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caring in & through 
our practices

by Jacina Leong 梁玉明 

Screenshot 2023-12-04 at 6.13.44 pm.png


caring in and through our practices

by Jacina Leong 梁玉明 

I want to begin by inviting you to think with the following questions.


Why are you here? What brings you to this space?

What questions have you been grappling with and asking of your practice?

What do you want and need from this time of shared reflexivity?


These and other questions form part of a resource, caring in and through our practices, that I recently developed (as part of my PhD) to facilitate shared practitioner reflexivity. Writer and educator, Gillie Bolton (2001, 14) describes reflexivity as a process of:


Making aspects of the self strange: focusing close attention upon one’s own actions, thoughts,feelings, values, identity, and their effect upon others, situations, and professional and social structures. The reflexive thinker has to stand back from belief and value systems, habitual ways of thinking and relating to others, structures of understanding themselves and their relationship to the world, and their assumptions about the way that the world impinges upon them. Practically, then, reflexivity involves asking questions about ‘our own attitudes, thought processes, values, assumptions, prejudices and habitual actions, to strive to understand our complex roles in relation to others’.


In this way, for Bolton, reflexivity is also a pedagogical process, ‘inherently communal [and] created and enacted within the relations of a committed group of learners to make and share knowledge, question habits of thoughts, and render visible the ideological premises upon which this work is done’ (Amirkhani 2021, 16). In other words, ‘rather than a mere quietist navel-gazing exercise’ (Bolton 2001, 12), reflexivity can also be a highly social and relational process.


caring in and through our practices presents a series of scaffolded questions that encourage practitioners to explore, together, for who do we care, what for, why and how, in and through our practices. In doing so, this resource is an invocation for practitioners to think with and attune to the tensions of our practices, its potentialities and possibilities, limitations and accountabilities. Before I discuss how this resource came to be, I would like us to think capaciously with the contours of care: its messiness, its crisis and commodification, its hierarchies and exclusions, its priorities and marginalisations.


A few years ago, a colleague described the so-called ‘art world’ as sick. All has not been right in this world, she commented, for a very long time. Many of us here are acutely aware of the crises of care that have long been endemic to the arts. Our bodies keep scores of such crises in different ways. This includes the chronic stress and cumulative impacts of operating under colonial capitalist logics of productivity, growth and expansion, job casualisation and precarity, and for many, competitive and scarce funding constraints. Others here, me included, have also directly experienced the racist logics that pervade our ‘political ideologies, national identity, [and] way of life’ (Yu 2021), including many of the organisations through which my practice has taken place. In these spaces, I have seen how care is unevenly distributed and disproportionately enacted by ‘those at multiple intersections’ (Zhang 2022).


In a pandemic-impacted world, calls for care in the arts sector seemed to reach boiling point, with many recognising the need for systemic and structural change, including redressing our sector’s connection to and perpetuation of colonial capitalist practices. It’s no accident that care is being talked about everywhere in the arts, as Tian Zhang noted in her article, A manifesto for radical care or how to be a human in the arts. This is because the crises of care that have long been endemic to the arts became heightened in a pandemic-impacted arts sector, making visible ‘the cracks that were always present in our systems’ (Zhang 2022). As Zhang (2022) reflects:


'In times of crisis, it becomes clear what is valued and what is expendable—and who. Whose

contracts are cancelled and who is protected. Who has stability, continues to have work, and gets paid. Who is allowed to fall through the cracks. Who is going back to business as usual—and who benefits from this. And who is actually doing the care work to try and get us out of this mess.'


Such calls for care, unsurprisingly, also emerged concurrent with broader calls for care and indeed, amid climates of political, social and ecological uncertainty, this moment is one that demands that we see these many crises as overlapping and interrelated, ‘connected’, as The Care Collective impresses (2020, 7), ‘to the market-driven lack of care at every level of society’. The art world, after all, does not operate in a vacuum.


I became interested in care and its resonance with my practice (as an artist-curator) early in the PhD, in part, because I started to pay attention to how paternalistic understandings of care were playing out in my own practice, consciously and otherwise—a practice, concerned with organising, activating and facilitating connections between people, and in response to ‘immediate crises and precarious futures’ (Hobart and Kneese 2020, 2). I also became interested in how care, and its etymological proximity to terms such as curiosity and accuracy, trouble, grief and concern (Casid 2012), resonated with some of the questions I was asking about practice (its purpose, its value, its ethics) and the decisions we make as practitioners in deciding for whom we care, what for, why and how.


It might be useful here to pause to consider what care is.


One of the questions included in the resource I referred to earlier, and that I invite you to now sit with, asks practitioners: What does care feel like in your practice? 


What does care feel like in your practice?


Some practitioners who have responded to this question have said:


‘Care feels like awareness. It’s got dexterity of feeling, light and agile, firm, and deliberate. Care is responsive.’ ‘Care is understanding. It’s not punitive.’ ‘It is a place of boundaries, soft boundaries. With a sticky centre that keeps you somewhere because you want to be there.’


When I think of this description, I think of the nai wong bao that I would eat as a child, always arriving too hot to handle, while eagerly waiting for the doughy white flesh to cool.


Care, for me, is anticipation.


Feminist political scholars, Joan Tronto and Berenice Fischer (1990, 40) define care as:


In the most general sense, care is a species activity that includes everything we do to maintain,

continue, and repair our world so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, ourselves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life sustaining web.


This intentionally broad definition is designed to encapsulate the four phases of care—caring about, caring for, care giving, and care receiving—that Tronto and Fisher advocate as occurring at different scales across all sectors of society. In this definition we read that care is a relational set of practices that ‘shapes what we pay attention to, how we think about responsibility, what we do, how responsive we are to the world around us, and what we think of as important in life’ (Pirate Care 2019). Care therefore both shapes and is shaped by the choices we make. What Tronto and Fischer do not provide in this definition is a notion of how to care. This is because care is situated and should be grounded in the sociocultural and geopolitical contexts in which care occurs. Care for this reason is open-ended and ‘more likely to be filled with inner contradictions, conflict, and frustration ...’ (Tronto 2001, 64), precisely because knowing how to care cannot be known in advance.


Building on this work, feminist STS scholar Maria Puig de la Bellacasa (2011; 2012; 2015; 2017)

recognises that care as a practical labour, of asking how to care in each situation, is also an ethical and speculative commitment. As Puig de la Bellacasa (2020, 421) suggests:


'asking how to care is an open wonder about the … doings of care as an imminent obligation. So,

while a critical stance can bring attention to such matters as who cares for whom, to what forms of care are prioritised at the expenses of others, a politics of speculative thinking is also a commitment to seek what other worlds could be in the making through caring while staying with the trouble of our own complicities and implications.'


Care as an ‘open wonder,’ as Red River Métis scholar, Zoe Todd (2016) reminds us, necessitates decentring knowledge hierarchies of human exceptionalism and individualism that white, Eurocentric and anthropocentric knowledge politics has long perpetuated—to be able to reorient our way towards possible futures that may occur across different scales and temporalities, and that intersect with overlaid pasts and presents, similar and vastly different from our own (Head 2016; Rickards 2018). This includes an attention towards our relationality with more-than-human forms of existence, which First Peoples have long recognised and have drawn increasing attention to at a time when ‘human vulnerabilities are exposing humanity’s intrinsic interdependencies with larger ecosystems’ (Jacque et al 2020, 6).


In this way, care as an ethical and speculative commitment, is also an analytical process; a provocation for continually assessing, understanding and articulating not only for whom we care and how, but also the motivations for undertaking care work. This includes recognising how care and its ‘violent histories’ (Fisher 2013, 56) continues to ‘inform the inequalities entangled with care today’ (Hobart and Kneese 2020, 9). Care then cannot be practised as part of a nostalgic longing for an idealised past, present or future (see Balla 2018; 2020; 2021).


Sometime in mid-2020, I read an article by Natalie Osborne (2019), in which Osborne depicts a world characterised by converging social, ecological, political crises and one in which pre-existing inequities are exacerbated. In sitting with Osborne’s article, I was taken by the provocation that it had been written ‘for those experiencing a bleak ennui, for those whose twisted panic contorts towards paralysis, for those who feel as if we are in the darkest timeline’ (Osborne 2019, 146). Osborne extends this provocation to invite her readers to stay with this trouble (Haraway 2016): ‘to learn to attend and nurture tiny growing entanglements in waste spaces and ruins’ (Osborne 2019, 148) and ‘enact moments of counter hegemonic warmth, valuing smallness, proximity, relationships, connection, care and affection’ (Osborne 2019, 151). To do so is not an exercise in utopic or wishful thinking for Osborne, but a collective practice in thinking with, and acting from, the pushes and pulls of these moments. For me, as I read Osborne’s article, I wondered what it would mean to sit, collectively as practitioners, with the troubles and tensions of our practices.


Across 2020 and 2021, as part of my PhD, I facilitated a series of gatherings inviting practitioners to do just this.


Many had gathered because of a want and need for ongoing connection with a community of practitioners. In their own words, practitioners who gathered were actively seeking spaces in which to find ‘an anchor for practice, for connections, for community’—as part of a continual and iterative process of shared practitioner reflexivity. And in doing so, to dive deeper and see the ‘blind spots’ of practice, as one practitioner suggested, by coming together to better understand how their own ideals and values of care manifest in and through their practices.


Our gatherings were underpinned by a series of prompts, questions, not dissimilar to some of those that I’ve asked you to think with today. Asking, exchanging, sharing and grappling with these and other questions, together, became a way for us ‘to come out of our comfort zones, our habits, our private and individualised spaces of separation and safe partitions’ (Pomarico, Kahakalau and Morales, 2021). To consider not only how our practices (and the organisations we work with and for) are changing, what needs to change, and how we might be able to do this at different scales. Thinking with questions that do not always have clear answers, also enabled each of us to make visible the tensions of our practices, and to explore and articulate how we are affected differently by them while also being complicit in their making.


These questions would ultimately inform the development of the online resource, which I invite you to explore further in your own time. Noting, it is a proof of concept at this time, and so your feedback (on its usefulness or otherwise) is most welcome.


Doing the kind of work that this resource invites us to do, shared practitioner reflexivity, is never easy. Over the course of our gatherings, sometimes we agreed, other times we found that meaning and sensemaking across our differences caused disorientation (Harney and Moten 2013) and ambivalence (Berlant 2016), a kind of rhythmic tension that needed further discussion. For cultural theorist Lauren Berlant, such dissensus speaks not only to ‘the difficulty of convening a world conjointly’ (Berlant 2016, 395) but also the kind of common work being created through our gatherings as practitioners.


It is also difficult work because slowing down, and making space and time to think with practice and organisational habits, is not fitting or compatible with the hurried rhythms of the capitalist neoliberal structures and systems in which our practices occur, which in turn can make collective approaches to reflexivity seem like ‘a luxury’ (Bolton 2001, 5). 


This understanding surfaced during many of the gatherings I facilitated across 2020 and 2021, whereby as practitioners, we also became attuned to the conditions under which we were able to conduct collective forms of inquiry into practice; conditions which felt exceptional due to the time we found ourselves in—a global health pandemic that largely suspended program delivery and interrupted dominant ‘temporal organisations of the world’ (Baraitser 2021, 43)—but at the same time provided us as practitioners with space and time in which to deeply consider the purposes, values and ethics of our practices.


However, this is precisely the point. Caring in and through our practices is not supposed to be easy. To make this kind of work viable requires the kinds of situated, speculative, relational and practical labours of care I discussed earlier: including ‘space, cooperation, relentless application, and systematic maintenance’ (Doron and Jeffrey 2018, 144). Only then can paths towards shared reflexivity offer the possibility, as Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung (2021) suggests, to  ‘open up the cracks and caveats of [our practices] that we might not have explored until now’. 


Inevitably, this might mean not only attuning to systems and structures that need repairing and restoring, but where necessary, decomposing and transmogrifying institutional practices that no longer serve the communities and futures that our pandemic-impacted worlds pose. (There is, after all, generative potential in decay, as we can learn from composting.)


‘Together, to gather, to get there’ (Pomarico, Kahakalau and Morales 2021, 231).


I want to start to wind down here by thinking with the language invoked by feminist environmental scholars Jennifer Hamilton and Astrida Neimanis (2018, 524), and their provocation that ‘how we think, speak, and write the world can shape how we act in it’. In one of the gatherings I facilitated with practitioners, thinking with this provocation, our discussions looked ahead to consider what our desires and demands (Hamilton and Neimanis 2019) asked of the future of our practices.


Collectively, workshop participants communicated:


We want to time to be still, to unwind, to wander and get distracted, and to recognise these as necessary parts of practice. We want connection, to move away from commodified, transactional relationships and exploitative work. We want considered, complex, responsive conversations. We want spaces, like the one we have been creating, to practice a collective grounding. For consultation, to check in, debrief and intervene in our practices and institutional complicities. To challenge and articulate what we do. To dig at the roots of practice. To think about how we might do our practices in more collaborative and mutually supportive ways. We want spaces, like this, to collectively chew on the indigestible (tacit, messy, and undefined) processes of creative practice, to muddle through and take comfort in collective moments of unknowing and uncertainty. We want time to get to know the many, heterogenous communities the institutions we operate in are embedded in, historically and presently, and into the future. Slowly, carefully, and over time.


Slowly, carefully, and over time.


The ripples of these words have continued to reverberate, prompting me to think about what it means to care through situation, pause and possibility. Including, some tensions raised by those of us who met recently, such as the privileges of pause and how pause seems at odds with urgency and urgent times.


Echoing Lisa Baraitser (2022, 19), perhaps what we need to do is to ‘develop and deepen our conceptual understanding of modes of cessation and interruption that are not synonymous with inaction ...’. As Baraitser (2022, 19) continues:


This entails noticing what time’s suspension looks like as everyday forms of careful attention: the offer of staying with or alongside a situation that is unresolvable in the now, of sitting a situation out, going over the same ground ... including deliberately and permanently staying in the ‘wake’ of histories ... that repeat in the present, and that organize uncaring institutions and produce uncared for lives. It also entails … ‘ceasing’ to prop up European models of time that come to dominate the world-political present and the temporal structures ... that are ongoingly enacted through colonization, exploitation, [and] extraction … 


And so in the interest of making and holding time for slow, for pause, for possibility, I invite you now to take a breath. To inhale and to exhale. To pay attention to opportunities for corporeal generosity. To opportunities for shared breath that necessarily disrupts conventional forms of politics and sociality.


To ask:


What do you want from your practice? What do you need from your practice?

What do you need to arrive?

What are you willing to accept and not accept along the way?

What can be done differently now and under these conditions?



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This work was originally conceived for Co-Discourse: A Symposium — a public program produced by Co- as part of the 

To Shoulder... 

programming of 2023

Co-'s To Shoulder... programs were possible thanks to generous support from Yarra City Arts through City of Yarra, Composite, Seventh & Collingwood Yards.

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