Circles of Care
by Maddy Costa
When making performance in community or co-creative settings, one word will come up repeatedly: care. What it connotes could be fluffy but really it’s fraught with tension. As Chrissie Tiller wrote in an essay called Care as a Radical Act for the social arts agency Heart of Glass, neoliberal politics has claimed care as ‘a profit-making exercise’, reducing it to ‘a one-way contract between provider and recipient’, the latter ‘largely characterised as being without agency, without power and without capacity for reciprocity’. So much of the work in participatory arts involves overturning these characterisations, challenging the power dynamics they describe.
With two projects completed, the Moving Roots collective are in a good position to reflect on some of the issues around care that have emerged in their work. Where is care missing? Where does it needs expanding? And where might care have an impact opposite to what’s intended? The advantage – and joy – of being part of a collective is the ease with which learning can be shared; however, there’s a desire within the Moving Roots project to extend learning to other producers and organisations. It’s another way of thinking about care: as mutual aid rooted in a sense of responsibility not only for one’s own work but for the field in which it takes place.
At the same time, issues requiring care can be difficult and delicate to talk about: worse still, recording those conversations to share in public can itself become a harmful act, exposing people or events that don’t want to be exposed. For that reason, I haven’t attributed quotes to any of the producers present from the five partner organisations involved in Moving Roots (Battersea Arts Centre, Old Courts Wigan, Restoke, Jumped Up Peterborough and Common Wealth Cardiff), but have written this in a singular voice from the notes I took during a reflective conversation between ten of us in October 2022.
Care as access
At the core of Moving Roots is care for participants. The multiple crisis people are living amid are making it harder to get people in the room – and we want to be able to treat people as creative rather than a set of problems. This means care has to start before participation: what do we need to do in order for someone to be able to sing and dance? It might be sort out childcare, speak to someone’s housing officer. This requires capacity – and ideally that should always fall to the same producer who’s also organising everything else.
Co-creating with people means supporting them to be the best version of themselves. But that also means giving them agency to decide what and how much they want to share. Access riders and documents are useful tools for establishing those boundaries, as well as clarifying each person’s desired working conditions.
There’s a shared desire in Moving Roots towards a care that involves being human, not over-administrating relationships – a culture of care that doesn’t come from paperwork but comes from people. After all, email can be misconstrued. On the other hand, it’s good to have a document to refer back to, especially when conditions or relationships get tricky.
Like many participatory arts workers, Common Wealth’s producers begin each working relationship with a dialogue, asking a set of questions that acknowledge different expectations of what working in community might be. Their framework includes: the conditions each person likes to work in, the best ways to communicate, the ways people like to receive feedback, as well as asking each person what they need, what they struggle with and what they love. The aim is to create equitable space, more than care for everybody, because one person might need no care and another loads.
Doing so requires flexibility. You might have agreed on values around care in an interview situation, but people’s access needs or working desires change: they might have thought they needed x but actually want y. You have to revisit it and be honest. In which case, does the care conversation have to happen on a regular basis?
The saviour/mother role
This revisiting can be especially important when people have different ideas around what care might mean. What if your values or instincts lead you to care for someone who doesn’t want to be cared for? It’s easy to forcibly over-care: you need to trust the instinct to know when to start caring – but also when to stop. When approaches to care are incompatible, care can start to feel patronising, or undermining. This cultural difference might be bridged by a conversation right at the beginning about what care looks like to each of us.
There is fear of veering too close to being someone’s therapist, and it can be altogether too easy to slip into a ‘saviour/mother role’, which is why we’re interested in collective care. Often it’s the case that organisations do a great job of creating collective caring situations in creative work – but don’t always practice it in the practicalities. For instance: is there one person who is always doing the washing up? Practicalities can be an easy load to share, as long as collective care is embedded here as well as on the creative side.
It’s easy for boundaries to get crossed – especially given that sometimes you don’t know where your boundaries are until they’re crossed’. But people know you can’t solve their problem: sometimes they just want to know they’re being listened to.
Care as privilege
So many people’s problems result from precarious financial situations. The tendency in participatory arts is to think of this in one direction only: in terms of the lives of participants. But what happens when the artists or organisational team themselves exist in conditions of precarity? The arts funding structure – aka the battle for long-term money rather than project grants – forces artists and organisations to live an endless hustle, hand to mouth. Among the problems this creates is that you need money before anything else – including multifaceted care – can exist. Arguably it’s a privilege to be able to give care. Who has that privilege?
Working-class people can’t afford to exist project by project: we’re going to lose a whole generation of potential artists and leaders as a result. Which is why it’s so important not to have a fluffy discussion about care. Real-life pressures – being able to feed your family – are also involved.
Care for the outer circle
All socially engaged artists need supervision, especially now – but the general mode of the arts industry is that producers are good at talking about participant care and not very good at care for themselves. The Moving Roots organisations have developed a number of strategies to challenge this: for instance, assigning different trustees on the board to be responsible for individual staff members’ care. That’s about safeguarding, reporting – but also about relieving the pressure. A trustee can nag producers to have a time sheet, book holiday. It’s like putting on an oxygen mask on a plane: you have to be fed, otherwise you can’t feed anyone else.
Another way of thinking of this is through the model of ‘circles of care’: there’s lots of care at the centre, that we give to the people we work with; the artists who support those people also need care – but care for the directors/lead producers of the organisation has to be included too. You have to make sure everyone has an outer circle of care. Core funding has enabled Restoke to work with a specialist firm, The Artist Wellbeing Company, founded by mental health worker and theatre-maker Lou Platt: they have a session once a month together, and can also call on Platt ad-hoc to work through specific problems that arise.
These structures, or circles, of care are even more necessary when interpersonal issues emerge within an organisation, or between organisation and artist. At such times, care looks like having a really hard conversation – and, depending on who is involved in the issue (a Kickstarter member of staff, for instance), a more junior member of staff holding the conversation might enable it to feel less like an informal warning, and to happen on a more peer-to-peer basis. Some problems can be averted by being very direct at the very beginning of a working relationship, especially regarding capacity.
There’s a temptation to avoid difficult conversations: calling out issues in an organisation is hard, and sometimes we don’t call them out because we’re trying to be careful. But the harm will always emerge at some point. And it’s in those moments of crisis – when anger is present, or frustration – that care can be hardest to enact.