This blog is edited from the spoken, zoom presentation to the ‘Becoming Earthly’ group in September 2020.
I want to talk about making art that engages with care with the more-than-human. I feel certain that everyone’s work is full with care. Most work in the field, in whatever artform, could not happen without it. But I want to focus on work that takes care itself as the subject matter. I’ll talk more abstractly to begin, and then work through some ideas by example, referring to an exhibition I made earlier in the year.
Ideas about care and the more-than-human have been around for centuries, and circulating for the last 50 years in the theories of ecofeminism, queer ecology, gender and the environment; and the philosophies of the ethics of care and of environmental justice; and in many indigenous knowledges; and more. There’s plenty of heat and storm across these areas, which, I think indicates how far away society has come from supporting care, and indicates that a nerve continues to be hit.
I suggested reading the introduction to Maria Puig De La Bellacasa’s book, Matters of Care, because it follows the lines of thought of Bruno Latour. But please keep in mind that hers is one particular academic slice at this. I suggested the other reading by Hobart and Kneese on radical care because it has a different energy to it, even if it focuses only on human maintenance and human care-giving. It deals with the hard and biased labour of care, and with care in situations of precarity and collapse. It brims with the audacity to do things otherwise. Other writers and thinkers start with care as a rebellion against the violent imbalances of human societies, as a political not only an emotional act. Care practices are counters to ‘cold-hearted neo-liberalism’. These two readings are a short sample of the scope of writings on care.
The definition of care that is most often quoted is by Joan Tronto and Berenice Fischer from 1993.
Puig De la Bellacasa slightly modifies it to make it less human centred. To quote:
‘On the most general level we suggest that caring be viewed as a species activity that includes everything that is done to maintain, continue and repair the ‘world’ so that all can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, ourselves and our environment, all that we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web.’
Care is, of course, maintenance and repair and continuation, but it also is a form of embodied resistance, an intervention against situations and patterns of neglect and annihilation, and a tender expression of relationality and its complex emotions. It is about ethics and politics.
Care involves work. And those who perform care, themselves need maintenance and care.
It is not-symmetrical, there is not an equal balance of reciprocity in the care given. It involves a thinking with and, for some theorists, a thinking for the more-than-human.
How we think, perceive, perform ourselves, make knowledges and technologies, create narratives and works of art are decisive for the ways in which we can conceive of care. How is it done, what depth does it have, how is it contextualised, what makes it matter, what makes it feel real, where does it operate and with whom?
For many theorists, care is more binding than simply being concerned about something. Care must be a caring with, or a caring practice, not a caring for or caring about. Many ecological art practices are working very immediately in that kind of caring with – with waters, airs, soils, animals, cities and human communities, watersheds. These artists are changing how we think about and practice care.
Of course, I don’t want to promote a flippant and superficial notion of care, or as something that only promotes one’s self-worth, or sense of virtuousness. But to say that care must always be a binding practice side-steps much of the power of the human imagination, the capabilities of metaphor, and the transformative and playful working of art – whatever form that takes.
As well, I am concerned that a wide cultural turn towards ‘care’ could have the effect of hollowing it out, or making it fluffy, homogenising what is a difficult experience, idea and sensibility. It is vital to keep its edge, its vexations. We have to work hard at this because those who care only for profit are diminishing life on earth.
I want to talk further using the example of an exhibition I did earlier this year. The subject of the exhibition is both intensely global, and specific to a particular locale. I did not set out to make pieces about care as an idea. Only after the pieces were done did I realise how much care was in there.
My exhibition of three sculptures was titled x = 2140, with the subtitle: ‘In the coming 120 years, how can humans decide to dismantle, remember and repair the lands called Sellafield’.
To get to Sellafield takes hours. You have to go around the Cumbrian fells. Similarly, I need to take time on the context of the exhibition before I get there.
The anthropologist Petra Tjitske Kalshoven is doing her fieldwork on Sellafield, the nuclear complex on the West Coast of Cumbria. Kalshoven is part of the Beam Research Network at The University of Manchester, studying the social and cultural aspects of the nuclear industries, in association with the Dalton Nuclear Institute.
The Sellafield site is undergoing de-commissioning. The buildings of the site are in the process of being dismantled; the nuclear materials prepared for storage or remediation of some kind. The radiological contamination of the soils and waters needs to be addressed. Full de-commissioning is planned to be completed by 2140. The Sellafield area is likely to be re-branded as an environmental remediation site.
As part of her research, Kalshoven held three workshops in Whitehaven under the project title ‘Sellafield Site Futures’. These brought together nuclear scientists from The University of Manchester and Sellafield, engineers, managers, former employees from Sellafield, artists, philosophers, anti-nuclear activists and social scientists – attempting to communicate across chasms of differences in thinking about the future of that particular place. Kalshoven received funding from the UK Energy Research Centre for an exhibition relating to her project, and she asked me to do this. I had 4 months and a basic budget.
Although Kalshoven’s project was about ‘place’, and the possibilities for an ecologically transformed future, I did not want to make a piece involving public engagement. Nothing that anyone could offer about their view on the future would be heard by the Sellafield establishment. And, I didn’t want to project any proposals for what the future landscape might be. Extrapolating to the future about nuclear sites is in danger of replicating the future-projection publicity of the industry. The audience for this exhibition was likely to be people employed by or concerned with Sellafield and the nuclear industries in some way. It was important to me that I work to this audience.
Sellafield provides a financially comfortable life for those employed there and in its supply chains. In West Cumbria, though, there are multiple class and economic inequalities and deprivations, although little ethnic diversity. Globally, the civil-military nuclear industries are embedded in the effects of colonialism and the masculinist power dynamics of inter-state status; they depend on extractive and production industries that adversely affect indigenous populations and people of colour. [see Hecht]
Making an artwork about the civil-military nuclear industries in a nuclear-dominated place is ethically challenging. For decades, artists have aligned more closely with anti-nuclear activism, and worked with imagery representing that overt political purpose. The divide of being either against nuclear industries or supporting and benefitting from them does still pertain. But in the last decade, and even with that stark divide, artists are exploring more deeply the irreconcilable differences and the compromises that run through every aspect of the nuclear. Their works continue to have political force, although it is a force that may be working in more indirect and complex ways than direct activism. I would place this exhibition in that new field of nuclear cultures. [see Carpenter]
The radiological matter named as waste will not go ‘away’, and, it has overwhelming agency.
For me, the imperatives of thinking about the deep-timed future, about how to repair or remediate the wastes of those industries, how to make a good life, a good place after the nuclear took precedence. The situation does not cleave neatly into factions. Complicity, intractability and power move through it, through bodies, emotions, through lands and airs and waters. This has required negotiating a proximity to the nuclear industries, and negotiating some discomforting – but necessary – ethical relations.
There were two factors that set me off on the course of making these pieces.
How does a community of humans and the more-than-human make decisions, given the extremes of unknowability; given that sciences and technologies are ever-changing; given that social forces are in flux; given that climatic instability may render all plans irrelevant; given the deep and long-time radiological forces of the nuclear materials. I came away from the workshops thinking that all the usual procedures of decision making are inadequate – whether those procedures are cost-benefit analyses, or the judgments made to support political interests or for the maintenance of corporate or scientific institutions. Even the ethical deliberations of philosophy and the most inclusive and democratic of public consultations are likely to fall short in some way, as unpredictable conditions and events take hold.
Second – the sculptural factor – was to play with the architectural and industrial shapes that are being dismantled. What would happen if I could take the iconic golf ball – the original Windscale Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor – turn it over and cut it in half at the equator and empty it out.
It becomes a bowl. Or the bowl of a font.
A font is a holding thing, a reservoir or receptacle, one that holds and is filled with potential energy, most often with water or oil. I’m intending a font in a more archaic than ecclesiastical sense.
Fonts are objects that are associated with many different layers of meaning and different kinds of knowledge. Fonts are devices for acknowledging the past, both its benefits and its failures. They mark the present and celebrate the relations that matter most to us. They can prompt solitary reflection and also be a focus for communal gathering. And they are ways of sending hopes for a future. A font can be a device for thinking about a decision. But fonts don’t, in themselves, provide the answer.
Fonts often have carvings of current trades and crafts, of the people who hold the spiritual and scientific knowledges of the day. The first two of the fonts are about knowledge more than about care.
Font Number 1 is the most obvious turning of the golf ball into a font. Beneath the hard, clear surfaces are magnified images of cement. The images are part of scientific experiments at The University of Manchester on the impact of biological reactions on low-level radioactive wastes. It is possible that the cement is providing a home for bacteria, the tiny rice-like shapes in the images, and these life forms may assist in keeping waste from migrating and becoming fugitive.
Between them are clay panels very much smoothed by the human hand. One is a map of global nuclear sites that relate to Sellafield through remediation work, accidents, leaks, storage, bomb tests and the mining and extraction of uranium. One is a map of the watersheds of the Keekle, Ehen and Calder rivers that meet the Irish Sea at Sellafield. On another are the animal tracks that cross this land, and might cross it in a wilder future.
Under the protective orange panel are replicas of the identity tags of anonymous workers; a dosimeter to measure radiation near the human body; and a pigeon feather. Pigeons on site absorb radiation into their bodies and then have to be culled when they pose a hazardous level of radioactivity as they flock in towns nearby.
The blue timber leggy structure gives the pieces some height, and represents the haphazard look of the repairs to the structures of Sellafield. How are they going to be held together as they are being dismantled? Too, it represents the waves of uncertainty to come. Third, the colour is as close as I could get to the intense blue invented by the French artist Yves Klein. In the late 1950s, Klein wrote to the International Conference for the Detection of Nuclear Explosions, and a list of other dignitaries including the Pope, the Dalai Lama, UNESCO, the League of Peace, offering to paint all atomic and thermo-nuclear warheads in Klein blue, so that their existence could not be concealed. So that blue gives a sense of wanting these decisions about the future not to be concealed.
The Knowledge Font is even more overtly about the production and the endurance of different kinds of human knowledge. What will be useful? What will keep open possibilities for life for future generations? What needs to be lost or buried? They are interspersed with the odd-shaped, ever-present silences and secrets of the nuclear. These are below a ‘ground’ of moss and grass. Under the protective orange panel are seeds for the landscape to come, of local plants and those that might be planted to accommodate a changed climate.
These two fonts owe a lot to theatre in the way materials are used and the way they allude to an imagined reality. They don’t directly engage with ‘care’. Care inside or relating to the scientific, technological and corporate expanses of power and control was more than I could take on in the time. A few scientists did speak about their extreme concern for the nuclear materials; I respect their concern, and need it into the future. Concern can be expressed in the language of security, but civil-military security is never absolute, and it isn’t care. Concern also gets expressed in the metrics of safety, what is safe for a median human body. But ‘safety’ is not care.
Where and how could care with the more-than-human – including the toxic and the radiological – operate in the nuclear world?
The third font – the Future Font – moves away from these industrial crucibles to ask what does it look like and feel like to care for the soils, waters and living beings. More directly – what does it look like and feel like to care for the contaminated? How to show care in a context that is hostile to it?
The Future Font is less theatrical or metaphorical than the other two fonts. It is what it is – steel, slate, lead, oak, shell, sediment. The protective orange circle is out of place. The centre of the font is exposed. Fonts are meant to be touched, and they were. The clay was cracked, the moss was stroked. But for this one, only the perimeter fence could be touched.
The sediment is from a quarry close to the Sellafield site boundary. It is distinctively of Sellafield in its colour and texture. It is non-active, as they say, and is used in laboratory experiments at The University of Manchester on how to treat contaminants while they are in-situ, on site, employing a process called biomineralization. This utilises what they call the ‘indigenous microbial and bacterial communities’ within the soil beneath cement to produce minerals which can retain the contaminates and prevent them from migrating out.
This font presents a harder reality. It offers a different kind of question – not just how to dismantle, remember and repair – but how do you care for the lands, the waters, the living beings, the airs and the elements that are this place? What happens if both remediation and repair are inherently inadequate and futile?
What would care mean under those circumstances?
These are lands that will endure, whether they are behind fences or not.
How do we care for those elements and livings being that we cannot see, or perceive, or barely even know they exist?
How do we keep them close? How do we hold them? What does that feel like?
I’m interested in the human gestures of care with the more than human, the touch, yes, but also the holding, the passing, the falling and rising, the body movements of care with the more than human.
Intuitively, it seemed right to be with, to go into, life and death, to confuse the swaddling cradle of birth and the basket of death and burial. These are transitions made while holding and cleaning. It shows both an act of maintenance and of mourning. And it seemed right to use those human objects of care – the basket, the lead shielding – for the more-than-human, to let the sediment rest, in full sight.
I’m not advocating above ground storage of nuclear materials any more than burial. I am saying it is not a merely a technical problem. It involves acknowledging shame for the past, the inadequacy of knowledge, and the confusions and uncertainty over what care will mean in the future. It calls up fear, necessity, grief, the gods of power and the turmoil of time.
I appreciate that working with the civil-military nuclear complex is extreme. But it allows a thinking about time, about science, about violence, about toxicity and about human touch. About justice, distance and contexts for care, and the fallibility of the human.
There are so many more questions about care that may be more relevant to your work.
How to you chose what to care for – the organism, the species, the habitat? the geology, the atmospheres? the sounds of a place? the environmental systems as humans have defined them?
What are the balances – and imbalances – between an arts practice and caring? What rituals of shame or care might you make before you start piece of work? How long can you care with, can you maintain, repair within the limits of art-making? What happens when you stop? Can you care without empathy? What political organising will make care and justice inevitable? What context can an arts practice create that allows care to flow?
We could be talking for a long time.
The readings that I suggested were:
‘The Disruptive Thought of Care’, [introduction to] Puig De La Bellacasa, Maria (2017). Matters of Care. Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds. London: University of Minnesota Press.
‘Radical Care. Survival Strategies for Uncertain Times’, [introduction to special edition of Social Text]Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart, Hi‘ilei Julia and Kneese, Tamara (Eds.) (2020). Social Text 142. 38:1. Duke University Press.
the poem ‘Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself’ by Wallace Stevens
Other works mentioned are:
Tronto, Joan and Fischer, Berenice (1993). Moral boundaries: a political argument for an ethic of care. New York: Routledge.
Carpenter, Ele (ed.) (2108). The Nuclear Culture Sourcebook. London: Black Dog Publishing.
Hecht, Gabrielle. (2012). Being Nuclear. Africans and the Global Uranium Trade. London: The MIT Press.
The exhibition described is:
X = 2140
In the coming 120 years, how can humans decide to dismantle, remember and repair the lands called Sellafield?