TARANEH FAZELI: Calling In Sick
An Interview by Zuzana Štefková
Taraneh Fazeli is a curator, editor, and educator from New York. Her practice emerges from legacies of radical pedagogy and institutional critique. Fazeli has explored this by organizing process-based exhibitions, publications, seminars, and public programs as Managing Director of e-flux, Contributing Editor to Triple Canopy, and as part of the New Museum of Contemporary Art’s Education Department. As a freelance curator, she has been working on a project that investigates social and embodied learning around the politics of health. Sick Time, Sleepy Time, Crip Time: Against Capitalism’s Bullying investigates how care for the body in states of debility and disability can help us to re-imagine collective structures for support. The artists that have been involved are Fia Backström, Jesse Cohen and Carolyn Lazard with the Canaries, Danilo Correale, Jen Liu, Zavé Martohardjono, Sondra Perry, Carrie Schneider, Cassie Thornton, and Constantina Zavitsanos. This project has taken place at arts organizations including Bemis Center (Omaha, Nebraska), EFA Project Space (New York) and Project Row Houses (Houston, Texas), as well as numerous social service organizations. It will take place again at the Luminary (St. Louis, Missouri) in the Fall. In April, Fazeli took part an exhibition addressing similar issues, “Multilogues on the Now,” curated by Hana Janečková and Zuzana Jakalová at Display, Prague, where she met curator, educator and activist Zuzana Štefková. In the following interview with Štefková, Fazeli shares her thoughts on pedagogy, curating, and care for oneself and each other.
Zuzana Štefková: In your curatorial work you have often used educational formats. What do you feel that curatorial practices have to gain from engaging with pedagogical methods?
Taraneh Fazeli: As a curator and educator, I have focused on organizing configurations of aesthetic experiences to transform the relationships of groups, bodies, and objects within various social and political systems and institutional bodies. I believe in art’s potential as one site in which to constitute publics and cultural rituals, interrogate the techniques of representation, and dream alternative systems. There is also the power of art’s duality—as a powerful site of emancipation that’s also complicit in structures that transmit inequality. Heeding the slogan popularized by disability rights activists in the 1990s—“nothing about us without us”—I often employ practices that emphasize making with rather than about. This is similar to Paulo Freire’s foundational distinction in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that pedagogy be undertaken "with not for" the oppressed.
ZŠ: Your ongoing curatorial project Sick Time, Sleepy Time, Sick Time: Against Capitalism’s Temporal Bullying revolves around topics of care, health and disability. Your exhibitions often entail educational formats such as workshops and you enjoy creating spaces for sharing. Do you think of these as sites for learning? What types of exchange do they trigger and how can this apply in wider ideas of alternative learning and pedagogies?
TF: Sick Time... deals with the politics of health and care by showcasing the work of artists who examine the temporalities of illness and disability, the effect of life/work balances on wellbeing, and alternative structures of support. The project addresses the fact that the failures of biomedicine are disproportionately felt by some due to race, class, gender, and sexuality, as well as the effects of the valorization of independence in American society. All human beings, disabled or not, are only ‘temporarily abled’ and will be dependent, needing care or assistance, whether as a baby, during periods of illness, or as an elderly person. So dependency is simply a part of all human relations and good care must recognize this.
A touring process-based exhibition is tied to an extensive programming series, Warp and Weft of Care, which involves collaborations between artists and communities of care. The hosting cultural institutions have become platforms to create community and share practices between sick artists and groups of people who are creatively and collaboratively surviving in this moment of heightened crisis, scarcity, and hate. The impetus to explore illness as a by-product of societal structures, while also using cultural production as a potential place to re-imagine care, was my own chronic illnesses and work in the realm of institutional critique. Growing up chronically ill I rarely attended school, which is what first got me interested in alternative pedagogy.
ZŠ: How has this project’s learning processes been specific to its participants and contexts?
TF: The first set of programs took place between New York and Texas, emphasizing what could be learnt from the resilience of those carving out spaces of care in the states where poor government support has long synced with a prevailing ‘maverick’ ideology of independence. While many programs were open to the larger public, the main focus was a private exchange between artists and two groups of women disproportionately facing violence: young single mothers and recently incarcerated women. Participating artists addressed issues directly related to their own lived experiences and facilitated encounters such as listening investigations, movement exercises, the sharing of community healing histories, etc. As all parties had knowledge to contribute, all were paid for their expertise.
In the most recent version at the Bemis Center, Omaha, artists chose very particular groups to learn with. For example, Fia Backström addressed the effects of barely visible forces on the medicalized body in her performance Growth and Its Perennials. Alongside this, Zavé Martohardjono’s performance Territory retraced pre- colonial landscapes and local emigrant histories through a parable of a fictional island that was carved up by colonizers, thereby considering the relationship between displacement, migration, and health. Martohardjono’s costuming was informed by a dialogue with Sacred Seed, an organization that preserves indigenous culture by growing traditional Indian corn. As part of their ongoing research, the two artists worked with refugee groups coping with the effects of assimilation: Martohardjono facilitated workshops sharing healing movement modalities they use in their choreographic practice and, as part of a mental health seminar, Backström facilitated peer-to-peer storytelling by sharing her experience with Big Pharma after immigrating. It is my belief that artwork created in this caring dialogic manner can help us move towards cultural equity.
ZŠ: Your work demonstrates an ethical commitment to the publics and communities that art institutions are located in. In your Labor of Love lecture at the Multilogues on the Now opening reception you addressed the curator’s role as caretaker by examining histories of who and what curators care for. How do you approach care and how do you think about ethical commitment in your work?
TF: Care is a contentious topic at the moment in the US. After Trump’s election, masses sprang to newfound political awareness. Many invoked radical black feminist Audre Lorde to relate to the burnout they felt: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Simultaneously, healthcare costs skyrocket and a wellness industry that mistakes care for luxury pampering services mis-appropriates this very same quote. Amidst this, arts practitioners revisit the work of feminist, indigenous, black, and queer artists who have long investigated how trauma gets held and expressed through collective gestural, somatic, and haptic experiences.
These ideas are embedded in the very tenants of curatorial practice, ‘curate’ derives from the Latin curare: to cure or to care. Many curatorial textbooks narrate the historical trajectory of the curator from a caretaker of public works during the Roman Era to a spiritual steward of the church in the Middle Ages to a secular custodian of art objects. Given the shift in the emphasis from exhibition making to affective labor in the post-60s period, there is little agreement as to who or what the curator should care for—artworks, artists, publics, ideas, donors, or institutions. Beyond this, what are the ethics of care embedded in curatorial methodologies? I have been looking at ethics of care from various fields, such as how paternalism operates in public health policies or dependent relations are recognized in disability justice. Interrogating these questions as a curator not only shapes my relations with artists, but prompts me to care for publics differently. I strive to create greater access to cultural institutions despite the fact that most are exclusionary spaces by definition.
ZŠ: The topic of disability certainly brings forth the issue of embodiment. If one can identify embodied art practice as well as embodied writing, would you say that your curating also exemplifies this type of embodiment that throws norms into question ? What strategies do you utilize in order to address, or better still to incarnate, this issue?
TF: In The Question of Access, Tanya Titchkosky says: “access is a way people have of relating to the ways they are embodied as beings in the particular places they find themselves. By ‘embodied’ I mean all the ways we have to sense, feel, and move through the world, as these are mediated by the interests of social environments, including race, class, gender and sexual orientation.” I see the access note as a site for prefigurative politics, which traditionally occurs on an organization’s website alongside general visitor information and reflects on limits to the built environment that may impede access for persons with disabilities. I am not alone in this. Other freelance curators and artists also use the temporary embrace of an institution as a way to encourage (force) them to transform available infrastructure and, therefore, associated senses of belonging. To approach the access note intersectionally, I articulate what foreign language translation is available as well as sign language, or if bathrooms are gender neutral and wheelchair accessible, or what unceded indigenous lands we are on. (Johanna Hedva, Carolyn Lazard, Park McArthur, and Constantina Zavitsanos are all artist comrades that have been addressing this more eloquently than me.)
I have recently become attached to a distinction, articulated by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten in The Undercommons, between policy and planning. Paraphrasing them, policy comes from above and pronounces others as incorrect, while planning invents the means of social reproduction in a common experiment. I align my curatorial practice with the latter. While their text draws more from thinkers from the black radical tradition than disability, for me planning takes up “nothing about us without us.” The language used in access notes is telling: some of them say “we will work with you to support your needs,” which is very different than the typical “this is what we have and this is what will give.” One nods to institutional care as liberal benevolence while the other at more radical planning. The subtle differences between tone hint at the affective tenor that will be present in the room. Institutions like to develop policies they believe serve most, then implement them across the board. That limits dialogue, because time for listening is something institutions often don’t prioritize, even for their prized artists. But sick time demands it.
ZŠ: In your writing you have said that you conceive of illness as of a form of knowledge. What can we learn from illness or, to put it differently, what can illness teach us? A lot of your work tries to bring in different types of experience in order to claim their relevance as modes of experiencing the world. In the workshop you held in Prague, Calling in Sick, we started by talking about our experiences of pain but eventually moved to expressing it through bodily positions, movement, emotions, and drawing. How did this structure change our worldviews and inform the way we learn about ourselves and about others?
TF: Calling in Sick explores the ways we speak and feel about the body in states of debility. I ask participants to recall a time they felt unwell and told someone about it, thereby considering how the language we use around illness shapes our experience of it. Many participants come to the realization that they’ve been culturally conditioned to understand illness as an individual failing or that they’ve buried physical pain from these experiences in their bodies. The first storytelling exercise utilizes Intergroup Dialogue, a listening exercise from the Intergroup Education Movement of the 1940s and 50s, that promotes engagement across social and cultural divides. The final exercise is an implementation of the score Dennis Oppenheim deployed in his Two Stage Transfer Drawing from 1971. In this two-channel video, Oppenheim’s son draws on his back as Oppenheim duplicates the drawing on the wall through touch. In another view they switch roles.
The workshop’s partnering of linguistic, gestural, and haptic exercises can be adapted to address other issues that benefit from a move away from mind-centered epistemologies. Critical theory, a now essential part of art education, grounds studio practice in critical analysis but it also dislodges us from our bodies in the classroom rather than focusing on sensorial ways of knowing once emphasized in the arts. I recently published the workshop’s script in the textbook Art as Social Action (Allworth Press, 2018) precisely because I hope more teachers will utilize practices of embodied listening.
ZŠ: There is a question that you asked in the curatorial notes for “Sick Time…” that I find immensely inspiring, hence I reiterate it here: “How do we envision ways to care for ourselves and others in a manner which eschews placement of guilt on the sick individual and avoids pathologizing non-normative bodies or behaviors, thereby disavowing the role of environmental factors, economic inequality, and systemic violence’s traumatic impact?”
TF: That is the question, isn’t it? Many of my collaborators address this by focusing on peer-to-peer support, like Canaries, a network of art-adjacent cis women, trans, and non-binary people with auto-immune conditions. Similarly, Hologram, led by Cassie Thornton, does not simply reveal the effects of the financialization of medicine but actually begins to undo some of the social damage. Thornton has spent years addressing the impact of indebtedness on imagination and social behavior. Hologram moves away from the anonymous expertise of medical professionals towards a long-term process of peer support, inspired by a triadic model developed in Greek solidarity centers in the wake of financial crisis. The process, wherein one person is at the center and three other individuals take on the emotional, physical, and social perspectives of their wellbeing, weaves together interconnected histories of health through a process of deep listening and reflection. Deriving from the Latin ‘holos’ (meaning whole), Hologram takes its name from the idea that socialized care helps someone become the most well-rounded version of themselves.
Shared through architectural interventions and performative workshops/yoga classes, participants literally broke through walls built in the gallery to represent the hurdles we face in obtaining healthcare, housing, and education. Hologram, with its use of mobile record-keeping networks, is ideal for transient, creative political subjects so we invite you to join us. Details can be found on the Feminist Economics Department website (feministeconomicsdepartment.com).
Credits: Taraneh Fazeli, Calling in Sick (workshop view), April 12, 2018. Tranzit Display, Prague, Czech Republic. Photo: Taraneh Fazeli.
Published in Czech in Flash Art Czech & Slovak Edition No. 48.