After the Second World War, three out of four of the presidents of the medical association in West Germany were former SS or SA members. By the late 1980s and early 90s, around 80% of gynecologists were male and pharmaceuticals had vast monopolies. Healthcare was dominated by men and relied heavily on traditional methods of treating patients. Illness was merely thought of as physical.
Given this bleak scenario, groups started to emerge in order to counteract the medical establishment and offer different alternatives to standard practices of healthcare. In a highly interesting conversation this January, artists Inga Zimprich and Julia Bonn—founding members of the Feminist Health Care Research Group (FHCRG)—sat down with members of the public to explain their project. They went over all of the work they developed over the last 15 years, as well as explained and elucidated why their work is considered art.
FHCRG’s exhibition is integrated into ‘Exp. 2: Virginia de Medeiros – Feminist Health Care Research Group’ as part of the 11th Berlin Biennale’s cycle of events and exhibitions, which is “structured through exchanges and alliances developed between the artists, their guests and the public.” It will culminate with a series of activations on February 8th with the artists, curators and research group at ExRotaprint.
The group’s methodology starts with investigation, particularly researching other health and feminist movements of the 70s and 80s in West Germany. They talk to key figures from these movements and periods to get insight into their motivations, they visit archives, scan, catalogue and collect all available information about health and healthcare in order to build on from this foundation.
After going through intense periods of research, they share their work through zines, workshops and, in this case, an exhibition. From vaginal self-tests to alternative medicine, to critical responses to pharmaceutical monopolies, to ways of combating an overwhelmingly capitalist adversity to sickness, the FHCRG has been doing vital work in sharing their research with the public and, in the process, making it into art.
Among the interesting literature the group presented at the talk was a book, which everyone jumped at the chance to flick through, called ‘Wege zu Wissen und Wohlstand oder: Lieber krankfeiern als gesund schuften’ (‘Paths to Knowledge and Prosperity, or: Better to Celebrate Sickness than to Work’). The book is a classic text from the 1970s that explains how to better feign illness to be allowed sick leave from work. Throughout the talk, one thing was clear: the artists emphasized the difference between health and wellbeing and sickness as it has come to be understood. Even presenting this book in itself seemed like a moment of self-care, of accepting that health goes beyond being physically “healthy” and beyond the body entirely.
This text is a clear response to the pressures to constantly be “okay” and prepared to work another day. A classic example of this is exhaustion or simply being tired. None of us would realistically ever send an e-mail to our bosses saying: “Sorry, I cannot come in today because I feel tired, I haven’t been sleeping very much.” However, for our wellness, for our health, energy and vitality, sleep is as important as anything else.
One of the questions that came from the audience after their talk was how exactly their research could be categorized as art. Essentially the work is research-based and it can be difficult to see how their exhibitions and zines can be considered artistic output. The most interesting response from this discussion came from the curator herself: while her young child hung from her leg and tried his very best to get her attention, she explained that if art did not create these connections and build these bridges across disciplines, it would be pointless.
Art does not necessarily have to be linear and its product, the artwork, does not have to be physical, just as wellness and health are not always about the body. The conceptual and the cerebral are part and parcel of our understanding of the world and how we engage with it.
Health is a political category. In the 21st century, issues surrounding biopolitics, capitalism, feminism and healthcare have continued to grow in importance. The Feminist Health Care Research Group makes sense of all of this and exposes the underlying problems in the ways we have constructed notions of care and health.
It is refreshing to see an exhibition that is the result of extensive research and aims to engage the public directly by generating awareness, discussion and a safe community space, all of which should be the basis for our notions of wellness and self-care.
11TH BERLIN BIENNALE
‘Exp. 2: Virginia de Medeiros – Feminist Health Care Research Group’
Exhibition: Nov. 30, 2019 – Feb. 08, 2020
Closing Activation ‘We Celebrate’: Feb. 08, 2020; 2-9pm
ExRotaprint, Bornemannstraße 9, 13357 Berlin click here for map