Elena Cologni is an artist whose research practice has had a sustained in(ter)disciplinary approach. After a BA in Fine Art from Accademia di Belle Arti Brera in Milan, and a MA in Sculpture from Bretton Hall College, Leeds University, Cologni was awarded a scholarship for a PhD in Fine Art and Philosophy from University of the Arts, Central Saint Martins College, London, 2004 (CSM).
Where are you working at the moment?
I am based in Cambridge (UK), where I had also managed for a few years the artistic research production platform Rockfluid to work internationally, and address with an in(ter)disciplinary approach issues of memory, perception and place.
I am now bringing to conclusion the project CARE: from periphery to centre commissioned for the 250th Anniversary of Homerton College, at the University of Cambridge. This included an exhibition and site-specific installation developed in response to the history of the college, through research in the archive, and in consultation with the 250 Archive Working Group, including archivist Svetlana Paterson, historian of science Dr Melanie Keene, and educationalist and social historian Dr Peter Cunningham.
Can you tell us about your research and its relation to care ethics?
The mentioned project, draws on the College architecture (Ibberson Building, 1914), and on two key figures in its history: Maud Cloudesley Brereton (formerly Maud Horobin, lecturer and Acting Principal, 1903), and Leah Manning (student 1906-08). Both of international importance, they were concerned with health, well-being, and education, and I am specifically interested in how they engaged with care in domestic (Brereton published the book ‘The Mothers’ Companion, 1909) and international political contexts (Manning organised children’s escape from the Spanish fascist regime, 1929).
A display of items from the archive gives a snapshot of early 20th-century life in a women’s College, while focusing on practices of care in society and in students’ learning, through domestic studies, teachers training in medicine, health, and physical education, academic subjects which were considered less central than others, but more ‘appropriate’ for female students.
These themes underpin my sculptural installation designed in response to the 1914 Ibberson building (a former gymnasium), and echoed in the Queen’s Wing (housing the new gym) opening to a glass veranda, flowerbeds and lawn.
Moreover, after an exchange with care ethics’ philosopher Virginia Held, I was able to contextualise my practical work, and focus on aspects of womanhood, relationally and reciprocity at the core of the approach. This process is evidenced throughout the exhibition, including the recorded development of my thinking in a Moleskine sketchbook, and a selection of extracts from one of the publications Held shared with me informed a series of custom-made fabric labels, the steel frieze construction (Care As Support), and the steel and rope made sculptures (Relations Of Care).
How did you get involved in care ethics?
In the current project care ethics functions as the lens through which I responded to the College archive, but I have been working in this direction even if I did not addressing it directly for some time. It naturally evolved from understanding the dialogic approach in my artistic process as a reciprocal form of caring (from the part of myself as the artist, and that of the participant), while building on educationalist, sociologist and poet Danilo Dolci, who theorised and adopted Reciprocal Maieutics (1973).
Learning about his work and talking to people who were close to him, allowed me to become aware of the impact of the reciprocal giving process involved (Cologni 2016), also typical in ecological and feminist approaches. This experience still is at the core of my creative thinking and it was embedded at the time in a series of dialogic sculptures for hands (Lo Scarto).
More recently the project Seeds of Attachment (2016/18), a specific feminist lens (discussed at New Hall Art Collection in Cambridge and Freud Museum in London), allowed me to focus on undervalued roles of care in society, as I worked with region based participants, and in particular on motherhood in collaboration with the Centre for family Research in Cambridge. This had been previously addressed through the project ‘U Verruzze’ (2013), looking at trust between mother and child and curated by Vessel.
However, in the latest work, the emphasis is on the caring role of motherhood in society in a wider sense. This, similarly to other practices of care in society, is undervalued, even if hugely contributing to our economies and welfare. The project tried to identify intersections between the theory of attachment of parent and child and place attachment, by proposing encounters on the school-run (the route from home to school), thus highlighting a sort of geography of difference of caring. This was done by using a dialogic sculpture to create a physical and conceptual new place for the encounter to happen: the intraplace.
How would you describe care ethics?
Care ethics allows us to step out of the dominant social, political and cultural system of understanding society and relations, and look at the peripheral (not the central) instead: the circular (not the linear) thinking, the quiet (not the loud) voices in society as strengths (not weaknesses). Care Ethics teaches and trains us not to get tempted to compete by adopting the same strategies, which have damaged our society and environment, but try different avenues instead.
Learning to take care also means to foster and create new connections to solve problems in society, something at the core of some non-western countries’ ethos (eg. Ubuntu). Essentially care ethics has listening at its core, as much as most dialogic approaches including Dolci’s, and a lot can come from practicing it.
What is the most important thing you learned from care ethics?
As an artist and academic, I have referred to phenomenology the most since early on (1999-2004), while also understanding the participants’ and audience’s reception of my work through aspects of psychology, and considering lived experience as central to my work. Care ethics showed me how to position my subjectivity, within this tradition.
Virginia Held for example states that “Experience is central to feminist thought, but what is meant by experience is not mere empirical observation, as so much of the history of modern philosophy and as analytic philosophy tend to construe it. Feminist experience is what art and literature as well as science deal with. It is the lived experience of feeling as well as thinking, of performing actions as well as receiving impressions, and of being aware of our connections with other persons as well as of our own sensations.” (2006)
Whom would you consider to be your most important teacher(s) and collaborators?
My interest in how care can be embedded in art evolved from considering its perceptual and psychological component since my early studies in Italy, which led to include specific strategies for enhancing social awareness and engagement. This was inspired by artists from the 60s and 70s, whose approaches impact society to this day in different ways. These are, including: the psychology informed approaches by Bruce Nauman, and Grazia Varisco (Varisco taught me at Brera Academy in Milan); the sociology related one by Dan Graham; the active participation and empathy in Lydia Clark’s, and the social actions and positioning by Artists Placement Group (APG) and Steven Willats.
In addition, I partially owe my unconventional research journey to experimental film maker and great mind Malcolm Le Grice, who was the director of studies of my PhD at Central Saint Martins in London from 1998. Generally, in my projects, my collaborators are carefully chosen and approached to take part in the initial investigation and research and/or in aspects of the creative process as participants.
What publications do you consider the most important with regard to care ethics?
I can mention the references which are useful for me to consider a very small portion of this wide area of study, and specifically to do with care in relation to women’s position in society, dialogic strategies and ecology. I would mention Nel Noddings’ developed idea of care as a feminine ethic, drawing conceptually from a maternal perspective (Caring: A Feminine Approach To Ethics And Moral Education, Berkeley: University Of California Press, 1986), and understanding caring relationships to be basic to human existence and consciousness. Also, Annette Baier underscores trust, as a basic relation between particular persons, and as the fundamental concept of morality (Trust and Anti-trust, Ethics 96: 231-60, 1986).
Virginia Held wrote numerous publications on care ethics, in which she construes care as the most basic moral value, and describes feminist ethics as committed to actual experience, and lived methodologies. One of the most recent books is Ethics of Care, Personal Political and Global (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006). Held argues that rights based moral theories presume a background of social connection, and that care ethics can help to create communities that promote healthy social relations. In this context, I argue that art can be a powerful dialogic tool.
Which of your own books/articles/projects should we learn from?
My artistic approach has developed through steps of a personal journey, each of which investigates different aspects of the same unsettled condition of a human being in search for home. However, in the body of work since 2014 the subject matter has become more specific and so has my awareness of the impact of my participatory strategies.
For example, the project Lo scarto, a workshop based project also including 40 sculptures for hand and drawings, developed in Sicily, where Danilo Dolci worked, a process of visualization of the role of listening in dialogue (Unesco and European Funding, 2015), allowed for a non-verbal dialogic strategy to emerge therein. This is discussed in the book chapter Cologni, E. (2016) ‘A Dialogic Approach For The Artist As An Interface In An Intercultural Society’. In Burnard, Mackinlay, Powell, The Routledge International Handbook of Intercultural Arts Research New York, London: ROUTLEDGE.
While the site responsive art project Lived Dialectics, Movement and Rest at Museums Quartier in Vienna, was informed by walks (sic) and research on place attachment in dialogue with US based environmental psychologist David Seamon (discussed at the Leonardo Laser series of talks at Central Saint Martins College University of the Arts London and Westminster University, in 2016, and the Leonardo 50th Conference, 2017, Bologna, Italy, published as Cologni, E. (2018) ‘LOCATING ONESELF’, in The New and History – art*science 2017/Leonardo 50 Proceedings. Capucci and Cipolletta (Eds), Noema Media and Publishing – ISBN 978-88-909189-7-1). This project informed the development of Seeds of Attachment, which, together with my ongoing relevant research will be included in a book.
What are important issues for care ethics in the future?
My interest is now in a possible link between ecofeminism and care ethics (Held) through practices of care. I am trying to embed the adoption of dialogic (inherently interdisciplinary) strategies in the creation of the work, a form of socially engage art practice. These include responding to the spatial (Linda McDowell), social (Henry Lefebvre), and cultural dimension of a place, as well as engaging with specific communities and collaborators therein to create situated (Donna Haraway) and embodied knowledge (Luce Irigaray). My projects often develop through collaborating, and thus becoming part, of interdisciplinary contexts.
For example, the current project was developed in collaboration with the College 250 Archive Working Group and involved subjects like science, education and architecture. However, in my practice, consistent concerns with ecofeminism and place are informed by ongoing conversations with Professor Susan Buckingham (feminist geographer, Cambridge, UK), whereas the artistic strategies with curator Gabi Scardi (Milan, Italy, International Development Fund British Council/Arts Council England, 2018/19), and in reference to historical artists like Mierle Laderman Ukeles (Maintenance Art Works 1969–1980).
How may care ethics contribute to society as a whole, do you think?
I am interested in the fact that it takes us to look at things from a different angle, consider our actions and experience, to then realize how we can contribute to society. More specifically sharing through art, strategies and concerns I have as a mother myself was quite natural, and this will hopefully lead to make people more aware of how they can contribute themselves to society in the everyday. Joan Tronto and Berenice Fisher have defined ‘‘taking care of’’ as an activity that includes ‘‘everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible” (1990), and this is so relevant now and must be implemented at a social and environmental levels.
Do you know of any research-based projects in local communities, institutions or on national levels, where ‘care’ is central?
I have been in touch with different contexts relevant to my art work and research in the UK and beyond, including conducting ongoing dialogue with Ecofeminist Laura Cima (Italy, see my A-N Bursary blog 2018), and the Moleskine Foundation, whose social and pedagogic work through art takes place internationally including Africa. I am always interested in gathering more information about associations and organisations specifically in the context of artistic practice and care, and these include for example: the research centres CAMeO, at the University of Leicester (UK), or the projects Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology (Denmark), and Pier Projects (UK).
However, there are many wonderful socially engaged projects, institutions, artists and curators I have been following out there, whose remit is to impact society, and whose approach resonates with care ethics, even if in a wider sense, in terms of supporting social cohesion, denouncing and acting on climate change, address geopolitical issues, support inclusive gender policies, and intercultural dialogue. These are, including: VISIBLE Project (Belgium/Italy), Museum MIMA (UK), Arte Útil by artist Tania Bruguera, curatorial platforms PUBLICS (Finland), Arts Catalyst (UK), Vessel, and Connecting Cultures (Italy), to mention just a few.
- Maud Cloudesley Brereton, The Mother’s Companion (1909), detail from Contents page. Published when Brereton was a mother of five children. She had been honoured by the French Academy for her work in promoting public health. Sir Lauder Brunton, a leading medical practitioner with an international reputation, and a founder of the National League for Physical Education contributed a Preface. Published by Mills and Boon, best known for their popular literature and practical handbooks.
- Display of selected items from the College archive on Maud Brereton and Leah Manning.
- Indoor Gymnastics (1944/5). Photograph of scenes from Homerton’s past, showing students participating in gymnastics classes. Learning about health and moving the body was an important part of historical curricula.
- Installation view in the Ibberson Gymnasium, Homerton College, University of Cambridge. The arrangement of the display was inspired by archival photographs of the room, whose architectural design was punctuated by wooden panels corresponding to the areas in between the curved windows. On view are reproductions of the original items kept in the College Archive, as well as selected sport equipment. The newly produced rope sculptures refer back to the time when the space was used as a gym since it was built in 1914.
- Relations of Care, Elena Cologni (2018, pair of mobile sculptures, steel rods, jute ropes, 2.5 x 2.5 x 2 metres each).
- Care Proximities, Elena Cologni, installation view in front of the Ibberson Building, Homerton College, University of Cambridge (2018, installation including two sculptures and drawing on college lawn: wood + lawn marking paint, 20x100x0.5 meters)
- Care Proximities, Elena Cologni, installation view in the college lawn.
- Installation view including: Mother’s Tools, Elena Cologni (2018, 1 in a composition of 4: wood, steel, custom-made fabric labels, printing tools from the artist’s mother’s embroidery kit, 20cmx20cm each); and Care Notes, Elena Cologni (2018, graphite prints, graphite pencil, laser print on paper, Moleskine Japanese album, with inserts of fabric designs from the Architectural Review Magazine, June 1936, 21cm x 120 cm).
- Mother’s Tools, detail from installation
- Portion of display with content from the College archive, including contents of a needlework box (1861-2). Bought for 12s 6d, this box belonged to Emma Hunter, a student at Homerton College in the early 1860s. Dressmaking was an important skill for students in their adult lives, and in preparing a younger generation of girls at school for home-making and motherhood.
- Care Is Relational, and Care Instructions, Elena Cologni (2018, 2 from series of woven labels, the first of which is inspired by Virginia Held’s writings, and the latter by Maud Brereton’s revolutionary position at the time, that domestic labour should be paid)
Copyright Ó Elena Cologni, Homerton College, University of Cambridge and Moleskine Foundation
- Cologni, E. (2016) Dialogic Approach For The Artist As An Interface In An Intercultural Society. In Burnard, Mackinlay, Powell, The Routledge International Handbook of Intercultural Arts Research New York, London: Routledge.
- Cologni, E. (2018) Locating oneself, in The New and History – art*science 2017/Leonardo 50 Proceedings. Capucci and Copolletta (Eds), Noema Media and Publishing (ISBN 978-88-909189-7-1)
- Held, V. (2006) Justice and Care: Essential Readings in Feminist Ethics Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 101-115.
- Held, V. (1993) Feminist Morality: Transforming Culture, Society, and Politics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Held, V. (2006) Ethics of Care, Personal Political and Global. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Held, V. (2018) Care Ethics and the Social Contract, unpublished lecture, Oxford.
- Noddings, N. (1982) Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Berkeley: University of CA Press.
- Fisher, B. and Joan C. Tronto (1990). Toward a Feminist Theory of Care. In Circles of Care: Work and Identity in Women’s Lives, edited by Emily K. Abel and Margaret K. Nelson. State University of New York Press.
- Tronto, J. (1994) Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. New York, NY: Routledge.
The discussed project ‘CARE: from periphery to centre‘ was developed with contributions from University College London Library; Cambridge University Library; The Harlow Art Trust: Gibberd Gallery, Harlow. The project was part of Cambridge Festival of Ideas 2018, was commissioned by Homerton College of the University of Cambridge for the 250th Anniversary Celebrations, and kindly supported by the Moleskine Foundation.
Copyright Elena Cologni, Homerton College, University of Cambridge and Moleskine Foundation
Text: Ayla van der Boor