THE CARE INDEXattuning to care infrastructures and movements
A formalized continuation to an ongoing conversation between Alecia Neo and Jill J. Tan, this dialogue reflects upon recent developments in Neo’s work on her Care Index project, and where it might go next. Neo and Tan began as interlocutors on Neo’s work with caregivers Between Earth and Sky starting in 2018, and are currently collaborating on a series of workshops for Neo’s Recipes for Wayfinding project under the Care Index. Here, they chat about modes of listening and caring, as well as the complexities of attending to care gestures, infrastructures and systems amidst volatile and violent realities.
Jill: To start, shall we talk about how listening and attentiveness comes into your project in terms of making an index, and working with contributions that you receive via open calls? How do you receive, attend to, and be present with each work in and of themselves, and then collectively, as you’re building this repository? And is there any particular way that you are mediating, curating, choreographing, arranging them as you present them to a wider audience?
Alecia: The context of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown in Singapore propelled this project into being. The first lockdown was when we had to put a stop to everything. Projects were disappearing and practitioners around the world were all finding different ways to connect in our isolation. That became a starting point for me to begin listening.
Listening, first of all, to my own body’s internal murmurings and movements. At the same time, I felt a strong need to connect with others. I followed this desire to reach out to people across the globe via a simple open call with textual prompts. Anyone, whether they are an artist or not, can participate by submitting a video recording of their care practices. They were encouraged to express stories and experiences of care through gestures and movements. Beyond creating a public archive for the web, I was interested in people discovering their new relationships with themselves, other people and the environments they have to navigate through. These prompts become a resource that they can play with and return to over time. When I receive these videos, I like to think of these contributions as slices of time that have been offered to this collective portal. One that allows others to dwell in, and spend time with too.
The contributions to the first open call(1) were quite diverse and each one taught me different modes of listening and caring that people across cultures were practicing in their daily lives. Amongst art and dance films, I also received contributions of everyday gestures and activities which lifted people’s spirits and brought pleasure, comfort, strength, or symbolic movements which reflected on time, loss, fatigue, recovery, maintenance and endurance. There were numerous interactions with human and non-human bodies, exploring a myriad of ways to come closer, set boundaries and co-exist. People also sent in care practices they observed, such as how locals were gathered together to provide food and aid to flood victims in Bintan, Indonesia and death rituals. It was important to me that each contribution lived with its own story and credits on the website, and that when their videos were exhibited they would be aware of it. While each video contribution is a world of its own, the process of inviting each contributor to index their movements with keywords unveiled a tightly interconnected web that bound everyone’s experiences together. For some of my public Care Index workshops, I’ve also invited some open call contributors to read participants’ stories, where I sense a connection between their experiences. I record their voices reading these incredible lines which are then used in parts of the workshop. So the participants hear their own stories read back to them by a stranger. It was a way of drawing the invisible connections between people.
I’m also in the process of annotating the movements from the public submissions(2) and drawing links between the keywords submitted by each contributor. I’ve also been collaborating with some contributors in public workshops, where they work with me to develop movement scores which are taught to the workshop participants, who engage in visual, aural, and aesthetic modes of listening to these scores.
Jill: I’m wondering whether you found a difference in working with the first initial open call on care gestures, versus systems and infrastructure? Are there any particular insights that move beyond the interpersonal to think about infrastructure and institutions and the way that the body moves within them? I’m also thinking about whether it surfaced anything about the potential limits of care and the limits of empathy because I think as you’re seeing, with a focus on something like infrastructure and systems, a larger point can be made that sometimes there are systemic issues at that level that are beyond our immediate mediation. In that case, what do we do, how do we care?
Alecia: Individual actions can be overpowered by dominant structures and systems, creating challenges for the practice of centering care in our governments, institutions, organizations and communities. And unfortunately, a lot of the weight of caring falls on those who already bear the labor and cost of caring. I think one of the first places to start as individuals is to open up and advocate for access to resources for everyone, in particular groups who are disabled by our socio-political systems, so that they can grow in their capacities and thrive, instead of being treated as recipients of care. I’m also interested in your belief that social action should arise alongside our work, such as yours as an academic. This also reminds me of artist and facilitator, Kei Franklin’s reflections on nurturing conscientization and acknowledging that “the power dynamics that sustain broad systems of injustice are reflected in our relational lives. Any meaningful change, therefore, must involve intervention in the inter- and intra-personal realm.”
While working on the project Between Earth and Sky (2018)(3) with collaborating artist Sharda Harrison, Ajunta Anwari and a group of caregivers, who care for their loved ones living with mental illness, I learned how transformative the process of listening to and expressing one’s own story through embodied movements could be. When you observed our process, you wrote about how the project connects the physicality of care work with personally choreographed forms of body movement. I became interested in whether these subjective experiences can be transmitted to a wider audience. What kinds of sensations and insights get transmitted? What changes in this process of teaching, learning and embodying another person’s gestures and movements? These questions began to evolve with a focus on care infrastructures for the Listening Biennial in 2021.
During the workshop, I invited individuals who work within specific care systems to contribute a movement score. One of them is Meghna Bhardwaj, an academic and dancer from New Delhi, who has collaborated with me on different projects. She then roped in her dance students from Shiv Nadar University. She was concerned about the state of education during the lock-down and how that created barriers to rigorous learning and deep connection with and between students. What does it mean to teach an embodied art form like dance online, and how does an educator be empathetic to the unequal needs and circumstances of her students, while pushing for artistic excellence? Educators are often subjected to the overwhelming stresses of fulfilling care responsibilities in spite of the lack of resources and support for their own well-being. How does a teacher bring in her vulnerabilities into the classroom, which opens up room for connection and discourse about the students’ own uncertainties and challenges? We also spoke about this bureaucratic posture one adopts in institutions to perform power or compliance; how does one adopt a kind of wilding of the body by taking on unsophisticated, animalistic positions challenge the bureaucratic body?
Another collaborator was a frontline worker whose job was to conduct swab tests for foreign workers at their dormitories. He expressed how the body becomes a potent site for resistance in a system that primarily values efficiency and compliance. The gestures that emerged from his story were about an insistence on slowing down. He was reframing the act of slowing down as serious work and responsibility, a person-centered choice that respects the person being swabbed, no matter the person’s identity or status in society. Slowing down meant listening, allowing time for each person to ask questions, and to understand what was being done to their bodies. These are the lived realities and decisions that frontline workers make every day, which are often obscured from official data and reports in everyday news.
The last group was two women working in the professional caregiving space. Caregivers Carol and Alvyna were both involved in my previous project Between Earth and Sky (2018). I was interested in the transitions they experienced moving between positions of caring in their own private homes to performing care for others, in a professional capacity. What happens when care work becomes commodified, rated and left to market forces to determine its value, allocation and circulation? How are care workers perceived and treated in our society that is used to low-wage care with limited rights and mobility? I’d love to know how you’d approach care in your work. What are the practical and imaginary tactics that one develops to survive and resist in an uncaring world?
Jill: I think one thing that feels really important is being able to acknowledge that caregiving can hold ambivalence. I’m thinking about Felicity Aulino’s ethnography on care work in Northern Thailand, wherein she observes that contemporary usage of the English word “care” may contribute to the tendency to assume a correspondence between particular internal states, such as feeling affection or being concerned (“care about”), and the acts of best providing for another (“to care for”). Aulino cautions against such conflation which may lead to only placing value on emotional concern in acts of providing for others, and focuses on physical and pragmatic work of maintenance in her ethnographic work on caregiving practices. As you said, too, for many people it’s a livelihood that is really part of a larger system where there are significant deficits in terms of being able to provide fair compensation to people for the care that they’re giving.
Alecia: Joan Tronto’s work on wealth-care and how neoliberal societies organize their decisions for policies based on gaining wealth has been illuminating for me. She coined this term to bring clarity to how people in power make decisions important to our lives. Appreciating this concept requires a major shift from focusing on accumulating wealth, to redistributing wealth and resources to impoverished or neglected communities and spaces, which are fundamentally interconnected with everyone else. These ideas are also discussed and expanded upon in The Care Manifesto by the Care Collective, which highlights numerous pathways to centering care in our societies. Many of the caregivers I’ve met in support groups and through projects, wrestle with the contradictions and ambivalences of caregiving in their lives. Our current context in Singapore continues to place primary focus on care performed by family or outsourced low-wage foreign workers, leading to narratives of self-sacrifice and unsustainable, exploitative caring relationships. We need to fully acknowledge the competencies, time and resources involved in performing care work in order to allocate fair compensation for care workers. Again, we come back to the idea of circulating and redistributing care at all levels of society. People don’t want to be dependent on others, nor do they want to feel that special concession has been provided for them. In my ongoing collaborative projects with disabled artists and persons, they taught me the importance of reimagining the care narrative. Disabled persons need to be given the ample resources which would allow them to build the capacities they need to live life with dignity, where they can exercise choice and autonomy.
Jill: One thing I want to ask you about, when you were talking earlier about the frontline worker as well, in terms of slowness as resistance; generally when we’re thinking about these ideas around care, there is a certain kind of aesthetic, or performative premising of the slow and the gentle. With the Care Index, that feels apparent as I’m watching and listening to most of the submissions in this repository. At the same time, I’m also curious about how you see the modalities of this project evolving, in content as well as in terms of holding space for different aesthetics possibilities. As it is, when you were mentioning in the first open call that you had a mix of performative care gestures, while other submissions were featuring maybe more actionable notions of care such as a rescue mission. How do you see those kinds of things sitting alongside each other in terms of your index, and are there other directions the project is circulating beyond a slow, nourishing care?
Alecia: I do feel that the various aesthetic iterations are driven by impulses that manifest differently with the different groups. The recent collaboration Presence of Mind,(4) a residency and exhibition project examining the intersection of mindfulness, Buddhism and the creative processes of artists, organized by curators Dr Kath Fries and Rachael Kiang of Gallery Lane Cove in Sydney, Australia, brought together Australian and Singaporean visual artists for a rich gathering. During our discussions about gestures of welcome from a Buddhist perspective, we could not avoid talking about the conditions of the ongoing refugee crisis going on in other parts of the world, distant from us. That was something that bothered a lot of us: how do you care from a distance? Especially with the luxury of distance. In most Buddhist communities there’s a lot of emphasis on peace, non-violence and a gentler kind of approach. We began to ask if there was room for more difficult kinds of discussions. To what extent was conflict, disagreement or even violence and aggression tolerated?
Jill: I am compelled by thinking about this from the Buddhist perspective, because it asks: what is the point of contemplative practice if it doesn’t have implications in the world? I’m really interested in hearing, building on what you’ve already shared about your experience with this group of practitioners, how you see this project on care moving and developing. This feels like another mode of listening: listening to what the project is evolving into in response to the different groups that you’re working with. I think it’s a really porous way of being with the people that are coming into this work. Do you have a sense of what binds the work together, what contours are cohering it, or might you ever need another project or container to convey another valence. Or do you think this concept of a Care Index is capacious to hold all of it?
Alecia: Honestly, Care Index is really at the start of its journey and I’m fully prepared to be surprised at the shapes and forms it adopts over time. It is important to me that the research and making process is done collaboratively. Primarily, this is a space for co-learning, and as you’ve described, for entering different modes of listening to and with others. This attempt at indexing care practices and transmitting them is a journey of making sense of all the discoveries, contradictions, failures and also grappling with not knowing, as you often mention in our conversations. What is interesting for me is how the journey of attuning to others creates space for diverse or even contradictory forms of aesthetics to develop. And also how might the research process offer new bodies of knowledge which can be applied to specific contexts.
In the long term, I’m curious and excited about how this collective process of developing an index of care from an embodied, relational perspective will contribute new knowledge to the current methods of researching health and well-being indices.
Jill: Still dwelling on proliferating ideas of care, and specifically honing in on the politics of this work, I want to talk about priming the audience for it as it evolves. “Care” as a topic can bring with it certain associations more easily aligned with wellness and mindfulness. As you’re showing from the discussion amongst the group of Buddhist practitioners, however, even within some of these resonances that there are often really important political stakes in attending to some of these notions of care, labor, violence. So I’d like to push on this a little more.
Alecia: There’s a tendency towards short-term band-aids when planning policies addressing issues, such as the current climate crisis, economic and social inequalities, and the mental health epidemic. I’ve been thinking about how an audience can meaningfully engage with these socio-political stakes... priming the audience for a shift in human consciousness is the current challenge for this work as it develops. I’ve found some inspiration in theatre educator and dramaturg Charlene Rajendran’s research on FaciliActing,(5) which “expands the potential of play-based embodied learning” in plural, complex societies through the facilitation of dialogue and drama processes. She talks about how the effective use of fiction and nuanced role-playing creates new spaces to collectively reimagine our futures, offer provocations, while being conscious of the social, political and economical structures that impede some of us more. How are you thinking of working with the discomfort that arises from delving into the politics of care?
Jill: Looking at the Recipes for Wayfinding(6) project materials, in the framing of getting lost and found, something that I keep coming back to is how, as we’re talking about trauma, the body remembers. From personal experience, sitting in meditative practice can be very grounding, but it can also be extremely difficult, and I think people can have a very romanticized notion of what it is to be sitting with ourselves, and our pain. Thinking relationally, too, how do we responsibly and accountably create the pre-conditions for sitting with ourselves and with others, listening to the body and the soul in pain? In wayfinding and getting lost, I wonder too about the programing and residing of pain in the body, and the possibility of forgetting. We’re told staying present in our bodies is a good thing generally, but I would also like to attend to the aspect of letting go, dissolving points of coagulation after witnessing and confronting them, and thinking of the loss of certain bodily memory as necessary. For future consideration on working with scores, as in Recipes to Wayfinding, I’d love to explore non-didactic ways of helping people move through these flows – comfortably, or maybe with a generative discomfort.
Alecia: I’m thinking about Urmimala Sarka Munsi’s important work on re-imagining the bodies of survivors of trafficking,(7) whose work I came to know about through Meghna Bhardwaj. In her writing, she quotes Roger Bechtel’s work on trauma and traumatic memories: Traumatic memories do need to be “recovered” in order for the victim to mourn, but they are not holistic and intact, waiting anxiously for a probing therapeutic intervention to reveal them. In fact, what makes an event traumatic is one’s inability to transform the lived experience into memory at the time of its occurrence. A traumatic memory, then, is not one that is hidden, but one that is not yet made. Instead, the traumatic experience becomes trapped in the body – “possesses” the body, as Cathy Caruth puts it – for the traumatized body cannot let down its guard, the lingering activation of its “fight or flight” response to the traumatic threat keeping it in a state of adrenalized hyperarousal.(8)
His insights into trauma are powerful when thinking about the act of forgetting and dismissing conflict as well. When we are able to acknowledge the wounds and vulnerabilities that are exposed during times of rupture and crisis, particularly at the time of occurrence, we can begin to pave the way for repair and dialogue.
Jill: I’ve been thinking about our previous conversations about preparing people for entry into a work, whether it’s a workshop or simply encountering the repository or set of scores online. Could you talk about listening, and training modes of attention, and specifically about the use of scores to train people’s modes of attention and attunement to some of these circuits, gestures, and complexities of care? I’m also curious about whether, for both audience and creators, there is a difference between textual and video scores; and further, if there is a difference between a kind of score that invites rest versus one that invites meditation on conflict.
Alecia: The audience’s commitment to spending time with the process is crucial. Experiencing a shared moment with others and staying with a certain movement or instruction, requires cutting out distractions. I usually begin with some grounding exercises to remind them of their breath and bring them back to their bodies. When running some of the workshops digitally, quite a bit of pre-workshop preparation had to be done to minimize technical hiccups once the session begins. Depending on the demographic of the groups I was working with, I also had to attune to digital gestures and modes of connecting and dialogue. Verbal dialogue was more embraced by some older participants, so I’ve also used other non-verbal channels such as the chatbox to encourage other meaningful responses from participants. I think a score offers a starting point, to begin. Without the presence of a score as a guiding map or list of instructions, it’s like working in a large empty studio. It can be incredibly challenging and intimidating for anyone. I think of the score as means for people to discover their own rhythms, methods and pathways. Engaging with a score, particularly one that has emerged from another person’s lived realities, invites concentration, potentially the capacity to read a story differently. The use of video scores contributed by different collaborators is often accompanied by textual prompts and descriptions that facilitate the understanding of the videos.
For the Presence of Mind digital residency project, several contributions delved into our interdependence with nature, while others reflected upon mortality, impermanence and grief. In one of the video scores titled Kiai, contributed by artist Kristina Mah, who is also a competitive karate athlete, she reflects on dwelling as a process of being in transition. This reflection emerged from the throes of deep preparation for the World Championships in Karate. She writes, “After the structure is established, we must develop our own sense of confidence in the practice that leads to courage and safety. This unfolds through nurturing, resting, yielding. But this ‘softness’ moves together with ‘hardness’, perseverance, striving, and difficulty. These are two aspects of one process.” I think her score Kiai speaks to the non-linear journey of learning and developing maturity in a practice. It requires expanding one’s capacities to hold space for conflicting but necessary needs ... to exceed, endure, maintain, fail and recover. She also created a second score Shift, which was a direct response to the process of confronting the pain and profound losses from a recent physical injury, which disrupted her participation in the World Championships. These two scores that emerged from the Care Index digital residency captured “scenes” from the same journey for Kristina.
My own contribution reflects upon anger’s relationship with care, vulnerability and forgiveness. In classical Buddhist teachings, compassion is described as the heart that can tremble in the face of suffering, and I experimented with inviting proximity to trembling via movements of light and breath. During our discussions with the group, we talked about how to invite restfulness in anger. A process that involves acknowledging its presence, looking closely at it, and tracing its origins to uncover its true nature.
2. Neo, Alecia. “Public Archives.” Care Index, 2020, https://www.careindex.net/public-archives.
3. Centre for Photography and Film, Objectifs. “Personally Speaking: Alecia Neo.” objectifs, 9 Apr. 2019, https://www.objectifs.com.sg/ps_alecianeo/.
4. Fries, Kath, and Rachael Kiang. “Presence of Mind: 11 December 2021 – 26 February 2022.” Gallerylanecove, Gallery Lane Cove + Creative Studios, 2021, https://www.gallerylanecove. com.au/presence-of-mind.
5. Rajendran, Charlene. “Becoming a Faciliactor: Playing at Fiction on the Borderlines of Cul ture.” Applied Theatre Research, vol. 8, no. 2, 2020, pp. 245–257., https://doi.org/10.1386/ atr_00041_1.
6. Neo, Alecia. “Wayfinding Scores.” Care Index, 2022, https://www.careindex.net/scores/way- finding-scores.
7. Munsi, Urmimala Sarkar. “Urmimala Sarkar Munsi, ‘Mediations around an Alternative Con cept of ‘Work’: Re-Imagining the Bodies of Survivors of Trafficking.’” Lateral, Cultural Studies Association, 9 July 2021, https://csalateral.org/issue/5–2/mediations-work-bodies-sur- vivors-trafficking-sarkar-munsi/.
8. Bechtel, Roger. “The Body of Trauma: Empathy, Mourning, and Media in Troika Ranch’s Loopdiver.” Theatre Journal, vol. 65, no. 1, 2013, pp. 77–93. jstor, http://www.jstor.org/ stable/41819823. Accessed 8 Jun. 2022.