Banner image: 'Illness finds us all, Care unfortunately does not' (2020) Brother Sick. Image courtesy of the artists.

This essay, written by Brothers Sick (Ezra and Noah Benus), relates to their work in the Shape Open 2020: The Future is Loading. You can view the exhibition on our Instagram and on our website

Listen to this essay:

BSL Version:

Illness finds us all, Care unfortunately does not 

to tally only numbers without counting

the breaths taken

the lives touched

the same air

carried and cared and

filtered between us

As it always has been, illness is fraught with political notions of who and what is valued, deemed essential, and worthy of care. These works are continuations in our series ‘An Army Of The Sick Can’t Be Defeated’, a call to attention for prioritising care and communal aid. These images, taken during visits to the hospital for ongoing infusion treatments during a pandemic, have words superimposed that bridge our personal and intimate vantage to outward echoes and connection to illness and disability as a communal experience. The more that Sick and Disabled and Queer and Mad people, especially multiply marginalised communities by systemic racism, are forced by policy and social norms to stay separated, segregated, institutionalised and out of public consciousness, the worse off our whole society is. 

Illness and disability are expected to be private and intimate, but it’s a unifying experience among all humans, now and forever. We are experiencing this awareness currently on a global scale. 

For some, masks have become about personal freedoms as opposed to the responsibility of communal care. For some, re-opening is about going to bars and socialising while many of us have to remain home bound. For some, deaths are only numbers that do not carry the same influence as the numbers in a fluctuating stock market. For most, those of us sick and disabled along with prisoners and labourers are considered disposable and therefore deemed unfit or unworthy to participate in this expedited re-opening of society.

The irresponsible and reprehensible behaviour by leadership in the US and UK, in deciding to “re-open” society while an ongoing pandemic rages, is ableism in action on a large scale with known and unforeseen dire consequences for the future of our communities. Those of us deemed “high risk” are but numbers, not worthy of life in a capitalist labour-driven sense. Illness is continually referenced through tallies of numbers and statistics; of deaths, hospital bed availabilities, infection rates, unemployment numbers all devoid of humanity, and lives affected and attached to the tallies. Who has the right to decide whose lives are counted and worth caring about and for? 

Who is cared for in times of public illness is based on age, race, presumed ability/health, and immigration status and impacted by ableism, individualism, populism, and racism that has long pervaded our cultures of care. Covid-19, much like the AIDS/HIV pandemic, has ongoing disproportionate tolls on Black and Indigenous communities due to historic structural oppression embedded in the social and economic fabric of racist and ableist White Western cultures and values.

Medical racism and ableism are pervasive issues. The functions of these systems have ramifications for dictating whose pain is deemed believable, who receives treatment, and the quality and access to care. Incarcerated individuals whose lives are deemed less worthy of care are forced to live and work in abhorrent conditions and forced to produce items for profit of corporations. These are the tools of racist and ableist oppression that create intolerable care gaps that are responsible for killing people. The global experience of illness is revealing on a large scale the ways in which our dysfunctional society gives priority, as usual, to the privileged and those deemed economically ‘fit’ for purpose. 

Drawing on legacies to inform our future is vital because illness finds us all, but care unfortunately does not. These works make reference to the similar ethos from those who have been entangled in creating and fighting for societal change, by centring communal care and equity. 

Leadership in government and cultural organisations politicise care and illness in relation to labour and the economy, exposing an entrenched capitalist and fascist belief that ‘work will set us free.’ The black triangles on the image with the text, ‘An Army Of The Sick Can’t Be Defeated’ is reference to the Nazi symbol for those deemed ‘work-shy’ or not fit for work, including sick and disabled people, alongside other groups such as sex workers and Roma people. This symbol has been reclaimed by UK groups of disabled people, similar to the reclaiming of the pink triangle as queer symbology used in Silence = Death collaborative work bringing attention to the ongoing AIDS pandemic. 

In the centre of this digital collage are two IV machines and drips. They are presented next to each other with the machine on the right rotated 180 degrees. Around these is a border of red text which frames the image and reads: ‘An army of the sick

'An Army of the Sick Can't Be Defeated' (2020)

In Gregg Bordowitz’s lecture-performance Gimme Danger, at Triple Canopy, a conversation on the ongoing experience of surviving with illness, made clear that certain histories of resistance are overwritten, but that we need to come together and expand the legacies of activism. Similarly, this harkens to the ethos of a Queers Read This reader, published in 1990 with ACT UP, with the heading “Army of Lovers Cannot Lose”. 

The Black Panthers and Young Lords have similarly created a precedence of community and care-centred mutual aid through efforts to: abolish prisons; initiate research on Sickle Cell; centre Black and Brown communities’ education and access to food; ensure quality of life in housing justice and communal task forces for community safety. All the while, evoking Malcolm X’s famous adage of enacting change and building resistance ‘by any means necessary’, even if it means fighting for change from one’s quarantine or (sick) bed.

These legacies are learnings for us, and we further the call for a persistence of Queer, Crip, BIPOC, communal resistance, action, and rest. We call for a future centred on access to care and communal and mutual aid, through these ongoing communal experiences of illness and disablement within our society. An Army Of The Sick Can’t Be Defeated.

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We also welcome responses to our exhibition survey.

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