So I have this dog, Rufus. Technically he is my sister’s dog, or even my nephew’s dog, but I was complicit in the acquisition of him, and as it turns out, he has chosen me to be the subject of his singular doggy gaze. I’m Australian, so my analogy for the intensity of his adoration is that if I had a pouch, like a Kangaroo, he would never, ever leave it.
I’ve always been a cat person, so becoming the “owner” of a neurotic pooch took quite some getting used to––feline aloofness is so much more appealing. I curse him at least half a dozen times a day as I trip over his body, which is always positioned a little too close to mine, but mostly I let him pad behind me without too much protest.
Actually, that’s a lie. I’ve come to like it––really like it. I like having him curled up on the chair while I work. I like the comfort of his little nose on my cheek. I like how he dances for me––leaping and wagging, a huge smile on his face––when I return home. I like how I can take him to parties with me (much to the bemusement of friends). I want to have him with me all the time. Or almost all (despite my indulgence I draw the line at sharing a bed).
But it is more than that. He had kind of a rough start. He’s a retriever, and while he wasn’t horribly neglected per se, he was left alone for very long hours, when he was too young. And anyone who knows anything about retrievers knows that they’d prefer a pat from their owner than to eat the nice duck they’ve fetched from where you shot it down. Basically, they want and need people. I feel bad for him, and like my indulgence can somehow make up for his crappy puppyhood, so I encourage the incessant company.
This year I am living in America, so I left him with my sister, and my nephew, and they’re great, but they’re not me, and he got anxious. Rip-up-the-carpet, scratch-the-doors, refuse-food anxious. Turns out that my caring, my “making up for the Very Bad Beginning,” wasn’t helpful in the long term (though it was lovely in the short). I wrapped him up in my abundant “caring,” and it made me feel good (and purposeful) to be his carer. It seemed like win-win. It wasn’t.
That is a rather long-winded way of getting to the question––Who cares? There are many ways to tackle it; Who gives a shit? comes with a probable answer––probably we should just get on with it, stiff upper lip, and stop all this hand-clasping; or, Who is it that cares?, that could come with a catalogue of demographics––breaking down who exactly is doing all this caring; or, more existentially, How is it that we come to care? which would take a far greater philosopher than I to tackle.
What the question Who cares? raises for me is not any of these things, but How do we care?, or even, What impact does our ‘caring’ have on the people we deem need ‘care’? The Rufus-analogy is not really fair, because it just serves to illustrate intentions gone wrong. And that kind of good/bad dichotomy lacks the nuance this conversation needs in relation to socially engaged art practices and the hierarchies, demographics and people-centered outcomes of “caring” and “cared-for.” (And let me note here that prefacing talking about socially engaged art practices with an analogy about me being a terrible dog owner is extremely problematic––my dear friend Erica pointed me in the direction of a great quote from When Harry Met Sally: “Is one of us supposed to be the DOG in this scenario?” Here, no one is the dog. Except Rufus.)
My impulse is to rush in and “save”––I’m an accomplished buoy thrower––and “kindness” is something I have never resisted indulging in. I don’t think it is useful to deconstruct my self, or my practice, to totally eradicate that impulse and end up in a state of paralysis. But, like Lenine Bourke so elegantly stated in a letter to herself about being a “do-gooder,” there is some necessity to examine that impulse to caring, which inevitably leads to wanting to fix, without necessarily having determined if your caring/fixing is in anyone’s best interest––least of all the person (or dog) being cared for/fixed.
It’s a rush of course––the feel-good-ness of it all. The vision of swooping in and rescuing. Even if sometimes there is the hangover––the regret of extending beyond your own capacity. Years ago, when I was a newspaper photographer, I photographed the four families of kids who’d been killed in a car accident. It was completely horrific walking into homes suddenly empty of their teenage boys, and my heart barely stood it. My face mirrored their sadness, and one of the boy’s grandparents fixed on it and me, and months later they’d call and we would cry on the phone, both helpless and immobile with grief. I couldn’t extract myself from what was mine, and what was theirs (it is no exaggeration to mark that “job” as the end of my newspaper career). Again, in a really different way, the immediate gain and the long-term pain.
Perhaps this ‘going beyond the care of duty’ is peculiar to me, but mostly I think that people who use their art practice as visual activism genuinely give a shit about other people. Regardless of whether that is naïve, the natural extension of How do we care? is How do we care in ways that support our own needs as people (who happen to make art with other people) and that support the needs of the people we make art with?
Were it in my powers I’d furnish everyone with the kind of polished caring skills that allow the perfect balance; the ability to finish a project without being totally emotionally and physically exhausted, and caring the right amount in the right direction––asking first and foremost: “Do the people I want to ‘care for’ actually need ‘caring for’?” Lacking those kinds of super powers I will just wish that we’d all take a moment, before that deep breath where we launch in. Not to undermine that part on the inside that cares with everything––expansively, unabashedly and exhaustively––but to mediate our inner “rescuer” with some firm advice; “If you don’t care to question your caring, you’re not caring.”
About the contributor: Gemma-Rose Turnbull instigates collaborative photographic projects that examine ways in which the integration of collaborative strategies and de-authored practice can catalyse social change agendas and policies through image making and sharing. She has collaborated with street-based sex workers, elderly people who have suffered from abuse, and children. She is currently doing a practice-based PhD at The University of Queensland, Australia and is a Scholar in Residence in the Art and Social Practice program at Portland State University. gemmarose.com.au /asocialpractice.com