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WORDS ON ARTNURSE+ Professor Mark Bartlett, 2016
ArtNurse+ is the performative alter ego of the incomparable photographer, voyager, and artist-activist, Vinca Petersen, who appears from time to time wearing a NHS ‘uniform’ with the green chemist’s cross dripping down the back. Sometimes she is followed by a murmuration of gold glitter. And sometimes she subverts her own role, while expanding it self-critically, by transforming capitalism’s central act by selling trinkets to art event crowds there to purchase expensive fetishized commodities, while stickering, (essentially branding them), with the dripping green chemist’s cross. Such branding is a humorous light touch which she applies with genuine care and the serious intent of raising the most important question: When even ‘health’ is for sale, what importance, what value, can art have? But she raises an even more central, two-part question: is art healthy? and, how might art become healthy? Her appearances raise these questions in order to transfer them to those who find themselves branded by ArtNurse+. The power of her work is that it is genuinely interrogative, and each question she performs immediately splits into others, each new one adding another layer of complexity that no single person can answer. Why does the cross drip? Why doesn’t it conform to the borders of its stencil? Is what is perceived as ‘health’, unhealthy? If so, who do you trust to care for you? The hospital nurse or doctor? The gallerist or the museum? The market? And, what do you care for? Who, do you care for? Why do you care? As an NHS carer, she is under oath to care for anyone and everyone, no matter what or who they are. Even ‘YOU.’
While something of mischief-maker, she’s not the type to wreak havoc or throw political slogans like stones or molotov cocktails at arch enemies. Her rebelliousness takes far more subtle, and far more effective forms; she is a healer after all. Her medicine is so subtle you’ll never even realize you’ve taken it. Which will definitely speed your recovery. She’ll make you see the world differently, make you want to care about things you didn’t know you cared about – the neglected, abandoned, and isolated humans living on the margins to whom her work is dedicated, like the 47SpecialMen, all disabled inhabitants of an orphanage in the Ukraine.
And she does it with extraordinary skill; the kind of skill that can’t be learned, that arises spontaneously from an unquestionable belief in a sense of purpose. She understands the subtle differences between the elements of her art; between folly and wit, for example; or between jest and joke. She is an expert in play, the great underrated philosophical concept that the Belgian cultural historian, Johan Huizinger, recognized was so significant that he redefined humanity as homo ludens. “Play lies outside the antithesis of wisdom and folly,” he tells us, “and equally outside those of truth and falsehood, good and evil.” ArtNurse+ is homo ludens incarnate; her aim to break down antitheses. She plays, and involves her audience in her play, to bring its attention to exactly the ‘outside’ of antitheses like those that Huizinger enumerates. If seriousness is a folly, wisdom is no recourse; only play can be its antidote, and ArtNurse+ carries plenty of that in her medical kit.
ArtNurse+ is an impossible persona who has synthesized the theatrical theories of Artaud, Brecht, and Debord. And yet she is far more than the sum of those parts. As Petersen has said, her “work is less concerned with self-reflection and more with the growing desire to effect society and the world around them in a positive way. It is activist art, which I take to be socially-engaged and which engages with the politics of its environment.” The subtlety there is her connection of politics to its environment. For her, politics is site specific, so-to-speak, whether the site is local or global, and for Petersen, it’s both. Even more than that, ArtNurse+ sees her responsibility as a health practitioner to heal that antithesis. She works to link, in a Situationist dérive , the 47SpecialMen who live precariously in an orphanage in Kalinovka, Ukraine directly to art events in cosmopolitan centers like London and Paris. Healing, for ArtNurse+ is possible only when the link between them is two-way as care always is. Her work is exceptional in that one of the antitheses she plays with in order to decenter it is that of ‘charity’ itself. It is not that those who do the caring, are ONLY those who make donations to help those in need; those in need are not ONLY cared for, but make their own donations to those who help them. Wheelchair bound and poor, they cannot do this by traveling to Paris or London to give their gifts in person. So they send an emissary – ArtNurse+ – to deliver their care to their carers, for them.
And it is for them and with this purpose ArtNurse+ performs. And it for this purpose that Petersen established the Future Youth Project, (FYP), which among other activities, raises money for, and organizes and sponsors bus trips to, the orphanage in Ukraine where, fortunate to receive YOUR care, the 47SpecialMen live, just a few of the neglected and isolated humans living on the margins WITH whom ArtNurse+ works. Her appearances at art world events are, then, for them; but they are just as much for the participants of the art events. ArtNurse+ uses play to break down the boundaries between the rituals of exhibitions and those that happen out of sight in the rural context of Ukrainian orphanages. But by performing that COMMUNICATION link, she literally restores health, restores it through evoking compassion, empathy, love; and restores it literally by drawing on and drawing from her audiences that overlooked capacity to play, and to participate, reciprocally, in care. She challenges us to become homo ludens. Play is the essence of who we are because it is through play that we come into being as children; and it is play that we seek everyday in one form or another. When we dance, joke, go to the pub, tease, and make others laugh. It is a very serious business. Petersen’s ArtNurse+ does what all HEATHY art should do: she makes us confront not just ourselves, but ourselves in relation to a specific, real SITUATION, of some nasty truths about the world that we collude in but choose to ignore. ArtNurse+ attends to our unhealthy consciences and offers us powerful medicine.