Racheal Crowther’s Qualified To Care

On Empathy and Bureaucracy in Racheal Crowther’s Qualified To Care
Text by Allan Gardner

Chances are, if you’re reading this in the UK, you have been affected by austerity measures in some significant capacity. The increasing pressure on public services created by more than a decade of Tory rule have turned cracks in social support systems into gaping fissures. More than slipping through, vulnerable people are plunging into the darkness, with no apparent desire for recourse or reform visible within the British government.

Refusal to address the failings of treating essential public services as for-profit business, along with moves towards increased privatization in the NHS, has further limited access to support for those who most need it. In her recent solo exhibition at London’s Ginny on Frederick, Racheal Crowther attempts the Sisyphean task of addressing the impact of austerity politics through a moving analytical presentation using the closure of the Queens Road Day Centre (a meeting place for learning-disabled adults) as a case-study.

In Qualified To Care, the artist addresses how we understand care as an action, industry, and necessity. Care is examined in a broad spectrum, looking at what it means to care for something/one and what is determined to be deserving of care by a given distributor. In the case of a physical space like the Queens Road Day Centre, care is delivered through adaptive and empathetic activity, able to respond directly to the needs of service users (in line with resources available) due to the localized nature of the project. To provide a space for people who, for a variety of reasons, struggle to integrate socially or function professionally is to provide an opportunity for fulfillment and stability that may not necessarily fit into forms or data sets used by Government or other organizations tasked with providing said care. If something cannot be measured and fed back to superiors as proof of function, it is unlikely to continue—a clear example of the failure of cold, bureaucratic structures concerning the delivery of social care. If the system of appraisal is designed based on the collection and presentation of data, it will never be capable of functioning properly as a means of delivering person-specific care on a case-by-case basis. 

Discussing the exhibition with Crowther, she describes the situation in which an alternative caregiver/system of care is in place: Other people step in, they don’t know you and exist on standby [for times where a primary caregiver is unable to fulfill that role] and it can be quite difficult to accept that care sometimes. 

This experience is important to note in the discussion of Qualified To Care because it addresses the notion and function of care as existing outside of what is quantifiable—to provide a safety net in case of emergencies is not the same thing, particularly in situations whereby the support system is supposed to act as a replacement of or in assistance to paternal and emotional care. Crowther succinctly identifies this issue, drawing from personal experience as well as professional experience case-managing delivery of care to vulnerable people in order to highlight the practical and emotional gaps in our contemporary systems. To create a structure to avoid complete breakdown of familial/social units is essential but unfortunately only acts as a safeguard against the most severe situations. Care as an experience, the sense of being cared for, is often disregarded entirely as a necessity due to its inability to fit within the paradigms of bureaucratic appraisal. 

The frontline workers who deliver support to those in need are hemmed in, hampered by the need for quantifiable feedback and the creation of data sets. The endless cycle of report writing is a necessary evil in order to maintain funding for programmes and projects but cannot happen without billable working hours being devoted to it. As a result, care sector workers are often forced to work beyond their allotted hours to deliver the level of support necessary, leading to a specific type of professional exhaustion coined by traumatology expert Charles Figley as Compassion Fatigue. Essentially, the theory is that actionable empathy will diminish the longer it is forced to exist under exhaustive circumstances. The detachment of the management system within the British care sector acts in ignorance of this, in ignorance of the individuals and communities it supports because without doing so, basing their decisions on quantifiable data would feel insensitive, immoral, and ineffective. 

Services like Crowther’s example (the Queens Road Day Centre) are among the most vulnerable to the cycle of reportage and analysis. Day centres, drop-ins, and community social spaces do not necessarily have to drive high usage numbers or outcomes to be effect tools in the delivery of real, empathetic care—oftentimes they may service a small but dedicated user group for whom those spaces and services comprise part of an extremely limited network of places accessible for social interaction at a cost-free, localized level. They address the difference between direct contact with a case-worker and instead aim to provide haptic, responsive support that allows for the building of relationships between workers and service users but also (often more importantly) the service users themselves. 

The remnants of the centre are presented as a video, playing on a repurposed LED pharmacy sign, filmed the day before its scheduled demolition and showing belongings of the original service users still in the building. Of course, seeing discarded toys, DVDs, games etc. invoke sympathy or sadness in the viewer—largely due to the revelation of how little it can take to create a space in which vulnerable people can feel cared for and supported—but what it also highlights is the literal function of these spaces. Put simply, they can provide a community where there previously wasn’t one. 

With her recent presentation, Racheal Crowther manages to convey what it means both to provide care and to be in need of it. Expanding definitions with a strong professional and personal awareness of the inner-workings of the care system, Qualified To Care establishes a clear and empathetic connection between the provider and recipient and its dependence on adaptability and understanding, ultimately directing an incisive critique at the callous nature of British bureaucracy and austerity politics. 

Photos courtesy the artist and Ginny on Frederick. Photography by Stephen James.