Early one morning I saw traces of rust on the bridge near the lake where I live. I followed them and soon felt the smell of mud, of something rotten. A large container full of rusty bikes and other metallic things had been placed on the quay. Beside stood a row of food-charts all covered by rust and mud. My first reaction was that I was an early morning witness to a sad scene with abandoned and mistreated things that divers had brought up from the bottom of the lake. As I began to photograph, I felt a sense of hope about this scene. What if it could be left there as an exhibition of “exhausted things”? A place where people could engage in re-thinking their relationship to things in urban space?

Exhaustion as a methodological tool

My interest in exhaustion began two years ago when I was invited to review Hélène Frichot’s (2019) book Creative Ecologies: Theorizing the Practice of Architecture. As I began my reading, I was surprised and intrigued to find that the book used exhaustion as a methodological tool. Frichot (2019: 18) writes that:

Exhaustion is more profound than tiredness; its structure of feeling is rather about an anxious restlessness. Exhaustion is about wakefulness and the distance of sleep. It is insomnia. Exhausted, awake, not tired, a constant wondering plagues you, as you ask yourself: Have I exhausted all that is possible? Have I done everything I can to ameliorate my local environment-world? It is an exhausting challenge.

I believe that it was the coinciding of the Covid-19 pandemic and my relocation from Sweden to Finland last year, that contributed to why exhaustion made such an impact on my thinking. However, as a social work scholar I also began to see exhaustion as an alternative language to replace the often used “social problems” in the social sciences; to make it possible for researchers to engage with sensory perceptions of the local worlds around us and include all forms of lives, things and spaces. I continued to trace urban exhaustion by reading some of the writers Frichot referred to in her book, such as Spooner’s (2011) A Clinic for the Exhausted and Deleuze and Deleuze’s and Uhlmann’s (1995) The Exhausted. How could I make use of exhaustion as an alternative literary language for social work? What forms of local environmental worlds could be seen and critically reflected on by using exhaustion as a creative methodology in urban Stockholm?

Attention to details trough slow writing

My long-time passion for creative writing spurred me to make use of what Ulmer (2018) calls slow writing. Slow writing is a textual and visual practice that promotes attention to details, scenes and everyday life. The photographic practice makes it possible to see and see again, to create still images of scenes and things, of humans and environments that evoked the attention of the photographer/writer. Slow writing means practising reading, listening and responding to events and the urban environment in the local community.

It appeared to me that social distancing during the pandemic made me more attentive to the physical environment and to things. I began to critically examine the material language of my surroundings and reflect on scenes in the local environment. I encountered ‘reflexive bridges’ and documented my relationship with trees – ‘spring trees’ and ‘bark skin’, I located a green bench that conveyed the message “ANDAS… LYSSNA PÅ TYSTNADEN” (Swedish) / “BREATH…LISTEN TO THE SILENCE” (English) / “HENGITÄ… KUUNTELE HILJAISUUTTA”(Finnish).

From passive problems to active visualizing

I continued to reflect on how exhaustion conveyed a sensory perceptiveness that the so often used conceptualization “social problems” did not. Like other disasters, the Covid-19 pandemic visualised so many inequalities of life conditions, which have become drastically visible in Sweden with the very high death rates that still prevail. Through the language of exhaustion, I identified multiple forms of oppression and privilege, inclusion and exclusion related in Stockholm such as ageism, sexism, racism, violence and poverty, such as a high rate of death of older people in homes for care, higher death rates in the city suburbs where people with migrant backgrounds lived, and increased violence towards women and children in domestic spaces.


Exhausted, awake, not tired, a constant wondering plagues you, as you ask yourself:

Have I exhausted all that is that is possible?

Have I done everything I can to ameliorate my local environment-world?

It is an exhausting challenge.

Photos: Mona Livholts

Mona Livholts is a Swedish Language Professor of Social Work in the Department of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki. She works with glocal- and post-anthropocentric perspectives in social work, intersectionality and creative writing methods such as memory work, autoethnography, and creative life writing. Research topics include sexual violence, gender and space, societal art and social sustainability in social work. Publications on exhaustion that inspired this blog include:

(2019) A Situated Reading Diary of Exhaustion as a Creative Methodology: Mona Livholts reads Creative Ecologies, written by Hélène Frichot, Reading Writing Quarterly, 1: https://site-writing.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Mona-Livholts-reads-Creative-Ecologies-written-by-Hél-ene-Frichot.pdf 

(2021/in press) Exhaustion and Possibility. The Wor(l)dlyness of Social Work in (G)local Environment Worlds During a Pandemic, Qualitative Journal of Social Work, 1.


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