MObile Comfort Unit (MCU)
and the Comfort Mission
As a featured artist at the East Austin Studio Tour opening parties in 2016, I was scheduled to present a new, edgy work (Piropo). After the disheartening results of the U.S. Election the night before, I made a last-minute decision to present a mobile version of my piece Comfort Station. I felt that at that moment our community needed this kind of care more than playful boundary-pushing.
In this variation, which I dubbed "Comfort Mission (Impossible)," I wore a pillow suit and offered passers-by standing and sitting public mini-sessions of lullabies, cuddles, band-aid rituals, and full attention sessions. Rather than sit, lie down or curl up with my audience, I moved through the crowd, allowing people to rest their heads on my pillowed shoulders or chest as I sang to them and stroked their hair. What started often with amusement and humor ended in tears, and more than once I had to hold up the weight of three or more adults as they gave in to their emotional needs.
Though my audience that night was heavily liberal and Democrat, I later discovered that even people who were Republican or had voted for Trump were just as hungry for emotional release; it seemed clear that the vitriol of the campaigns and social divisiveness surrounding them had taken their toll on everyone. My intent in sharing this experience with all is not to release anyone from responsibility or try to indicate that ignoring the situation is an acceptable alternative; instead, I hope to bring people out of their state of inner turmoil that leads them to focus only on their own tight interests. We cannot connect or trust or work together when all our energy is spent fighting an internal battle for equanimity.
I was so grateful that they allowed me to comfort them and grateful to those who allow me to do it for them now. That is what comforts me--and in these days, we all require a lot of comforting.
On the early morning on Wednesday, November 9th, like much of America, I fell into despair. As the electoral college’s results were announced, we were faced with the cold truth that almost half our country was able to accept an openly hateful, inflammatory, entitled, double-speaking, xenophobic, racist, sexist, homophobic bully as their leader in return for flimsy promises of personal gain--especially when those claims were totally unsubstantiated by coherent plans or evidence from his history as a business man and public figure. That he has been elected is terrifying, but for me, the more earthshaking shock and cause for dismay was that nearly half of the people who voted didn’t find his agenda and his presentation so repellent that they dismissed him as a candidate out of hand long before he took over the most powerful position in our nation.
The moments after the announcement are documented in photos around the world, and in a sizable percentage one would be hard pressed to differentiate the expressions and gestures in a huge percentage of them from photos of observers during the 9/11 attack. In the same way that the World Trade Center attack shook Americans’ idea of safety from outside threats, this moment shattered any illusion that we were safe within our own borders, that the vast majority of Americans were committed more to the ideal of a civil society built on mutual respect, human rights, and fair play than to their own political and personal gain.
Even knowing that economic, political, and social forces have caused alienation among many, I cannot reconcile even that with the desire to elect Trump and the rancor that comes with him. I understand the desire for change; I do not understand the willingness to throw out all of America’s ideals of pluralism, honesty, goodwill, and tolerance. It is a crushing blow to my soul to see its evidence.
So instead of going through with presenting the new piece I had developed for the 2016 East Austin Studio Tour, in response to this moment of collective mourning I very rapidly switched gears and developed a mobile version of my piece Comfort Station, an emotional day spa. I refer to it casually as Comfort Mission (Impossible)--since how can we actually fully recover?--but more formally as the MCSU, the Mobile Comfort Station Unit. It’s not a total coincidence that the other use for that acronym, in the military, is a Mass Casualty Service Unit.
I will visit locations throughout the tour, and beyond, and offer my services: lullabies, Band-Aid rituals, forehead kisses, cuddles, hair play, and full attention sessions, in which people can tell me anything and I will not respond, just listen. As befits an emergency service, I will request no payment, but will accept donations if offered to help make it possible to continue my work.
These comfort-giving acts are not meant to assuage fears, because how can anything, when the fears are legitimate? Nor do they indicate that we should passively respond to this situation and try to hide and wait out four years, because we simply cannot, if we hope to have those ideals we believe in continue past this point. But a moment of mourning and connection and rest and healing is essential before returning to the fronts and fighting, as MASH units provide soldiers in the field.
We can remember that the popular vote indicates that more people in America rejected Trump’s ideals than supported them. We can remember that Millennials voted to reject him and his project. It’s not over.
Katelena Hernandez Cowles
The Mobile Comfort Unit is available for performance at events, fairs, museums, and galleries.
The artist invites inquiry by groups or organizations interested in co-presenting this work in socially impactful ways.
Comfort Sessions can also be arranged on an individual basis. Follow this link to schedule: