ESR 9 Blog October/November 2023: Sophie Mak-Schram

Address as speculation

Forms of address, forms of attending, forms of bearing witness – what has been taking up your time and attention of late? I am thinking a lot about who we address when we write or speak in specific ways, how we attend (and tend) to communities and practices, and how and why to bear witness to crises. Certain codes of language, ways of showing support and sometimes, as ever, the simplicity of putting your body in a space, that signal and give shape to the communities we long for or seek to protect.

Back in September, I was preoccupied with the specificities of you, the reader, beyond your abstract idealisation in how I address you. I wrote about this then [Blog 20]. This gentle question about how I (can avoid to) prefigure who you are in how I write to you, has continued as a thread throughout my research. These past months, I have been writing about the text as porous or leaking, as a way to think about how texts as a form of address can facilitate a meeting ground from which to begin a conversation, redistribute resources or foster the emergence of meeting grounds.[1] Many things, forms, can become meeting grounds or what Marteinn might call sites of (un)ground.[2] In what I can for now only call ‘these times’ for sake of brevity and because of this generalised form of address between the specific me and the conceptual you in this text’s form which runs too much risk of assumption (and subsumption, for that matter), meeting grounds and their making feel vital.

Meanwhile, concurrently, continuously, I have been writing the text that facilitates this addressal of you: the PhD monograph which renders my writing to you relevant. This text is harder to make porous, and perhaps addresses a more specific set of ‘yous’. This is something I have been coming to terms with anew of late. It reminds me of a far earlier conversation with Claude about generosity, which is something that Priya Parker also articulates in her thinking around what she calls the art of gathering: there is a generosity in holding authority when hosting, convening or inviting people in.[3] Bounding what a meeting or activity needs to be or aims to do, can help foster more meaningful engagement within that framework. What is our purpose for this meeting, Parker asks? So too, why do I ask some of you to gather around my PhD through the act of reading?

Speculation as meeting ground

There is an anecdote in the realm of radical pedagogies that I love, because it challenges the easy slipstream of assumption of old~outdated~traditional~restrictive versus new~innovative~better for more people~empowering.  A class at a British primary school are invited to lead their own learning. A group of what the narrator calls ‘lads’, resist this. When asked why, they explain that they don’t want to choose. They’re happy just being students that are taught (to). For them, school is an obligation in which they turn up and do some of what the teacher asks of them. They don’t not feel the need to engage further, because they don’t want to spend their energy here. I think of this anecdote when thinking of generosity sometimes manifesting as consent-based control or expertise as an offering rather than a hierarchical expression. Not all forms of address and formats of gathering need to involve everyone in every stage of decision-making and engagement. This is a statement to say cautiously – some forms of change, be they radical or not, require specific forms of empowerment, specific address, specific invitations to attend or not. In some contexts, like the classroom, the revolution and evolution of learning can perhaps happen simultaneously. The question, as ever, is how to offer these different inroads into that gathering ground of learning, how to foster the concurrence of multiple worlds?

In Sicily last month, I was thinking-talking about worlding on a bridge that does not yet exist.[4] This bridge, proposed across a site of environmental instability, seeks to connect two geographies but the intentions of this connection are muddled, the efficiencies of connectivity are presented as implicitly ‘a good thing’. This bridge, particularly given its current immateriality and yet very material repercussions across decades of research, community protest, mythical presences and budget allocations, allows a form of convening on an (un)ground. What might be learned from this bridge and the worlds it brings together? It becomes a site of possible translation and a meeting ground between diverging needs, ideals and relationships to the lands and seas it connects. When thinking now about the nearing end of this PhD trajectory – an end that comes with a sense of trepidation, fear and relief, of course – I am thinking about forms of address and their speculative qualities, how objects and ideas can become meeting grounds to learn within or through across differential positions, and the role of the text as a connecting or interfacing between worlds that meet only through their collisions or contradictions, or only across their distances in time and space in written forms. Precisely its non-existence in a material form is what allows this bridge, and other architectural instances like it, to connect contradictory worldings: a form of gathering through speculation, that I find exciting.

In the process of writing this across trains around large lakes, I realised this is also my final addressal of you in this form. Skimming like rocks across the water’s surface, holding like cupped palms as I sought to grasp, I now feel prompted to reflect across the span of time that I speculated (with, to) you. Here’s a loosely linear trace, which I hope will invite you to convene around my writing again, and stretch out my thinking in turn.

Casting back to stretch forward a thread

In February 2021, I addressed you for the first time, daunted by the need to clearly lay the grounding for a project that was just beginning. The global pandemic was still formally framing our interactions, so I was thinking about what it meant to “foster digital spaces of collaborative learnings” from multiple afars. I continued to think this through in March, when I reflected on positionality in that collaborative realm, and the risks of imposing an idea of how we would relate before the research began (I already mention your abstraction then!). The body – mine as much as yours – came into my concern in April, when I thought about reading out loud as a form of ingesting and thereby touching/grasping someone else’s words. “What do my words taste like in your mouth?” I asked then.

In May, I can feel the pressures of the months catching up in my writing. My April lostness turns into May re-alignments, and I shared some emergent thoughts on the “operative fictions” of Turns and movements in (art) history. Ingesting – this time literal paper words rather than read-out-loud ones – returned in June, when I shared an anecdote I had been reading about from the practice of John Latham, a British conceptual artist, when he ate a Clement Greenberg book. In July, I left you with field notes from research in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, and a brief question from an even briefer holiday in Croatia, and in August, I told you about working with mud and across time with artist and friend, Iliada Charalambous. And summer 2021 ends with a cycle downhill, through the apple orchards towards the large lake, reflecting on the ‘urgency’ of research.

Connectedness and circulation, rather than movement and field notes, are what I reflected on in October 2021, when I moved to the UK as part of my secondments for the PhD. I went from mud to clay, and from one home to another. In this circulation – the beginning of almost a year in movement across sites – I began to think about instituting (something Maria Hlavajova extensively and sharply writes about) and moving away from the notion of the para-institution, gently.

When January 2022 arrived, and with it a longer period between blog posts, I told you about two recent moments in my life in which the entanglement of research, thinking and living were clear: I talked about a baker and a football match. In March, the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, so there was nothing else I wanted to say. Those hyperlinks are now less relevant, but I hope your attending and care continue. By May, I had left Iceland after 3 months of secondment in a landscape that continues to calm and captivate my thinking, and wrote to you about opacity and disentangling that life/work blur that January conveyed and that the year of PhD travel was making me reflect on whilst living through it.

By July, I had co-made the Vest of Tools (Warsaw) during my secondment with Biennale Warszawa, and wrote to tell you about it. This continues to be a material art-pedagogical object I’m exploring through workshops and visits. Alongside this, I began to reflect on the act of history-making again, and the notion of the ‘radical’ in relation to its need for a specific addressee whilst traveling for conferences across September and October. I closed out 2022 with another assemblage of anecdotes, this time around the architectures of convening (a snail, a boat, a spiral) in December.

2023 began in a sunshine yellow room, on field research at the aptly named The Field (then still called Michael House). I wrote about assembling and when things are considered art, reflecting on a recent conference presentation about the Stansted15 in New York. In March, I finally began to write the PhD monograph amidst co-organising A Field of Where, What, When and told you about both of these – fields were a theme this year already. In June, abstraction returned as a concern and I thought about the economy of care sustaining me through the final stretch of the PhD.

And so it continues, perhaps as a constant question of what texts as interfaces can and cannot do in relation to an intensifying world. I very much hope it finds you well and in community despite it. Please do be in touch should you feel inclined to share a reflection in turn, I’d love to de-abstract your readership and enter into conversation now that this formal interface comes to a close.

With warmth and gratitude,


[1] One of these texts is ‘The Text as Interface’ (Brighton CCA, 2023), in which I discuss the participatory potentials and limits of the written form in relation to socially engaged practices, and the other is part of a collaborative article, ‘Collective Learning in Expanding Settings? Reflections on collectivising methods at documenta fifteen’, co-written with Marteinn Sindri Jónsson and Ernesto Oroza as part of a forthcoming volume about the decolonial approaches of documenta15 (2024), edited by Meike Lettau and Özlem Canyürek.

[2] Marteinn Sindri Jónsson’s The Audible as Unground was an audio work that formed part of our collaborative workshop contribution to the SHAKIN conference in Belgrade, Serbia, in July of this year, with Julius Thinnes. This workshop, Towards Fields of Where, in turn was a continuation of our work and thinking through A Field of Where, What, When. This conference/convening of practitioners in March 2023 explored situated practices and place-(un)making. The latter term, in turn, was one I co-developed with artist and activist Harun Morrison within the frame of UK New Artists’ Leicester City Takeover in 2021.

[3] Claude Nassar and I discussed this across informal conversations in 2021 and 2022, whilst reflecting on socially engaged pedagogies and the changing format of the learning environment. Priya Parker writes about generous authority in The Art of Gathering (2018).

[4] I presented this research-in-progress as part of the Kunsthistoriches Institut in Florenz’s summer school, Two Lands Two Seas, in October.

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