edition May/June 2020

(Self)Care As Form Of Resistance

On an arts sector in burn-out mode, unacknowledged loss and the need for new rituals in a shifting society.

Maria F. Scaroni in her farewell ritual during Unacknowledged Loss. Maria F. Scaroni in her farewell ritual during Unacknowledged Loss I in 2017 © Dorothea Tuch

Changing jobs, having an operation, ending a relationship – these are losses we all encounter now and then. But these moments of transition are not addressed in our society, they are „unacknowledged losses“, as Barbara Raes calls them. As curator and ritual celebrant, she is an interconnector between the arts, care, rituals and farewell, researching the needs of a society in transition and exploring new mental and physical spaces for farewell-rituals. Barbara Raes has been a dance programmer and artistic director at the arts centres Vooruit in Ghent and BUDA in Kortrijk. Today, she is conducting her research into rituals at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent as well as within the framework of her own organisation, Beyond The Spoken. In 2017, HAU Hebbel am Ufer invited Barbara Raes to host a three weeks research and presentation format, Unacknowledged Loss: Together with eight Berlin artists, Raes explored moments of transition and facilitated the artists’ developing their own rituals of farewell. The second edition of Unacknowledged Loss has long been planned for June, 2020. In her very personal text for tanzraumberlin, Barbara Raes gives some insights into her work and reflects on the intertwining of rituals and the arts.

Text: Barbara Raes
Curator and Ritual Celebrant

“Every year at midsummer night, twelve selkies swim to a higher rock somewhere on the Shetland Islands. Selkies are beautiful mythological shapeshifters changing from seal to human form. During that night the selkies shed their shiny sealskin and become human creatures. They dance and make love until the morning. If they want to make contact with other selkies they must spill seven tears into the sea. Right before sunrise they redress themselves in their silvery beaming sealskin and slide gently back into the sea. Returning home. The women with new selkies in their wombs. They are ‘shedders’, those magical selkies. They get rid of the old and swim pregnant with the new into the unknown.”

Navigating the darkness of transformation

I feel like a selkie, like a ‘shedder’ in 2016. A year of transition. I said goodbye to my passionate professional life as artistic director in the arts field and exchanged that love for one year of diving into the unknown, searching for my possible future in this fast changing world. The gap between my own values and the daily practice became unbridgeable. How does one find balance in a field where you’re expected to implement optimal policies in just one, two or four years; where government is set on ‘result-oriented’ practices; where artists may be ‘hip’ today but just as well ‘hop’ tomorrow? Where art centers become companies, and art lovers their consumers; where professionalization is more and more equated with the values of a market-derived management culture, and where work ethics are based on being over-passionate, over-flexible and under-paid? These are the perfect ingredients for stimulating a sector, but also the perfect recipe for a catastrophic burnout.

Radiantly burning out was one thing, but redesigning life was a much bigger exercise in re-formatting than I thought. 2016 was a year with no autumn and no spring. Selfcare was an endless navigation in the darkness of transformation. Selfcare was necessary to integrate a broader perspective on how we deal with care in our society today. How to look at collective care in times where nobody has time, therefore no time to care? Making time, lots of time, enough time to care means having an empty agenda. Taking care became truly a form of resistance.

“Feeling loss is part of love. That’s the deal. Ignoring loss is ignoring love." (Thank you, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross)

In this deep river of not knowing, I specialized in what was at that time the main theme in my own little existence: “loss”. I became obsessed with the connection between farewell, grieving processes and the need for new rituals today. Of all rituals, the farewell ritual regarding death is exceptional. With other rituals, hope is an essential part of the event. With death and dying, that’s different. I wanted to start at the end and followed a training in funeral celebrancy at Green Fuse (UK), which led to founding my own organization: Beyond the Spoken. In this workspace for unacknowledged loss, I devise, together with artists, unique bespoke transition rituals, to commemorate and give meaning to the “little funerals” in our lives. Rituals for unacknowledged loss. These are the losses that are not officially marked, but remain under the radar, such as surgery, abortion, separation, the end of maternity leave, a farewell to a home or country, etc…Moments of crisis that lead to inevitable changes. Every transition ritual facilitates a new beginning. Every new beginning is also a farewell. Working in this intertwining domain where art, well-being and rituals meet, means daring to discomfort, daring to forget, daring to imagine and daring to connect.

Daring to discomfort

Rituals can mirror our suffering, pain and sadness in the soul. That can be disruptive, but in the recognition and through the acknowledgement one can feel the potential for healing. One feels addressed and the inner world of emotions becomes more comprehensible.

Some time ago I facilitated a ritual for Maja, a woman who had a double mastectomy. Maja approached me as she felt no support for the big change she was going through. After the operation everything would be different: not only her relationship with her body, but also with her femininity, her fertility, her partner,… but she felt these were the aspects that were not addressed or too little acknowledged.

As a ritual facilitator one will recognize this discomfort and try to transform that into a comforting zone. There is an openness to dare to look at pain, to talk about it and grow in that language as part of our collective responsibility. It is a form of resistance in our seemingly “positive society” that tries to push away fear, grief or pain.

Daring to forget

Rituals mirror our concept of time: how time passes, what that passing by involves or how we deal with time passing by.

The day before the mastectomie we gathered with eight women to support Maja and prepare her mentally and emotionally for the operation with a long ritual. We changed her house into a green care house with plants, blankets and cushions. The duration of the ritual gave the body its own meaningful time and at the same time a “time out of time”. When the ritual ended, we all had the experience of (just like after an intense theater experience for instance) “waking up”, we needed to re-orient ourselves in the space and in the world around us. It made Maja break through her daily rhythm of sorrow and pain.

Rituals can offer the possibility to transfer painful memories permanently into the past; to re-set the trigger for negative memories, emotions and images into something else. The past is connected to the future during the ritual and brings us fully into the present. As if time was timeless.

Daring to connect

Rituals are only effective if they are supported by a community.

During the fourteen-hours-operation I asked fourteen people in Maja’s close circle of friends to choose a specific hour that they would be with her (and her operation) with their full intention. I asked them to send at the end of that hour a picture of what they had done during that time as form of support. In the end Maja had fourteen beautiful pictures revealing her temporary web of support during the mastectomy.

This temporary community functions in a highly cohesive way. Rituals can be a force for bringing people together to dream and embody the world otherwise: this is exactly what many contemporary artists also strive for in their work. Performance art and social practice are an important site for secular ritual making today. They aim to create a holding environment to sow the seeds of alternative ways of thinking, being and feeling. These (socio-)artistic practices can be seen as strategic interventions in existing sets of practices, spaces and relationships that are driven by the desire for transformation, healing and reintegration (thank you Jacqueline Millner).

Daring to imagine

At the end of Maja’s ritual a ribbon was draped all around her body. It was simply in white cotton but with a beautiful text embroidered on it. When I visited Maja in the hospital I saw the ribbon wrapped on her bedside table. The same ribbon became symbol for her wound. Some weeks later I visited Maja at home and saw the ribbon hanging on the wall as an artwork, a metaphor for the past, present and possible future in one strong image.

Art and rituals have in common that they are both imaginary. Not in the sense that they don’t exist, but their existence lies primarily in the power of suggestion and imagination. Through a work of art or the creation of a ritual space we build up meaningful interpretations of the world around us. The main motive for artistic creation lies in the need to feel essential towards the world (thank you, Jean-Paul Sartre). And how can an individual make oneself more essential than by creating a world of one’s own, which opens worlds to others?

Creating sense and significance in relation to art and rituals brings us to the question whether art can also be a form of spirituality? Spirituality, not as a religious discourse, but as an attitude or approach to life, as a search for meaning, as a form of doing. As something practical, a practical spirituality. It is precisely in the common domain of art, well-being and rituals that there is an opportunity for a form of spirituality, for more holistic thinking about the totality of human experiences in relation to the experience of the whole world and the life that is lived.
The relationship between art and spirituality can show itself in different forms. It can be manifested through the artwork itself; through a spiritual experience of the spectators; through the artist himself who can (like a “contemporary shaman”) channel energy from another dimension during the creative process; or through a painful experience that encourages the creation of meaning or creativity. It is mainly under this chapter that a connection of art, well-being and rituals can lead to potentially meaningful transformations (thank you Melih Gencboyaci).

“Rituals make things happen in the real even if it’s in the imaginary." (Thank you, Richard Sennett)

Rituals are full of art, and so are the arts full of ritual information. Because rituals and the arts belong to different social institutions, we often put them in different mental boxes. Bringing rituals and art closer together can lead to transforming concepts that are innovative for both the domain of art and care. The intertwining of those fields has a huge potential for developing innovative tools for selkies in the deep sea of transformation.    ◂

Accompanying the first edition of Unacknowledged Loss in 2017, HAU Hebbel am Ufer published a book on art and rituals. It can be ordered online.

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