GAK Bremen



On Trying to Be a Palliative Artist Dafna Maimon

When Olav Westphalen called me in the summer of 2020 and asked if I wanted to be part of a new association around Palliative Care and its connection to art, I enthusiastically replied: I’d love to! I love cave people! I had just been reading a few books on Upper Paleolithic cave art and was eager to have a group around the research. We continued speaking, mostly on top of each other, with squealing eagerness; I about cave paintings, and their inherent cooperation with the natural environments they are found in, as a new foundation for considering art-making; Olav about conversations he’d had with climate scientists on contemplating the planet as someone who is dying, and may be in need of palliative care (and artists, perhaps, being the least likely saviours thereof). Despite our semiotic confusion, and essentially, the laying out of plans for forming two entirely different groups, we were somehow already speaking of the same thing. A few months later The Association for the Palliative Turn (APT) was born.

Four years earlier I’d begun collaborating with Ethan Hayes-Chute on our ever-growing Gesamtkunstwerk, Camp Solong. The process-oriented project lives on a sister planet to APT. While it is not directly a palliatively framed undertaking, Camp Solong is a nomadic summer camp for grownups who “Stay to Leave” and, “Where Goodbyes are for Everyone”. Our camps are heterotopic spaces: each session gives six people over the age of 25 the possibility to return to a childlike existence of campfires, outdoor sleeping (in bunk-beds), scheduled naps, and talent shows, all while processing amassed losses and hang-ups clouding their lives. The campers, selected via open call, each describe in their application letter what kind of loss they are hoping to process or achieve (in the case that they are letting go of something) during the three-day camp. However, it is not a retreat for grieving nor an ordained therapeutic program; the camp counsellors are two artists — Ethan and myself. Throughout the camp we embody our ridiculous, (and by now middle-aged) yet seriously playful alter egos Fluffy & Baloo, who are driven by an exaggerated obsession with farewells.

From the very beginning of the camp the focus is placed on its end. In fact, the camp’s first hour is spent on an exercise called The Goodbye Hour, in which the campers practice saying goodbye to one another before even introducing themselves. This reversal of attention, from essentially hello to goodbye, serves as a way to embrace life and build intensity of the moment:

“At Camp Solong we have asked ourselves time and again: What exactly makes the stakes so high? Why do we feel so much at Summer Camp, and how can we feel it best? Why does the experience stick so hard?

The answer: because it ends. Every Summer Camp starts with its end in sight, and at that finale, every camper, every counsellor, has to face this inevitable separation from something that will never be again.”

Palliation means to embrace, or cloak, and within palliative care, it is to ease a dying person’s pain. Camp Solong’s focus on goodbye as a mantra channels the idea of any human life as one that is in the process of dying, and therefore in need of palliative care. It also considers mourning as a never-ending process, one that follows you around like a fluctuating shadow, only appearing differently at times, depending on one’s relationship to the light. Perhaps it is similar to believing in a slow apocalypse already in effect, rather than an unforeseen meteor smashing into Earth, or a jumpy finger hovering over a button, ending it all in one go.

Each camp session is, in a way, a simulation of a life within a life, where the desire is to make the most of each day. The campers are asked to rename themselves with a camp name that could awaken good feelings, aspirations, or perhaps help nudge some frequent bad behaviour in another direction. In one of the sessions a late-rising camper took on the name Early Bird, while another struggling with familial acceptance of their sexuality chose Queen Elizabeth. Ethan became Baloo via an exercise in acceptance to take suggestions from others, and I became Fluffy due to an unending, irrational joy upon imagining any creature with that quality. The new names allow for the reconstruction of an identity, within an otherwise non-gendered, homogenised camp wardrobe of sunset hues and soft cottons.

While endings and goodbyes are a trademark of Camp Solong, they are still approached with equal amateurism by its camp counsellors as by any layman who’d rather avoid the thought of one’s days being numbered. For APT’s exhibition at the Künstlerhaus Bremen, we invited viewers to experience an intimate moment from the camp counsellors’ personal life. Our installation there, Camp Solong: Sheltered Hangups, is a makeshift, private fort, constructed with blankets thrown over a table that one can crawl under (if meeting the requirements to enter, which are stated on the dangling sign above the entrance: Grown Ups Only). Once under the table, the viewer finds themselves in an altered space; a mini-cabin of sorts, built around a resting place, containing private items and notes, and a peach-coloured landline telephone from bygone times. By picking up the receiver one can eavesdrop on an ongoing conversation between Fluffy and Baloo. The counsellors are heard finding one way after another not to say goodbye, and instead, just hang on the line by passing the ball of goodbye back and forth.

"Camp Solong: Sheltered Hangups", 2022, installation view Künstlerhaus Bremen 2022, photo by Fred Dott

While APT as an association borrowing from and referring to palliative care is asking questions around how to live as warmly and fulfilled as possible till the end — once an end has been diagnosed or acknowledged— Camp Solong imagines itself creating simulations of how to live meaningfully throughout life, in the unknowing state of when and where one’s end will be. As such, Camp Solong does its best to make sure that the end is never out of sight, and therefore as a belief-system it could be seen as being more neurotic. After all, is obsessing over the end really accepting the end? Somehow, it speaks of distracting coping strategies, and a general lack of trust in life. Never living a day without assuming it could be one’s last is an approach that is neither sustainable nor, ironically, very present. As a project mythology then, it seems to inhabit some kind of trauma mediated by self-deprecating humour. And yet, each fleeting day never feels as deeply rich, hilarious, and warm as it does at Camp Solong.

Knowing my own biography, and how it always feeds into my work, it is no surprise that Camp Solong both engages and performs some form of trauma. My 44-year-old healthy father inexplicably disappeared from my life when I was thirteen — from one day to another gone — somehow dying of what may have been a simple fall down the stairs. Ever since then I have felt that my life was conditioned by this event, his end. The resulting non-linear, and continuously oscillating mourning (the rhizomatic trauma of unprocessed loss) is still floating around like almost-invisible yet disturbing spring pollen through my family’s existence. In a way, Camp Solong has been the one project that in part (at least on my end) started from wanting to explore the experience of loss. It simultaneously also ended up being the one to soothe this injury substantially. It makes sense that Camp Solong is ongoing (until now six years) and follows an unpredictable schedule; like grieving it has no expiration date and no set rhythm.

When Ethan and I submerge into each Camp Solong session, we do not build a cabin as a sculpture to be seen from afar, or just plan a fun, performative program, we make a liveable, brief fictional world, in which we open deeply to the temporary community that forms through the unique symbiosis of its members. Camp Solong couldn’t exist without its campers who arrive at the camp with just a toothbrush and a piece of “emotional trash” in hand, and let go of everything else: their regular clothes, their phones and computers, their names, the knowing of what will happen each day, and any contact to the outside world. At the end of the camp, and especially during the last evening, when the Emotional Trash is brought out and its backstory shared with the group, the unending scope and universality of loss (and shared tears) is rarely as viscerally and warmly felt as then.

Once APT got up and running, I was riveted to be one of its founding members. The work Ethan and I were doing with Camp Solong could now be supported by a bigger family of thinkers, artists, bodyworkers, and palliatively curious humans, circling around questions arising when facing life-endings. And indeed, a year after joining APT, and having had the chance to learn from actual palliative care workers and collaborate on these topics with the association’s members, the new knowledge already had an effect. It supported me in accepting having to say goodbye to a dear friend who didn’t survive his fight against cancer. Then, early this winter, I found myself in a newly excited place in relation to these topics; I was to bring new life into the world by the end of the summer, and would suddenly be moving towards birth rather than the opposite. However much my previous obsessing about the unknowingness of the end, and even my training for unpredictable goodbyes through Camp Solong could have prepared me, it was still to my utter shock that I lost the child I was carrying in its second trimester. For a moment then, it seemed that no previous work, no Camp Solong manifesto, with its warnings and pre-emptive attempts at accepting life’s goodbyes, no APT workshop or event, could help me out of the despair I found myself in. After some weeks of life getting really dark, I went to see a former therapist who simply told me that there was no way to cover mourning through insurance; mourning was not a diagnosable illness. He further elaborated, when I worried out loud about not being able to meet my work obligations, that while what I was going through was unfortunate, and undoubtedly painful, I was not sick — it is society who is ill.

"Camp Solong: Losing Weight", 2021 (Video Still)

While all this was happening, there were opportunities to plan a new Camp Solong, as well as participating in APT events and future exhibitions. While most likely avoiding the deeper pain that was actually gripping me, throughout that time I worried gravely about falling behind and being left out of APT (despite reassurances that it was more than OK to take a break). Only months later, when time and the sun had restored life a bit, did I see how absurd it had been to feel guilt and to experience “FOMO” for not being at peak performance as a member of a Palliative Association during a period of physical healing and mourning.

Camp Solong: Lost Weight, 2021, Single-Channel Video & Inverted Hole Sculptures, installation view Brandenburgischer Kunstverein Potsdam 2021, photo: Simon Blanck

Perhaps it may take many more Camp Solong sessions, evermore training in saying goodbye, more APT events, workshops and retreats before I can call myself a Palliative Artist. It may even be possible to convince myself, in good neoliberal logic, that additional losses make for a better Camp Solong counsellor. But, instead, I prefer writing this text, and re-watching our own Camp Solong instructional video Losing Weight, and let Baloo remind me, that sometimes, all one needs to do is dig a hole in the ground with a friend, scoop out the dirt with your bare hands, and then life may feel just that much lighter.

This text first appeared in English in The Palliative Turn Number 1.

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