CAROLE CONDE & KARL BEVERIDGE - Artists' Statement
|Theatre of Operations and Other Stories
A couple of years ago Karl walked into a operating room for a major operation. The first few days after the operation were fine thanks to liberal self-induced doses of morphine. But he began to deteriorate. The nurses were changed every day so none had noticed. It was all part of re-structuring and downsizing. Forming a bond with a patient may affect job performance. He also became seriously infected. There weren't enough staff to clean the OR's properly. In fact, the increase in infections in hospitals is epidemic. Carole often stayed past midnight making sure everything was okay. Families and friends are taking on the care and small jobs once done by workers. While this is pleasant for patients who have such folk available, God help those who don't. It was Carole that prompted the nurse to notice Karl's deteriorating condition.
It was this experience that provided the emotional impetus for a project that we have being working on for the past couple of years. Work in a community can't be altruistic. It is essential for us to have an emotional investment in the work. Our work comes as much out of our own experience, beliefs and participation in the community as it does from those of the community members we're working with. Otherwise it doesn't wash.
We started meeting with members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) over a year ago. (The 'International' in SEIU, by the way, references to the fact that a U.S. union has locals in Canada.) These were people who worked as nurses and support staff in hospitals and home care facilities in Southern Ontario. Their stories were about how they can no longer provide the care people needed. It was being diminished by the drive to privatize the public health care system in Canada. Caring was at the centre of everything they talked about whether they were a nursing assistant or a housekeeping worker.
In response to these conversations we developed a work on the history of caring titled 'Not A Care: A Short History of Health Care'. In it we look at how health care was provided at different points in history - from early cave dwellers to the 1890's; from the introduction of Medicare in Canada in the 1960's to the present crisis. In each case the act of caring is much the same. It is the social and political climate that shapes its delivery and determines who receives the best treatment available. This is paralleled by a cultural history. Each image reproduces the dominate visual style of the time.
The history of health care project is not dissimilar to other works. In 'Non Sera Nada Por Ninguen' (There Will Be Nothing for Anyone) we were invited to create a work in the city of Vigo, Spain. We were hesitant about doing a work in a place we didn't know until we discovered that Vigo is one of the largest fishing ports in the world. Spain was also in a bitter conflict with Canada over Canada's moratorium on cod fishing off the Grand Banks. We met with members of a Canadian fishery union and told a story about the loss of work and community in Newfoundland. It's about government inefficiency and the pressures of technology and intensive capitalization that lead to the over fishing and depletion of the cod stocks. Cod, we learned, accounts for 40% of the world protein supply. A fact that has little impact in the land of burgers. In 'Pulp Fiction' we focused on pulp and paper workers caught between their environmental concerns and jobs. Work itself is as much about our actions on the environment as it is about our particular skills and needs.
In each project we try and develop a style or look that has some relation to the story we are telling and makes sense to those with whom we are working. It's equally important to maintain a critical perspective on both commercial culture and the musings of the fine arts. In the history of health care we used a kind of post-modern/populist representation of period. In the work on the cod fishery we referenced to Catholic symbology and a Medieval style of theatre based on the presence of Santiago de Compestella (a major Christian pilgrimage site near Vigo). In the pulp and paper piece we painted the sets in a folk style common in Northern Ontario and referenced to Quebec votive paintings. Our cultural strategies and the forms they take are tentative and problematic. We have to negotiate class and cultural difference as well as the prevailing myths of cultural production and authorship.
Collaborations: Working in Buffalo
While working on the history of health care we got an invitation from CEPA Gallery to do a project in collaboration with a Buffalo area trade union. It seemed timely to have a chance to do a project with U.S. health care workers, given that Canada is being pushed in the direction of a U.S. type system by Canadian cowthugs and failed golfers masquerading as political leaders. When we drove down for our first meeting with CEPA, we were a bit early and stopped for a bite to eat. Across the road we saw a sign reading 'SEIU 1199 Upstate'. Clearly, this was an omen. A couple of weeks later we attended a rally in Buffalo protesting the poor state of American health care and met members from the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) who also represent health care workers along with the SEIU. These unions were not only interested but excited by the project. *
We only had two months to complete 19 panels that will go on a Buffalo city bus. We usually take a year to do 10. This meant that we couldn't take the time we usually like to get to know people, do research and produce the final work. It was quickly decided that the basis of the work would be portraits. This was new for us and something we have wanted to do. Actors have allowed us to say things that could often get workers in trouble with management if they were identified in our images. But these workers were angry and have a clear agenda. And, in this case, management - the hospitals - support their demands as they are being squeezed by the insurance companies and HMO's. We visited some of the work sites and met many of the workers. The eleven people for the final portraits were chosen to represent different job areas and communities. Each worker was interviewed when they came in for their portrait and they approve the final image and quote. Each portrait is accompanied by a staged scene that forms a background and illustrates their quote and a statement about the U. S. health care system. The staged scenes were developed out of the demands put forward at the rally we attended and from the conversations we had with the workers and unions.
The set for the staged scenes was photographed in Toronto. The set combines a hospital operating room and a bank vault. The actors portray the inter-relations between a worker, a patient and corporate interests (insurance companies, HMO's, pharmaceuticals and investors). The final work will include five panels displaying historic quotes about caring for others.
We have worked with trade union and social justice groups for the past twenty-five years. While this was initially prompted by political beliefs, few, including ourselves at the time, realize that unions are communities in much the same way that other social, geographic and cultural communities are. They have a unique culture as well as clearly defined social conventions. Although it is not without its contradictions and problems - what community isn't - it is a movement from which artists could learn a lot. Things like getting a perspective on our creative egos as well as addressing the sad state of our livelihoods. Artists could also contribute a great deal as labour is constantly maligned and misrepresented.
Our involvement with unions goes beyond the job of producing art. It has involved us in organizing an artists union and getting arts institutions to program and support community arts. It has meant working with the union movement to develop cultural policy, programming and member involvement and a workers' museum. It has also meant being active in union and social justice struggles. These activities constitute a commitment to a community and they build trust and understanding. Remember, for most working people, Art is the name of the decorator at head office.
Our next project will look at the current state of health care in Canada. The images will be developed in a series of theatre imaging workshops with union members from different hospitals in Southern Ontario. They will be telling stories about the conditions they face.
Health work is unique. The worksite is our own body. Every worker will, some day, become a patient - a worksite. When these workers decry their working conditions they decry the treatment of our collective selves - our collective body.
* Two other unions represent health care workers in the Buffalo area. SEIU 200C and the American Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). SEIU 200C wasn't able to participate due to the short time but supported the project. Unions participating in the project are SEIU 1199 Upstate, CWA Locals 1168, 1133 and 1122, and NYSNA.