Seeking to “take seriously” everyday acts of care, artist Emily Beaney reflects on how her collaborative practice-based research examines caring practices within the mother-daughter relationship.
“The most anti-capitalist protest is to care for another and to care for yourself. To take on the historically feminized and therefore invisible practice of nursing, nurturing, caring. To take seriously each other’s vulnerability and fragility and precarity, and to support it, honor it, empower it. To protect each other, to enact and practice community. A radical kinship, an interdependent sociality, a politics of care.” (Hedva 2015, 6)
Illness disrupts. For those with long-term illnesses, this disruption necessitates a recalibration of how the mind and body engage with others and everyday life. Yet these embodied, personal and social experiences of illness and care have been neglected. Often overshadowed by the doctor-patient relationship, familial care has been described as perhaps the most important of all caring relationships surrounding the experience of illness (Schneider and Conrad, 1983). Drawing upon Hedva’s Sick Woman Theory (2015), Breaking the Fall emerged as a practice-based research collaboration with my mother, Cherrie Beaney, seeking to “take seriously” everyday acts of care by examining caring practices within our mother-daughter relationship. Together, through the making of wearable artworks and experimental film, we engaged in a process of collaboration, representation and, ultimately, power reclamation.
Contextualised within the familial setting, Breaking the Fall attended to how illness – in this case, my epilepsy – impacted upon my mother, and how I, in turn, was affected by this impact. It utilised these creative practices to enable the non-verbal body to become an articulation of illness, conveying the personal and social realities of care at home. Designed to reflect hidden narratives of illness experience, this practice-based research project sought to reveal more than a diagnosis. Whilst Hedva’s concept of “radical kinship” was examined within the context of our relationship, this study ultimately revealed the potential for entanglement in caring contexts. Specifically, the concept of control within care arose as a subject with affective resonances for both myself and my mother.
Our initial examination of care and control took place in a series of sensory ethnographic interviews and collaborative tasks (Pink 2009). Drawing attention to our sensory experiences, my mother and I interviewed one another and considered the ways in which illness forced us to recognise the connections between minds and bodies. As Jayjit Sarkar states: “The body presences itself in illness and disappears in health. In illness, the body is perceived as body and not merely res extensa [an extended thing]” (2019, xxii). Sarkar refers to Richard Shusterman’s book title Thinking Through the Body (2012) when suggesting that “thinking through the ill body” provides new ways of seeing (Sarkar 2019, x). Similarly, this project aimed to explore the complexities and possibilities of illness as a way of both seeing and knowing, whilst also recognising and representing instances of pain and suffering that occur.
In order to begin to represent how my mother and I were seeing and knowing through illness, we identified materials, qualities of forms and textures, that communicated something of our sensory understandings of care and control. Soft yarns and banana fibres, netting and wool juxtaposed with metals and wires, rigid structures and magnets: each surface and form represented an aspect of our embodied experiences of illness and interdependence (Figure 1).
Our focus on embodied knowledge drew attention to our sensory experiences of creative practice, and cultures of touch presented themselves as we sought to materialise our practices of care. My mother, a retired tapestry artist, and myself, a costume design graduate, found an affinity in engaging in tactile processes of making that involved the body. Recognising that internal sensations could not be traditionally recorded, we relied on a creative and interdisciplinary approach. We drew upon knowledge from design practices, sensory ethnography and experimental film, to consider how cultures of touch could move beyond the distant objectivity of vision (Classen 2005) and offer a method of representing the subjectivities and sensations of care within the intimate familial context.
Inspired by these tactile practices, and our initial material explorations, my mother chose to work with a soft white tulle. She wove the fabric around a dress form, identifying that the process had emerged from a desire to “wrap me up in cotton wool” (Figure 2). The tactility of this phrase seemed to lend itself to the production of a wearable artwork. As my mother painstakingly wove metres of the tulle to create a mass of undulating layers that surrounded the central form of the body, the wearable became an embodied metaphor. Overwhelming the body, the expanse of fabric seemed to reveal the extensiveness of her care. Merleau-Ponty argued: “Our relationship with things is not a distant one: each speaks to our body and to the way we live. They are clothed in human characteristics (whether docile, soft, hostile or resistant) and conversely they dwell within us as emblems of forms of life we either love or hate” (2004, 63). These “forms of life” dwelling within us appeared to inform my mother as she selected fabrics and began to dress the body.
Contributing to this embodied metaphor, I then welded together a spherical cage to be placed over the tulle and to echo the wearable form that my mother had created (Figure 3) – suggesting feelings of being both cared for, but also of being restricted and controlled. As a further gesture towards the intrusion of medical culture and feelings of being perceived as a medical object, I produced a magnetic cap, suggestive of the EEG test in which electrodes are placed on the head to analyse brain waves in epilepsy (Figure 4). Seeking to draw attention to texture and contrasting hard, metallic surfaces against soft tulle and skin, tension was created between the soft and hard, thereby representing imbalances within our familial caring relationship. As noted by Cathryn Vasseleu: “… texture is at once the cloth, threads, knots, weave, detailed surface, material, matrix and frame” (1998, 11-12). Here, texture became a useful tool for revealing both intricacies of conflicting surface, and immersive worlds of sensation.
In documenting our processes of creating the wearable artworks and the act of wearing them on film, I endeavoured to articulate the move from internal, embodied processes, to external works of art. Movement enhanced the tactile nature of the wearable, enabling the enactment of “haptic visuality”, in line with Laura U. Marks’ theory that images can engage touch and kinesthetics to involve the body of an audience (2000). This aspect of my practice sought to address the body as a whole by engaging with touch-based knowledge, enabling the perception of both internal and external affective force relations in an everyday setting (Figure 5).
Through the process of making this film, these material explorations become metaphorical tools for my mother and I. As we each produced embodiments of our caring practices that reveal internal processes as external works of art, we extended various embodied experiences of illness onto the physical and filmic body’s surface, thereby manifesting entangled relations of care and control.
The filmic outcome of this practice-based research collaboration can be viewed here.
Emily Beaney is an artist, filmmaker and practice-based PhD researcher at Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh. Using experimental documentary practice, her collaborative research projects work with women in Scotland to translate embodied knowledge of long-term illness, seeking to address issues of stigma and reveal new ways of representing illness experience by focusing upon sensation and affect. She tweets at @emilybeaney.
Classen, Constance. 2005. The Book of Touch. Oxford: Berg.
Conrad, Peter and Schneider, Joseph W. 1983. Having Epilepsy: The Experience and Control of Illness. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Hedva, Johanna. 2015. “Sick Woman Theory.” Accessed May 5, 2020. http://www.maskmagazine.com/not-again/struggle/sick-woman-theory.
Marks, Laura U. 2000. The Skin of the Film Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Durham: Duke University Press.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2004. The World of Perception. London: Routledge.
Pink, Sarah. 2009. Doing Sensory Ethnography. London: SAGE.
Sarkar, Jayjit. 2019. Illness as Method: Beckett, Kafka, Mann, Woolf, and Eliot. Wilmington, DE: Vernon Press.
Shusterman, Richard. 2012. Thinking Through the Body: Essays in Somaesthetics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Vasseleu, Cathryn. 1998. Textures of light: vision and touch in Irigaray, Levinas, and Merleau-Ponty. London: Routledge.