Sometimes, it begins by making a small request: “does this need to be a Zoom?” Indeed, during this lockdown time when our work and home lives are so intertwined, it can feel exhausting keeping up with work-from-home demands. To help, we have convened the expertise of artists, writers, and curators whose work is focused on collective care and rest to elaborate on the importance of boundary setting.
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Ezra Benus, Artist, Educator, and Curator
Sick and disabled people have long been using remote communication for community space and connection. The isolation experienced by so many right now is not a new thing either for many in my communities, particularly because of the systemic barriers that keep sick and disabled people out of participation. Like art openings for example, pre-pandemic, were all typically on one night, fast paced, on one block; often alcohol-centered, super crowded, and rarely a place to sit. From that, you can start to picture how those spaces fed that expectation — as the “norm” — as opposed to a slower, softer, more accessible kind of social engagement.
For me, art is about communicating and engaging in ideas with other people, knowing that I can’t control what others feel or think. But what artists can control, from my perspective, are the modes of engagement we create with our art. Why would I, as an artist, be creating things that will inherently leave people out of being able to connect? This is something artists aren’t thinking about enough. Artists have a lot more power when they say, “I need this to be accessible,” and a boundary can be set in saying “this is non-negotiable.”
Nicole J. Caruth, Wellness and Cultural Strategist, Holistic Health Coach, and Founder of Hustle Well
At [my virtual health coaching practice] Hustle Well, I’m seeing creatives working triple time to prove their value in the current virtual/remote workspace. Even those who had successfully set boundaries around work activities are finding them hard to honor now.
I remind my clients that our boundaries are connected to our core values. For instance, if you value family, start here to determine how and where you draw boundaries. You might decline late night Zoom meetings that interfere with putting your child to bed or eating dinner with your partner. If you’re still having trouble setting boundaries, get in touch with how you felt when you did honor your boundaries. Then ask yourself, “how do I want to feel now?” Getting clear on how you actually want to feel will help you identify your limits, your deal breakers.
In this time, I’m also noticing that creatives from Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities need to be extra vigilant about protecting their energies as more white-led organizations explore the meaning of equity. If you’re invited to be on a committee, apply for a job, or participate in a program, ask questions before making a decision. Ask about the organization’s overall values and how those values show up in the daily work. Are they really invested in equity work or tokenizing people of color to give the illusion of inclusion? This may help you identify what’s a yes and what’s a no or how much energy you’re willing to give.
Ryanaustin Dennis, Curator, Writer, Cultural Strategist and Co-Curator of the Black Life series at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
When the pandemic hit, everything slowed down: I had a program cancelled, and our monthly Black Life programme for the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) went on hiatus. This was a deliberate decision made by my co-curator, Ruth Gebreyesus, and I. We were like, “this doesn’t make sense to pivot so sharply. Why not listen, and why not stop to actually reevaluate, specifically within the BAMPFA, this program?” We took three months, and what we eventually decided was to just experiment, and try stuff. The museum had closed down, and the whole model had always been about programming within the museum. So Ruth and I did a newsletter, digital programs, then a podcast. It became a really productive thing to work at a much slower and more intentional pace. And I was able to actually balance what my vision was for the program, and what I wanted out of the program.
Ruth is good at building her boundaries: “OK, we don’t have to do this. I don’t want to do this.” My boundaries are already set up with my values systems. I don’t trip. Let’s push this institution to do better, but we don’t need to be in every meeting. We’re a bit outside the structures of the museum, and that gives us so much more power and flexibility. Placing boundaries on the volume of work opens up space for more time, more reflection.
Taraneh Fazeli, Curator
I take the curatorial spiel to heart — to curate must be to care. As an independent disabled curator, I must honor my capacity when balancing the needs of artists, communities, publics, institutions, coworkers, and artworks.
When I curated the traveling exhibition Sick Time, Sleepy Time, Crip Time: Against Capitalism’s Temporal Bullying (2017–19) on the politics of health and care, I learned a lot about how boundaries benefit collaboration. When a collaboration gets initiated, expectations around support and ways of working often go unspoken. Additionally, who/what the collaboration is expected to benefit remain under articulated. (This is why, alongside artist Katherine MacBride, I am editing a book reflecting on the project, which will include “tools” of poetic regulatory guides towards better care for various parties alongside “case studies” detailing use.)
It’s important to recognize how the recent widespread implementation of mutual aid and accessible practices originated from disabled, immigrant, and communities of color, often without credit or promises to continue them beyond the present. We must continue to center these community’s needs and can look to examples of how they’ve outlined institutions approach meeting them. For example, consider access riders, guides for supporting disabled audiences (I use Carolyn Lazard’s “A Promise and a Practice”), or even anti-racist hosting guides (Fannie Sosa and Tabita Rezaire’s “A White Institution’s Guide to Welcoming Artists of Color”). Furthermore, there are even agreement-generating processes that can be leveraged by communities to broker more equitable collaborations with parachute-in organizers or developers (Halima Cassell and Poetic Societies taught me about Community Benefits Agreements).
Jessica Lynne, Writer, Art Critic, and a Founding Editor of ARTS.BLACK
During this season of extended crisis, one boundary that has helped me to set and maintain boundaries for myself with regard to work is the use of a permanent auto-email responder. This small gesture keeps my screen time low when necessary, reminds me that nothing is that urgent right now, and hopefully, respectfully communicates to whoever is on the other side of the email that I am not ignoring them, but rather learning to be mindful of my time.
danilo machado, Poet, Curator, and Critic
Over and over, rest — too often devalued as “not work” — has been an essential part of not just sustainability and boundary setting, but of clarity. Stating boundaries and taking inventory of your capacity can not only help you be more present, but can empower others to talk about their needs as well. For those working from home, this boundary setting can help address expectations of always being “on(line)” and hopefully reduce digital burnout.
Capitalism often tempts us with false senses of urgency, so one tactic I’ve found effective is to name and ask for flexibility when possible, as it often exists in more places than we may think. I also find it helpful to pace screen/video time throughout the day, making sure to step away from the computer regularly and consider alternatives to back-to-back video calls if possible. (“I’m Zoom’d out for the day — can we make our check-in a voice call?”) My hope is that we can all continue unlearning ableist demands for productivity, and work to show up with care for one another.
Ceci Moss, Curator, Educator, and Founder/Director of Gas
Gas recently launched bless our breath, a deck of playing cards facilitating conversation, reflection and creative process around breath as both a theme and a practice. Initiated by Kimi Hanauer, it was informed by ideas generated by a Summer 2020 workshop we held with alea adigweme, Gordon Hall, Jovonna Jones, Malcom Peacock, and Alice Yuan Zhang. The project reinforced the importance of being in the present and attuned to the big picture. Many artists are mourning opportunities lost, and panicking about their future. It makes sense. But, we’re witnessing a historic unraveling of (already) very weak systems and a (non-existent) safety net, especially in the United States. I’ve encouraged those I know going through a pandemic slump to ease up on their individual ego, and recalibrate their life according to their guiding values.
Further, I’ve found myself involved in a ton of online facilitation as a guest speaker, workshop leader, or visiting critic. Depending on the scenario, I’ve adapted a technique I learned from Los Angeles-based community space Pieter’s public programs centering collective care. As a part of the introduction period, participants are asked to go around and reply to the prompt “What do I need from the group today? What can I offer?” It’s a beautifully generative way of holding space, and seems applicable to boundary setting conversations as well. The intention behind it is something I hope to see grow in a variety of settings.
Jamila Prowse, Artist, Writer, and Curator
As a disabled person, I am continually learning about my boundaries and how to honor and observe them. Although lockdown has presented challenges, the reduced pressure to leave the house has meant I can spend time reflecting on what I can manage on a daily basis.
I figured out early on Zoom calls were inaccessible to me, as it makes reading social cues — something I already struggle with — even harder. This is why I share with work colleagues an “access rider,” a document outlining my access needs, so I only have to communicate this once upfront at the start of a new working relationship. (I highly recommend Leah Clements, Alice Hattrick and Lizzy Rose’s brilliant open resource Access Docs for Artists, which I used as the basis for my own access rider.) I now have it written into my access rider that I can’t do Zoom calls, and an alternative form of communication needs to be found.
In terms of socialising, I’ve ended up being more curious about different ways to stay in touch. My favourite communication method with friends over lockdown has been writing letters or postcards. (Postcards are great, as you don’t have to write much.) I have a list of friends’ addresses saved on my phone, and every few weeks, I’ll pick someone to send a note to, telling them I’m thinking of them.
It’s a constantly shifting process, but learning your own boundaries, and self-advocating for the adjustments you need is important.
Helena Reckitt, Curator, Researcher, and Coordinator of the Feminist Duration Reading Group
When we decided to move our planning sessions — and, after a few months, monthly meetings — to Zoom for the Feminist Duration Reading Group (FDRG), what initially started as a COVID-induced compromise developed into something far more generative and sustaining. During almost a year of limited social contact, these online meetings have become a lifeline.
Following the FDRG’s practice of reading out loud, one person, one paragraph at a time, we revisit texts from earlier periods of feminist and queer activity, juxtaposing them with current preoccupations. Essays by writers and thinkers like Eli Clare and bell hooks have thrown light on the intersections of disability, class, transgender, race, representation, and healing. Joining us online to share their work, writer and filmmaker Juliet Jacques led discussions about trans life writing. In a session last week, Sue O’Sullivan, a former member of the London Women’s Liberation Workshop, guided a reflection on the conflicts that fracture marginalized groups, referencing the 1980s lesbian S/M sex wars.
Friendship as an organising principle underscores these sessions and the FDRG broadly. Much as I long for a time when I can mix freely with friends and fellow feminists, a special kind of intimacy has emerged through the FDRG’s online gatherings. Supporting each other through the process of collective thinking, reading, and discussion, we hold open the place for difference, and imagine alternative, more hopeful futures.
Safia Siad, Curator and Head Organizer of the upcoming Black Portraiture[s]: Toronto, Absent/ed Presence conference
Since pre-pandemic times, I have been thinking deeply about how care, rest, and boundaries serve the work that I do. Now I am learning that there is no fixed destination, only constant negotiation — especially in our working relationships.
I think it’s important to check in with each other. Not just in a “following up on this email” way, but with more curiosity: “How is today for you?” “What is the best platform for communicating at this time?” “Has anything changed for you since we last spoke?” Small gestures mean a lot right now; taking time to reschedule a meeting, changing the parameters of a project, or re-imagining a deadline are all ways we can extend care if there is the power to do so. I am striving to stop apologizing for a delay in my reply. It is important that we re-contextualize time now, which is why I have appreciated seeing honest out-of-office replies, stating that capacities are full.
Another revelation that I keep coming back to is the power of discernment and saying no. This one can be difficult due to scarcity mentality in the art world, but for me, I know that saying no when I do not have the capacity or when the timing is off always brings clarity and abundance. The urgency of this moment has highlighted that we always had different capacities. I hope we can remember this, and move to relate to each other with patience, honesty, and grace.
Syrus Marcus Ware, Artist, Activist, and Vanier Scholar
Hold firm to your needs around COVID-19 precautions. There are regulations for film and television that allow for particular things to still take place. If your spidey senses are going off, ask to switch to online engagement.
Make a list of projects you are excited to work on — projects of your own creation that you wish you had time for. Pick one to nurture in the next six months. We often front burner our work for others and our passion projects stay on the back burner. 2021 is time to bring more of doing what you love into at least a part of your schedule.
Slow is the new, well, everything. As a Mad and disabled artist, I think it’s time we “crip” our processes and make room for a more measured way of doing things. We have an opportunity during this pandemic to think of new timelines and ways of working together. We have an opportunity to get off the capitalist treadmill that favours overproduction as value. We get to slow down, and find pleasure and care in this slowness.