Imagining Caregiving as Constant: Contact Traces at the Wattis Institute

48 books are arranged in a grid against a white background—each cover a different vibrant color, each title having something to do with Climate Change, e.g. "Climate Crash," "Global Warming," so on.
Jenny Kendler, A selection of 48 volumes from the artist’s collection of books on climate change, 2017. Archival inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist.

Contact Traces begins in the street outside of the Wattis Institute, with oranges, flowers, and a water pitcher thoughtfully laid out for visitors and passersby alike. It is an apt gesture for the exhibit, curated by CCA’s Graduate Program in Curatorial Practice’s Class of 2021, which explores notions of caregiving as “a vital web of interrelations,” amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

The outdoor piece, Derya Akay’s Flowers and Water (2021), offers a gentle intervention into the increasingly gentrified, privatized San Francisco landscape—while also providing direct aid through Akay’s donation of a portion of their material fees to the Ramaytush Ohlone, Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, and Planting Justice. Akay’s work in the exhibition also includes a forthcoming interactive installation, which will be made from found and gathered materials.

A man places a flower into a five-gallon bucket, which, alongside other similar buckets, is half full of flowers. On the same stretch of sidewalk are two tables, one holding coffee and water, and the other miscellaneous supplies. "Free to Take" is written below the coffee.
Derya Akay, Flowers and Water, 2021. Installation view. Flowers, water, fruit, coffee, and tea, Courtesy of Unit 17, Vancouver. Photo by Wyatt Hall, Impart Photography.
Two pairs of feet are submerged in a brown-ish liquid in white tubs, arranged on the floor atop towels. The pants of the individual's legs are cuffed.
LaToya Ruby Frazier, Detox (Braddock U.P.M.C.), 2011. Video still (color, sound), 22:24 min. Copyright LaToya Ruby Frazier, Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Just inside, LaToya Ruby Frazier’s video Detox (Braddock U.P.M.C.) (2011) shows the artist and her mother as they take detoxifying ionic foot baths to remove waste from their bodies. The film’s setting, and the Fraziers’ hometown, Braddock, Pennsylvania, was home to a steel mill that shut down in the early 1980s. Frazier’s mother suffers from various health issues due to the toxins released by the mill, compounded by the closure of the town’s only hospital and her mother’s experiences with healthcare discrimination. Detox alternates between documentary footage of the detoxifying baths, an intimate interview with Frazier’s mother about her experiences in Braddock and with various healthcare providers, and hazy footage of pollutants emanating from the mill. The piece draws attention to the ways in which the “looming” climate crisis is already here, and is intertwined with environmental racism and the cruelties of the medical-industrial complex.

Parental care is emphasized in Lenka Clayton’s piece, 63 Objects Taken From My Son’s Mouth (2013), a playful catalog of debris that the artist prevented her infant child from choking on. Clayton photographs the tiny offenders in a sparse grid reminiscent of minimalist aesthetics, accompanying this print with an artist’s book that pairs formally similar objects in each spread’s recto/verso, indexing them in numbered order of appearance. 63 Objects grants humorous, measurable acknowledgment to the labor involved in parenting that is made invisible by misogyny and capitalism, and catalogues the redundant anxiety of a parent’s responsibility for protecting their child from harm.

63 small objects are arranged in a grid against a white background, all of them about the size of a quarter, e.g. a cigarette butt, a bottle cap, a spool of string, etc.
Lenka Clayton, 63 Objects Taken from my Son’s Mouth, 2013, printed 2021. Photograph, 15 x 11 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
Atop a large, white, brick wall fixture a few small items are arranged, as on a vanity. Above it, the still of an image depicts a hand holding a roller over a sink.
Ilana Harris-Babou, Decision Fatigue, 2020. Installation view. HD video and installation with sculptures made of resin, ceramic, liquid plastic, sand, glass bottles, pigment, cheese balls, Cheetos, and car air freshener. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Wyatt Hall, Impart Photography.

Another tongue-in-cheek piece, Ilana Harris-Babou’s Decision Fatigue (2020), plays from a screen embedded in the wall atop a counter lined with strange sculptural products featured in the video. In the YouTube-style film, Harris-Babou’s mother performs a series of “routines,” such as “my daily routine for not breastfeeding.” She makes use of bizarre faux-beauty products, such as a Cheeto face mask, to evoke the absurdity of the contemporary “self-care” industry, so far removed from Audre Lorde’s articulation of self-care as political warfare. The piece elegantly satirizes the nonsensical, commodified, and racist portrayals of “purity” that are presented by beauty influencers. 

A series of pieces by Jenny Kendler round out the exhibition with apocalyptic monuments to the deadly results of climate-change inaction. In Underground Library (2017-ongoing), books on climate change that have been biocharred to sequester carbon are laid out in a burnt grid on a podium, displayed next to the metal kilns used for this process. By utilizing biocharring—a process that helps mitigate CO2 emissions—as a technique to obscure the books’ contents, Kendler signals towards a somber future that could have been averted. After the exhibition’s close, the books comprising Underground Library will be buried, simultaneously benefiting the soil and serving as an ecopoetic mourning ritual. Kendler’s other pieces, A selection of 48 volumes from the artist’s collection of books on climate change (2017) and Facing Climate Change Together (2008) serve as photographic catalogs of these obscured books, with an empty “Due Date” library card that is indicative of deadlines for preventing climate disaster. 

On a white pedestal, piles of charred paper are arranged in a group. Nearby, empty and rusted oil barrels rest on their side. On the wall, two hanged pieces of art hang.
Jenny Kendler, A selection of 48 volumes from the artist’s collection of books on climate change, 2017; Underground Library. Biocharred books, 2017-ongoing. Installation view. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Wyatt Hall, Impart Photography.

Contact Traces exposes lapses, performances, and vital acts of care. It gestures towards a present and a future that is dependent on collective action, but also controlled by forces that so many individuals can barely survive, let alone dismantle: late-stage capitalism, the climate crisis, and institutionalized racism. In what feels like a startling omission, the exhibit does not include any pieces that explicitly engage with the organizing or mutual aid strategies of Disabled communities, although the curators do refer to these topics via their referenced researched texts. As Joanna Hevda writes in “Sick Woman Theory,” one such text: “What is so destructive about conceiving of wellness as the default, as the standard mode of existence, is that it invents illness as temporary.” Contact Traces refutes any such notion of temporary “illness” by positing the need for caregiving as an ongoing, multi-faceted, and necessary strategy for survival in these and future times.

Contact Traces
May 9–June 6, 2021
Wattis Institute of Contemporary Art, San Francisco, CA


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Author: Dani Smotrich-Barr

Dani Smotrich-Barr is a writer currently based in New York. They received a BA from Wesleyan University in 2020, where they were an Arts Editor for the Wesleyan Argus.