Academic journal article TheatreForum

Take Care of Me: Exploring the Ethics of Care through Performance

Academic journal article TheatreForum

Take Care of Me: Exploring the Ethics of Care through Performance

Article excerpt

In The Ethics of Care, Virginia Held suggests that the imperative to care for another is often thrust upon us; whether we respond with eager willingness or begrudging acquiescence, the need to respond at all is frequently an unexpected event. Held suggests that many of our responsibilities are "not freely entered into but presented to us by the accidents of our embeddedness in familial and social and historical contexts." An ethics of care, Held claims, "calls on us to take responsibility;" it implores us to recognize our interconnectedness and to accept the moral obligation we each have to care for one another.

First performed in Kingston, Ontario, in 2015, Evelyn Ricky Dunsford's relational work Take Care of Me presented participants with the sudden call to care. In this performance, audience members were invited to enter the staged space of a bedroom, one at a time, where they would find the artist cocooned in bed. After inviting the participant to take a seat at the foot, Dunsford told them that, "I'm not feeling well," and asked them: "will you take care of me?"

Strewn about a bedside table placed next to the participant were a variety of objects and items intended to alleviate pain, suffering, boredom, ennui, or to otherwise make one feel "better," which included bottles of pharmaceutical pills, nuggets of marijuana, chocolate, and vibratory sex toys. The allusion to a surgical tray is clear; Dunsford, who has been hospitalized on many occasions due to complications related to disability, is no stranger to the medical industrial complex's approach to so-called "patient care." In their 2015 installation Touched (Love Anyone Desperate Enough To Hold Gratitude), a cascade of red gelatin-filled lubricated latex gloves makes reference to the cold intimacy of the physician's touch, collapsing the diseased body's sexuality with its history as an object of curiosity.

In Take Care of Me, the warmth and comfort of the domestic space of the bedroom was punctured by memories of the hospital; its sterility, its obsessive organization, its approach to the surgeon's tray as a toolkit (and to the patient's body as something needing fixing.) But the variety of unconventional healing tools in combination with the participant as a presumablynovice and unqualified healer created the possibility for a genuine, compassionate interaction between Dunsford and their participants. When I asked Dunsford about their "most tender" response, they said:

My body itself felt "tender" and it was "tender" to respond to myself in a way that could receive care as it was offered to me. I don't usually let people see me when I'm visibly sick-rashes and puking, especially. I remember lying with my head in the lap of a now-ex-partner, crying and begging for the pain to stop, repeatedly apologizing for being so vulnerable in front of them. At the end of the first performance of Take Care of Me, an acquaintance came in. She really listened to me and shared some of her experiences. I lost track of time and we talked for over an hour-four times longer than I'd allotted for each participant.

Although Dunsford entered into the position of vulnerability that they occupied for the duration of the performance of their own volition, this agential act opened the artist up to the unknowability of the encounter, or what Barbara Johnson has called "the surprise of otherness." As in many works of relational aesthetics, the negotiation of consent (both Dunsford's and their participants') was complicated, evoking the complexities of relationality and the impossibility of a universal ethical approach to how we interact with and care for others.

Considering this notion of "agential vulnerability," we might situate Take Care of Me within histories of feminist performance art wherein non-male performers have put their bodies and wellbeing in the hands of others -sometimes literally. For instance, in Yoko Ono's well-known relational performance, Cut Piece, first performed in Kyoto in 1964 and later in New York City and London, the artist offered audience members a pair of scissors and invited them to snip apart her clothing. …

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