Precarious Bodies, Precarious Institutions
Complicating Care (4/4)

Precarious Bodies, Precarious Institutions

After co-creating a radio project that privileged rest, gossip, and informal knowledge production, Elaine W. Ho writes about the interplay between institutional care and her own body from the vantage point of her hospital bed in Hong Kong.

Gossip, sleepovers, and care: a precursor to Elaine W. Ho’s “Precarious Bodies, Precarious Institutions”

Introduction by Anna Bowen

Imagine that you are in a nest made of bedsheets strung up with rope from your ceiling above an island built of a thousand caressing pillows. Situate your body in that space. Yes, it is dark but there is a string of miniature disco balls which sparkle in our eyes, keeping us cozy and smiling together as we move, warm and intimate.

Radio Slumber Séance 1
Baby-testing versions of the Radio Slumber door cosy. Image by 李筱天 Li Xiaotian.

Can I have a sleepover? Has been a familiar refrain over the last few years from my eight-year-old daughter and her friends, the tenderness of sleeping beside each other in pajamas, otherwise only seen in the private space of the home, embodying a profound desire for closeness made urgent by the separation experienced through lockdown. In Canada, the public health guidelines about gatherings of friends, or preparing and sharing food together, have come second to the economy and what it needs to survive through the pandemic. News about opening restaurants, bars, hair salons, and gyms has taken priority over community potlucks, gatherings—and slumber parties.

Radio Slumber—a series of radio pieces, or séances, and an online “grimoire” by Hong-Kong-based Elaine W. Ho and Rotterdam-based Amy Suo Wu —is the outcome of an in-person residency that was part sleepover, part social-practice art, part “diasporadic” coven, and part study group.  In a warm space open for rest and gossip, the time was shared by a group of female artists and academics from the Asian diaspora in what they dub pwsssrfs—naturally, “potluck workshops + secret societies + spa retreats + fests of slumber”—and took place at Motel Spatie in Arnhem, Netherlands, during the winter of 2020.  

Radio Slumber brings back into focus the way that “sharing informal knowledges within female friendships [is or can be] a political act of solidarity within a patriarchal model that seeks to disrupt its existence.”[i] The producers open up a space for gossip, wondering whether it might exist as a “noninstitutional informal space of knowledge production”[ii] and whether presenting that knowledge publicly undermines something of the intimacy of how it was produced.

Radio Slumber shies away from productivity and performance, instead engaging in mutual vulnerability, whispered linkages, a “bond of care and friendship as methodology.”  They explain, “We attempted to put what was urgent into practice: the act of care, friendship, rest, and solidarity. We tried to embody these gestures and take the practice of care seriously, slow down and resist the capitalist guilt of productivity.”

The group engages Silvia Federici’s proposal that it is in part words “frequently used to define and degrade women” which serve to operationalize and reproduce gender oppression, with history of gossip being an “emblematic” example.  Federici explains that alongside the execution of so-called witches, gossip became a term that instead of representing close female friendship “turned into one signifying idle, backbiting talk, that is, talk potentially sowing discord, the opposite of the solidarity that female friendship implies and generates.”[iii]


Excerpt from Radio Slumber Séance 1: featuring Mai Ling Kocht 2 — Eating as Pleasure and Protest
by the collective Mai Ling (listen to the full piece at radioslumber.net)

This, the fourth piece in the Complicating Care series, is written by Elaine W. Ho, one of the self-proclaimed “mama-sans” of Radio Slumber. In her article, “Precarious Bodies, Precarious Institutions,” Ho reflects on a different space of embodiedness and intimacy, in this case an unintended and clinical dystopian sleepover, a forced pause from productivity, in a recent hospital stay that found her dependent on the medical system.  In contrast to the closeness and intimacy of Radio Slumber, Ho wonders “how governments both care for and control their citizens” through this type of institution, invoking literary theorist Lauren Berlant’s work on “austerity, precarity, and awkwardness.” Ho considers how art can ride the space between institutions and the intimacy of bodies, “as something that gives care to, as well as challenges, those roles.” 


[i] Federici, Silvia. Excerpt of Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women published on inthesetimes.com

[ii] Séance 2—1:07, from notes taken by a participant of the pwsssrfs www.radioslumber.net

[iii] Federici, Silvia.

Precarious Bodies, Precarious Institutions

by Elaine W. Ho

In the blustery winter of early 2020, artist Amy Suo Wu and I found ourselves cosying up inside a homemade safe zone padded with blankets and fitted with a string of cheap disco ball lights. Amidst cold and trepidation for the outbreaks of both a pandemic and its ensuing reverberations of racism and upheaval, inside the cove we hosted what we called a series of “potluck workshop-secret society-spa retreat-fests of slumber,” our own peculiar attempt to think and practice with care through the juxtapositions between bodies and institutions (in this case, a publicly funded art space). These tuckings-in to the blankets of friendship, domestic comforts and conversation were recorded and translated by way of a three-hour audio programme, variety show and sound piece called Radio Slumber. You could call it an aesthetic projection—a confluence of the resources, energies, desires and emotional baggage which led to it. It is when the precarious suddenly finds form.

The Radio Slumber “cove,” featuring a painted illustration on cotton muslin by artist Erik Tlaseca; Arnhem, Netherlands, Winter 2020. Image by 何穎雅 Elaine W. Ho.
Excerpt from Radio Slumber Séance iii, featuring a quote from “Yellow Skin, White Gold” by Anne Anlin Cheng, “The Untold Story of America’s Southern Chinese, from AJ+, and “Ambience, London Street, A” by Zoénie Deng
PURPLE GOWNS :: female nurses
BLUE SCRUBS :: male doctors
BEIGE with BROWN COLLAR :: care assistants
LIME GREEN POLO :: food service
WHITE with BLUE/WHITE STRIPED COLLAR :: phlebotomists
GREEN POLO :: cleaning staff
WHITE with MANDARIN COLLAR :: physical therapists
LIGHT YELLOW :: take care of pee and poop

Over a year and a half later, an unexpected, forced staycation in hospital—the result of a spectacular fall at a waterfall—led to a very different rhythm from my usual waking hours. Unlike the tăng píng (躺平) revolutionaries on the Chinese mainland who intentionally resist the pressures of society and the state by literally flattening their bodies and their productivity (tăng píng means “lie flat”),[1] I found myself constrained to a horizontal position while sucking on the services of the state.

The chilly surgery room I’m carted into is crowded with what seems like an unnecessary horde of staff for a simple procedure. The head doctor and anaesthesiologist are joined by several nurses and a row of observing medical students. I am lying on my side flashing my ass to everyone. The young anaesthesiologist asks me to confirm whether I would like to remain conscious during the procedure. I am curious and insist on remaining awake. He tries to convince me otherwise, saying that I will not be able to see anything anyway, and the sounds could potentially be disturbing. I ask, “What kinds of sounds, will it be very disgusting?” Preparing his needle, he replies calmly that the colloquial term I’ve used, wat dat (核突), normally refers to the visual, not the aural. This inadvertent language lesson makes me smile. What stirring sound doesn’t instinctively come with a visual—or, in the case of vomiting, to which the etymology of wat dat refers—a repulsive smell? Anyhow, in the end, I somehow doze off and miss the disgusting part.

Despite the relatively generous status of the healthcare system in Hong Kong, this was all still a very fortunate position in which to be, but suddenly fettered by physical frailty and in temporal limbo, I could not help but wallow in self-pity at my own precarity.

The situation had me spiraling into something like a Klein bottle of thought—a non-orientable surface where interior and exterior are one, linked in an interminable loop. On one side I was saddled with an acute awareness of my own body within the approximately two-square-metre area of this sterilised, temporary home, and on the other side, I was fixated on a slew of abstractions about how governments both care for and control their citizens via such institutions—how society works through “austerity, precarity, and awkwardness.”

The latter is the title of a paper by literary theorist Lauren Berlant. Perhaps out of a similar sensation of unwieldiness, she seeks to resist the neoliberalized drying up of institutions “defined by their concentration and distribution of resources and legitimacy” by “rethinking relationality through infrastructures derived from practices of the reproduction of life: […] patterns, habits, and norms of use.”[2] The infrastructures she proposes are practices of commoning[3] that emerge from the fissures of precarity—episodes, events, and genres which lead “to something, material from which worlds are made and not forced.”[4] Art, or what she also calls “aesthetic projection,” becomes crucial here because it is exactly that “any artwork is at best an episode to hang a wish on”—propositions of other worlds as we would like them to be.[5]

Post-surgery I move from ward B4 to A3, and the first meal I am allowed to have tastes orgasmic after pre-surgery fasting. I am impressed with the Swiss watch mechanics of coordinated labour in the hospital: What a massive team! Everything is so efficient! By the third day, however, ward A3 begins to reveal its brittle edges: A brown girl gets assigned a bed in the hallway. Bitchy nurses bellow at a non-Cantonese speaking Shanghainese grandma as if she were deaf. Variously colour-coded uniforms make their rounds addressing us like objects, and these hued hierarchies result in an often snide lack of response to any question asked. The food tastes worse with every bite.

In my bedridden and medicated state, the only “other world” I longed for was the precarity of my normal life, rife with deadlines, interpersonal drama, and the ongoing struggle to pay rent. In Cantonese, “to make a living” is translated as “wan sik (搵食)”—literally, to look for food. The bluntness of the Cantonese dialect seems appropriately evident within the daily life of the hospital, where conversations are staccatoed by stern nurses’ basic commands to eat, sleep, piss, and shit. Having my to-do list temporarily reduced to these four things did give me time, however, to observe and reflect, which by the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination’s definition could perhaps also be considered a form of artistic production. They consider art, in its basic sense, the act of giving attention, where between such give and take a form emerges.[6]

A classically yellowing clock hung on a wood-paneled partition ticks violently, as if it isn’t sure of the past or future. It says in this way, “Forget the present.” Or at least that’s what I have to comfort myself while listless and passive as a “sick person” (again, the bluntness of Cantonese—it’s the direct translation of “patient” [ 病人 ]) unable to defy tattooed phlebotomists or even nurses with cute, plush Sanrio character plastic ID holders clipped to their uniforms. I have to tell myself that most of the time they’re not really talking to me like that; it’s just the sedimentary reaction to whatever notch they’ve been punched by the moment before, or years back. I compare the heavyweight passing of seconds to the uneven, hissing breath of the sleeping patient next to me in bed 55. They are the whimpers of a woman who has gone through too much. Now that she has been in the hospital for two months, does she feel safer or not at all? It’s not yet light outside, but the hospital is always on, of course. Nurses shuffle in again to berate a disobedient patient in bed 53 with terrible flesh wounds across her puny legs. And then, a sandpaper voice from grandma in bed 51: “Good morning, everyone.

That is the texture of the relation between the very personal and intimate (bodies), and the very generic and abstract (institutions, theory, systems). Between these two, we are both captured by and submissive to the roles society gives us, Stanford experiment-style, and I would like to think of “aesthetic projections”—the making form of theory and practice—as something that gives care to, as well as challenges, those roles. Giving care at the level of the body, to know and respect what one is capable of and to nurture that of which we are not yet capable. Challenging at the level of society, where bodies are reduced to colours and labels and stereotypes, to fight against limitations set by prejudice and inequality. These things happen somewhere in the wide spaces of the Klein bottle, difficult to orient and yet with a form nonetheless. Oddly enough, these considerations of artistic production, and even the holiday gatherings you dread, are all particular situations, possible events, which negotiate care amidst the relations between bodies and institutions.

In the Sensing Precarity panel at which Berlant reads “Austerity, Precarity, Awkwardness,” she and her colleagues propose the organization of “urgency toward forms of reaction that also compose something, challenging the very concept of agency itself.”[7] It is, therefore, from within the debilitations and acquiescence of precarity that they hope to resuscitate affects and other ways of living together. It is, in fact, that the precarious manifests itself both within our bodies, habits, and also as an effect of the frameworks defined by our institutions. Three hours of listening to art radio may be a lot for us to ask of an audience nowadays. But so is 168 hours of hospital time amidst precarity and the demands for incessant, happy production. Berlant’s colleague Kathleen C Stewart calls it “slow description.”[8] Or, you could also call it the force of giving and taking attention.


[1]    See further about the recent meme: ZHANG Wanqing and LIU Mengqiu, “Tired of Running in Place, Young Chinese ‘Lie Down’”, Sixth Tone (27 May 2021) https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1007589/tired-of-running-in-place%2C-young-chinese-lie-down.

[2]    Lauren BERLANT, “Austerity, Precarity, Awkwardness” (paper presented at Sensing Precarity, American Anthropological Association, 25 November 2011) https://supervalentthought.com/sensing-precarity-allison-stewart-garcia-berlant-mclean-biehl/, 4.

[3]     To speak of the commons in the active verb tense is an explicit emphasis upon the ongoing processes of expanding the material and conceptual realms of the commons, which is to say a principle of social organization in rejection of the exclusivity of state and market property and in support of a cooperative society with attention to the production of social relations. For further reading, I would recommend, among others, the work of Silvia Federici, Peter Linebaugh, Angela Dimitrakaki and Fred Moten.

[4]    BERLANT, 8.

[5]    Ibid.

[6]    LABORATORY of INSURRECTIONARY IMAGINATION, “Schizomachines”, online Skype meeting with Andrew MELCHIOR, Stevphen SHUKAITIS, Gee VAUCHER and the author, 25 August 2020.

[7]    Anne ALLISON, et al, “SENSING PRECARITY (Allison, Stewart, Garcia, Berlant, McLean, Biehl)” (25 November 2011), https://supervalentthought.com/sensing-precarity-allison-stewart-garcia-berlant-mclean-biehl/.

[8]    Kathleen C Stewart, “Precarity’s Form” (paper presented at Sensing Precarity, American Anthropological Association, 25 November 2011) https://supervalentthought.com/sensing-precarity-allison-stewart-garcia-berlant-mclean-biehl/, 2.

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Elaine W. Ho works between the realms of time-based art, experimental publishing, urban practice and language. She struggles with lessons in failure on a frequent basis, though the counter to that is she now writes from time to time, in the most free and unlearned way ever.

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