Βy Tom Clark


Contemporary art is a capacious genre, theorist Suhail Malik writes.[1] But despite its radical openness and indeterminacy to new content, contemporary art can feel increasingly insolated from the things it speaks of. How then to speak about maintenance and sustainability without these also being pocketed away into the institution of art?

Extracts of the Rhodiola root and rhizome (native to the uplands of the northern hemisphere) have been used for centuries in traditional herbal medicine to relieve stress symptoms, fatigue, weakness and anxiety. Scientific studies have struggled, however, to separate and quantify its benefits.[2] Today, Rhodiola extract is sold to promote good health, strength, endurance and physical and mental performance.

When a shift is made from alleviating maladies, to medicating for a more effective life, it’s hard not to think about maintenance and what has come to be known as ‘self-care.’ This is contemporary care, where the individual is expected to deal with the abuses of ones context themself. Life-style and self-medication are layered with mental and emotional self-reflection and control. Unconstrained by sanctioned provision, this individualized care is driven by fragmented communities of belief, expressions of identity, and in maximizing personal output. Self-care in this sense also contains an act of selection and denial, an imaginary balancing act of self-sanctioned functions and mediations. Care seems to be wound into the maintenance of an isolating self-sufficiency.  

When talking about maintenance as both a link and separation between the body and its context in this way, there is a dynamic that goes beyond the instituted narratives of stable meanings. Instead we might say we are moving through the relations of infrastructure. A standard definition holds that infrastructures help maintain us, and we maintain infrastructures. Like most maintenance, these actions are kept out of sight.

But being invisible does not mean an absence. Instead we can say that infrastructure makes things move out of sight and into its systemic flow. It splits objects and functions and recombining these to its own ends. Not simply supporting institutions, infrastructure makes things infrastructural; it makes them functional. In this way infrastructure operates differently to institutions: rather than in/exclusions, infrastructures deploy and distribute whatever is necessary. Not only disposing and denying that which is not necessary, infrastructures happily coexist in functional layers that can also interact, or choose not to. Recombining objects and functions like this, self-care as kind of infrastructure ritualizes and extends collected bodies through an imaginary of self-sufficiency, an ever changing, selective self-recombination and expulsion.[3]

As we navigate this infrastructural world of self-sufficiency, we engage with what for Judith Butler is a politics of vulnerability. Infrastructure as the backbone of neoliberal life is generally assumed to be enabling. It provides access to the basic needs for which someone might take self-responsibility, and become a self-sufficient individual. As Butler puts it: “The dependency of human creatures on sustaining and supporting infrastructural life shows that the organization of infrastructure is intimately tied with an enduring sense of individual life.”[4]

And yet, while a self-sufficient individual might simply be understood as a userof infrastructural services, a relation to worlds made by infrastructure is also inherently a relation to a social world, a community of users. A politics of vulnerability diagrams the different historical and economic conditions deploying, disposing, distributing, denying of the possibility of life, in varying degrees, to all of those experiencing it. Seen through the lens of how much one might depend on these worlds, infrastructure maintains a “tactical distribution of precarity,”[5] with ones vulnerability to dependency becoming the backdrop for a moral economy connected to the ability to be independent.[6]

In models that avoids a dependency on the social, not only does this structural self-sufficiency screen one user of infrastructure from another, it underlies the contradiction of neoliberal life: self-responsibility in conditions that make self-reliance impossible. The selective incorporation of once socially-embedded ‘traditional’ medicines into ‘official’ medicine is then not just a question of what and how science ‘sees’ as relevant.[7] Put under a infrastructural pressure, traditional medicine, split into object and function comes to support individuals that want to become self-sufficient, to maintain themselves as a distinct entity, to ease their functioning in a wider living whole. In the current moment, the ideal of self-care could come to maintain the very conditions it seeks to alleviate. If this is then not just a question of how care functions, but the social imaginary it maintains, what intervention might contemporary art make? To put it a different way: can art engage in this infrastructural world, and avoid the denial of others this might facilitate?

One option might be to engage in infrastructure as a stage of appearance: to make political claims, to assemble these, and to explore how bodies appear in a political sense as social and dependent. We can look to Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s 1969 Manifesto for Maintenance Art — a proposal for an exhibition to be titled “care,” in which she stated that all “normal lifework,” what she called ‘maintenance,’ would constitute her art. Ukeles used art as a means and venue in which to make maintenance work, often, as Elvia Wilk put it the “invisible, unvalued, reproductive labour that women do,” appear.[8] For Wilk, Ukeles’s genius was in juggling the two supposedly distinct types of labour — art and maintenance — albeit something many have done, but “finding a way to do them at the exact same time.”

Positioning the work of art as an act and object, Ukeles was able to separate work as a structure and form, as a function and object, in a way that revealed how instituted social relations — the gendering of maintenance work — could be denied through a hierarchy of visibility. Moreover, as a work of art, maintenance work could be shown to be infrastructural not simply in the sense of being invisible, but rather as being depended upon for the art to happen at all.

This clearly did not however entail a freedom from the contingencies of the institution. As Miwon Kwon wrote in 1997, and described by Wilk, “a lot of male institutional critique of the time aimed to ‘mess up’ the white cube,” but “they had the luxury as a form of exit, because they’d always be invited back. Instead, afforded no such luxury, Ukeles opted to stay and help clean up the mess.” So despite making disparities apparent, this puts staying with that trouble of maintenance in a tricky spot: do we rely on them any differently once that we know about them?

Given this, what would an infrastructure that cares about care and maintenance look like? One suggestion, to pull on Ukeles, is one with no functional or aesthetic distinction between those who work on its construction and maintenance and those who fill it with content. As Kwon hints at, and that the outsourcing of maintenance labour continues to make clear, the question how to avoid the institution simply acting like a conceptual infrastructure, insulating Ukeles’s act from the work of maintenance that carried on after Ukeles left, not to mention in parallel elsewhere, does not go away.

A different claim might be on the infrastructural itself. Butler: “the demand for infrastructure is a demand for a certain kind of inhabitable ground, and its meaning and force derive precisely from that lack.”[9] It seems that engaging with that lack sketches a path from Ukeles’s model — possible because of the autonomy of art enabling proposals for the world it is distinct to — to one in which arts dependencies give its models autonomy in the world.

As the curator Lucy Lopez reminds us, for Michel Foucault, care of self can also be thought of as a form of parrhesia: a radical act of speaking truth to the power of institutions from a position of exposed vulnerability.[10] If infrastructure structurally incorporates vulnerability, then this speaking to power should be inherently available. Granted, this requires navigating the seeming paradox of infrastructure: that “we cannot even fight for infrastructural goods, without being able to assume them to one degree or another.”[11] But as philosopher Gerald Raunig has also pointed out, parrhesia also extends through a form self-questioning. A practice of self care lodged within art must also entail a question as to its involvement in various infrastructure and infrastructural imaginaries.[12] Caring for the self like this entails a questioning of, but not a dismissal of ones relationship to vulnerability.

Another approach then, to return to Butler, is that of infrastructural resistance through the assembling of people together: a fight for the platform itself. When an infrastructure separates, it helps to deny. To build an infrastructure, whether a concrete asset or a temporary one (like an art project), might make it possible to deny other dependencies too. And if for Butler claiming back a political ground first depends on a certain performative assembly, art’s ability to assemble participants and audiences would seem particularly useful, if fraught, here.

Members of Chinatown Art Brigade and other anti-gentrification protesters taking over the front room of James Cohan Gallery, which was transformed by the artist Omer Fast to appear like a poorly maintained Chinatown business. (via Hyperallergic)]

When a care for the self includes an act of self-questioning, how an infrastructure might question itself (as the institution might, as Lopez proposes), depends on a decision to turn back and confront the denial of vulnerability offered by infrastructure as individual, social and collective. This means care and maintenance treated less as content to be deployed and looked at, but to ground the way art imagines itself to function.

Installation view, "The Past is Now, Birmingham and the British Empire," Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 2017–2018, curated by Aliyah Hasinah, Abeera Kamran, Shaheen Kasmani and Sumaya Kassim. Despite being invited to uncover and challenge the colonialist narratives embedded in the Museum's collection, the strength of imperial concepts of value, voice, and agency that persist into the contemporary curatorial structure of the museum meant that the curators had to fight for even a minimal ability to re-frame the items they had chosen from the collection. Through the curator's refusal to absorb this reaction, the struggle to create a platform from which to speak inside the institution outlines much of the exhibition's subsequent impact,see: https://mediadiversified.org/

If this sketches the need for an infrastructural politics that assembles its constituents because of mutual dependency, not to deny and deploy it, this would mean infrastructuring platforms through art that enable mutually dependent, co-formed, but perhaps contradictory relations to assemble through it. To endure these, not deploying them foror within art. We’ve come a long way from the Rhodolia extract, but how it has come to be used has underlined a need for a care of the self in which the self cannot be actually separated from the social infrastructures on which it depends. Assembling communities that care through a demand on how that care is assembled is not to manage life, but to sustain it.

[1] Suhail Malik, “When is Contemporary Art,” in Hlavajova and Sheikh (eds.), Former West: Art and the Contemporary After 1989 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016)

[2]Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products, “Assessment report on Rhodiola rosea L., rhizoma et radix,” European Medicines Agency (27 March 2012). Available at: https://www.ema.europa.eu/documents/herbal-report/final-assessment-report-rhodiola-rosea_en.pdf

Here I follow the work of Cornelius Castoriadis (The Imaginary Institution of Society, (2005)) and Benedict Anderson (Imagined Communities, (2016)) on the creation and function of ‘the imaginary’ as a central, operative narrative for collective social bodies. A form that is performed, not voluntaristically, but as a condition of inclusion to use Judith Butler’s terms (Gender Trouble, 2007). The formation of an imaginary of self-sufficiency finds a corollary in art as it shifted to its modern form. As Josie Berry writes, “the appearance of the material conditions of life as an object of reason liberated European thought from the opaque fatalism of a divine order and unleashed the empowering prospect of human self-determination,” this began to overwhelm “traditional models of sovereignty as much as the ritual and social functions of art.” It meant that art could become a “freely self-determining entity.” (Art and (Bare) Life, (2018):. 12–13) With this aesthetic self-determination however came the ordering of all life in relation to one another, where life in common itself, Zoe in Agamben’s terms, became the basis of political decision and distinction

Ibid. 21

Ibid. 119

Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly (2018)

This division finds roots in the nascent literatures and institutions of European biology, botany and medicine, which converted the elements of embedded, indigenous practices into objects for categorization and thus assets for selective accumulation (or “theft” (Jason T.W. Irvin, “Decentering European Medicine,” in Sheikh and Orlow (eds.), Theatrum Botanicum, (2018): 136)). The Imperial quests of European nations to become ‘self-sufficient’ through the “taming” and incorporation of “exotic plants” into their medicinal plants and systems of knowledge, (Irving, 132) also offer an insight into the formation of a European imaginary of separation (not least from the colonies it relied on), as well as the engaging of life as a political object in general.

Elvia Wilk, “The Grammar of Work,” Frieze, (23 March 2018) available at: https://frieze.com/article/grammar-work

Butler, 2018, 127

Lucy Lopez, “On Care and Parrhesia,” Temporary Art Review, (12 Oct 2017). Available at: http://temporaryartreview.com/on-care-and-parrhesia/

Butler, 2018, 126–127

Lopez, Ibid.


Aurelia Equatorialis
By Rahel Aima