The Keeping and Caring of You: Listening, Care, and The Human Body
An exploration of active listening within care systems, and how art initiatives serve as platforms to provide holistic perspectives on care providing to support the overall health ecologies of communities.
This text supports the idea of care as routine maintenance necessary to sustain the human body, and how issues of inequality, treatment, and ethics within care providing and receiving can be addressed through active listening and storytelling. How does active listening inform the way we give and receive care? To what degree does listening within care providing allow individuals to maintain agency and autonomy over their bodies, identities, and personhood? How care is provided to us and how we provide care to others greatly informs the ways in which we inhabit our bodies. For instance, a care provider working within a nursing home retains the ability to influence the residents ability to feel valued within their body, depending on the way they are treated, listened to, and provided for. Within this text I will examine the arts, storytelling, and listening as proactive forms of care through methods of survey and response, case studies, and interview. Lastly, this thesis investigates modes of both individual and collective care through a dynamic and diverse lens to further question this unique part of the human experience.
Body Techniques- highly developed body actions that embody aspects of a given culture. Techniques may also be divided by such as gender and class (for example in the manner of walking or eating). Defined by Marcel Mauss and Collete Guillaumin
Agency and Autonomy- feeling empowered ownership over one's own body
When do we begin to associate the physical body with the self?
Even before birth, human bodies are often prescribed constructed cultural ideologies regarding gender and identity from those who care for us. We are then brought into the world with little to no agency or awareness of our bodies, and are provided for until we learn to maintain ourselves. Simple early actions of care practices such as brushing one’s teeth and hair, or preparing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich are considered milestones in human life to the child’s caretaker.
Eventually, most children begin the social process of learning to inhabit a body when interacting with others. We learn the risk being defined as unhygienic if one skips out on washing one’s hands after using the restroom. Humans begin to associate the body with the self at this stage, and view the body as something with the potential to define personal identity. We learn about “good” and “bad” bodies, “different” bodies, and gendered bodies and how to navigate and mold our identities to conform to what is expected of us. As we leave childhood and enter adolescence, we become more aware of how we should inhabit our bodies according to cultural standards.
French Sociologist and feminist thinker, Collete Guillaumin further specifies the social construction of the human body within her writing The Constructed Body, (1993.) Within the text, Guillaumin analyses the techniques and social presentation of the body in relation to gender, food, and bodily interventions. Her text offers a critical inspection of body techniques that operate and speak to the social dynamics in which our bodies operate in everyday life. For this reason I look to Guillaumin’s work to further contextualize the body in relation to care. The ideology of body techniques stems from anthropologist Marcel Mauss’s writing Techniques of the Body (1934), considered to be the first piece of work to outline a systematic anthropology of the body. The text defines the term ‘body techniques’ as highly developed body actions that embody aspects of a given culture.
Body techniques further defined and applied within Guillaumin’s writing address the ways in which the social construction of the body causes distinction in gendered bodies to move, behave, and act. Guillaumin continues to specify these distinctions by introducing the issue of assigning gender upon babies before birth, solely informed by the genitalia of the child. Guillaumin writes: “This material and symbolic structure implies a constant intervention by social institutions throughout the life of the individual, beginning at birth and even before birth, ever since it has been possible to know the sex of the infant in the womb.” (Guillaumin)
This practice continues to define human bodies before they are capable of defining themselves, restricting all autonomy and agency from the individual while teaching them that their body is not their own. Guillaumin states that most children practically have total access to the bodies of their mothers, mainly due to the practices of care provided for the child by the individual that birthed them. If agency is restricted at birth, at which stage in human life do we regain autonomy over our bodies? And at what stage in parenthood does one separate the child’s body from your own? Learning to reclaim agency over one’s body is a complex process of learning and unlearning that varies greatly depending on the individual’s social conditions and experiences.
We are socially trained and influenced by the cultural conditions we live under to behave in certain ways within our bodies, as illustrated by Guillaumin and Marcel Mauss, yet they both fail to adress specific experiences of transgender individuals, people of color, disabled individuals, queer individuals, and other minority communities. These communities often face systemic injustice and additional processes of learning to adopt empowered agency and being within one’s physical body. Systemic issues of inequality affect the processes in which those communities learn to inhabit their bodies. Thich begs the question, what are the social influences and conditions that inform the way we learn, unlearn, and relearn how to inhabit our bodies? How does inequality within systems of care* directly affect one’s agency, identity, and personhood? What are the measures needed to ensure individuals and communities have opportunities for self advocacy, and how can the arts facilitate those opportunities?
* Systems of care embody collective and individual practices ranging from healthcare to routine maintenance necessary to upkeep the human body. This broadly includes daily individual care practices such as brushing teeth, to mental health treatment, support services, or primary health care.
Care as Maintenance
Today’s definition of care is often perceived or contextualized by expensive vitamins and face masks, taking social media breaks, or journaling. While these ideas certainly do promote wellness and wellbeing, these ideas of personal care embody a privileged demographic of individuals who are able to financially afford the time and products used to practice “self-care”. This thesis supports the idea of care as routine maintenance necessary to sustain the human body, referring to care as a need rather than an option. Holistic approaches to care advocates for universal and equitable systems that meet our basic needs while promoting agency, advocacy, and wellbeing to individuals and communities. I look to interdisciplinary artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles ideas of Maintenance Art to further define and contextualize care in relation to the human body. Ukeles states that in order for us to radically advance and enact change, we need to begin with the basic systems of care.
The concept of Maintenance Art initiated when Laderman found herself experiencing a push and pull between her identities as a mother and an artist. She found that when she attempted to divide her time equally between the roles, she would long for her child when she attempted to work in the studio. When she cared for her child, she found herself longing to make art. This dilemma eventually led her to write the Maintenance Art Manifesto, in which she writes “my working will be the work.” She began to document her self performing and enacting daily maintenance she needed to complete as a mother, and exhibit it as art. Ukeles practice soon moved to investigate various methods of upkeep, further addressing labor maintenance and earth maintenance. Within her manifesto, Manifesto! For Maintenance Art 1969! Proposal for an Exhibition “Care”, Ukeles refers to maintenance as upkeep of the species, survival systems and operations, and equilibrium. (Ukeles, 1) She files this definition under the “life instinct”, where Ukeles distinguishes the separation between the two basic systems in which our society runs. Those systems are as follows; development and maintenance. Development refers to all things new, progress, change, and advancement, while maintenance refers to preservation, protection, and the prolonging of advancement. Within her work she writes “After the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?” (Ukeles, 1) Looking to ways in which Ukeles defines maintenance as necessity, I aim to contextualize care as a basic need, as it functions on both an individual and collective scale.
As illustrated by Ukeles, these basic systems of care feed and sustain communities and are integral to the overall health ecologies we exist in. Understanding that these systems are flawed and often do not provide opportunities for self advocacy, individuals are left feeling dismissed, uncared for, and not listened to by those who hold authority while seeking care. The following section addresses hierarchies and power dynamics within care systems, why they hold potential to create unsafe spaces, in-equatable exchanges, and dismissive environments. The following section will additionally address alterations in care exchanges and dynamics that encourage empathy, active listening, and needs based providing.
Agency and power dynamics within care systems
Systems of care often communicate power dynamics and systematic hierarchies between caregiver and receiver, even if this divide is unintentional. This can be easily expressed through uniforms, body language, and the institution which provides care services. For example, one can always distinguish patient from doctor by their attire or if uniforms are in place, student from teacher. With systematic hierarchies in place, individuals seeking care are automatically placed in a submissive role which obtains potential to remove the individuals sense of self, identity, agency, and personhood. If authoritative and submissive roles exist within care providing, whose bodies are collectively cared for within universal systems of care? Whose voices are being excluded, ignored, and undermined when seeking care by those who possess power? Are these roles causing damage to individuals and communities that already experience dismissal, belittlement, and restriction of agency and voice? I propose that needs based holistic approaches to care which encompass and recognize active listening and empathetic exchanges would address these issues of inequality, while providing empowered agency to individuals and communities.
What does it mean to actively listen?
Active listening is defined as understanding and respectfully listening to shared information with a goal of valuing and validating the individuals experience and identity. An example of effective active listening would be an exchange in which the sharer and receiver of information both feel safe, and the receiver empathizes with the sharer with a greater goal of understanding and valuing the sharer and the relayed information. For example, a student approaches a teacher to state they couldn’t complete an assignment because they are struggling with a subject. The teacher then asks the student what they are struggling with, and listens for ways to further understand the students needs in order to help them understand the topic. An example of inactive listening would be an exchange in which the listener dismisses shared information, devalues the sharer, and imposes their own values upon the sharer before processing communication. To revisit the learner-teacher example once more, an example of inactive listening would occur if the instructor swiftly dismissed the student for not completing the assignment, and told the students that they should have studied more, without acknowledging the students experience or needs. Active listening and communication allows for trust to develop, while insightfully acknowledging and valuing the needs and concerns of individuals or communities. Active listening promotes agency in both parties involved by demonstrating respect, empathy, and care. Equatable, rather than authoritative, power dynamics are established within ethical communication. I had the opportunity to speak with Educator, Artist, and Community Organizer, Jihan Thomas about her work and the effects of active listening when working with communities. Jihan has facilitated art making within many communities, including incarcerated youth, in which she spoke about the criticality of listening to the youth’s needs and desires in order for the program to be successful. She expressed that as an individual entering their space, first listening to the community to develop trust and collaboratively creating art became a key factor to fostering care, storytelling, and creativity within the group.
Active Listening in Care Systems and Who is Providing it
Active listening is crucial within care systems to establish and ensure receivers of care feel safe, valued, and listened to during and after the time they are being provided for. A local example of an organization that promotes active listening is Puentes de Salud, a non profit that advocates for the health and wellness of Philadelphia’s rapidly growing Latinx immigrant population through health care, innovative educational programs, and community building. Founded upon principles of health and social justice, Puentes believes that community health, wellness, and empowerment result from a collaborative, multidisciplinary effort to address the conditions in which we grow, learn, live, work, and age (puentesdesalud.org). Puentes offers a variety of services operating within three categories; the medical clinic, wellness, and education. Their clinical services include adult primary care and women’s health, while they additionally offer monthly specialty care in the following areas; cardiology, dermatology, neurology, ophthalmology, pediatrics, physical therapy and podiatry. Their wellness initiative is embodied within their behavioral health services and Promotora program, which addresses a wide range of issues in the service of their community, including diabetes prevention, cervical cancer prevention, prenatal care, obesity, and nutrition. Additionally, Puente’s educational branch for both children and adults explores health literacy, along with the social and environmental conditions that affect health and wellbeing.
I spoke with the director of arts and culture, Nora Litz to further contextualize how Puentes de Salud merges the arts, education, and health to promote community wellness and care. (Listen to the interview here) During our conversation, Nora stated the significance of active listening within Puentes community work. Litz claimed that in order to effectively provide care, one can not just decide what a community needs and give them what you believe they need, but to listen to them. She explained that Puentes provides needs based on specific situations and attention to an individual or community's experience. She additionally noted the significance of active listening when working with immigrants because those communities are often left ignored, invalidated, and dismissed. Therefore when they are finally listened to through programs like Puentes, they are given a voice to share their story and experience while feeling empowered within their identity and sense of self. One of the most informative components of my interview with Nora was our conversation regarding holistic approaches to care, as care providing embodies many moving parts and requires collaboration, support, and most importantly, understanding and empathy. I look to Puentes de las Artes as an example of a successful integration of the arts and everyday life, addressing the health ecology of a community as a whole. By targeting the social determinants of health, incorporating a diverse and vibrant education initiative promotes overall wellness to the South Philadelphia Latinex community.
An additional Philadelphia-based example of an organization determined to promote wellbeing and care through creative problem solving is the Creative Resilience Collective (CRC). CRC is a multidisciplinary collective working at the intersection of art, design, health care, legal aid, research, and technology. Informed by central concerns surrounding access to mental health care and support, CRC is comprised of six core initiatives all working to create equitable futures and positive change in care systems. These core initiatives encompass educational workshops, study groups, critical writing, public art, and resource sharing and community building. For example, one of their programs titled the Creative Resilient Youth (CRY), is a teen led initiative that works to respond to gaps within intergenerational dialogue and the lack of mental health resources in schools.
Creative Resilience Collective additionally initiates another program, The War on People, which works to foster dialogue regarding harm reduction and criminal justice to facilitate the development of strategies for resistance, resilience and cultural change. Like Puentes, Creative Resilience embodies collective care through holistic approaches to strive for accessibility, equity, and justice. I had the pleasure of speaking with the organization's founder Andrea Ngan, who brought CRC to Philadelphia from its origin site in California on the subject of CRC’s interdisciplinary efforts, access, and how the collective facilitates care through creativity. (Listen to the interview here) Primarily a volunteer-run organization, CRC’s core members stem from a variety of disciplines including the arts, social practice, design, and mental health which drive the cross pollination of their many initiatives. Because of this, CRC is able to unpack issues of inequality and access from various perspectives. Ngan stated that through CRC, she’s witnessed art and creativity act as a common language that gathers and unifies communities to build relationships and form discussions around care and methods to effectively practice it. She explained that to CRC, care is seen as an active radical refusal against the oppressive systems that inhibit us to practice effective care everyday. I aim to facilitate Creative Resilience’s proactive and interdisciplinary methodologies such as collaboration, team building, and creative problem solving to effectively advocate for active listening and storytelling within the arts.
With these methodologies in mind, I aim to facilitate a multifaceted storytelling and listening experience to take place within The Galleries at Moore in May of 2020*. The project will encompass several facets including outreach, survey and response, installation, and follow up programming and public conversation. In the Fall of 2019, I began distributing a call for anonymous audio recordings to the general public, additionally targeting care practitioners and providers, healers, counselors, and community members I felt whose voices would be valued within this project. Within this outreach, I prompted individuals to send me anonymous voice recordings ranging from three to five minutes in length illustrating personal stories focused on experiences with care providing or receiving and its relationship to the human body. I chose to ask individuals to remain anonymous in order to maintain and respect the privacy of those sharing, which is especially significant when stories within this context often involve trauma and require extreme vulnerability from the storytellers. From past experiences working with survey and response methods, anonymity additionally offers an equitable approach when viewing or receiving the responses in total. This allows viewers/listeners to perceive the information as a representation of collective human experience that speaks to a larger narrative or idea. In order to effectively present a larger representation of experiences, my outreach must extend into diverse communities to include and give platforms to individuals whose voices have been and continue to be undermined or belittled, especially within universal systems of care. In addition to including dynamic experiences within these stories, I wish to include the stories of all ages to further embody collective storytelling.
Performing Care Through Active Listening
Once I have received all audio files, they will be combined and presented within an intimate listening setting to be displayed at Moore’s Galleries. I will create a participatory installation in which visitors can have a seat and pick up a rotary telephone which will be playing the audio files on loop, simulating a relationship between listener and storyteller. In this context, the act of listening becomes as equally involved and essential as the act of storytelling. With the installation I aim to create empathetic pathways between participants by providing roles to both parties involved; the listener and the teller. I look to the field of relational care ethics further illustrated within Art Historian Kristen Lloyd’s text, Being With, Across, Over, and Through: Arts Caring Subjects, Ethics, Debates, and Encounters to contextualize and engage proactive efforts to illustrate listening as an effective care tool. Within her writing she analyzes and distinguishes the importance of actively addressing needs within relational art practices as demonstrated within her reference to Virginia Held’s ‘The Ethics of Care.”
“Within the field of relational ethics ‘care’ has been variously elaborated as a practice, a concept, a motive, a virtue and work. Held’s attempts to overcome the associated debates have led her to prioritize a consideration of ‘caring relations’ and the ‘practices of care’. In doing so, she frequently distinguishes work from emotion and motive, arguing that though care incorporates labour, its intrinsic relationally and basis in values (such as the commitment to meeting needs effectively) mean that it is also much more (Lloyd, 150.)“
Looking to proactive tools within relational ethics and art practices defined within Lloyd’s text, I aim to follow up and continue interdisciplinary conversation during and post exhibition by initiating and facilitating public conversation regarding care and the human body. Within The Keeping and Caring of You conversation series, I will take the position of initiator, by encouraging the participants, active listeners, and storytellers to continuously engage with the work. I will ensure participants are heard, listened to, recognized, and validated throughout the entire process of the project by modeling this work from relational care practices demonstrated within Puentes, Creative Resilience Collective, and Universal design* approaches. I additionally plan to provide a list of local and active resources that stand as equitable and accessible systems of care. With The Caring and Keeping of You, I aim to build creative frameworks for mutual learning and support by integrating the arts and creativity within care systems to holistically provide and promote wellness to the overall health ecology of participants, viewers, and gallery goers.
* Due to the Co-Vid 19 Pandemic, the exhibition was restructured to occur virtually, placing a pause on the production of the installation and resulting in the development of this website. I view this production as "phase one" and plan to continue outreach to eventually tour a revised version of the installation at community art spaces, wellness centers, and libraries throughout Philadelphia when able. Stay up to date with the progress of this work on the home page.
* Universal Design is defined as the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability (National Disability Authority).
Andrea Ngan, Creative Resilience Collective
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Jihan Thomas, Educator
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