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Visual Arts

Insights: Alecia Neo

Explorations into the complexities of caregiving


Published: 30 Nov 2023

Time taken : ~10mins

On the complexities of caregiving and making visible the weight, vulnerability, tension, cycles, humour, banality, contradiction, improvisation, duty as well as entanglements embedded in caregiving relationships and ecosystems.

Interview with Alecia Neo

In this interview, Alecia Neo shares about Performing Care, the long-term project Care Index, and her explorations into the complexities of caregiving.

Installation view of <em>Performing Care</em>, Alecia Neo, 2023. 

The 'Care Index' was started in December 2020, when the world was experiencing the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Back then, I recalled there were many discussions and ruminations over care, empathy and well-being, both for self and one another. Could you share about what led to the creation of this project and your vision for it?

My starting point for the Care Index began before the COVID-19 pandemic started. In 2018, I embarked on a year-long project titled Between Earth and Sky with a group of primary caregivers caring for their family members living with mental illness. I wanted to work with primary caregivers, who shouldered the main weight of care labour in their families. Amongst these primary caregivers, one of them was recovering from depression. At that time, she identified as a caregiver to herself because no one else was actively performing this role for her. I found this perspective poignant and brave, to be able to acknowledge her own labour and pointing to the situations of many other full-time caregivers who lack support. Between Earth and Sky became a project centred on the potential of physical movements of performing care work for expression beyond function. Through movement workshops co-led with artists Sharda Harrison and Anjuntha Anwari, we explored the nuances and diversity of the caregiving experience through symbolic gesture and body movement, culminating in a series of self-choreographed film performances by the caregivers. 

Video still from <em>Between Earth and Sky</em>, Alecia Neo, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist. 

The experience of making this work with the caregivers and my collaborators inspired me deeply to continue working with movement practitioners. It led to incubating the Care Index project, conceived during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in Singapore. My fellow artist friends kept me sane as we cooked together remotely and participated in Zoom marathons, performances and workshops. The shared isolation we experienced sparked the desire to experiment with new forms of connecting with others across the globe.

The Care Index began with a simple open call requesting video recordings of one’s care gestures or practices. Participants were asked: What does it mean to take care? What are the gestures of care that I practice every day? Is it possible to share it with others? I was interested in the idea of transmission, and how a stranger’s subjective experience could be transformed and translated by others. I have been incredibly moved by the range of submissions, which have really expanded my understanding of care. Some are complex, layered artworks themselves. I like to think of each contribution as a slice of time offered to this collective portal. One that allows others to dwell in and spend time with. While each video contribution is a world of its own, the process of inviting each contributor to index their movements with keywords unveils an interconnected web of shared experiences.

Installation view of <em>Performing Care</em>, Alecia Neo, 2023. 

I am interested in people using the Index as a resource to discover new relationships with themselves, other people and the environments they navigate through. I am curious about how they might play and build on these prompts and the kinds of contexts to which they might apply the Index. I have been hosting workshops and experiences with diverse collaborators through the Care Index project under specific themes. These include exploring death and loss through the unsayable woundings of structural and historical violence, in collaboration with anthropologist Jill J. Tan; contemplative and mindfulness practices with a group of Australia and Singapore-based Buddhist visual artists; and the conditions of care work, in collaboration with dancer Meghna Bhardwaj, involving movement scores from front-line workers, caregivers and dance students in Singapore and India during the pandemic. Beyond the digital archive, the spirit behind the project is one of collaboration and discovering new ways of making work together.

To date, the 'Index' has gathered many public submissions. As part of 'Performing Care', you have also delved deeper into data on care work. Have any interesting insights or discoveries about the topic of care surfaced in the process of research and archiving? 

I recently encountered the work of Jake Eagle and physician Michael Amster, who both studied accessing awe in ordinary moments of our lives. Their practice involves conscious inhalation and giving pause, followed by deep exhalation, bringing one’s full attention and appreciation to what we experience through our senses and imagination. Some examples of accessing awe include connecting with a stranger through eye contact, observing any form of movement, including rhythms in nature, how people move or contemplate the space inside our bodies and around us. Their perspective on awe was a significant shift away from the current, more familiar narratives of grand, extraordinary experiences of awe, such as viewing incredible landscapes. Their research into accessing awe in the everyday as a practice, in micro-doses, has been clinically tested and proven to reduce chronic pain and experience a more significant connection to others, amongst other positive sensations. There are some resonances in the Care Index with their work, as some of the movement scores and prompts on the Index invite participants to be attentive and curious about their relationships and environments through the lens of care.

Another offering that comes to mind is from artist Rafika Lifi, whom I met through Taiwanese curator Esther Lu’s platform Seven Bodies and the Talking Sea. She responded with idleness as a legitimate form of caring. There is a terrifying audacity in being idle in societies obsessed with efficiency and planning, where many of us become too busy to contemplate who we are and the world we live in.

Forming the core of 'Performing Care' is a video triptych where you collaborated with dance practitioners to develop choreography that melds various care gestures and rituals together. Could you tell us more about how you approached this workshop process and why collaboration occupies such an important place in your practice? 

For Performing Care, I worked with my collaborators Caroline Chin, Kyongsu Kathy Han and Weiying Tan, who are all trained in theatre and dance, to reflect upon our own relationship with care and the care gestures contributed by the public. I particularly valued their intercultural training, which immersed them in different traditional performing art forms from Asia. 

We landed on three main threads during our workshop process: self-caring, vulnerable and bureaucratic bodies. With caring bodies, we were reflecting upon the pervasiveness of self-care industries, and the limitations of assigning the responsibility of care to the individual by emphasising self-reliance and resilience over interdependence and community. The starting point for some of the gestures we were inspired by were body massages, exercise routines, shaking and caring for one’s pets. The central choreography on vulnerable bodies drew from public submissions on living with grief, loss, chronic pain, caring for the dead, kinship, childhood memories, mutual aid movements, displaced and marginalised communities, and negotiating boundaries and the weight of giving care and receiving care. We reflected on how the act of giving care to a person who is ill also sculpts the carer's own vulnerable body, and how giving care is not necessarily more positive or greater than the openness and vulnerability of receiving care from others. 

Video still from <em>Performing Care</em>, Alecia Neo, 2023. Image courtesy of the artist. 

During our workshopping process, Kyongsu was drawn to interpreting some of the public submissions about translation. She connected their gestures to her own experience as a third-culture child and her current transition back to South Korea where she is learning the traditional Korean dance, Salpuri, which is the act of washing away your sorrows and removing any remaining grievances and regrets, characterised by deep breaths. We incorporated graceful movements from Bon Salpuri into the choreography. One of the performers, unfortunately, suffered a physical injury just before we began our workshops, and it was beautiful how all the performers responded with respect and care for each other’s wellbeing, while retaining rigour, innovation and sensitivity to the work.

The title Performing Care is a response to tensions between the need for authentic care and manufactured, manipulative or oppressive care. This tension exists for individuals and systems.

I also reflected upon the expectations towards people in need of support to perform a certain weakness or desperation in order to be deemed worthy of care provision. These attitudes are prevalent when we talk about disability, mental health, homelessness, incarceration and other groups who are in real need of care.

The third choreography on bureaucratic bodies drew from public submissions about digital technologies, isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic and public protests, and we were interested in how bodies could potentially resist the numbing pressures of bureaucratic or capitalistic systems.

Video still from <em>Performing Care</em>, Alecia Neo, 2023. Image courtesy of the artist. 

It has been rewarding to work with director of photography Jonathan Goh, whose experienced eye conveyed the nature of the different choreographies, and sound designer Tingli Lim, whose sound work introduced new layers to the choreographies as she reread the material. Tingli collaborated with me for an earlier iteration of the Care Index, where she was part of creating a collective movement score about wayfinding. I am grateful to revisit this process and finally manifest the project we began years ago.

There is a series of prints and text annotations interspersed throughout the Tunnel. You have also incorporated graph lines into the presentation of the exhibition. Could you share more on these works and why you decided to adopt this mode of presentation? 

Data in Movement is a movement score that follows the shapes of line graphs. The movement score takes place on a black and white terrain of human skins. The red line graphs derive from real-life data about a range of topics related to the provision of care: the availability and quality of caregiving support, access to green spaces and water, education levels, number of endangered plants and animals, number of displaced persons and many others.

Installation view of <em>Performing Care</em>, Alecia Neo, 2023. 

I chose to present them as a two-part composition of photographic prints that bridge the three videos. I was first drawn to line graphs when I encountered these statistics while researching refugee numbers and the conditions of their movements across different geographies during a digital residency with In Transit. As I delved deeper into data about refugees, I found it difficult to reconcile the stark numbers, charts and graphs with the lives of people living these realities. The form of the graph lines reminded me of human bodies, moving through a myriad of poses. Initially, I began experimenting with juxtaposing graph lines against textures of different objects and landscapes.

Eventually, I returned to working with photographs of skin, in which the line graphs vibrate and respond to each other in a constant state of moving and becoming, while interconnecting to present a more extensive and complex picture. The photographed skins bear marks of injury, stresses and labour, symbolising different bodies that navigate the world.

Apart from the public submissions, I also drew inspiration from the rich reflections and video scores from participants, which came from workshops I hosted under the Care Index. The text annotations presented in the Tunnel are placed in proximity to the videos and workshops they emerged from.

With 'Care Index', you are looking at creating a repository of gestures which everyone could tap into as a resource and potentially perform to enact care. Could you elaborate on why movement and performing are such crucial modes of expression for this project? 

Care is a visceral experience that can only be experienced relationally through the body. I find the improvisational aspects of care work, where one rehearses to sharpen one’s skills to respond to another person’s body and the unexpected, similar to contact improvisation. Many of the primary caregivers I met in support groups often spent most of their time, sometimes decades, focusing on taking care of others’ needs. Exhaustion and burnout are common, particularly those without concrete support systems to alleviate them from their care work. I noticed how some caregivers typically struggle with remembering anything creative or special they have done for themselves. They would need prompting to stop momentarily to contemplate their desires, needs and aspirations. Sometimes, paying attention to these desires would evoke feelings of guilt or discomfort or a need to negate them by deeming them unimportant compared to the care work they have to perform.

The bulk of support for caregivers focuses on verbal sharing and listening, exposure to resources and practical interventions, which are vital resources. Yet, it takes a while for people to feel ready to open up and share. I observed a need for more safe spaces for them to experiment, play and reimagine their roles as caregivers and their relationships to care work through non-verbal ways. This project was birthed from this gap. I was curious if a body-centred approach would unlock dormant areas of creativity, focusing primarily on the potential of physical movements for expression beyond function.


Performing Care by Alecia Neo is on view at Esplanade Tunnel from 29 Sep 2023 to 7 Jan 2024.

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