ESR 9 Blog August 2021: Sophie Mak-Schram

On time, mud and loose associations

Does correspondence begin to falter when it remains one-sided? I’ve written to you before about the hesitation I feel about the you of the reader, who I seek to relate to but can only imagine. The tension between specificity (a case study, a context, a body) and generalising (a structure, a world, a community) that I need to play out[1] – in any case, hello from my slow August reading retreat.

Time has been on my mind, as ever. In a conceptual sense, I continue to think about the kinds of temporalities my writing might advocate or leave space for, that dominant modes of art history have disregarded. The question of who and what becomes history when, and how other forms of time (lived, durational, racial, to name a few) might be purposefully and politically brought into (another imaginary?) conversation. More practically, I have been contending with clock time alongside the artist Iliada Charalambous.

Over a few weeks, Charalambous and a loose smattering of friend-volunteer-assistants built up what she refers to as a ‘temporary monument’.[2] On an elongated triangular patch of grass between a former electricity factory, square and housing, we packed plywood structures with a mixture of clay, soil, hay and sand.[3] The work was slow, and, if you’ll forgive me a pun, grounding. Residents and passer-bys would occasionally enquire about what we were building and frequently asked if we would be planting flowers too. Water was trundled over from the contemporary art space across the square in reused paint buckets on a trolley, the journey rickety over the Dutch cobble and stone pavements. Charalambous was thinking about time in its finiteness: could she finish five 2.7 metre curved seating structures, each packed with a mud mixture, plastered over with a slightly different mud mixture and coated in linseed oil, on time?[4] I, nails blackened, was thinking about the ways this construction time had produced an additional public for her that might have been harder to see-know-feel had I approached this work only from an academic lens.

The public, like the reader, is a generalisation that risks getting in the way of inclusive practices or what I might idealistically – and tentatively! – call genuine social engagement. Charalambous’ practice, which materially manifests as sculptural or spatial interventions, centres around dialogue and how we can or do position ourselves, personally, in relation to political events.[5] Social engagement – in the sense of people and beings encountering each other and coming into conversation – was an intended part of this mud work. What was produced during its building, and the time it took, was an additional situation (unfolding, emergent) of positioning and engagement. We began to interact as part of this square and patch of grass, in part as an ecosystem in relation to the earth around us (the mud under my nails, the foliage I moved), and in part as a public to the process of the work itself. An internal conversation across mud-packing strangers, each switching between Dutch, English, Cypriot and Greek, to converse, explain or demonstrate.

Charalambous and friend-volunteer-assistant building up one of the structures

As the structures slowly transforming from hollow to filled, I was concurrently reading (amongst other things), Tom Finkelpearl’s What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation.[6] Finkelpearl proposes the term ‘socially cooperative art’ to describe work that involves people over longer periods of time, suggesting that ‘cooperative’ is more apt than ‘collaborative’ or ‘engaged’.[7] He cites Grant Kester’s idea of there being a spectrum within these kinds of practices[8] from scripted to dialogical: from something where participants cannot significantly alter the form and the work will not respond to them individually, to something where the work emerges through collective engagement.

Where on this spectrum Inside / Outside and everything beneath, above and within by Iliada Charalambous falls, depends on the timespan one considers ‘relevant’ to the work. Does it matter that I know that she was under time pressure? Or that the techniques used to fill the structures changed during the building process? Or that I recall, and indeed participated in, some of the conversations that will have framed how neighbours around the square understand the work to function? I have not since sat to eavesdrop or partake in incidental conversations on the earthen seats of the structures. But as the mud begins to crack, in the assembled present through which I try to organise my understanding to you, perhaps we might imagine this text as one I read to you there.

Inside / Outside and everything beneath, above and within by Iliada Charalambous, soil, clay, hay, sand, wood, 5 structures, photographed by Tommy Smits, August 2021

[1] “I am extremely interested in generalization: how the singular becomes delaminated from its location in someone’s story or some locale’s irreducibly local history and circulated as evidence of something shared.” says Lauren Berlant on page 12 of her book, Cruel Optimism. She’s thinking about how any relation, conceived as an attachment of optimism, moves you into the world, and that this idea of optimism – “a social relation involving attachments” organizes the present. In this sense, she’s looking at how the present is ongoing, theorizing or generalizing is a speculating mode, and how we each make and mediate each other in our relations.

[2] Monuments and their temporalisation is something I have written about prior, in relation to the work of Dutch painter Dagmar Marent, for Simulacrum.

[3] It’s worth noting that this square, with its contemporary art gallery, small theatre and former factory, is a bit of a cultural hub and often used for festivals of art, music and performance.

[4] Spoiler: she did! You can read more about the work here:

[5] You can find out more about her practice on her website, here:

[6] On a different note, I’m currently reading The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell, and Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann: both novels that play with time, history and voice in different ways.

[7] He also cites Carol Hanisch’s essay, The Personal is Political, which Charalambous, in an unsurprising but still pleasing coincidence, refers to in this work. So too, Marwa Arsanios’ video work Who’s Afraid of Ideology is a reference for the technique she uses to build, and a work I spent some time with earlier in the year.

[8] It is important to note that Finkelpearl is specifically writing about the North American context, and that, more widely, these kinds of theoretical discussions do seem to still primarily come from this context. I’m still exploring what these perspectives leave out or elide in this historical arc of socially engage art emerging.

Privacy Preferences
When you visit our website, it may store information through your browser from specific services, usually in form of cookies. Here you can change your privacy preferences. Please note that blocking some types of cookies may impact your experience on our website and the services we offer.