ESR 9 Blog January/February 2023: Sophie Mak-Schram

ESR 9: blog Jan/Feb 2023


There is political valency to assembling. I’ve been thinking about this anew this month, as I’ve visited communities of various scales and watched the vigils being organised in the wake of more (migrant, trans, racialised) deaths. In December, I was holding the question of what we can learn from each other. As spring slowly returns, this has unfolded into a different one: what can our bodies mean, together?






Image 1: Mercury room at Michael House, Derbyshire, January 2023.


In the gentle yellow room at Michael House, brightened by the crisp winter sun, I tried to write. It was a cold, bright winter’s day and the former Steiner school was quiet with the hum of focused activity. Later that day, we – seven inhabitants, two guests – convened for a communal dinner. The branch hung over the dining table swayed slightly, and eventually the cat reappeared, brushing too closely past the candles as the meal came to an end.


Critical theory reminds us that the body is always signifying something – most of us know this through the simple fact of moving through the world. Even in the abstracted realm of thought, there is a body. Or, as Sara Ahmed reminds us, this abstraction is predicated on particular bodies with privileges of access, attention and power.[1] How, when, where and with whom we convene, can refute this abstraction or shift the boundaries of who is included or permitted access.


When the Zapatistas journeyed overland to and through Europe in 2021, they chose the 500th anniversary of the Spanish colonisation of Mexico.[2] Protest is embodied in their very presence. Their inhabitation in the Chiapas region is an act of ongoing resistance and a means of living otherwise to the claims and strictures of the nation-state of Mexico, and so too, their travels through Europe – adamantly overland and in avoidance of public photographic and filmic documentation – which emphasised the power of claiming space and rights through one’s physical presence.


Speaking about them at the recent College Art Association conference,[3] I was reminded of how they brought their ancestors and past comrades into the room by way of narration; holding these lost and past bodies through their own voices in the present. The body is always in excess of structures that seek to control it. Their simple presence in spaces of institutional symbolism amplified alternative structures of relation that might run counter to the ideals of the nation-state.


In the same talk, I spoke of the Stansted 15, who locked themselves onto an airplane to prevent it from deporting asylum seekers back in 2018. They used their citizenship – the mapping on of rights derived from a claim made on land onto particular bodies – to advocate for those who are seen by the reductive strictures of current national law to be outside of these rights. The subsequent photographs of the activists outside the court during the UK’s case against them under a law normally used for terrorism-related cases, sees them standing in their collectivity: all 15 standing together, a quiet upholding of the power they had in assembly.



Image 2: Clockwise from top left, image of protester in support of the Stansted 15 during their trial, the Stansted 15 on first day of trial, and screengrab of media headline against the Stansted 15. Image from presentation given during College Art Association conference, New York, 16 February 2023.


The lines of decolonial thought I have been tracing of late, focus on ways of knowing otherwise and on land. With the latter, most notably thought through by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang,[4] there is an argument made for land claims as needing to happen alongside the thinking of new epistemologies. Until land becomes unthought from property, and returned to the indigenous populations who do not conceive of it as separate from their bodies, Tuck and Yang suggest, we cannot be decolonial.


They are thinking and writing in relation to the specific history of the USA, as a settler-colonial state. In Europe, different questions arise, but this conception of the body as not abstractable nor apolitical in its physical positioning remains pertinent. So when the residents of Michael House gather, and choose to convene their living community around a question of what the others need, or when the Library of Study hosts its gatherings only in public parks, they are staking a claim. A different claim, in terms of the urgency and amplification of the body, than the resistance of deportations or the Mexican state, but still, one rooted in the body as a political tool, particularly in collectivity. Showing up and being together – indeed, showing up and staying together – means something.



Image 3: Tender Musings by the Library of Study, New York, 18 February 2023.


And so, to sit quietly to write, is challenging. I’ve been thinking about how this writing too might be a means of showing up across a different stretch of space-time, wondering what role my body will intentionally play this year. In a recent workshop around the Vest of Tools (Warsaw),[5] I began by asking participants to talk in pairs about how they arrived in the space. Most spoke of bus journeys through the dark and snowy conditions of Reykjavik in February. The physical journey is often how people respond to this prompt of arrival; sometimes as a metaphor or doorway into the emotional, but often we begin with what and how our bodies moved. I now wonder about how to leave traces of the silt, the wind, the journeys, in the writing that follows.

[1] In Queer Phenomenology (2006), Ahmed writes about how bodies are oriented in space in relation to their gender, race and sexuality. Thinking through the production of phenomenological thought, Ahmed hones in on how the writing desk, as an assumed point of access that can be written out of thought, might bear writing about: who has access to a desk and the focus, attention and interest to do so, is shaped by identity and associated power.

[2] The Zapatista Tour of Life in 2021, during which 150 Zapatistas travelled across Europe meeting compañeros and compañeras (comrades/allies) from different political and socio-cultural groups.

[3] The largest convening of art historians and professionals in the US, per their website. I presented a paper titled ‘Permissible Solidarities and Re-territorializing the Museum’, as part of their conference in New York in February this year.

[4] Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, ‘Decolonization is not a metaphor,’ Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society (vol. 1: 1, 2012): p. 1-40.

[5] The Vest of Tools (Warsaw) is an art/pedagogical tool I made in collaboration with activist and art collectives in Poland, as part of Biennale Warszawa, in summer 2022. Each group contributed a tool for convening, containing, collaborating, based on their practices. The resulting 6 vests, containing 4 tools, are now used by these collectives and myself in further work. Most recently, I ran a workshop as part of Hugarflug (see here), Iceland University of the Arts’ annual conference, in February 2023.

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