What is Complex Public Service?
Complex Public Service is a project and real-time research investigation initiated by socially-engaged artist Katie Ceekay, in collaboration with Welcome to the Village festival and kunstinitiatief VHDG.
In April of 2021, Katie Ceekay began a search for participants for a project idea based on connection, intention and public access. Starting at Leeuwarden’s Waagplein—a place she saw full of life despite the then lockdown—the Irish outsider took a deep breath and walked up to whoever she saw over the course of four weeks. Several months later, herself and a random configuration of “whoever was open enough on the day to say yes,” have gone through a deeply personal and intimate journey of experiencing Ceekay’s practice as some form of alternative public service.
From highly private sessions to facilitate taking the time for oneself, to participative trajectories that began to grow into collaborations, all sorts of ‘ways and things’ were permitted to enter this complex space. The project became an intense commitment to invest in a few, and thereby trust in powerful resonance rippling the surrounding community. Many changes, realisations, emotions and empowerments occurred, both for the participants and for Katie herself, as other than having the means to facilitate, there was no hierarchy disclosed between the participants and the artist. Budget decisions were shared when desired, a physical space was opened with great invitation, connections formed deeply—often through food,—new skills were learned, and feelings of worth began to thrive.
Alongside the deeply private and experiential aspect to the practice of a complex public service, Katie Ceekay also publically positions herself in the critical debate centring how we are living. Zooming in and out between the private, intimate, participatory realm, and the systemic, procedural, public world of governance, Katie wants to find breadcrumbs that give clues for how we could make difficult, society-shifting decisions, using the intentions of participatory spaces as prerequisite toolkits.
How to navigate the online world of Complex Public Service
This online space invites you to travel the world of the project through a selected set of materials. You can delve into three pieces of its pie, a pie which only exists in reality as a whole, in order to get an idea of both the conceptual perspectives and the real-time actions at play.
Groundwork will bring you to some thoughts, images and texts about the think-tanking backbone of the project’s workings.
Connections will take you to a set of carefully reflected letters to the participants, in a bid to to heartfeltly include their core and their value, without digging through identities.
Video will take you to the Complex Public Film—a piece meant to travel the project from a philosophical standpoint, in which a poetic think-along was opted for in place of a participant-based documentary.
Travel the site to find other breadcrumbs, and watch as the text section grows. Explore the world as a thinking space, make notes, journal thoughts, and get in touch with Katie as she gets ready to transition these concepts into a new and actualised project for 2022—City of Empathy.
GET IN TOUCH
C O L O F O N
Production: Evelyn Andoh
Filmmaker: Joost Wierenga
Pie illustration & logo: Julia de Jong
Animation: Anne Fie Salverda
Web development: Ra’fat Ali
Chef’s content: Elias Abdo
With special thanks to all the participants who made, and are, this project
Letters to participants
There’s a busyness caressing us all that is inescapable. Sometimes it feels like we can’t see, can’t think, can’t breath. Sometimes the busyness is confronting, time-snatching, imploding, meeting us face to face. Sometimes it’s outside of us, surrounding, passing around our bodied vessels—we observe it from numb distances in those sagas of loneliness. Both states of busy-disarray might be familiar to us all, one experientially stronger than the other at one moment or another.
What to find in such intensity? What’s lingering around amongst heightened nervous systems? We were born to progress! succeed!; or so we’ve been told. Not by one individual or one way of thinking—let’s not pretend human history has been cohesive enough for that—but by means of via-via in a collective tumbleweed of misinterpreted states of presumption. Sometimes it’s so noisy that who could blame us for forgetting to stop, to glance and see around; check. Check in.
Travelling the realms of a nine month practice,—and realistically, let’s register that time couldn’t bind such connections—travelling through this womb-like gestation, filtered out so much of the tumbleweed. Not metaphorically or naively, mind you. I’m not talking about the reignited hope of a lost and travelling soul. This was clear-cut. Hankering real-time ignition. There is deep, authentic, unmediated kindness amongst the rush.
Great, compassionate kindness. Care.
True kindness takes a realness.
To want another to feel at ease, to feel worthy, to feel needed, means that you really care.
It sounds courageous.
It sounds like radical, conscious, difficult work that takes time amongst this busyness. Indeed an element of time is needed, but it is not difficult, not at all, it is bodily the opposite.
There is a kindness mechanism inside us all; it is those conditions we un-choosingly experience that tend to disable its lights. Capitalism, commercialism, material culture, dangerous situations, conquering; the busy this and that—they are masterful condition-thrillers that like to hold us back. Disguised as friends of enjoyment, they are our collective lonely hangovers, a headache dislocating our love of kindness.
People love kindness. To give it. To get it. To experience it, a symbiosis of fulfilling, trust-making tissue.
I met unwavering, exceptional kindness this past year of stranger-come-friend connecting. It was a wake up call to confront my ego, my tensions; am I really being my-kind-enough? What cultural bias am I harbouring, why do I hold back on this, why do I retreat on that?
A family all but took me in.
Their home was to be seen, I was assured, as my nested retreat. Their table, full with food, never just for them, always also for me and mine. There would always be a plate for me. There would always be a mate-gourd ready for me, as it was perceptually clear from visit one that this was to become my comfort favourite; a father’s contingency care made note of such nuances. I almost had no choice but to consume copious top-ups of arak with dinner, but I didn’t care. It was so loving. I left each time filled with that deep, powerful joy reserved for the non-daily experience. And I wondered, each time, with them and with the others, why can’t we feel this deep more often? Why can’t this be our modus apparatus? What are we playing at? This is world-moving stuff. This is the border eraser we are desperately longing for, talking about, statically trying to innovate as if it needs inventing. All this time it’s right in front of us; so warm, so indescribably there. Plants-Forbid we let that impatience go. That busy agitation we learned as survival mechanism forte. Why are we keen to believe that kindness is not urgency, that the prize lies at the end of the race?
All that people deeply need is to meet each other. We need proximity. We need you and me, standing with a closeness. Kind eyes and open hearts are stronger than our divides. Divides that are not real, that materialise ineffectively as both stories we tell ourselves,—in talk-show repetition of what we’ve heard and absorbed—and ones institutionalised from disabling-identities.
This is a note on kindness. To see it, much like empathy, as a practice. But it has this naturalness to it that takes care of itself. It’s infectious. It is capacitive multitudinous.
This note is for thinking with. And more: it is also a reflection on the indescribable authentic kindness I met. People are deserving of kindness—disarming ourselves and going with it will help us to push past nonsensical borders.
Weighing up the Waag
I found that cheeky Dublin grime.
What draws us to a particular place?
Is it connotation, emotion, memory, spatial qualities, attachment, meaning, activity, topography, presence, pressure, function, feeling? What use does that place serve at what moment? Do we need something from it, is it a conscious choice, or do we need it simply to pass through, a highway towards other demands?
When searching for an ideation startpoint, I don’t think I’ve ever consciously prioritised location-based or geographical criteria. By this I am referring specifically to pinpoints on a map or other signifiers of a geographical place. While the concept of place can not, of course, be untangled from how we move through time, for my own pushing through—and other than a bold, line-drawn cognitive imprint of the Emerald Isle,—I think my attention bias clings more towards spaces. And more specifically, my own interpretation of urgencies.
In April 2021 I had an urgency. Having set-up a project outline, hoping I’d made it clear that what would happen was an approach and not an artefact, I needed to collect the startpoint in order to get a work off of just-paper. I’m often inundated mentally with a map of questions around the ethics of interrelation. The moment I start to involve other actors in my thought-process, I need to be clearer than day about not just my intentions, but the belief behind them. Before hinting even remotely close to such involvements, it has become intrinsically-essential that in order to feel any justification of initiating them, I need to travel those pre-thoughts and questions with a deserved depth of time. I’ve got this itchy scratch when it comes to community intervention. And I’ve got this itchy scratch when admitting it. For a socially-engaged, participatory-based practitioner, I can be a real cynic. I’ve started to wonder about connections through institutional via-vias, about impregnating a configuration of peoples with my potentially undesired presence, and about the weird controversy surrounding authentic bonding... This is one meaty topic and it deserves its own space, but for now it does bring me back to this qualification of place.
I had an urgency to find a startpoint, and so I somehow started, with physically moving the body. I was there, in a city, one starting to get slightly familiar but still fresh enough to pass through with those newcomer orientation-mapping eyes. So I moved my feet; I walked and I looked and I felt.
It was the time of the spring lockdown. Pandemic restrictions meant I was witnessing a place for the first time in its alternative-reality shape. My first steps through many of its streets collected impressions of micro-architectural details, now that crowds weren't there to block them. There was an intense spatial relation occurring, as I passed through alone, moving through streets.
Not far from my new little headquarters, the Waagplein square was sat propped up like a speed-bump on a too-fast street. Likely because of the people-emptiness that surrounded it, its little, tiny increase in elevation sort of makes one re-configure while passing through it, diagonally. I passed it for days on morning walks, afternoon walks, and evening walks. With all the empty, crowdless, scattered spatial nooks and crannies, this spot here was unique. It was not de-peopled. Emptiness had not come to take its fill..
And a month of nothing showed the resilience of a place. This was it. There was heart here. There were bodies not only moving through it but somehow occupying it, housing it, treating it like a home point, a character.
I became really drawn to the Waagplein. Everyday I passed it and it became more familiar due to both my new attention bias and to its daily repetition. There was some predictability in whether it would be occupied or not, but then again not. And what I saw was not a set community, but a configuration. An arrangement of peoples stopping, moving, being, together-making, alone-setting. This felt like a thing shaped really strong, and it had me: I had found that Dublin grime. That street characteristic I often missed in my new location-homeland. That cheeky, think-quick, pure point of soul. This was evident in a meaty plethora of energy at this little square, the Waagplein.
So I thought, okay, this would be my base. This Dublin-cheek will be my search-nest, and cheeky brings great challenge with it. What a moment to battle fears: this wasn't going to be easy. I'd have to swiftly get over myself and act before the scare set it. And I knew I wasn't kidding anyone—I wasn't cool to start with, so at least I could knock that potential approach right out of the bucket.
I'd have to just try, holding on deep to those intentions.
Did we all have access to the social conversation, us, here, configured at this square? Could we all find the perforations of participate, of getting along with our needs in the bigger weave? It felt like it was time to find out, somehow, not through those words but through courageous conversation. And not through interrogation, sure what would that achieve!
Many things happened next. So I've fond memories of that square. Where it was also a difficult act. It was a confronting practice—approaching apparent strangers in public space. How strange a time we dwell in, when speaking to another outside is considered some predatory act.
My rule was to talk to anyone I had the courage to talk to, but to push that courage far and reach out deeply. Sometimes I felt physically ill with nerves. Sometimes I felt high with excitement. Mostly I encountered awkward looks and bordered no's, but for every one opening I encountered, it gave me the energy to try again tenfold.
That yellow and red van and those funny lads. They were hard to rope in but they brought me a lot, probably without realising it. No I’m quite sure they don’t even know this. And the others who brought smiles and calm. What a grounding thing to occur.
Next steps required great care, great honesty, great clarity. And in it all we miscommunicated tenfold too. But this did not matter. It was a type of freedom we’d search towards together. I needed it badly too.
There was no assignment, no integration tactics, no shiny photographs of faces for my practice publicity. This was real life and real talk, real doing and real being; all this text to justify encounters on the street.
Don’t dig too deep for frictions.
The radical shift toward true co-inhabitation, deep compassion and meaningful care are what will set our futures apart from the fast-paced-road, paving an uncomfortable lie: progression.
For this work, there is no one answer, solution or meaning to shift us into this space of thoughtful living, and a singular approach to what our ecologies need would only offer a plaster to a rotting wound.
We are in need of complexities, risk, discomfort; to recognise, face, and sit spine-grounded with the pain.
The resonant echo of our current social structures feed us layers of narrative around instinct, roles, order, balance, geography, gender, ownership, race, ability, pragmatism. Pragmatism, for example, becomes, due to contexts, too often a dangerous concept. To accept an okay-enough, a good-enough, a satisfactory reality, a realisable down-play of otherwise magical intentions, is to suggest that we are not capable as a species. To bind ourselves to accepted whispers around human instinct, around apparent human nature, the ‘we shoulds’ and ‘we justs,’ is to signify that we are not capable of reflection, thought and choice. Forget for a moment the highly complex political unjustification around the context of ‘choice,’ and think quite simply about being conscious. What of it if human nature tells us to do something this way or another? The fact that we are even aware of such a mechanism absolutely allows us to choose for other options. Let’s be clear, the discussion here is not about our nature, nor about the ‘we always’ act this way or that, nor the apparent inevitability that it would all come down to one or the other, that humans all want this, need that. This discussion here is about the availability of something already known to us, and about choosing to go ahead with it, in all the deeply complex weaves that we operate within. Choosing, as in collectively, not as in prescribing a harrowing sole responsibility; choosing also as systems and structures.
This discussion is about a verb beyond natures: empathy.
Empathy as Verb
Empathy is a political issue. Empathy is a highly complex muscle, feeling and tool. It is the capacitive concept that will push us into resilient futures, and togetherness in these times of violent divisiveness. We are beyond the discussion of the empath and the scale of capacities around the empathy of an individual. We are beyond the discussion of who is naturally empathetic and who is not. We are so far past the perceived point, a point that never existed, in which empathy was a thing that applied only to a certain moment or situation, in which we understood it as stepping into the shoes of another. Empathy is a powerful and energetic movement toward places that operate with more justice, more care, more thought and consideration. In a world where divisiveness has become a dangerous habitual norm, being radically empathetic offers us an opportunity to rebelliously re-inhabit our own spaces and places.
We, us, now, are searching for cohesions, for place; to belong, but not dangerously belong, to find space, and co-facilitate. This is not about the efforts of the grass roots. Person to person pushes beyond those bounds. Moulding trust from all but spatially-small places, no cut off time, no work but practice, a courageous in-exercise muscle. This is not about a plaster decoration, but real-time constructivism, transformatism. Complexity for useful simplicity. Justice, desires, needs. Us.
How could we live?
Empathy is verb. Empathy is feeling with. What potentials pass the mould when we leave space to feel with, when we approach a situation with empathic contingency?
Can a networked configuration ask: what would that feel like?
Can the actors and actants of a place, perform into an effective empathetic space? What if we use it, make it known to all systems and ways? What then? Ideas have performative effect.
Us, here, now? Samenleven? Let’s grow that way, practice muscle, together.
So, what’s a public service then?
1: the business of supplying a commodity (such as electricity or gas) or service (such as transportation) to any or all members of a community
2: a service rendered in the public interest
3: governmental employment
especially : CIVIL SERVICE
A service rendered in the public interest. That combination of words alone sounds strong, interrelated, something that adds texture to a communal living.
Service often comes with a static connotation, the irony being that service implies a sort of mobility. Service; movement.
It is active, functional, but not by definition dim. A service can be a system, and a service can be a kindness. A public service, so, could that be a public system of kindness?
We could walk these lines again with the semantics of public—what it means, what it doesn’t mean; our current day relation to such a dense, heavily-packed word. There are a few nice definitions floating through the online dimension, and printed, set, in paper books. “Ordinary people in general; the community.” A vague phrase to name but one and all. Ordinary people in general; the community.
What a great concept. This helpful connective tissue. My life, offered further thrivingness, through organised acts that cushion blows, soften edges? My path of movement through time and space, can benefit from finishing touches that are also precedential essentials? I’m understanding this like a spatial layer. Plan view of a region, any region, a geographical collective: imagine resonance could travel through the visual cortex. Hit that point of conviction where seeing is believing. In this plan view, imagine all the kindness tissue left between, pushing forward, passing through. What’s happening?
The Bin Gets Changed
Ask ourselves this: is the specific act of the garbage bin being changed the most important node of the entirety of the thing? The bin gets changed. The worker gets work. The worker gets movement. The bin gets cleaned. The team gets camaraderie. The worker gets perspective. The bin gets changed. The street stays clean(ish). The worker gets noticed. The neighbours get pride. The bin gets changed. The location gets importance. The worker gets exercise. The worker gets company. The neighbours get expectations. The bin gets changed.
What exactly we—the participants and I—executed for specific activities during Complex Public Service takes an importance through certain lenses, and through others, less, and not. The practices in specific had for one “aha! this I want” and for others, oh! this is what I feel. There is no point in performing a binary analytic, in which we now decide, which was more important, the action or the resonant?
But what’s a public service then?
Really, whatever we decide.