"…to maintain is also to keep buoyant; to maintain one's mood could be described as buoying oneself up, keeping oneself or someone else afloat during difficult times. Maintaining that the Earth is round when it looks flat is about upholding an idea, defending, and affirming it when it is challenged or attacked, raising its profile when it has slipped off the agenda. To maintain is to underpin, or prop up from below, to hold up when something or someone is flagging. The time of maintenance lies therefore at the intersection between the lateral axis of stumbling blindly on, and the vertical axis of holding up, orientating us towards a future, even when that future is uncertain, or may not be our own."
(Lisa Baraitser, 2017, Enduring Time. Bloomsbury: London. p. 53)
For more than twenty years Hotel Maria Kapel has been an artists' residency, cinema, and contemporary art space in Hoorn, a town thirty minutes from Amsterdam. The venue, which is located in an impressive sixteenth century chapel, started in 1983 as an artists' initiative in the abandoned Maria Kapel and subsequently grew into what it is today: a publicly funded institution with national and international connections. In 2019, after the departure of Creative Director Irene de Craen who had led the institution through a period of (still ongoing) professionalisation, the board of Hotel Maria Kapel instigated a "year of reflection and reorientation" for which they hired an editorial committee consisting of artists Griet Menschaert and Maja Bekan, and curator Miriam Wistreich. A mix of artistic research and curatorial experimentation, the editorial committee's 2020 programme Slow Burn focuses on questions of care to channel institution building and its entailing questions into HMK's residency and exhibition programme. Through six thematic chapters (space, navigation, work, endurance, community, and time) the team of HMK, with its artists in residence, are trying to understand what it means to practice care — for our artists, our institution, our team, and our publics. Who do we care about and for? How can we qualify care through feminist politics and avoid the pitfalls of caring badly or caring too much? Is this even possible and what happens when we fail? And ultimately: how can we build practices and spaces of care within the limits of an exploitative system with which we are all complicit?
This text was co-written in June 2020 by Miriam Wistreich (Creative Director, HMK) and Katherine MacBride after the latter's residency at HMK. The point of departure for the writing process was a set of journals written by the HMK team — Annelien de Bruin (Coordinator), Miriam, and Rik Dijkhuizen (Communications Manager) — during March 2020, recording their experiences of running the organisation. This exercise was intended to form part of HMK's research into its own working practices, but since the Dutch government's measures to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic came into effect in March, the journals also offer insight into sudden changes in modes of working and the possibilities and challenges this opened up in a small team.
To write this text, Miriam and Katherine drew on four recurring themes that emerged from the journals: buoyancy, stress, structure, and listening. Each wrote two sections of what follows, drawing on differing positions in relation to HMK and wider experiences of collective work; some are descriptive, some propositional. Different voices inhabit the text together. The section "Stress" is formed of direct quotes from the journals that are used here with permission.
Buoying one another along and up, on the surface, in the air, not drowning or falling, afloat; maintained in space and time. Vulnerable and precarious, buoyancy is a never ending processual task. The buoy will need new air pumped in, its rope replacing, eventually the anchor will rust. Someone will attend to these things, keep them maintained, as long as the buoy and the buoyancy of those who depend on it are deemed necessary, or as long as the maintaining attention itself can be kept buoyant. Otherwise the buoy might degenerate or disappear, bringing risk to those who depend on its buoy function for their own buoyancy. Unplanned parts of the structure, like the algae and small bivalves who grow on the rope, might outlive the maintenance energies, for they are not dependent on the buoy's intended function but will too find their environment disrupted and at risk as the buoy degrades in time. Who is maintaining the buoy in your collective work? Who do you know and not know that depend on it?
There are not enough hours in the day (and I really value sleeping).
Finished translation of project plan. In the afternoon I had a migraine.
Tired from yesterday, my other job ran late, the day started with a feeling of being behind, underperforming, lacking in discipline and efficiency. I pour myself a coffee before our weekly meeting.
I enter in a state of near panic, thinking of a reprimanding email and all of the funding I am behind on. I do seven day work weeks at the moment and am running behind on deadlines in all of my jobs (currently only around three employers) and feel I am underperforming everywhere.
Institutional trauma is carried in the bodies of the workers.
Things have been evolving rapidly. People are falling ill, we are advised to keep distance, work from home. We close HMK. My friends and community experience the consequences without delay: cancelled jobs, plans put on hold. Over the course of one day, my teaching jobs fall through, my side gig is cancelled, my exhibition is postponed indefinitely, my writing jobs are put on hold. I am tense thinking about them. I reach out to precarious friends (work, mental stability etc.). I go to bed exhausted.
I have a toothache and have to go to the hospital. I go to bed with a numb mouth and exhausted brain.
I spend the day feeling stressed about how to live up to everything that is demanded from me at work, from friends, as a person. I am overwhelmed and unable to focus. I feel lonely, who will be there to comfort me when I collapse?
I lose the day to a migraine.
I finish the day dancing alone in my room. I chose UB40 to get good vibes in my body.
We maintain the chapel every Thursday, 15.00. We sort through twenty years of paperwork, two years of exhibition materials, wood everywhere, bags of plastic. We haven't seen the mice yet but we know they are there.
We invent meeting protocols.
We mop the floors before opening hours.
We sing together every month.
We disagree on the relationship between structure and freedom and the virtues of each.
Sometimes we don't know what we're doing. Other times we know really well.
A score to prepare listening attention in a meeting
At the last meeting responsibilities for the preparation, happening, and follow-up for this meeting were shared out. These vary for each meeting group but probably cover the following areas (broken down into separate tasks so one person does not cover an entire category by themselves): admin (reminders, agenda, minutes), group process (facilitation, timekeeping, attending to unspoken dynamics), reproductive labour (attending to bodily needs of everyone, including the space). Responsibilities rotate for each meeting regardless of role hierarchies outside meetings.
Someone, or everyone, brings food to the meeting so no one is hungry.
Adjust the temperature. Human bodies do not have universal experiences of hot/cold.
Arrange enough seating. Can everyone in the group sit on the same kind of seats?
Adjust the lighting — bright enough to see each other but not so bright that those with light sensitivity are uncomfortable.
Prepare drinks that everyone can drink.
Develop a group agreement on start and end times based on the needs and capacities of the group. For example, people with caring responsibilities, health issues, or precarious work (often this is the whole group) might not be able to stay over time, or arrive exactly on time.
Develop a practice of checking in at the start of the meeting. This gathers the capacities, needs, and complexity of each individual and draws them together into the group.
If the meeting has an agenda, someone reads it aloud. Agree together what is possible to address in this meeting. It is important to develop a practice of setting realistic agendas over time.
During the meeting, listen: to the threads of the content; to your own thoughts before you speak them, considering if they need to have space in the available time; to learn about processes you are not actively involved in and modes that feel different or difficult for you; for feedback from others; to moods; to the unspoken.
Record something of the meeting so that the people who cannot be present, which is usually some people, can clearly understand something of what happened.
A short reflection on the effects of journaling within the organisation
The journals were shared between the members of the team and discussed during weekly meetings. Journals are tools for self-reflection, channels for venting, and traditionally also containers for secrets and contradictory, sometimes shameful, emotions. Within the HMK team, the journals functioned as access tools into each other's thoughts and allowed conversations to arise that would not otherwise have been given space in a hierarchical, professional context. It allowed the team to discuss subjects such as fears connected to work, differences in coping strategies, levels of engagement and excitement and the histories leading to those emotions, and the pressure we put on ourselves and others. Ultimately the journals led to increased vulnerability and openness within the small team, no doubt aided by a simultaneous feeling of breakdown and dissolution of boundaries between work and life caused by COVID-19 measures.
The exercise will be repeated at a later date and another round of reflection will be written here.
About the authors
Katherine MacBride is an artist. She is currently undertaking PhD research at UAL.
Miriam Wistreich is a curator, educator, writer and researcher. She is currently the Creative Director at Hotel Maria Kapel in Hoorn.