ESR 9 Blog February 2021: Sophie Mak-Schram

Hi, how are you holding up? Around this time last year, I began working on an epistolary project, gentle stranger, I hope this email finds you well, with nine artists from around the world. The premise of the project was about care; its modes, its politics, its economy – and how thinking through care could trace or create new relations between us.

I’ve been thinking about this project in the past month, as my contact with strangers and friends alike has remained physically distanced. I’ve also been thinking about this project because its core impulse, of establishing or nurturing relationality, is similarly central to the PhD research I have recently begun. I’m working on ESR 9: New Forms of Artistic Labour and Socially Engaged Art.

My name is Sophie Mak-Schram, and I would self-describe as an arts producer, historian, educator and occasional practitioner. I’m excited by collaborative practices, accessibility, radical pedagogies and decolonial practices. My own preferred hybridity, both professionally and politically, is what drew me to ESR 9 and its focus on theorising how artistic skills are changing in the context of collaborative and participatory practices. The underlying premise of my past projects, such as the aforementioned gentle stranger, was that relations between individuals, regardless of their formal roles, are formative for whatever subsequently emerges as ‘the work’. In this sense, I don’t consider the artist the only artistic labourer, and would gently problematize the process of re-identifying a single author, artist or role, as one that is no longer politically, ethically and systemically feasible.

A big statement, perhaps. The distinction – indeed, the truncation – between academic art history and artistic practice is one I grappled with in my Research Masters degree in Arts and Culture. An exhibition of modern art purportedly curated by Walter Benjamin at the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, presented art history as a story. This exhibition contained many layers of fiction, including the figure of Walter Benjamin. My thesis explored when, and with what political import, this kind of artistic production could counter history or claim the status of knowledge. What methodologies do we need to expand, and who is involved in, or able to contest, the production of knowledge? This question is one I’m now expanding in my PhD research, in looking at socially engaged artistic projects and the methodologies they use or form to create spaces of knowledge production.

Knowledge, and processes of coming to know, loop back to relations for me. I lead a lot of workshops and experiential education programmes, in which group dynamics and the socialisation of one’s identity, are explored. I like to think with the body, the embodied, the participatory, the collaborative. These are forms of knowledge. When Fred Moten and Stefano Harney conceptualise study alongside their concept of the undercommons, they describe it as “what you do with other people”. It is an activity, and a relational one at that. To produce knowledge is a relational activity, done with others in a specific time and space.

This last sentence is, of course, somewhat frustrating to write in these current conditions. Writing to new gentle strangers over email, and trying to foster digital spaces of collaborative learning through which to begin to map the contours of my research, has structured my body and mind more than I would like. I’ve explored Friedrichshafen over Google Maps, and listened to many artists’ talks without the accompanying sensorial elements or social frisson of being in person. Of course, these conditions also produce new (research) questions: what new forms of public space are emerging, and how are we redefining what, when, how and by whom the labour of knowledge production is conducted? A medley of thoughts, these, as I try to condense a mixture of mental state, biographical background and current research for you – you, the abstracted reader. I’d love for this to become a conversation in due course.

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