Personally, I have a strong affection for very loud noise art and body-based art which involves physical and injurious extremes, and I find in both vital catharsis, vital intensity, and vital presence to the many horrors of the world. With noise and intensity, for me, it’s a strange contradiction: my sensory issues make high-stimulation environments very difficult for me, but I find noise art almost comforting. In the supermarket, the extremes of light, noise, crowds and choices are a direct route to a panic attack that I can generally only cope with by wearing headphones, but I can very happily sit and watch extraordinarily loud and dissonant noise art – it feels like a warm bath of sound that shuts out the rest of the world and allows me, for once, to think clearly. I remember watching Torycore, the hardcore band of musicians and artists that screams Tory speeches to crashing guitars and drums, and feeling at once horrified and cared for; I remember watching them play a minute’s rage for Paul Reekie, a pure minute of screaming violent noise in rage and grief and protest against the DWP-triggered suicides of disabled people, and feeling more present and more possible than I had in weeks. Recently, as co-director of ANATOMY, I programmed The Cloud of Unknowing‘s Palimpsest: Iain Duncan Smith, featuring distorted guitars, butoh-based bodily contortions and vile extracts of IDS speeches, and feeling that same wash of sadness and possibility. But when we presented that work, we did our best to make it clear to the audience that noise, flashing lights and difficult themes were coming, and we did our best to enable people to leave (and return) if they needed to, to make the informed choice about whether or not to participate. In order for these deep bodily shocks to care for me, I need to choose them, or else they will merely re-enact – rather than exorcise – their violence.

But let’s push this further still. I’ve long admired the work of Liberate Tate, the arts-activist collective who organised creative protests against BP sponsorship of the arts, raising awareness of key political issues in the oil industry and eventually winning the campaign. Their works are disruptive and beautiful, and of activist necessity could not involve the kind of audience care I’ve been discussing or they could not take place at all. While one audience – visitors to the gallery – received the gift of free art, sometimes including invitations to participate, another audience – those in power at the gallery – was supposed to be disrupted and pissed off by the work. What we can find in Liberate Tate’s work, however, is a strong sense of political responsibility around the work: informed research offered freely to the public, press campaigns around each artwork to set the sociopolitical context, engagement with and highlighting of those most directly affected by BP’s activities, particularly indigenous campaigners in the Tar Sands region, and overall a body of work to ensure that the disruption was given strong ethico-political grounding and the best possible chance to communicate to a wide audience. In this case, the shock to the institution is an act of care for the world.

And to push this one last step, perhaps beyond the capacity of this partial and introductory theory to account for, consider the work of Voina and related performance artists from Russia. They have, amongst many other disruptions, had public sex in a state museum, shoplifted a cart of groceries while wearing an Orthodox robe and a police hat, and welded shut the doors of an elite club. One art collective founded in part by former members of Voina is Pussy Riot, the feminist punk act who gained global attention after performing an impromptu anti-patriarchal gig in an Orthodox Church and suffering extreme legal punishment as a result. Another Russian performance artist making work in a similar vein is Petr Pavlensky, whose works include cutting off his earlobe in protest against psychiatric abuse and firebombing the doors of the Lubyanka. In each of these works, it is clear the people are actively harmed by the art, and this raises vital artistic and political questions. Who is it that is harmed, and why? Is it worth it? In Pussy Riot’s case, the punk gig offends worshippers and people who believe in a certain sanctity of the church space, who feel violated, but I would argue that in this case the violence is justified in the cause of attacking a patriarchy whose foundations rest in part on that very sanctity. But these are not easy arguments to make, and they are not artworks that I think can be taken or performed lightly.

For me, the artistic justification – artists have the right to harm in the cause of their art, because they must be free to make art as they choose – is not sufficient. I think it is very easy to harm people in this world, so easy that you don’t need an artistic justification to do; unless artistic freedom is under dramatic political and legal threat (which is also true in the case of Pussy Riot), I do not think that we need to actively harm people to maintain the case for artistic freedom. But how are these judgements made, and by whom? I don’t have the answers here, but in my belief that shocking acts can also be acts of care, I think the vital question to ask is “Who will I harm, and why, and is it worth it?” Once you have admitted the possibility that your work can do harm, you can take responsibility for it.

VII: Strategies

Having made the case for taking care as a radical practice, I want to suggest a few practical strategies artists can experiment with to begin learning how to take care.

First, when preparing an artwork, I think it is vital to consider who you are preventing from seeing it. Are you excluding a D/deaf audience? Are you excluding people with physical or mental accessibility needs? Are you pricing people out of access to the artwork? Are you putting social barriers to entry around the artwork? We all do these things, and the world does not make it easy to make art accessible to everyone, but I think artists should admit that they are making active choices to exclude people, and to take responsibility for it. And I think that most artists can do much more work to enable greater access than they might first think: if you decide that not excluding people is actually a priority, there is much work you can do. And I think that the wider the range of people you have in the room, in general, the more interesting are the conversations you can have.

Second, when making artwork involving challenging material, particularly violence, sex, loud noises and flashing nights, consider whether there is truly any artistic merit in not forewarning the audience. If you simply give a brief content note beforehand, what do you lose? If the effect of the art largely relies on delivering an unexpected reveal, is the art really any good, or is it rather shallow? And in this sociopolitical moment, is delivering sudden and unexpected sex or violence really an interesting or valuable thing to do? On the other side from all of these questions, consider: will providing a content note enable more people to better engage with your work, and might that be more valuable than any effect the shock could provide?

Third, consider what support structures are can you put in place around the artwork, to enable more people to better enjoy it. How can you make an audience feel welcome and engaged before an artwork begins? Some possibilities include: having a friendly individual welcome people to the space; providing contextual information to enable better understanding of the work; having comfortable places to sit to become familiar with the building; having a range of different social areas to welcome different kinds of people, because our minds and bodies are endlessly various. How can you ensure that the audience has agency within the artwork? Some possibilities include: allowing the audience to leave and return when they need to; providing space for interpretation and reflection; offering physical comfort to enable better engagement (why do so many performance artists make their audience sit on hard floors without back support?); considering the accessibility of the language used in and around an artwork. And how can you look after an audience after an artwork ends? Some possibilities include: where challenging material is discussed, providing support resources; where the artwork involves interaction, ensuring that you check in with participants afterwards and provide care if needed; indicating that there is an opportunity to discuss difficult themes with the artist or support staff; providing a variety of kinds of spaces to decompress afterwards. In these suggestions, I’ve centred the performative artwork, which leaves the big question of how such strategies can be adapted to visual and literary arts. And I’m aware that some of these suggestions may be beyond the economic and infrastructural resources of many artists, so I would also ask: How can we encourage institutions with greater resources to do this work with artists? And for those feeling some resistance to me asking these questions, I would ask: How can trying these strategies of care make the artwork stronger? How can they be integrated into an artwork that becomes truly shocking in how much it cares for me?

Finally, recognise that care is a vital contemporary issue, and that as such we need art that is about care and that provides care. What themes of radical caring can you build into your work? How can you bring attention to the crisis of care? What do you care about enough to make art that cares for it?

VIII: Questions

This essay first started as a series of tweets and then a lengthy and valuable discussion on my Facebook wall. I’d encourage you to read that discussion, which explores a lot of territory. And I’d like to finish by thanking the people who took part for broadening my thinking, and for asking some difficult questions I’ve yet to answer. Thanks also to Louise Adelaide, Seanna Musgrave and others, a wonderful conversation with whom sparked the original tweet. Here are some of those questions, which introduce important problems to the heart of my discussion:

FK Alexander asked whether, if the artist has a responsibility of care towards the audience, does the audience then have a responsibility of care towards the artist? To expand that: What expectations is it right for artists to have about how audiences will behave, and in which contexts? How should artists deal with audience members who are resistant or disruptive? (There may be extraordinary potential for engagement and inclusion there, but there may also be limits to the artist’s capacity.) Are artists owed a generosity of attention and interpretation in return for the generous offer of their work? These questions become all the harder in an era of massive cultural overproduction, where it is economically and socially easy for audiences to treat artists as disposable.

Daniel Oliver asked whether focusing on care could create an access problem through requiring artists to excel at various people skills. This is particularly pertinent in the case of neurodiversity, and it’s a valid concern. I often think there are risks in political ideologies that value various ways of social being that rely on social ease and skilfulness, and that these ideologies could exclude both neurodiverse people and people from different cultural backgrounds, creating normative ways of social being that are actively uncaring. One potential reply to this problem is that developing these skills should be seen as part of artist development; another is that the responsibility of care lies with producers as much as with artists, and that it should be OK for artists to delegate care work to others in their team. But this reply still avoids the real ethical, political and creative heart of Daniel’s question, which he describes as a “worry about domesticating dysfunctionality and avoiding or attempting to overcome or soften the difficulties of sharing space with others, or temporarily entering and experiencing someone else’s world.” This seems to me true and difficult. We cannot make everywhere safe; we cannot smooth all social relations. There are contradictions between people and gulfs that cannot be overcome. Developing an ethics which can account for he ways people do (and should be able to) rub against each other seems vital to me, and is part of the question around developing ethics which can account for when it is essential for art to be able to harm.

Gloria Lindh asked, “Who gets to decide whether an audience or reader ‘deserves’ something?” suggesting that artists, implicitly or explicitly, are always making a contract with their audiences. She suggested that too often artists expect that audiences “should all meekly receive our shocking distressing experience and thank the artist who decided that experience for us nicely.” So how can we remake these contracts in more radical ways? I think that this work of setting expectations and enabling agency between artists and audiences is a good way of thinking through all of the questions here.

James Leadbitter asked a question so fundamental that I nearly rewrote this whole essay: Is the idea of care itself a product of a neoliberal social model? Does thinking about artistic care build into art an unwanted hierarchy, a patronising or parental relationship? Should we instead be thinking about “support”, moving away from giving agency to enabling agency? In general, I entirely agree with James: I do want to live in a world in which the many different kinds of people are supported, valued, respected and agential, in which difference does not mean that one kind of person is an authority who is supposed to care for another. But that said, I do think that even in that world that the experience of care – both giving and receiving care – will be at times both necessary and beautiful. I also think that engaging deeply and radically with questions of care is part of creating that world. Now and in the future, I want to care, and I want to be cared for.

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7 thoughts on “Shock and Care

  1. Extremely useful stuff.

    Is there traction in substituting ‘waking up’ for the word ‘shocking’? I think if there’s a larger motive for the artist trying to ‘shock’, then it’s generally aimed at a situation rather than individuals. The most clarifying phrase in your piece for me is “the shock to the institution is an act of care for the world.” And I think you’re spot-on that this larger motive often seems lost, and alienating art ensues.

    The thing that’s got me excited about what you’re saying is that it’s a conversation about making art in a situation of psychic abuse and socioeconomic fear-pushing. There are questions to be asked about a population of bewildered and disempowered people in a slowburning state of fight or flight spending time heightening each other’s already existential sense of alarm.

    I think you’re right that there’s a time-stamp to these things: Dadaists hurling personal insults at the audience was arguably a usefully disruptive thing to do in that context, at that time. But now it’s now.

    I feel there’s a helpful question for an artist in thinking about ‘shock’ versus ‘care’ in a piece: How much is the piece all about you and your need to be seen and stand out? A line to be navigated by most-all ‘performance’ artists.

    If this is looked into deeply enough then there’s a hope of naturally producing a more caring outcome regardless of content. By downgrading ‘what do I really really want to be seen to do?’ and promoting ‘what is the experience / image / dream / OFFER?’ you can perhaps organically step bit by bit out of solipsism and into compassionate / empathetic art. Which are qualities that are indeed out of the norm under neoliberalism.

    I also value highly the space of art as a forum for the ‘invisible to be made visibile’, for ‘calling something into being’ and similar things that might give some people the bolk. And I think if you’re busy creating work that’s a rigorous address to the depths of your own / all of our beings, to what it is to be alive, then perhaps many other things fall away and the ‘right’ answer emerges, which would include how to treat your audience.

    I believe acts of artistic activism are still vital (you cite the BP thing), and also that there’s a lot to be retained from the Situationists in collapsing the distance between ‘art’ and ‘life’, though I know you were only picking on one strategy of theirs.

    I feel myself departing from your argument a little in as much as I think we’re a species living in deep trance, lemming like. I think we all own a part of this trance, and I know I’m relying on friends, artists, authors to help me wake up. Sometimes that takes a bucket of cold water. I appreciate art that can do that for me, and it feels different in kind than the kind of celebrity-shock work where it is all about the artist looking cool and shocking. I don’t think I’m contradicting you here, just a different emphasis.

    I’m not disregarding any of your more practical suggestions either, all helpful. I just engage more with the ‘why do anything?’ gut-level stuff you’ve raised first of all.

  2. Brilliant essay dude.

    You’re right, the question about neoliberalism is very fundamental.

    I think it might break down to that old binary of form and content. Care as ‘content’ might be co-optable (am I spelling that right?) in ways people can’t presently imagine. Whether or not you buy the old binary of form and content, I think it’s clear that some unscrupulous individual could go to a performance, feel cared for very profoundly, see it as content, and go: ‘This is brilliant! Everyone’ll love it! I’ll make millions!’

    Whether or not what that unscrupulous individual would create would be anything close to what you talk about in this essay, I have no idea.

    Also, on a more pretentious note, Heidegger writes a lot about ‘Care’. But for him (among other things) care is a necessary part of your own personal being. I am who I am because I care about who I am. I want to do things, and if I want these things to happen I need to actually care about them. So, care for the audience in this way might be, in a way, care for yourself, for who you want to be as an artist. It is a statement about who you are and about what kind of work you want to make, and about the kind of work you might want to promote. This isn’t a problem, in fact its probably the most important thing. It’s about orientating how you want to be, as to be FOR OTHERS. And we all dance away, merrily and mindful of our impact.

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