Care in Comfort, Care in Discomfort

As I’ve spent the past week reflecting on our class’s experience in the Black Power Naps exhibit by artists Navild Acosta and Sosa, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the differences between care and comfort, and the role of discomfort in care.

The installation was explicitly designed in order to offer care and rest to those who need it and to whom such spaces are typically unavailable, specifically Black people. I think it was also designed in order to make a statement and prompt questions about why such a space might be useful or needed. There is a tricky balance between rest and provocation; the two seem at first glance to be in opposition to each other, though perhaps the tension is more nuanced than that.

As I mentioned to one student in an email exchange about the experience, a space can’t possibly meet everyone’s needs; the specificity of serving one person or community means that it will be less well tailored to others. There seems to be something interesting in that tension between rest and discomfort, that what creates ease for one creates tension for another.

I found myself, in short, thinking once again of attunement. In her 2019 book What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use, Sara Ahmed writes:

If a garment becomes more attuned to a body that uses it, attunement is a consequence of use. We can glimpse in the story of the garment that clings better the more it is worn the beginning of another story: use can mean the lessening of receptivity to others. The garment that clings to the shape of a body wearing it might cling less well to those with a different shape. This is why I call an institution a well-worn garment: it has acquired the shape of those who tend to wear it such that it is easier to wear if you have that shape.

Sara Ahmed, What’s the Use, p. 43

I mentioned after leaving the exhibit that I had felt a little awkward. I knew the space wasn’t specifically for me; I felt acutely aware of the space I was taking up, about how I was reacting to the sensory input around me, about how my daughter felt in the space. Her first comment was one of surprise that there weren’t many Black people in the room. We had talked about the purpose of the installation, about the incident between the Black photographer and the disruptive and aggressive white woman who had security kick her out. I felt awkward seeing you all in person for the first time, too! I loved the attention to the senses—beautiful fabric, calming sound (though not everyone experienced it as calming), soft lighting and soft seating. And yet, the experience was one that created a feeling of productive friction for me, but not necessarily one of ease.

And now I think, maybe that was the point, at least for someone with my positionality. My comfort was actually irrelevant. For someone who typically moves through various spaces of the city with relative ease, that discomfort is a useful reminder. This garment is well worn, but not by me, and not for my body.

All of that is my individual perspective, but there is a group dynamic for me to consider as well. Those who were there know that we were not able to stay long in the space; security started closing it up well before the museum itself closed. One person wasn’t able to sit comfortably in the low, soft seating, and so was physically uncomfortable. Someone else had a negative sensory reaction to the constant sound that was piped in. My kid squirmed at images on the screen as it displayed images that celebrated the body in ways that made her uncomfortable. And one person had a really tough time just finding us.

So I’m also thinking about what I, as the instructor, could have done more carefully (as in, full of care) regarding the visit. It would have been an act of care, I think, for me to have found out more about the space and whether it would be accessible in various ways and appropriate for all ages. It would have been caring for me to have called ahead to learn that they would be closing the space early. I regret not doing these things, and I am also grateful to have had an opportunity to think about this kind of care in a concrete way.

But, returning to my initial question of care in comfort and care in discomfort, the artists who created the space are not responsible for my personal comfort. And in fact, there are ways to read the willingness to create both comfort and discomfort as a profound act of care. My discomfort prompts me to see differently, to ask new questions, to pause and wonder. What a gift.