Mary Paterson | December 2019

Alessandra Cianetti: Mary, we have been crossing paths many times since I arrived in London and had numerous conversations and coffees over the years. I have always admired the layers of your thinking and ways of looking at the interrelation between Live Art, writing, sector’s limits and potential, and your experience as a white second-generation migrant. You have often emphasised the lived experience of care as a force that shapes people’s lives and careers and I wonder if you could share with us how, after so many years of reflecting, writing and practising care, you look at it now.

Mary Paterson: Last week I arranged for someone to visit my mother-in-law (who has advanced dementia) in order to run a one-to-one session using music and touch. It was amazing. My mother-in-law was enraptured. Her whole face squeezed into a smile while we sang and gently brushed her face with silk scarves. I asked the facilitator when she could come back. She hesitated – her mother also has dementia, and she lives an hour’s drive away, and it’s hard to commit to a schedule. Later, I asked the same question of the physiotherapist, a friendly woman who sings while she stretches my mother-in-law’s limbs and moves her ankles in circles first this way, then that. She hesitated, too. Her mother also has dementia. After working a full week in London, the physiotherapist wakes up at 5.45am on a Saturday morning to drive to Wales, and look after her. 

On the way home that day, I answered emails with the usual, ‘apologies for the late reply.’ One was someone offering me some regular work. ‘I’m sorry,’ I replied. ‘I can’t commit to regular hours because of caring commitments.’ By ‘caring commitments’ I meant not just the doctor’s appointments and the bill payments, but also the warm minutes and hours I plan to spend gently brushing my mother-in-law’s face with silk scarves, reading her Agatha Christie books, telling silly jokes.  

Despite the myriad ways in which they intersect, I think there is a fundamental miscommunication between the cultures of work and the cultures of care. Put starkly, work is modelled on transactions, while care is a series of relationships. As I wrote in this blog post for the University of Bristol, there are two ways in which care becomes diminished in our society: 

“One is the way in which it is rendered invisible by capitalism – a system based on the exploitation of labour for financial value, which cannot (as a matter of survival) recognise the affects and effects of non-financialised care. The other is the way in which it is rendered visible by capitalism – a system based on the promise of economic potential, which speaks only in relation to how this potential is lost or gained.”

As a result, it is impossible to fully appear in the world of work and the world of care at the same time. People who leave the office at 4.55pm to get back in time for nursery pick-up are whispered about as ‘unprofessional’. People who take unexpected time off for a sick relative are ‘unreliable’. People who take a work call while their child careers around the playground are ‘irresponsible.’ 

Ultimately, people are forced to withdraw, at least partially, from one of these realms. For many women (for a combination of reasons including misogyny and money) it’s work that takes the hit. You go part time. You miss important meetings. You don’t bother with networking events. You are left off the next big thing. 

All the while, misogyny works itself into the proceedings in a clever pincer movement. Care’s historic association with women means it’s always been perceived as low status – unskilled, domestic, animal work. We may no longer say that explicitly, but it’s sewn into the low pay and terrible working conditions of most private carers. And yet, because the women’s movement highlighted the exploitation of women in domestic work, those who still do it become a strange kind of threat – a throwback to a conservative past, perhaps, or a tacit suggestion that women’s lib got it wrong. The net result is that women with caring responsibilities and women without are pitted against each other in our society. Chiefly, this works to divide mothers from non-mothers, as if we are separate species. 

(I think this is why, when I first became a mother, I felt like I had died.)

A few weeks ago I intercepted a man who was visiting the care home in which my parents-in-law live, to see if his father might move there. I told him what I thought: that the carers are underpaid, the facilities underfunded, that despite the high prices he would not be able to buy the care that he wanted for his father. He looked at me skeptically. He asked where I grew up and I told him. I could see him assess me for my class, my wealth, my privilege. Perhaps he was thinking, as do so many people, that I am worried about inheritance tax. I told him that I am not worried about inheritance tax. I am worried because my parents-in-law live in a care home in the London Borough of Merton, which no longer has any state run care homes. Their home is owned by a large care home chain, which was recently on the market for £2.5 billion. The carers are paid less than the living wage. Because of understaffing, the level of care my parents-in-law receive makes our hearts stop with worry. They have sold their house and most of their belongings to pay the fees, which are over £100k per year. In a couple of years, their money will run out. It will not have gone to carers, or to training for carers, or for infrastructure to the care system. It will not have been spent on excellent care. It will line the pockets of shareholders and senior executives who have decided, for the fourth time in three years, to redecorate the living room of the care home. 

The matron has left because she said she couldn’t do her job safely, the lift has broken, the alarm signals in residents’ rooms have stopped working, but the living room has been redecorated four times because it is a sales tool for prospective residents. This is the room in which they sign their contracts. 

The man remained unconvinced. I should never have mentioned inheritance tax. It never works to bring in money, just like it never works to talk about care in capitalist terms – to describe the economic ‘cost’ of care work, for example. This just diminishes the topic of ‘care’ to ‘capitalism’, which is both smaller than care and ignorant of its meanings. 

As a culture, including in the arts, our problem is that we speak the language of capital so fluently. It trips off the tongue and sounds like intelligence. For a long time, I was proficient in a type of public sector capitalism – if not in terms of the art that I worked with, then at least in terms of myself as a worker. I used the lexicon of the well-educated, middle-class Londoner that I am: of opportunity, cost, profit and potential. Like many people in the arts, I worked every hour I could find and earned just enough to pay the rent. I wasn’t interested in money but I was ambitious, curious, I wanted to travel, have brilliant conversations with people, make a difference … The irony is that while I was advocating for the social and community potential of art, I had no time to spend with my own society, my own community, my friends and family. I might even have been appalled at the idea. Certainly, if you had told me a few years ago that I’d spend my life shuffling between the care home and the school gates, I would have said, ‘kill me now.’

(But I’m surprised to find that I’m happy. I live in a way I could never have predicted or imagined. My life is structured by love.)

The exact same conflict between transactions and relations arises in public conversations about migration. Those against migration describe the economic drain that migrants place on society. Those in favour point out that migrants hold important jobs and pay taxes. While the first opinion is based on lies and the second isn’t, both rest on the assumption that making and possessing money is the most important thing we do. And yet everyone knows that’s not true. Building relationships is the most fundamental, human thing we do. Building deeper and wider and more profound relationships in more ways is a common good. This is the unspoken principle of care, art, science, environmentalism, sport, travel, play … and so much more.  

These are the thoughts that accompany me on the journey between the care home and the school. … So far, so abstract. But what can we can do on a practical basis? If we could talk about care more openly, it would mean we could all lead more caring, cared for lives. Perhaps could take time off work to help a sick friend, not just a close relative. Or we could care for ourselves better, and for the planet. Perhaps we could be more honest about money, too. It took me a long time to realise that when people ask me about inheritance tax, for example, they are not interested in talking about an equitable system of wealth distribution. They are really asking how I will maintain my status as a middle class person. The middle classes rely on inherited wealth in order to buy a house, educate their children and maintain other social privileges. (This is one of the reasons that wages in traditionally middle class jobs – teaching, medicine, art – have been able to get so low.) We  need more clarity, more precision, and better languages to speak to each other. 

Like the physiotherapist and the music facilitator, the carers who look after my parents-in-law also have personal caring responsibilities: ill relatives, family far away who need help. When we talk I feel the ache of a missed opportunity for solidarity. We speak to each other with soft voices and sympathetic eyes but our lives are dragged apart from each other. We end our conversations by shaking our heads and saying, “It’s hard, isn’t it? It’s so hard.” 

(I suspect that one of the reasons we can’t find new languages to talk about this is because we are all very, very tired.)

Alessandra: In an article for ArtsProfessionals back in 2018, you reclaim a more creative role for the art producer. The subtitle of the article states ‘Once a curator, now a producer, Mary Paterson calls for the artist-producer relationship to be re-imagined as something more creative – and less about social media.’ As someone that sticks to the word ‘curator’, although meant in its collaborative sense and original meaning of care, I wonder how you have articulated the boundaries, overlapping, ambiguities and possibilities of roles such as curator, producer, artist in the low paid and exploitative cultural sector.

Mary: First of all, apologies for the subtitle (which I didn’t write!). It is a very blunt rendering of what I was trying to say. I really like your understanding of ‘curator’ in relationship to collaboration and care, and I know that this is how you use the term in practice, as well as in theory. 

I started to call myself a producer a few years ago because I felt the meaning of ‘curator’ was morphing from someone who makes something happen to someone who is what is happening. The rise of the artist-curator led to various curating post-graduate degrees, which led to the idea that a curator was an individual with a certain level of authority. It was as if the curator was becoming like the old kind of master painter – the head of a studio, credited for the most visible parts of the work, while his studio hands assiduously filled in the rest. 

This interpretation perhaps says more about me than about the actual role of the curator. I feel uneasy when I am given any authority or responsibility. I worry when I am considered the most qualified person in a room. I was drawn to the word ‘producer’ because it suggests collaboration and, particularly when I started working in Live Art, I was very impressed with how collaborative it is. Visual art is individualistic, but Live Art, with its connections to the theatre, knows how to work as a team. 

Nevertheless, ‘producer’ has now gone the way of ‘curator’, with producers often taking a starring role in a festival line up or season of work. This is not necessarily a bad thing (although it’s not the way I work), but I think we need to be vigilant about a pernicious elitism enabled by this slippage between words and actions. In the arts, there is an inverse relationship between cultural capital and actual money. When a role or ‘opportunity’ is considered high status, you will often find it’s not paid. Arts organisations exploit people by giving them job titles that suggest power and influence, and then paying them a pittance or not at all. This system encourages wealthy people to work for free, at the same time as it inculcates them into a culture of silence over low pay (facilitated, of course, by inherited wealth). And it manages to exclude everyone else entirely. 

The art world is full of secrets and silences. 

In 2016 I was applying for a PhD at Tate Modern. It was a fantastic PhD and I was excited to get an interview. Afterwards, I found out that it went to a curator who had worked at Tate for 8 years and had clearly developed the PhD in partnership with the museum, to the shape of her research. I’m sorry that she had to go through a public application process, and I’m sorry that I did too. Then the Brexit Referendum happened and I couldn’t take any more precarity, so I decided to train as an accountant. My reasoning was that you have to look at money in order to make money. I now work part time in charity finance and it has been incredibly positive. I am no longer trying to believe I can earn enough money from the arts to survive, and so I am free to participate in artistic relationships in different ways. I can have ideas that last longer than a funding cycle, I can have speculative conversations that lead nowhere, I can write… 

I am clear about the things that I do for money, and the things that I don’t. I do fundraising, evaluation, project management, financial management and strategy for money. I enjoy the work and use this money to subsidise my writing, my voluntary work and my care work. The writing sometimes pays and sometimes doesn’t. 

(Mostly it’s a ‘token payment.’ I hate the way that ‘token payment’ has come to mean ‘market rate’.) 

I do things slowly. I try not to describe myself anymore. Perhaps I will talk about a recent project instead. If pushed, I will say I work in admin. 

Alessandra: You have been involved in many exciting projects, events and collectives such as Something Other and the Department of Feminist Conversations and recently, among many others projects, you have been delving into the archive of Franco B. Can you tell us about your work, how your individual and collective practice approach the different lines of creation, and what the future holds for you? 

Mary: I have just finished co-editing a book, with Roberta Mock, about the artist Joshua Sofaer. It has been an immense pleasure! I have always loved Joshua’s work, and so the opportunity to do this book was a dream come true. Meanwhile, working with Roberta was a masterclass in intelligent thinking. The book is called Joshua Sofaer: Performance | Objects | Participation, it will be published by Intellect and LADA, and there is going to be a fabulous launch in February which everyone must come to!

I’m also working on a new book with the artist Karen Christopher about duet performances. It is called Entanglement, and reflects on her practice of working in duets, alongside the wider philosophical or political ramifications of working in pairs. Meanwhile the final stage of the Franko B residency, which I’ve been working on with Maddy Costa at the University of Bristol, is to write a book that responds to the wealth of information in that archive, as well as archival encounters with pain, liveness and memory. This will be launched in March 2020. 

Something Other Live, the platform that I run with Maddy Costa and Diana Damian Martin, publishes performance and text in themed chapters. Our next call-out will be coming soon, and the next live event will be in spring 2020. Alongside this, Diana and I are working on a project to bring together networks of writers and policy makers from across Europe, to explore the connections between cultural criticism and cultural commons. My personal writing projects include a retelling of historic border crossings between Calais and Dover, and a long text about day dreaming and the permissions of public space, in relation to the work of The Bike Shed, led by Sally Labern.   

As a producer, I’m developing two experimental shows using sound. One is English Speakers by Sara Hamming – an audio piece about the entanglement of Old Norse and English. The other is The Wig Show by Tract + Touch, a kids’ show about gender fluidity and voice. I’m the Chair of the theatre company Extant, and like all NPOs, we’re waiting with bated breath to see what the new ACE strategy and implementation plan holds. 

I’m also working as an independent evaluator for Resonant Tails, an artwork and methodology for children with profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD). This project brings me full circle to my mother-in-law, who worked as an educational psychologist and an artist developing radical new teaching methods for children with PMLD. Many of the teachers in the specialist schools I’ve been visiting were taught by her, or studied her work. It feels wonderful to connect with her life in this way. My ambition for 2020 is to research and develop a programme of art for people with advanced dementia – for her, in tribute to her and in order to influence the wider field. There does not seem to be a lot of provision for adults with profound brain damage: they (which is to say, all of us) are being failed by the care system.

Mary Paterson is a writer and artist who works across text, visual art and performance. With Maddy Costa and Diana Damian Martin, she runs the experimental writing collectives Something Other and The Department of Feminist Conversations. With Roberta Mock, she is the co-editor of the forthcoming book Joshua Sofaer: Performance | Objects | Participation (Intellect and the Live Art Development Agency, 2020). www.marypaterson.wordpress.com

Featured Image credits: ‘A Walk of View (Whereupon She Began To Dissolve)’ Performance by Mary Paterson and Genevieve Maxwell, Spike Island, Bristol 2017. Photo by Cat Smith

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