Get It Together: On the art of care and shaky unification
There is a specific feeling to arriving in a place and being told it is in danger. Even more specifically, to arrive in a city rich in creative community and being told it is in danger, especially by the artists and radicals of the place, especially the kind of danger we mean. Of course, this is what they say to me when I arrive in Berlin. For years life has been so possible here, and now it is not. It is tightening.
It is hard to tell from the outside how new this tightening is—of course it’s been happening for years, just as it’s been happening for years in Oakland, where I live. But it seems to be reaching a fever pitch – an appropriate metaphor in sound. Quickly, I encounter Noise Against Google, held on a street corner near my studio on the first Friday of the month to protest a potential Google campus in the neighborhood (now abandoned by Google, as of late October 2018). One of the organizers tells me you don’t even have to come to the street corner – that people are welcome to make noise from anywhere nearby if that’s better for them. It’s about the moment in sound, he says, even if it’s dispersed.
A sound – and a story – that has been dispersing for years. Though now mostly defunct, I also come across Haben und Brauchen (To Have and To Need), their manifesto and series of open letters. “At the very moment the conditions for people engaged in cultural production are worsening dramatically, the city prides itself on artists,” the manifesto reads, and provides a few suggestions about “safeguarding their conditions of production,” which strikes me as sweetly parental, nurturing. I imagine insulation packing in around a house, pillows propping up the belly and lower-back of a pregnant person.
I am thinking about nurturing because I’ve been learning about the work of the Feminist Health Care Research Group Berlin (FHCRG), a group of three women artists and mothers who research a constellation of issues including feminist and radical therapy forms, the health movement of West-Berlin in the 1970s and 1980s, and the politics of illness and healthcare. From this research they produce exhibitions, zines, events and exercises, broadly focused on collective modes for dealing with crisis and mutual care structures.
When I first meet FHCRG member Inga Zimprich, it is on a grey morning in Kreuzberg. She suggests the gluten-free chestnut cake, which I accept with excitement, though later it attracts a wasp to our table who doesn’t want to leave. Inga waves the wasp from my hair and watches it closely as she speaks. She tells me about FHCRG’s recent exhibition at District Berlin, which for the fall has now moved to M.1 Hohenlockstedt. The exhibition examines the emergence of feminist self-help in West Berlin, including vaginal self-examinations, self-help groups and legal abortion. The collages, collected books, images and zines on display convey a sense of study, longing, and relational desire, particularly in the way they place these materials as a subject of curiosity and even ancestral lineage – especially as the exhibition is often accompanied by events in which people involved with second-wave feminism in Berlin reminisce about their methods and intentions, often to a group of young artists and cultural workers in their 20s and 30s.
I am trying these methods, and they have been very helpful to me, Inga says. I am trying also to be a mother to a small child and an artist and to live.
I admit to her that I was surprised to find out she was a parent, even given the content of the group’s work – as so few people I know making work as actively as she are mothers. I feel angry even to express this. I’m bored of that statement, I tell her. She nods. She seems more patient than me. She tells me that part of her work with FHCRG involves developing relationships with the people she terms “protagonists” of second-wave feminism, and I am charmed by this translation, the way “protagonists” shines the spotlight on the humans at the center of this story. She tells me it can be difficult to make connections across generations of feminism, that there is such different language around gender and queerness and trans-inclusivity. She tenses her jaw. But this is my work, I see, she says. We speak of the dynamics around feminism and race in Berlin, how they differ and don’t from where I live in Oakland, and the predominantly white feminisms present in FHCRG’s exhibitions. I am working a lot on this now, she says, and I am trying to include this in the conversations we are having between groups and generations of feminists. I think we are beginning to have the relationships to actually learn from each other.
Later, as I look over images of older women speaking about their experiences doing self-help practices in front of a room of people in their 20s and 30s, I think about how deeply relational FHCRG’s work is, and how edgy that feels to me. I ask Inga several times about research methodology, even though what I find most compelling in her work is FHCRG’s dedication to relationship-building. The archives, the zines, the libraries present in their exhibitions – they are all so much about what it takes to maintain ties: ties of support, ties of understanding, ties of solidarity to one another and to our bodies.
I think we are beginning to have the relationships. So much of FHCRG’s work is the deeply practical and logistical production of care, from their zine translating the Künstler-sozialkasse (KSK), Germany’s state-provided health care for artists, into English so that this health care can be accessed by those without fluent German, to their zine “Sick Time, Crip Time, Caring Time,” in which they begin by reflecting on their own interpersonal dynamics and how to process them to make collaboration possible – and include a series of prompts and guided visualizations about how to proceed with “cultural work” in a more sustainable way.
Later, I talk on the phone with my friend Ellie. She says she is in a bad mood and having trouble connecting with the art-making she wants to do. I tell her I’ll talk to her until she remembers the work she wants to do. We talk about what is sexy or not sexy about art-making, and how we try sometimes to talk about the unsexy parts, the most logistical – specifically to explore the inner workings of this kind of production.
Later, another friend Katy emails me to consult about making a visually-compelling newsletter to share updates on one’s creative work, and her email subject line is “banal, but important.” I tell her I love this stuff, and I do. And I love the people who do this work and do it in public, the way FHCRG does.
This public re/productive labor seems made possible in part by FHCRG’s focus on health and illness. “In our disabled state, we are not part of the dominant narratives of progress,” writes Alison Kafer in Feminist Queer Crip. As Kafer and other theorists of disability have shown, illness and disability provide a rupture in normative performance, and often a reminder that the body (and all the bodies serving to re/produce it) is working all the time, and can—will, does—eventually and at some points break down. This rupture and reminder can also be a point for what Mia Mingus has termed “access intimacy” – the encounter in which all parties fully understand one another’s needs and “we are able to start from a place of steel vulnerability.”
Through Inga I meet a group of other artists loosely organized around what they call a Sickness Affinity Group, which meets both for support as well as collaboration around what it means to be a sick and/or disabled artist, maker, thinker. The group includes representatives and collaborators on the creative projects Power Makes Us Sick, Coven Berlin, FCHRG, and others. At the meeting I attended, much of the focus is on process: how the group wants to work together in the future, what they will do at their meetings, and how they will incorporate the various access needs of those present. Romily Alice Walden, one of the artists present, is at work developing a primer on access needs for groups to use to train themselves to be more actively inclusive when planning gatherings.
This intentionality is familiar to me from other groups I’ve been a part of that consider and present access and dis/ability, and I am struck by how immediately I feel welcomed, gathered-in by the consideration of how to gather. I think of Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition, her book examining the binary between the “contemplative” vs “active life.” Arendt writes: “Power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse.” Antiquated use of “men” aside, this acting together—holding together, I think, as I squeeze over to make room on the couch for a latecomer to the meeting—is so present at the Sickness Affinity Group. As is the precarity that Arendt implies, a knowledge that we hold together in this room in a way that is tenuous and fragile given forces and conditions beyond this room, and within our own bodies, appreciating our capacity to be physically there and acknowledging that not all bodies can. Getting together in a way that acknowledges that this togetherness requires work to maintain.
This feeling is present also in FHCRG’s public work. The sense of research as in-gathering, as a keeping-together of books, zines, photos, collage. We try to speak from our experience, and not create a distant aesthetics, Inga says. She is concerned about research-based art practices that re-present existing political movements and ideas as their own – that’s an act of privatizing, she says. We are not trying to own this aesthetically. We try to be transparent about whom we’re relating to.
I think of theorist and scholar Sara Ahmed: “Citation is feminist memory.” The ways in which the collaged and patched-together make it possible to spot intellectual and creative ancestry, and to spot the labor keeping it all together.
Inga says: We want to make something that remains sketchy and inviting, not intimidating. She mentions that FGCRG has allowed themselves to publish articles and zines that are not proofread, because we couldn’t live up these standards of producing supposedly proper art pieces, because of our real, limited capacities.
What does it mean, I wonder, for something to be beautiful but still real and limited, for a body to be vulnerable but still legitimately creative.
(Kafer again: “Some of this knowledge, for example, how to live with a suffering body, would be of enormous practical help to most people…. Much of it would enrich and expand our culture, and some of it has the potential to change our thinking and our ways of life profoundly.”)
For a body to be shaky, but still profoundly helpful and beautiful. Or, for that matter, for a city. To be desirable but still accessible, porous, alive. FGCRG’s work references a Berlin of the 1970s and 1980s when there was mass availability of open buildings that made possible radical squats and habitation by artists and organizers with minimal financial means.
Conditions are increasingly precarious, Inga tells me later as she looks across the busy street toward Kotbusser Tor. She reminds me that Südblock, the café where we are meeting, is the endpoint of Berlin’s yearly Behindert Und Verrückt Feiern (Disability & Madness Pride Parade), because this café is one of the few truly accessible public venues in the city.
I’m trying to meet a new friend for coffee, but she texts asking if I can just come over to her place. I’m feeling a bit fragile, she says. In Berlin this appears to be code for hungover or, at the very least, partied late last night. Though it is a Wednesday, last night was a party night because today is a holiday.
Reunification Day, my friend tells me, also known as German Unity Day, the anniversary of the falling of the wall between east and west Berlin, and the end of the divided city, divided Germany. I’m struck by the odd tenderness of reunification as a term, the reckoning that the city has been stitched together, the wound preserved now as a tourist destination in segments of wall across the city. But even these curated segments – and even a holiday for Unity Day – can’t disguise the fact that unification has also had many subtle and long-term effects on German lives and communities.
I’m feeling a bit fragile. The tender work of admission of fragility, of wounds remaining raw or needy, even over years and generations, expectations of healing and solutions. A vulnerability clamorously remains.
A bit fragile. The phrase makes me picture my new friend’s teeth chattering, her bones close the skin. No problem, I say, I can come meet you there.