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Creative Care: Socially Engaged, Collaborative and Inclusive Practice in Contemporary Art

Wednesday 14 September 2022, 1–2pm

Catherine Bell:

Hello everyone. My name is Catherine Bell. For low-sighted audiences, I'll provide a brief visual description of myself. I have my long, fair hair, tied up in a bun on the top of my head, and I'm wearing black and white rimmed glasses, red lipstick, silver dangling earrings, and a black and white stripe top and black polo neck. I'm sitting in my work office, and my backdrop is a floor-to-ceiling bookcase.

Thank you to Kate Barber, Monash University Museum of Art's Audience Development and Public Programs co-ordinator, for inviting me to present this lecture as part of the Form x Content series. This series is presented by Monash Art, Design and Architecture, and programmed by Monash University Museum of Art. I'm a multidisciplinary artist, curator, and visual arts lecturer in the National School of Arts and Humanities at the Australian Catholic University's Melbourne campus, located on Wurundjeri Country. This lecture has been recorded at my office at the Australian Catholic University. In continuing ACU's commitment to reconciliation, and in line with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tradition, it is customary to acknowledge Country, and pay our respects to the First Peoples, traditional custodians of the lands and waters, and thank them for their continued hospitality.

We acknowledge and celebrate the continuation of a living culture that has a unique role in this region. We also acknowledge Elders past and present, as well as our emerging leaders of tomorrow, and thank them for their wisdom and guidance as we walk in their footsteps.

I've been invited to present... I'll just share my screen. I've been invited to present on the socially-engaged and collaborative areas of my practice, and to discuss how their participatory and inclusive methodology intersects with feminism and care ethics. Today, I will focus on artistic case studies that identify what an ethics of care looks like when it is practiced or deployed.

I'm very conscious of privileging the artist voice and process in this presentation, because my model for neurodiverse/neurotypical collaboration and socially-engaged art projects in healthcare and palliative care settings, has evolved out of practice, not theory. I will discuss two year-long St Vincent's Hospital artist residency that took place at Caritas Christi Hospice in Kew, and the Oncology Ward of St Vincent's Public Hospital, both located in Melbourne. I will also talk about a 12-year collaborative relationship with Arts Project Australia artist Cathy Staughton. Both participatory models demonstrate inclusive practice in distinctive ways. By foregrounding our collaboration as a feminist mode of production, an activist strategy can promote death literacy, and the inclusion and visibility of neurodiverse artists.

I will discuss one of my art and health projects in relation to feminist philosopher Bernice Fisher and political theorist Professor Joan Tronto's four phases of care, because discovering this theory has provided a framework for how my experience of working in age and palliative care is transferable to my role as an artist that develops and facilitates art projects with patients and medical staff in healthcare environments. Designing and facilitating communal workshops in these spaces with diverse community groups extends upon my research on how art can be a vehicle for promoting healthy and meaningful discussions about death and dying.

Before I discuss these case studies, I wanted to give a brief background on how I gravitated toward this area of research. When I was at art school in the early nineties, I had a part-time job, spanning eight years, working in age care. During the same time, I was one of the first group of volunteers to be trained at the Queensland AIDS Council to provide volunteer care for AIDS patients in their homes. Caring for these very different communities, elderly women and young men, that were facing death, had a profound influence on my emerging art practice and future research trajectory into the role art and artists can play in healthcare settings and in end-of-life care. These early experiences of death honed an awareness that mortality is central to life, and that care is relational and relies on time, as you need time to build trusted relationships. It also highlighted the melancholy reality that caring relationships fostered in the nursing home and palliative care settings I was working in didn't always include the presence or care of family or loved ones, and that care providers were the predominant caregivers.

The art and health projects I have undertaken at St Vincent's Hospital, and the ongoing collaboration with Arts Project Australia artist Cathy Staughton, demonstrates sustained creative partnerships that have developed over many years. Within these caring partnerships, I'm interested in the nexus between socially-engaged and collaborative approaches to art making, and feminist and care ethics, and I relate the theme of care to notions of advocacy, activism, and social inclusion of marginalised embodiments.

I wanted to start with this quote. "Our subjectivity and our very existence comes into being through relations with others; relations which are thick with responsibility, and must be negotiated with due regard for both the dependence and the difference of those others." Fiona Robinson eloquently defines, in this quote, how artistic collaboration intersects with care ethics and provides a critical lens to examine how neurodiverse art collectives, like The Two Cathies, problematise normative approaches to care.

Since 2009, artist Cathy Staughton and I have collaborated on artworks. The curatorial projects at Arts Project Australia, an organisation that supports artists with intellectual disabilities, promotes their work and advocates for their inclusion in contemporary art practice. Our collaborative partnership has borne the title The Two Cathies, and continues to articulate how our lived experiences influence Cathy's paintings and my video portraits, and how our worlds collide in the process of collaboration.

When we come together as muse for the other, our individual artworks and practices intertwine, enabling reflexivity, knowledge exchange, and promotes interdependent caring practices. Coexisting on art residencies expands this artistic influence, and emphasises the interconnectedness between collaboration, care, intersectional feminist theories, and activism. It foregrounds how an ethics of care is evidenced, not only by our artistic collaborations, but how the artworks produced archive and embody these experiences. Furthermore, these shared residencies, as opposed to meeting and working with Cathy Staughton in the Arts Project Australia supported studio, present new environments to make art together, and consequently evoke artistic freedom, experimentation, and stimulate variances in style, process, and method. The shared residencies also foster shared responsibility, and encourage reciprocal dynamics of care, trust, and friendship. These values underpin my creative relationship with Cathy, and collaboration as a feminist mode of production promotes mutual support, resource sharing, and an opportunity to communicate common interests.

Working with Cathy on our first project in 2009 involved producing a portrait of each other in the Arts Project Australia's studios, an encounter that allowed us to get to know each other through a creative exchange. This experience was transformative because it enabled emancipatory participation, where Cathy and I could make art together about each other. Since our collaborative identity has evolved, from working alongside each other in the Arts Project Australia studio to shared residencies where we co-habit, this connection has deepened, and our cumulative knowledge of one another and collective experiences is documented in the artworks. As it is a relational practice, our knowledge is expanded through the reciprocal nature of collaboration, and my understanding of disability and its defining experiences has broadened since working with Cathy. This relationship highlights the possibilities of how giving voice to personal experience is political, and can foster a political consciousness.

The Two Cathies collaborative model also provides a valuable conceptual framework to think about neurodiverse interactions, and how care ethics can reorientate practices, values, and procedural standards in professional studios that support artists with disabilities. In 2009, I was contacted by artist curator Lindy Judge to participate in a group exhibition titled 'The Portrait Exchange', where she paired external contemporary artists with Arts Project Australia artists. Her curatorial rationale fostered existing relationships and initiated new ones. It translated shared experiences and visual dialogues between not only sitter and portrait painter, but also between studio artist and non-artists from Arts Project Australia, external artists.

Cathy and I were paired because we are close in age, Cathy is a few months older, but we have similar cultural coordinates. Our practices also explore common subject matter, such as self-portraiture, the lived experience, and female identity. Cathy's practice is predominantly two-dimensional, she works in a range of painting and drawing mediums, while I have a multidisciplinary practice, with a history of representing the human condition and the self as subject, but also creating ritualistic performances documented on video.

This project involved meeting Cathy weekly in the open plan Social Studio at Arts Project Australia, and sitting opposite her while we drew each other's portrait. I laboured over my graphic, on paper, portrait of Cathy, as my obsessive line work is hard-edged, and the outcome was a stylised portrait of her face close to the canvas, and her hand painting my portrait. This composition morphed robots and other symbols that related to her, and our exchanges on different days. Cathy produced numerous painted portraits on canvas, and works on paper, which is a testament to her work ethic. The fact many of the portraits continue to be produced long after the project concluded is evidence of the meaningful bond we forged. This was a transformative experience that has developed into a sustained, collaborative relationship and trusted friendship beyond Arts Project Australia.

With 'Knowing Me Knowing You', our second collaborative project, taking us beyond the supported studio to making art in each other's domestic spaces. This new perspective began a critical examination for thinking about neurodiverse/neurotypical interactions that foreground the distinction between the reciprocity of care in personal relationships, and the transactional forms of paid care in supported art studio settings. Our collaborative model, especially when enacted in artist residencies, offers a unique perspective because it documents, through an artistic modality, how bodies are affected by spaces and encounters experienced within them.

The first of these residencies was in 2007, when The Two Cathies were invited to take part in a week-long residency at Norma Redpath House, Melbourne, as part of Doing Feminism / Sharing the World. This initiative was part of Women Art and Feminism in Australia since 1970, an Australian Research Council Discovery Project led by Professor Anne Marsh, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. This shared residency offered new insights on how neurodiverse/neurotypical artist collaborations engage with care in practice, and examined how this differs to the paradigm of the supported studio.

The silent film genre was selected to capture how we interacted during this residency, because, for a brief time in history, it provided an inclusive experience for the hearing-impaired, who could fully participate in this popular cultural form as equal members of the audience. The film, The Artists, 2017, focused on communal daily rituals and how The Two Cathies coexist and interact when they are not making art, using a combination of sign language, lip reading, and visual communication to render the private experience of disability public, and challenging the misconception of disability as helpless or dependent.

Similarly, The Artist and The Mermaid, 2019, extends on the residency as a space where the collaborative relationship can reorientate the frame of reference from the individual practitioner and the supported studio structure, and continue to reimagine The Two Cathies as a model of collaborative practice that raises awareness of intersectional neurodiversity, and advocates for radical change.

The film's storyline aims to challenge stereotypes about disability, and builds in feminist principles that support how lived experiences influence and align with identity politics and contemporary arts. For over a decade, I've consistently advocated for Cathy's inclusion in art shows I have been curated into, and suggested ways Cathy and I could work together, representing an intersectional and activist stance that advances a feminist agenda of challenging identity-based oppression. Care ethics is central to this agenda, and lays the foundation for our creative relationship, where care is embodied and practiced through the common language of art.

The Artist and The Mermaid is the outcome of one of those commissioned projects, developed for a group show titled Flesh After Fifty. This exhibition, shown at the Abbottsford Convent from the 7th of March to the 11th of April 2021, explored and challenged negative stereotypes of ageing, while celebrating and promoting positive images of older women through art. When the curator Jane Scott approached me to make the new work in response to the brief, I pitched the idea of Cathy painting a nude portrait of me to challenge notions of the gaze. This concept had been lying dormant for some time, and the curatorial premise provided a fitting context to examine the way an established female artist paints an older woman's naked body, subverting the traditional role of male painters and their portrayal of the female nude. I recognised that sitting for a naked portrait with Cathy would be a significant shift from the numerous clothed portraits Cathy has painted of me. I discussed with Arts Project Australia, and Cathy's family, the parameters I would set in place so Cathy and I would feel comfortable taking this next step.

I constructed a fantasy narrative that positioned Cathy as the artistic protagonist, and the mermaid as the muse. I was confident that our trusted friendship would lend itself to the challenge of Cathy painting a semi-naked portrait of me on a public beach, and the silent film would capture the unscripted performance. In the silent film, as in real life, Cathy plays the role of an artist and only she can see the mermaid's naked body. Cathy also plays the role of caregiver in the film, and in my role as the mermaid, I'm reliant on Cathy's care. Offscreen, my responsibility is to host Cathy's stay at the residency, and ensure she is comfortable. Being concerned about Cathy's wellbeing offscreen mirrors Cathy's relationship with the mermaid onscreen, and denotes how a duty of care intertwines practice and values.

In the film, the painter and mermaid inhabit a borderland that links sea and land, reality and imagination. Similarly, the shared residency is a liminal space, an opportunity to coexist and mesh art and life. The experience of making art and living together over a sustained period evidences the theory of inter-embodiment, a way of thinking through the nearness of others, but a nearness which involves distantiation and difference.

Living together adds another dimension to our artistic relationship, because being near to someone reveals how their subjectivity is embodied and influenced by various factors, like the space they inhabit and how they interact with others sharing that space. The silent film documents this interaction, and privileges gestural performances over language, because the action on screen dictates the narrative on the intertitles. For me, sitting for Cathy's portraits cultivates nearness, because we are physically close for an extended period of time. Cathy is legally blind, and when she is painting me, she is thinking through the nearness in a practical way. She comes into my personal space to observe small details like the patterns, texture, and colours of the mermaid tail and starfish necklace I am wearing.

I also understand nearness as a bond or connection when we are this close. I am Cathy's sitter, and this is not a passive role. I am her captive audience while she paints me, and an active listener, ear, friend, and confidant. We are privy to each other's creative expression, fluctuating emotions, inner frustrations, and personal epiphanies. Cohabiting with Cathy enables thinking through the nearness as respect for our difference and identity-based autonomy. This is demonstrated by our creative methodology, because the process of making work is collaborative, but Cathy and I produce separate artworks at the conclusion of our projects. To signify solidarity, Cathy's portraits and my videos are exhibited alongside each other, and show as one work. Hence, I understand our collaborative process as engaging a theory of inter-embodiment, and the artwork as the relational byproduct of thinking through the nearness.

The Two Cathies creative partnership offers a unique perspective on disability, which has often been characterised as dependent on care, a paradigm presented by the beach mermaid. The artist reacts to her bodily difference, not as a disability to be feared or that should be fixed, but something to celebrate and immortalise through her creativity. Hence, The Artist and The Mermaid film investigates how the peculiarities of embodiment engage with changing environments. The beach environment becomes a studio, and the shared living space becomes a stage to perform a lived experience of care.

Cathy's experience of painting on a beach in the elements, and my experience of playing the character of the mermaid and sitting for a semi-nude portrait in public, reinforces our shared vulnerabilities. In the film, the mermaid's vulnerability is portrayed by her nudity, muteness, and inability to move on land. Unlike the mermaid, when we are both taken out of our familiar studio environment and are located in a new setting together, we are not fish out of water, but embody resilience, responsibility, and adaptability.

Concepts of relationality and interdependence fostered in my collaborations with Cathy have been influential in developing the direction of my art practice more broadly to a participatory model of using art to engage diverse communities. I have undertaken two year-long artist residencies at Melbourne's St Vincent's Hospital, where I have developed this socially-engaged approach, and designed creative workshops that I have facilitated with hospice communities over a sustained period. Past work, such as Flower Tower, implement craft practices through the lens of care ethics, and was a sustained community engagement project in the palliative daycare at Caritas Christi Hospice, as part of a St Vincent's Hospital artist residency program. Over the year-long residency, I conducted two flower-making workshops a week that recycled craft materials coming into the hospice, such as the tissue paper and cellophane that wrapped the patient's floral bouquets. The patients' weekly participation in the communal artwork facilitated wellbeing by offering participants a forum that minimises their role as patients in end-of-life care, and reframes their identity as creative collaborators.

The Gathering was a short film I also made during this residency, that documented rituals of care in the hospice. Every Wednesday over the yearlong residency, before the hospice mass, I filmed 80-year-old volunteer, Sister Mary, tending the patient's flowers. Through her act of caregiving, I received the materials to make my artwork, such as dead flowers and floral Oasis foam. She also salvaged the tissue paper and cellophane that wrapped bouquets coming into the hospice that are used in the flower-making workshops. Some of the works created during this residency using the recycled floral Oasis foam were included in the 2018–2020 NETS touring exhibition Craftivism.

These works also influenced an ongoing community engagement workshop titled Facing Death Creatively, that involved designing and facilitating workshops during a 2018 international artist residency in the UK. The workshops explore the commemorative dimensions of death, and ruminate on how archeological relics conjure the dead and make past civilisations accessible through their material culture. This workshop facilitated communal creativity, and generated communal discussion about the difficult subject of selecting a final resting place. Participants were asked to create a small urn out of a biodegradable floral Oasis foam as a catalyst for reflecting on their final resting place. The dust that accumulates during the creation of the urns was collected in zip lock bags, which participants took away to stimulate conversations with family and loved ones about death and their imagined final resting place. Participants were also invited to scatter the biodegradable dust in a location where they could imagine themselves being buried, or their ashes scattered, and to send me a photo of that site. The sculpted forms were collected during the workshops once they were relinquished, and have become part of a growing archive of individually handcrafted pots, which represent the community that created them.

These works have been curated by Travis Curtin into the 2002–2023 NETS national touring exhibition called 'One foot on the ground, one foot in the water'. At the core of this, and previous socially-engaged projects, is framing death as a creative and productive set of relations, where the context for understanding death is embedded in visual language and socially-engaged approaches. This methodology positions death as a provocation for creative expression, reflection, and personal exchange.

The success of the first year-long artist residency at St Vincent's in 2012 resulted in an invitation to undertake a second residency in 2017. 'We Die As We Live' involved designing and facilitating creative workshops with palliative care staff that encouraged reflection on their role as care providers. The workshops situate the creative encounter as a strategy for honing their experience of death in the workplace, and revealing its cumulative impact. The participants engaged in the creative workshop and become co-creators of the artwork, and their unique understandings of issues relating to their role as palliative care providers is translated through the creative process. Recruiting staff while they are performing their roles amplifies the reflexivity, as the workshops are designed to stimulate reflection and discussion on death within the social and spatial context in which death is encountered. Reflecting on how these artworks speak to a specific memory of death, the relics become an extension of the caring duties that hospital staff perform. When they return to work, this form of socially-engaged art can expose, validate, communicate, and document their lived experience of death as particular to their workplace.

The exhibition curated the participation of over 120 palliative care staff working across Caritas Christi Hospice in Kew, where the studio was located, and the Oncology Ward on the sixth floor of St Vincent's Public Hospital on Victoria Parade. This art and health research project positioned palliative care staff, working in a myriad of capacities in hospital and hospice settings, as death elders, because of their expert knowledge and accumulated experience of death and dying. The workshop speculates on the commemorative dimensions of death, dying, and bereavement, as embodied in socially-engaged artistic processes, using mediums and tasks that engaged the participant senses and encouraged open discussion about mortality and impermanence. The activities enacted in the workshop were mark making using squid ink, and sculpting objects in plasticine. The aim was to translate experience of death into what I refer to as death relics.

These relics included Mapping in Memoriam, an expansive drawing that maps 111 marks perfectly joined together by the stream of ink exiting off the page with another drawing's exit point to form a sprawling, interconnecting death atlas. Another work, Marking Time, shows a 111 idiosyncratic marks made when squid ink is squirted onto the paper. And Memento Mori 100, which was the title of the hundredth plasticine sculpture, displayed in a perspex box alongside a personal statement publicising how the final participant in this project wanted to be remembered. The hundred plasticine sculptures were photographed and edited into a film, titled Memento Mori, that was shown on the televisions located in the hospital waiting areas.

Creative outcomes made tangible, personal memories of death, and are used as prompts to reflect on those experiences. These death relics have multiple objectives. They are artifacts that commemorate the meaningful exchange between artist and participant. They honour significant patients and loved ones who have passed, and speak to how the participants want to be remembered. When these collected works on paper and ephemeral sculptures were presented in the waiting areas of St Vincent's Private Hospital, they illustrated that every death is unique, and every experience of death is unique. They reinforce we are all connected by this universal truth, and they invited public discussion and reflection about the pervasive influence of death.

This is the short synopsis of the project and its objectives, but when it is aligned with Bernice Fisher and Professor Joan Tronto's four phases of care, it clearly shows how care is central to the project's aims. The first phase of care is 'caring about'. This is when a problem is identified, and there is a need to address it. And the moral dimensions Fisher and Tronto attached to this stage of caring is attentiveness; when you recognise the other and the other's need. To put it simply, with this project, death was a subject I wanted to address, and the participants in the project, palliative staff, who I recognised as not only death experts, but acknowledge how their role as healthcare providers and cumulative experience of death impacts on them.

The second phase of care is 'caring for'. In this phase, as the facilitator of the project, I take responsibility for the problem I want to address. That encompasses the research, development, facilitating the community engagement, data collection, exhibition, and dissemination of the research findings. It also involves applying for ethics clearance at my university before commencing the residency, to ensure the participant, hospital, stakeholders, and the academic institution understand the creative rationale and research objectives, including how the participants will benefit from their involvement in the collaborative artworks. This phase also includes evaluating the impact and engagement of the outcome. In this case, the responsibility sitting the exhibition for four weeks, discussing the project with the public, and administrating exhibition questionnaires.

The third phase of care is 'caring'. This refers to the actual work of caring, and the moral dimension assigned to this phase is competence. In this phase, I focus on the relational aspects of care that are fostered by the collaborative nature of the workshop, as the participants are co-creators of the works. This collaboration highlights care as relational and requires trust, reciprocity, and attentiveness. This aspect of care is extended to the public, who aren't expecting to come into contact with an exhibition that addresses death when they come to the hospital, so I associate this phase of caring as also providing a duty of care to be onsite and to companion the show and the audience reception of it.

The fourth phase of care is 'care receiving', and that looks at the reception of care and judging its effectiveness. At the end of the workshop, I would ask a series of questions that would gauge the effectiveness of the art processes to solicit meaningful reflection. The moral dimension of this phase is responsiveness, so that responsiveness can be gauged by the amount of time each participant engaged with the workshop activities, or the time the public engaged with the exhibition and filling in the questionnaire. That would range from 15 minutes to almost two hours, and this was one way to gauge how the participants and viewers responded to and received care.

A fifth phase of care that Fisher and Tronto later introduce is 'caring with', and this goes deeper into the moral dimensions of solidarity and trust. According to Tronto, "Trust builds as people realise that they can rely upon others to participate in their care and caring activities. Solidarity forms when citizens come to understand that they are better off engaged in such processes of care together, rather than alone." Relating this statement to the art projects designed for hospital communities, the caring activity takes the form of the creative workshops. Solidarity is represented by the exhibition at the conclusion of the hospital residency, which displays the collaborative creativity in sites relevant to the communities associated with the project.

'We Die As We Live' identified how collaborative and socially-engaged art approaches can support communication and education about the social determinants of health in relation to dying with dignity and end-of-life care. It exemplifies art's generative capacity to diminish the taboo surrounding death by initiating creative interventions in medical settings to promote meaningful reflection about death experiences and improve death literacy. When exhibited to the public, 'We Die As We Live' explored how objects and images impact on people's ideas about mortality, and the role art can play in mediating issues of life and death. The outcome revealed how palliative care staff remember those who have passed and carry the memory of the patients, demonstrated by their vivid recollections of death, some from experience decades ago. The death relics are the ultimate embodiment of a memorial consciousness.

This concept resonated with a visitor to the hospital, who responded to the exhibition saying that the recent loss of three family members had made her think about how hospital staff cope with death. She wondered if the staff continue to think about the people they have cared for when they die. She was comforted, after seeing the exhibition, that these experiences are not dismissed, and found it healing that death does not become a routine nature of hospital staff's jobs.

Reflecting on the exhibition and the public response to it, I wanted to conclude with some written reflections made by the public on the audience questionnaire, that demonstrates how caring with is interpreted through the creative works. The first quote, "I was impressed that St Vincent's supported this work and displayed it in the foyer. It made me think of the hospital as more forward thinking and creative than I have assumed." Another quote stated, "Often hospitals are alien and intimidating places, and this exhibition allows or encourages connection between health carers and the patient. It reminds me that nurses and doctors are also mortal, and subject to experience challenges in confronting mortality." Another quote stated, "I really only thought about death at funerals, not the process of dying or the impact on those who care for those who are dying." Another quote was, "The work stimulates dialogue between patients in the waiting room that is usually quiet and formal." And finally, another quote stated, "I was astounded to come upon this exhibition in the hospital foyer. It's quite daring, and very effective in showing death makes an impact on us all."

So in conclusion, these projects demonstrate that collaboration can enable a model of care that is communicated through different relational and situational forms of creative expression. The artist residencies provide the opportunity through sustained exchanges, and highlight how a creative modality disrupts normative conceptions of care. Whether it is making art together with hospital patients and staff about death, or the collaboration with Cathy, where we are artist and muse simultaneously, this is a relational way of working that requires a responsiveness to each other's cues. The Two Cathies partnership, and the art and health workshops, present the contributors and creative collaborators, caregivers, and care receivers at different times and places during the residencies. Their interchangeable roles promote feminist ethics and ways of working that are egalitarian, rather than hierarchical; mutually supportive, rather than oppressive; cooperative, rather than competitive.

This final slide lists a series of relevant publications if you want to know more about these projects or related exhibitions in more depth. Finally, please feel free to contact me via my email, listed at the start of this presentation, if you have any further questions or feedback on this presentation. Thank you.