This contribution is part of On Work, a series of conversations by Alessandra Cianetti (June 2022 – ongoing) with UK-based and international practitioners to learn, unlearn, gather and share knowledge to build safe and fair spaces for collective labour.
The following conversation is an exchange between teresa cisneros and Dr. Marquard Smith based on some prompts sent by Alessandra (performingborders) to Teresa to which she decided to reply in the way that felt more meaningful to her: collaboration.
Alessandra Cianetti / performingborders prompts:
Curating People, Institutions and Doing the Work
teresa cisneros, in conversation with Marquard Smith
Curator of People, Administration as Practice
Marquard Smith: Teresa, you often speak about how you practice where you’re from rather than where you’re at. You’ve said that you’re ‘a desert person and that desert ways of being necessitate a certain kind of collaboration and a certain kind of participatory practice’. You’ve also said on occasions that you think of yourself as a ‘curator of people’. Please tell me more about these three ways of being and doing, and the relations between them….
teresa cisneros: Yes, I practise where I’m from. I am a Chicanx, a person from the Mexico-Texas border, I am the daughter of Vicente Cisneros and Lucrecia Puente, both of Mexican lineage. I had a formal education in the USA and was concurrently educated by my parents. My parents educated me in ways of being and thinking about the world. I navigate three spaces, one of the Mexican ways, one of the USA ways, and the third way is a combination of the two that both creates a new one and cancels them both. I grew up with a judgement that I was never enough of one or the other, so always relegated to the margins. Always knowing and feeling that you are perceived as a marginalised body but knowing that you are not, you are more than that. This is about identity and self-perception.
I grew up in this space, and in this space, we were grown to understand and centre and live with and through a collective way of being and acting through and in collaboration. You do not make decisions alone, you make them in consultation or in relation to family members and when I say family members I don’t mean blood relations but the community. We invite others to be part of us. When I say that I practise where I am from, that means I practice as a desert person. The border I am from is a desert, and desert people have to be collaborative, they have to work together to survive, and possibly this is why we start from a collective sensibility.
I don’t make this claim, but there are ways of being that pre-date colonialism that de-centre individualism for a community-collective sense of being and behaving. I am not saying I am indigenous but my family has inherited ways of being that are unlike those of white western practices which centre the individual’s needs. We tend to say: ‘If you are okay then I am okay, if you are not okay then I am not okay.’ We think with others for, with and on behalf of being together. It creates a sense of mutual responsibility and care. You are always aware that you are not alone and that you will affect others, you are ALWAYS IN RELATION this can be with people, this can be with animals, this can be with the place you live, this can be any number of things.
When I say practice where I am from, this is what I allude to, and this is what I carry into institutions. When I start a job, I make sure that colleagues know that I never work alone. I ask others what they need and want because I am not there to work for myself, I am hired to think with and work for or on behalf of others. It’s a sensibility that I understand, and it can frighten people because it disrupts their usual ways of being and working. People are rarely asked what they want or need in a workplace. But when they are it opens them up to other ways of thinking too.
What I carry into institutions is both my practice and political identity which centre collaboration and collectivism. They are the basis for what we can call my politics or a practice of ethics that can be loosely linked to concepts like being in relation and being socially just or in relation to justice. I understand justice is linked to governance which can feel punitive, however, there are other ways of thinking about this. Social justice is a way to understand and make sense of how people behave with one another or hold each other accountable. I can see and understand this. I think with others in mind, and ‘thinking with’ is not about justice. It is about centring compassionate ways of being and knowing because you are in relation to them. They are part of the whole which you are part of too. If you equate or understand this through social justice, social justice creates the conditions that allow full participation. I use that language because most people cannot truly comprehend what it means to think with and be able to live through collectivism and believe it.
Marquard Smith: Interesting, social justice and collectivism are linked but not the same. Social justice can be one of the things that comes out of an understanding of collectivism as an infrastructure. A collectivist spirit isn’t necessarily an integral part of it but it’s one of the benefits of being able to think about why social justice starts from a collectivism: it has a degree of equitability. This premise can possibly lead to how social justice can be, has been folded into Anglo-American thinking or within for instance a western cultural institution.
teresa cisneros: Great link, because I was not raised with the ‘white language’ of justice or equity. It is just how we live life. For instance, as a child on the Mexican border, in my summers at my abuelieta’s house, we played ‘coperacion’. We kids in the neighbourhood would cook together in my abuelita’s backyard. Kids brought pans, cups, plates, cokes, etc. Everyone could participate with what they had. My sister and I had the privilege of an allowance so we would buy the expensive food items. We kids from the border naturally understood that coperacion was to accept each offering, no questions asked, no judgement, never an expectation that it has to be ‘equal’. We were unknowingly creating equitable conditions for one another to be in community.
We were never told how to do this or play at this, we just did it. It’s going back to being collaborative and being in communion with others and is not being about the one person’s needs only. Then I come to a country like the UK and I can really see how my practice is not of this place, it’s from that space. I learned a way of living and practicing. A way of embodying a way of being or a practice as it is called here.
Marquard Smith: I think it’s a good lesson to have learnt and one that you take forward through your practise in institutions with colleagues and collaborators. So how does all this tie to the idea of being a ‘curator of people’?
teresa cisneros: I studied Ethics in ancient philosophy and did a master in arts administration. I am not a careerist nor do I have an interest in progressing into leadership positions. I was guided into the arts, I listen to what people advise. I say this because I did not intend on becoming a curator. I just enjoy working in institutions behind the scenes, organising, and creating spaces for art to be enjoyed and for artists to make art without the pressure of money. Over time I came to understand how to create conditions for how institutions practice but also to understand the power of the administrator and administration. I love administration, I am an administration whore, I actively prostitute myself and my skills to institutions to create better social conditions for people.
I am a colonial administrator because administration is inherently colonial. This might sound ironic, but it isn’t. I use the logic of administration against itself. I’m not so caught up in what administration means but rather what it can mean when someone with my life and politics is the administrator. I sadly do replicate the colonial conditions and tools at times, but it’s the detail of the tool that is different and how that shift plays out. The idea of ‘curator of people’ is born from this, because I go into institutions and I think about how I care, how my care will look like for the institution, its staff, and those it engages with. I say this from my experience of having worked with many institutions, artists, and people across demographics.
I am not a curator with a discipline. I am in roles where care as a practice is centred. The word curate is to act through care. The roles I do in institutions and how I utilise administration to care for others and create the conditions for them to be cared for is why I call myself a curator of people. I am there to curate the care with and for people and administrate the conditions with and for the people.
Marquard Smith: The word curate is thousands of years old. Only more recently has it, as a noun, comes to be used to characterise somebody who cares for objects; a curator of objects within a museum. Originally the word comes into common parlance to describe ‘curatores’ people who are overseeing Roman public works like bathhouses and sewers, ensuring Roman baths for instance are maintained to ensure people and their well-being is cared for. With your practice, you’re actually going back to the origins of the use of the word.
teresa cisneros: I’m uncomfortable with titles so I tend to default to administrator. It is not a ‘sexy’ role like a curator. So I go with ‘curator of people’ to explain my role in an institution: it is about, for, and with people. It is not for me to tell people how to be cared for or what to do but to think with them and through them.
Marquard Smith: You have pinpointed something really interesting in using this different language. Administration is more often than not, whether it’s from the top down or bottom up, seen to be manipulative and coercive. Whereas curating is seen to be intrinsically caring. You flip things around: rather than talk about a curator of objects or an administrator of people, you’re talking about being a curator of people! I’m sure it confuses people’s presuppositions and expectations around what that actually means because, in part, what it does do is to draw attention to the administrative function of curating and also the operationalization of people as though they were objects to be orchestrated; which to an extent they are!
teresa cisneros: Yes, and it also reminds people that the administrator is a carer too, so it does both backwards and forward.
Collectives, Care, and the Lie of Care (aka Carelessness)
Marquard Smith: Can you tell me more about the two collectives you contributed to setting up?
teresa cisneros: Both were held at Iniva, the Institute for International Visual Arts in London, where I worked for almost a decade, and were both for 18-25-year-olds. The first was called the Inivators, and the second was called sorryyoufeeluncomfortable. The Inivators (2007-2012) was set up at a time when collectives for young people were uncommon in the UK. My intention was to create the conditions for young people to contribute to the programming of the institution by having them collaborate with an artist, a theorist/project manager, and myself as a curator. I was the link and ultimately responsible. With sorryyoufeeluncomfortable (2014-2020), I collaborated with artist Barby Asante and the young people to support the development of this collective and their practices. I created the conditions for the collectives by providing a space for young people to access, a collaborative space where the usual White heteronormative discourses in/about art were not centered. And it was also a space to access mentors, a space for critical discussions, and a place to learn skills in collaboration with one another, artists, curators, and art/academic professionals.
I did them at Iniva, which was co-founded by cultural theorist Stuart Hall. At the heart of the collectives was a nod to a politics of identity, and to art from an expansive and inclusive perspective. The intention was for young people to be taken seriously and integrated into the gallery’s programme, not some youth tick-box exercise. Curating these projects allowed me to redistribute access to money, space, networks, and learning. Each year we would invite new people to join, but those already on the collective were encouraged to stay, with the Inivators we collaborated over a 6-month period, to research, learn, and make for programmes that were marketed just as the main exhibitions were.
In 2014, collaborating with artist Barby Asante we made a call out to work with 15 young people who would be interested in researching, creating and curating a project in response to Horace Ove’s film Baldwin’s Nigger (1967). Over a 3-month period the group re-created the dialogue of the film and programmed a successful evening of activities at Iniva. Some of this group are now curators, art critics, and artists, as well as academics. What I wanted for this group is for them not to have to wait 10 years to get into the art institution, I wanted them to access the networks that many of their white middle class peers could. I wanted them to skip the queue, by Barby and me sharing our networks and mentoring them.
Marquard Smith: Do you think the context that you created, and then subsequently you and Barby created, of the collective as an environment, but also of a sensibility, do you think that for those that were in the collective, that this… spirit, this logic, these ways of being together and working together actually permeated their minds, bodies, and souls in ways that have led them to not just go on to benefit themselves and the market but also actually replicate these collective models?
teresa cisneros: Not sure about souls some may have already had this spirit, but I can think of a few examples right away! One set up a mural collective! Another is part of an art critic duo which redistributes funding and knowledge, and they share their large social media platform. Two others practice as a curatorial duo and they curate in collaborative and deeply caring ways. In many ways, they have inherited a practice of redistribution, the ethics of redistribution, collectively, collaboration and care. I can’t say they learned it from Barby and me, but I do know they learned it as a way of being in the arts and learned to embody it with the projects we did with them.
Marquard Smith: Along the way in our conversation, the subject of care has come up. Again and again, actually. As you know well, there has been an emergence of ‘care’ as a discourse and as a practice within cultural institutions over the last decade or so. What do you think about this, the truth of it? And also, let’s be honest, the lack of care we so often see and hear about in the arts/culture sectors – by institutions, and by staff in them, all too often in fact the very staff who have been peddling this discourse of care in/as their practice! (You’d refer to this, I think, as ‘carelessness’, an active, an awfully active carelessness by individuals in institutions).
teresa cisneros: Articulating a behaviour and ideas of care/careless are interesting as they feature in who and how I am/practice, but I have only recently come to understand it in this way or been able to articulate it because of others. It’s why I don’t really know what I do, as I don’t have a term to describe it. I’ve settled on ‘curator of people’, I also say administrator, but I can be anything. The majority of the time, I think about what I want/need to feel comfortable in an institution, and how I want to be considered in it. This is from an administrator’s perspective, and in large part because I have seen so much failure in care.
There is a running list in my head from years of working in the arts, of how people were mistreated, misguided, misinformed or never informed. I do think about 2014 and how I practiced with others in the sorryyoufeeluncomfortable collective and the informal policies of care I enacted and embodied.
Those are the informal ways of showing care to one another, like checking in on one another, helping out on projects when it’s not your job, loading the dishwasher, taking out the bins, turning off the lights at the end of the night. Offering tea, that’s a big one, I am not a tea drinker but I quickly pick up on the idea of offering tea to everyone!
I did this because this is what I learned how care was enacted, illustrated. It was all nuanced, lots of assumptions that you should just know how to do things and why. I always wondered if there was a list that I missed out on; you’re never given an introduction to the social nuances of care within an institution! For me care, can and should be articulated, should be put on the table; to state what you need and vice versa; the ‘how to’ be in relation to one another.
I don’t want to go into an institution and be a total asshole which made me think about what it would mean to create ‘policies of care’. Because I tend to think about how I am in relation to others and how they would want me to be in relation to them. I am already always asking myself what does this person need, want or how do they best work with others. I usually ask people about who they are this way I can better understand how we can work in relation or in collaboration. What do we both do for the institution and how do we do that from our perspectives. In a way, it’s a logic of care that I try to work through. However, this is not a practice of how institutions or most people work with because it can feel and look either confronting or invasive, the intention is to articulate who we work and in this, it is also about care, how to be careful with one another.
I researched policies of care for museums and galleries online and found policies of care for objects in museums but not for people! I found policies that align with laws like sick leave, diversity and inclusion, maternity leave, etc. These policies are made for the institution to care for you but they never really tell you how you will be cared for on a daily basis beyond the basics of the law. The care I refer to is not about the individual but rather the conditions in institutions that allow people to be asked what they need to feel cared for or how to co-create the conditions.
Which is connected to carelessness, because people in institutions don’t ask; they presume that care is a given, it’s careless I know well. People think they show care by putting x, y, and z in place. In the arts, it has become part of a discourse and has become centred in art practices. It feels like a superficial critique of care, as well as a superficial enactment of it. However, as you say, it is these people who behave dangerously careless with others. They say we will be more careful and talk about centring care but on their terms as a curator or an artist, with little consideration for asking what others need. In our efforts to care, we become careless.
Marquard Smith: There are two things going on here, right, two shifts? One, the culture sector starts to acknowledge it hasn’t been doing a good job of writing and implementing policies of care. Then in its efforts to do that properly in an embedded and sustained way, it focuses on policy documents, but not on the everyday, which is when we begin to see/notice the carelessness; and hopefully start to address it.
Cultural institutions have always been careless historically with staff, audiences and so forth. Institutions were always careless but perhaps the introduction of the discourse about the practise of care is, inadvertently and by default, when we started thinking about carelessness. There’s something interesting, perhaps unfortunate, yet wholly inevitable about that!
teresa cisneros: It’s an odd thing to me that people actually think people care in institutions. There’s this assumption that people care, but in actuality they care more about themselves, their jobs, and their power. To me it sits in relation to power and care. How people perform care in relation to their own interest and power, its careless. I refer to this behaviour as careless, because it’s a type of bad behaviour.
From Manifestos (aka well-meaning but ultimately empty gestures) to Manifestations…
Marquard Smith: This leads me to ask about your contribution in June 2022 to an event organised by Freelance Futures More Manefisting, Less Manifesto on the need for the arts/culture sector to move from manifestos, statements, promises, empty gestures, and on, to manifestations. No doubt, it’s been an awful few years, in relation to Brexit, Trump, Palestine, Covid, Ukraine, and not the cost of living crisis, but especially the summer of 2020 with the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor which lead to global anti-racism protests. We saw a type of reckoning in what came from cultural institutions, universities settings, and so forth in that many want to, or appear to feel obliged to take stock and think about their own positions with regards to social and civic justice. Many posted manifestos meant to be more than empty rhetoric, to be, in principle at least, the beginning of the way that they would actively care about being for social and civic justice and against racism. Now, over two years after that summer, most of these manifestos haven’t been embedded, enacted or become manifestations. There’s an abject failure across not just the arts/culture sector, but across all sectors. A failure to turn their manifestoes into manifestations.
teresa cisneros: Personally, this is what I call ‘the work’. This is what I have always done, and what I grew up doing in a family that has always centred others. We do not call ourselves activists, we understand how to be in service to others.
This move for cultural institutions to state their becoming and being anti-racists in their manifestoes was awful. In my head, I would ask myself: ‘weren’t you always anti-racists?!?!’ You feel that you have to make a statement to confirm that you are!?!? What an absurd performance, especially for public institutions! All of them should have always been for anti-oppression, but clearly they are not because people don’t know how to be this way.
I have always centered more equitable or inclusive approaches to create the conditions to support artists, curators and audiences. In 2018, I was hired on a 3-year contract by Wellcome Collection to address the lack of diversity in their audiences and partnerships. Wellcome Collection is funded by the Wellcome Trust, the second-largest global funder of health and science research. I was appointed Inclusive Practice Lead, this post came with access to resources and trust. In my previous roles, I was rarely trusted or given the space to challenge and transform how we approach inequitable institutions, and the bad behaviours staff embody that are exclusionary. I did recognise I was entering what I call ‘the Belly of the Beast’. Wellcome Collection is a colonial institution: in its collection, its administration, its sensibility, and its funding. Wellcome Trust, still enacts colonial behaviours in how it funds. I know there is a conflict in my ethics and who the institution is/was/and will be. But I felt comfort in this odd conflict.
I entered with a clear mandate which was: how to include, work with, platform and engage deaf disabled neurodivergent and racially minoritized communities. This was in 2018, not in response to the 2020 protests. The Wellcome Collection was trying to reckon, create change, and to some extent decentre the old white colonial narrative that is so embedded in the institution. The focus was audiences and partners to ensure engagement with the mandate of including specific groups that they understood had been most excluded. I thought that this was absurd! The issue is not the communities that aren’t coming to Wellcome, the issue is the staff! The staff do not know how to engage these communities! Instead of shaming and blaming the staff for not knowing better, I took the approach that I know best, an approach based on being compassionate towards others: not presume that people know how not to exclude, to be able to think beyond their own bodies, why would they? I wanted for people to confront their bad behaviours, and change patterns and act/think differently.
Initially I arrived at the Collection and did what I call a ‘talking/listening tour’ to know who the institution was, and I met many colleagues. But I felt I needed to better understand what staff needed, wanted, tools they might find useful and the barriers they faced in learning to think/act differently. I did not want to tell them what to do, I wanted to ask them what they needed to create behavioural change in this community. I refer to them as a community, because they have a vested interest in doing this work as employees. I had to convince many people, I did the politicking, the advocacy, the influencing, and the hand-holding. People needed to trust me, as this was a novel approach to doing ‘diversity’ work. It is rare to be asked what you need, as we are so accustomed to being told what we need or what is good for us.
I wanted to gather evidence from staff which lead to developing a research framework: Person Centered Design for Inclusive Practices. I commissioned an agency to work on a pilot study with 10% of the staff, which is an appropriate scientific representation to learn about who the institution is and its needs. I did so by centering the following question: ‘If we are well intentioned, well meaning, mostly university educated good people why are we still so exclusively white and non-disabled?’
At that time, the Collection was 97% white and about 4% disabled. The numbers evidenced the reality of how we behaved. The group in the pilot study was made up of 16 staff (4 from each department), taking into account seniority, tenure, ethnicity and gender. We could not include disability because people did not disclose. This was a 4-month research journey and one that I wanted to create a safer space that centred psychological safety. I understood people might disclose information and feel vulnerable or face difficult personal truths so I hired a counsellor to take part in all sessions, to act as the person to disentangle sticking emotional points. I wanted the facilitators not to carry the weight of the emotional labour. All those involved could also access the counsellor outside the sessions. I thought it was important that if the institution is asking you to do this kind of emotional labour then it has a duty of care to support you. We started in October 2019 and got the final report in late February 2020.
I had never come across this method for doing diversity work in a more caring and equitable way. I have never done this either, it was very new. It was a pilot, an example of how I tend to work, which is more following my intuition. A way of thinking, feeling and perhaps knowing, when where I followed my intuition. And I also had amazing colleagues who trusted me as well as an Advisory Group who I appointed to act as stakeholders for the study. The Advisory Group was made up of 9 professionals from the academic and arts worlds.
I had known at the start of this job that I wanted to create some type of more embedded, sustained learning on how to be anti-racist; and this was the evidence I needed to do that. I remember always saying: ‘you can’t go on a half day diversity workshop, and then magically you know how to be this way!’ For me it was more akin to going on a learning journey that was collective.
Because Wellcome is well resourced, money was not an issue which meant I could experiment. We are only accountable to ourselves, which provides freedoms in what we choose to do or not do. Perhaps what I put on the table was ‘radical’ with a very small r, however I was supported and encouraged to try this approach, to listen to our staff and co-design with them and for them. I got the results of the pilot, and then the lockdown took effect. At this point, I started to think about what would be the logical next step, which I concluded was to devise and deliver a curriculum on how to acquire knowledge to address bad behaviours in order to repattern behaviour. As we know, behaviour is learned. I wanted staff to embody a practice.
I went on to design an anti-racism curriculum framework, without being a curriculum specialist or a teacher. I did this thinking back to my experiences, what I read, how therapy works, on action-based learning and a collective sensibility. I lobbied for this curriculum to be mandatory learning -the logic was that if we want staff to be inclusive, which is in our policies (anti-racist), we need to teach them how to be, as we are simply not all taught how to be anti-racists, for instance. If we have a policy, then we need to teach you how to embody it. A simple example: you would not ask your friend to do your plumbing and get upset if they made it worst, because you knew from the start they are not a plumber. There are general presumptions that we all know how to be anti-racist, anti-ableist, anti-homophobic, etc. However, most of us are not taught how to do these things or embody them. Because a majority of us have been conditioned by an education designed for white heterosexual non-disabled middle/upper class men to be centred and succeed in. So we are all already racists, homophobic, ableist, etc. People are afraid to admit this, I am not because it is true! Everyday, though, I practice not being like this, by reflecting on my own thoughts and behaviour and challenging myself to do better everyday, and to question my own thinking. To be anti-racist, anti-ableist, etc., is a life-long learning endeavour.
I initially designed an anti-racism curriculum with four phases of study. The first was conversations and foundational understandings of race, helping people feel comfortable talking about racism, learning how the idea was made, and what racism looks like in contemporary times. The second phase was learning about our bad behaviours and unlearning them. The third phase was to apply the learning to your practice over a period of time, and the fourth and final phase was to embody this new practice through action-learning sets. I wanted to create the conditions for staff to learn this together and then they could hold one another, and hold one another accountable too. I lobbied for this and was given the go-ahead about two months after the George Floyd murder in 2020. At this point, we decided to include an anti-ableism module alongside the anti-racism one. It is now called the Social Justice Curriculum. I designed the framework but we worked with specialists to design the content and facilitate the learning. Over 2021-22, about 120 staff members have been on the first phase and it has proven to be successful in that staff are learning new ways of thinking and are more open to discussions about this topic, and designing programmes in more inclusive ways, and we are seeing behaviour change too
This is clearly a manifestation, there was never a manifesto per se, a method to be inclusive.
Another example, is from my practise as a curator at a gallery on a project that went terribly wrong for me. It was artist-centred and was collaborative, however, in the process some artists lodge a complaint about my behaviour to which I suggested mediation to address the issues. These artists decided not to enter mediation, so I was un-invited by the Director from curating the planned exhibition. It’s all a bit fucked up, because I was given a grant and I designed the proposal for this grant to redistribute funding to create more equitable conditions for artists to participate in the arts. I was expendable, was not protected, never given or shown any care by the institution or any of the artists. This reminds me of the earlier conversation on carelessness, as a rhetoric of care was espoused by the artists themselves.
The institution just wanted its show, the artists wanted their show. I got to write a publication, not a report as I had been asked to. Instead as a buy off, I wrote something called document0 an exploration of our inability to diversify the arts.
From this experience and from an incident I witnessed at the Wellcome Collection, I started to consider how to protect those with the least amount of power, the artists and freelance workers. I wanted for colleagues to ask external collaborators what they needed in order to feel cared for, what they needed to ensure they had a good experience whilst working with us. I invited colleagues to co-design what I initially called ‘Principles of Care’ that would both mitigate risk and reduce harm for the external collaborator, the staff member, and the institution. Over a 6-month period I worked with 26 colleagues from curators to archivists to ethics lawyers to contract lawyers to librarians to front-of-house staff. This became the ‘Principles for Working Together’, a document provided by the institution to external collaborators before a financial contract. It asks people what they need to better access the institution; while this isn’t about access needs per se, but what it does do is alleviates colleagues feeling uncomfortable when asking someone what they need. In the ‘Principles’, there is a line for the contracting staff member to put contact details for someone who is in a more senior position so the external person can contact them in case of any issues, a form of accountability.
In the ‘Principles’, here are examples, to give people an idea of what they can ask for such as: Will you pay for a translator to translate the contract as English is not my first language; or I have invisible disability and I need frequent rests, can you provide a space for resting; or am a queer brown woman and take a companion with me to meetings, will you pay them to accompany me? This policy document agreement is a manifestation of the kinds of care practices I believe we should all be doing. We don’t say in theory we care, we are showing (and doing) care in a practical sense.
(Incidentally, Wellcome Collection did write a statement in response to the murder of George Floyd, I intervened and asked that we do not write about what actions we would take, because I knew we would not be able to live up to them. I proposed a more staged approach, underpinned by the idea that things were evolving and changing, and that we should also remind ourselves that we had already started to do the work back in 2018.)
Tools, strategies or ways of doing…
Marquard Smith: Thanks for these great examples of how policy, what we can call ‘policies of care’, lead to cultures of care which, in a sense, leads to manifesting or enacting a shift from careless working environments to more caring ones or more careful ones. With this in mind, and, given that you are a curator of people, what tools or strategies have you used continually in your work, and do you think might be useful for others to develop, to pick up, to deploy?
teresa cisneros: I don’t use the language of tools or strategies in relation to how or why I do things. I don’t have a manual, but it has been pointed out to me that I work intuitively. This is possibly the result of being grown with strong familial foundations in how to do the work, and how to be. We were never actively told to learn or how to do; in many ways it was through observation and my parents telling us that we all had a purpose, a way of knowing what our work would be. What was centred in my family was how to be in service through acts and forms of compassion. My parents did not say to you: ‘do this or that’, they simply lived by their own ethics of practice. They centred kindness and a desire for everyone to be treated with care and created conditions for others to be able to live or even at times simply to survive.
Deep listening is an approach or what you can call a strategy. When I am invited into a space or institution, I make time to listen to others. I do this because I am usually employed to change the conditions of a situation and I can only do this by getting to know the people that make up the institution. It can frustrate management, because it looks like I don’t know what I am doing, and it takes time. And people are time poor. And also most people don’t know what they want or need.
Perhaps there is something about the body-memory I carry in not being from London, the UK, Europe. I work in a white British corporate charity where progression is key, individual success is praised and competition is natural. I am not from this, I come from a place where we live in collectivity, act in collaboration, and try to live with others in mind. I work in opposition to what my colleagues are used to; it always feels so radical (small r) to them because they are not used to being asked what they need, what they think, what they want to learn or how to be cared for. For me, it is only logical to care for and ask those who will be most affected through a change journey in order to create with and for them.
Much of my work is linked to responsibility and accountability because care is in the being responsible for one another. The one another includes the stranger too. I try to create the conditions so that others can also know and feel this, because we are inter-dependent, our decisions affect one another, and if you work at Wellcome the power of your decision has impact. But also, accountability applies to the institution itself and the external people it is part of the ways of working. It’s important to be clear about what is to be done, set expectations, and agree on how we will interact or behave with one another so that we all know where we are at the start of anything we do. Front-loading relationships can be thought of as a strategy; although I know and appreciate that people find it difficult to know what they want or to be honest about what they need, but I do this so that we don’t get stuck in the future and everyone knows what they are responsible for and accountable to.
Something that I think protects me from the institution and keeps me healthy is knowing that I am on a contract for 36 hours a week. I am not paid extra for staying longer and if they want me at my best, then I need to have a good boundary. I like to say I work to live, I do not live to work. My obligations to the institution end around 5:30pm. Another loosely related approach is my belief that I may be fired, I know I’m dispensable, but I also know there are jobs out there, should I wish to walk away. At times, I have said to my employers in the past: ‘I would rather not work here if we are not going to do the work of change, because that is why you hired me. If you don’t want to do that work, then buy my contract out or fire me!’
And I also tend to always ask questions, I give myself permission to ask questions as and when they arise in me, even if they sound awkward and unfinished. I ask because I often pick up on small nuances, for instance on a lack of clarity around what something means because people tend to assume you know exactly what they are saying.
I also make comments that may make others feel uncomfortable; I have what some might characterise as having no or a very light filter! But I know that in most meetings I’m in, if I don’t ask or say something, then it won’t be spoken or uttered, due to people wanting to be nice or not pointing out negative consequences of this or that idea, etc. I on the other hand think that if I don’t ask, who will? The answer is usually, no one.
I ask these questions, then, and make these comments, to better understand, but also because I am employed to think about what is better for the institution. You see I don’t do this because of ego, I do this because it’s part of ‘the work’.
My bottom line is that I ask these questions because I have a job to get done and I need to better understand what I am agreeing to do, be clear about what is at hand, or challenge what I think needs to be challenged. Even if others don’t speak. I can’t get hung up on that or that they may judge what I say, how I say it, or why is say it. I would limit my ability to do my job by focusing on things which don’t contribute to getting the work done. I work for an institution, I am there not because of my ego, as I just said, or to please someone else, I am paid to do my job, and, perhaps more importantly to me, to do ‘the work’ that needs to be done.
I do ‘the work’, and in doing the work I have come to have a clear purpose in how to be in, think with/against, and navigate institutional practices in settings that are colonial in their administrative nature. I work in the belly of the beast, but I also know that I am there to heal the colonial wound, a wound that does not heal; it may scab from time to time, but I know it will open up again. I do this work not for me, but for the next people who will come through the doors of the institution that I work in, whichever one that may be.
teresa cisneros is a curandera and curator of people a Chicanx Londoner. Originally from the Mexico-Texas border, ‘La Frontera’, she practices from where she is from not where she is Senior Practice Manager in Culture Equity Diversity Inclusion at Wellcome Trust. Cisneros has worked with sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, cultural institutions and universities to explore care, policy making, colonial infrastructures, and institutional change. In 2018, she published document0 a publication exploring our inability to ‘diversify’ the arts. She is interested in reconstructing systems and institutions to work towards institutional justice by holding one another accountable. Cisneros centres her life and work practice in collaboration, care relations, and collectivity.
Dr Marquard Smith is Programme Leader for the MA Museums & Galleries in Education at UCL Institute of Education, Professor of Artistic Research at Vilnius Academy of Arts, Lithuania, and Editor in Chief, Journal of Visual Culture. Marq is interested in how institutions institute, and he knows that they can and should do better. To this end, he listens and learns, he teaches and researches and writes, he curates and edits and commissions, and he collaborates. A lot.
Main image credits: process: Wall of Practice 2, 2020-21. Courtesy of teresa cisneros.