BAW JOURNAL: Your focus as a Feminist Health Research Group is the health movement. I imagine you’re getting a lot of inquiries at the moment?
FEMINIST HEALTH CARE RESEARCH GROUP: Five years ago, when we first started working on health, the topic was absolutely absent from the art world. Things are different now, of course, partly because of the COVID-19 crisis and partly because of a certain ›care‹ and welfare hype in art. As welcome as this attention might be at first glance, there is still a question as to what it will actually mean in the long term. After all, the issue of health and care is precisely about re-working and transforming relationships and forms of production in a really comprehensive, fundamental way. And the art system is very competitive and exclusionary, even where it deals with political issues.
What drew you to healthcare policy as a topic?
Healthcare policy is actually omnipresent. It affects every one of us and we are immediately confronted with the health system as soon as we fall ill or have an emotional crisis—but often from a position of weakness and dependence. It is also a formidable instrument of power that regulates access and exclusion based on factors such as nationality, health insurance, and so on. It’s an intimidating topic—so huge that many artists don’t really dare to tackle it in the first place.
Hence the research approach?
Exactly. The collective research practice offered an opportunity to find a position from which we could work and also learn about health without knowing much about it beforehand. We first had to empower ourselves to work on healthcare policy from an artistic point of view, without any medical training or expert knowledge, to be guided by our personal experience and our own involvement, physicality, and biography instead. It didn’t matter whether we worked larger groups (as when we first started out), in a threesome with Alice Münch (who last worked with us in 2018), or in a twosome, as we do now—we have always understood research to be the goal and end result and not just preliminary work. This has resulted in certain formats, such as workshops or zines, which we then publish. When we do exhibitions, we try to design self-empowering displays that are accessible in themselves. Our aim is to communicate what we learn from our research as directly as possible and with certain didactic methods. We try to keep our sources transparent and not to appropriate them. We want to give people information about institutions within the health movement so that they can learn about them and make use of them again.
Can you tell us something about the West Berlin health movement of the 1970s and 1980s, the subject of a publication you put out in 2019?
We visited the feminist archive at FFGZ—Feministisches Frauen Gesundheits Zentrum e.V. and the Heilehaus project, and realised right away that there are extraordinary, radical health initiatives in Berlin. Another good example is Weglaufhaus, an anti-psychiatric facility where people in emotional crises can go to if they don’t want to go to a psychiatric hospital. No medication is prescribed at the Weglaufhaus and there is no mandatory therapy. It is a shared space where people can come to work through crises. It is absolutely amazing that such a thing still exists today, though they are often very precariously financed. A number of these initiatives were founded in specific feminist contexts or arose at the interface with the squatter scene, and all of them go back to the 1980s and sometimes even the 1970s. There was a really extensive social debate about healthcare policy at that time and people tried a number of different organisational forms, like pharmacists’ and doctors’ collectives, for example. There were also many struggles for reproductive rights, such as the right to abortion. Feminists practised vaginal self-examination as a kind of self-empowerment in the face of patriarchal gynaecology and conventional medicine. They sought to counter it with their own experience and knowledge.
»It’s not least a matter of creating other spaces in the art field as well. Spaces where it is okay to be vulnerable, or exhausted.«
What insights did you take from this rather historical research for the present?
In contrast to the environmental movement, which developed in parallel and which has now reached the whole of society, the health movement has disappeared again. There are a variety of reasons for this, not least of which was a very clear anti-feminist backlash in the 1990s. Feminist and reform-oriented approaches were devalued as part of a general commercialisation and re-orientation towards individual success and career. In our research we have tried to reconstruct the demands of the time, types of action that were undertaken, and how they could be applied to today with the aim of re-politicising current health policy.
We could ask ourselves, for example, what kind of queer-feminist, anti-racist counselling services we need today, and what we can do to counter the commercialisation of hospitals, but also the hierarchy between patients and doctors. The Gynformation collective, for example, runs a platform where we can recommend doctors with whom we have had good experience.
These various activities within the health movement embolden us to question the health paradigm that we ourselves live in, one that privileges performance, for example, youthfulness, efficiency, or autonomy. When we started researching the health movement—together with Alice Münch back then—, all three of us were mothers of small children. We realised that we could no longer afford certain things that were in demand in the art market. And this change in personal capacity, brought about by care work, led us among other things pay more attention to the access needs that other people might have—individuals living with disabilities or chronic illnesses, etc. It is not least a matter of creating other spaces in the art field as well, spaces where it is okay to be vulnerable, to be exhausted; spaces where you can express the need for access—and institutions and facilities that can attend to those needs.
Dominikus Müller conducted the interview.
Epilog—11th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art
5 SEP—1 NOV 2020
KW INSTITUTE FOR CONTEMPORARY ART
11. Berlin Biennale c/o EXROTAPRINT