Simon Pope  et al

Simon Pope  3D model of diamond cubic crystal of grey tin  2014

Nina Wakeford

Dear Simon,

The group wishes to report:

You asked about solidarity. One way of forging solidarity is to attempt to sing together. We remember A Song to the Tin in Oxford, in which you convened singers and instruments, music and audience. The event spoke to (sang to?) your research interests in the dialogic, the Anthropocenic, and the acknowledgement of more-than-humans in your project. The male voices – evincing the legacy of a folk tradition, and definitely not those of ‘pure’ boys of the choir schools nearby – generated the opportunity to join in. An alternative community of male voices? The tin singing? Some of us did manage to synchronise with the chorus. There was also quite a lot of foot tapping and nodding along. It did a good job of expanding the restricted gestural repertoires so common in academic settings at the University of Oxford. And left us with lots of questions about how and when we admit human and non-human others into our work.

Pride of the moor we sing unto thee,
In thanks for the treasure you’ve given so free;
And should we have need to come find you again,
We’ll call and we’ll listen for the cry of the tin.

Some years ago, several of us began to be interested in the work of the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and how to rethink a fundamental tenet of sociology – the social as a sphere. We were introduced to Sloterdijk’s thought by the cultural theorist Celia Lury. German sociology had already digested and expelled many of Sloterdijk’s original writings and so there was some ‘temporal drag’, as Elizabeth Freeman would call it, to this encounter. For example, a German colleague told us that, in 2011, it was actually quite embarrassing to be citing Sloterdijk. Yet we suggest to you that his proposal of spherology provides a productive framework with which all of us can think beyond the characterisation of society as a single bounded sphere. This formulation is beloved of Durkheimian sociology, but is also evident in much art making, even when more-than-humans are included. The affective attunement which might be a property of atmo-spheres allows us a different way into the thinking/feeling of solidarity.

When there is a conflation of the society with the network, it is tempting to equate technological relations with social relations. In 2001, the sociologist Andreas Wittel coined the term ‘network sociality’ to describe the condition of information-based social relations. This was a time of macro theories of the global information age; a time when relying on terms such as community or Gemeinschaft was seen to be insufficient. Such words could not capture the effects of technological change, including individualisation and the dominance of intense yet ephemeral links. What else, apart from network sociality, could adequately describe the phenomenon of speed dating? (No Twitter yet, this is 2001!)

Within these eight minutes participants have to exchange information, not narratives. ‘What do you do for a living? Where are you from? What is the most exciting thing you’ve ever done? What do you do in your spare time?’...It is an exchange of data rather than a romantic date. (Wittel, 2001, 68)

Sloterdijk’s theory of living-in-spheres-of-shared-air offers an alternative way of imagining how sociality is forged. By proposing ‘social foam’ as the descriptor of the social world, he encourages us to focus on shared walls, fragility of boundaries between cells and contagiousness. Imagine actual bath foam here and all the possibilities of bubble making and destruction. Gone is the image of point to point communication and its associated impulse that a network is mappable. Rather a different possibility of co-mingling is proposed, and with it a formulation of living in the same air qualities. Air is the condition for speaking, as well as singing. Speed dating might be seen as an exchange of enthusiasms and disappointments transmitted through an affective atmosphere. If the social is now foam, we pay attention to how bubbles touch and blend with each other. Which burst and become co-mingled with the gases of others?

What happens if we approach worlds not as the dead or reeling effects of distant systems but as lived affects with tempos, sensory knowledges, orientations, transmutations, habits, rogue force fields? What might we do with the proliferation of little worlds of all kinds that form up around conditions, practices, manias, pacings, scenes of absorption, styles of living, forms of attachment (or detachment) identities and imaginaries, or some publically circulating strategy for self-transformation? (Stewart, 201, 446)

Kathleen Stewart knows the stakes. If we believe in the foamy shared scenes of lived affects we probably do different kind of solidarities. Less speed dating and more International Parade of the Politically Depressed, to reference an action by the art-academic group Feel Tank Chicago. Who marched in bathrobes. We are not connected by information but attunements.

Having written this, we don’t want to suggest the social must always be a ‘problem’ for art in the same way as it might be for sociology. We’ve learned a great deal recently from Martin Savransky’s proposal that we should pay attention to the mode of existence of the problem, and its openness to events. So better to begin with events and ponder how and when they pose problems, rather than the other way around. As Savransky notes, it is the becoming of problems which set inquiries into motion. Perhaps this is counter-intuitive in artistic research, where an event (an artwork?) might be conceived as being led by a problem, which is itself driven by an inquiry. A Song to the Tin as an event offers itself up to be inherited, not just as a problem of the more-than-human-plus-human-in-Anthropocene, but as a singable and catchy tune and as intervention by human others in an otherwise closed bubble of academic privilege. And another problem: singing requires air, and air poses the problem of breathing.

Take a deep breath. With every inhalation, industrially produced molecules are drawn into your being. Once inhaled, synthetic molecules may pass through membranes, connect with receptors, nestle in fatty tissue, mimic a hormone, or modulate gene expression, thereby stimulating a cascade of further metabolic actions. Breathe in. We cannot help it. You must breathe to live, like you must drink and eat. There is no choice in the matter. It is a condition of our being. With each breath we are recommitting to an ongoing relationship to building materials, consumer products, oil spills, agricultural pesticides, factories near and far that all contribute to the emission of these synthetic molecules. (Michelle Murphy, 2016)

So we are back to the planet, and environment and looping back to your concern with bringing in non-human others to the Anthropocene. Yet for Murphy this problem is to be inherited using different supports. Murphy calls for doing ‘alter-embodiments’ which enable us to be in solidarity with reproductive and environmental justice, and which recognise the legacy of capitalist, colonial and racist systems. As we breathe. And as we sing together. Or maybe we have to shout?

Within the condition of alterlife the potential for political kinship and alter-relations comes out of the recognition of your imbrications in the tangle of supports and harms. (Michelle Murphy, 2016)

All of us have found ourselves writing in a tone which partially mimics (although also takes seriously) the style of the letters which you have written about the making-thinking of your work, and gathered in your book Who Else Takes Part?: Admitting the more-than-human into participatory art (2015). Your letters cite academic sources extensively. They address specific interlocutors directly. However none of the letters are signed, or profess ‘Love’, ‘Best Wishes’ or even ‘Yours Sincerely’. We were wondering if you are ambivalent about these leave-taking performances of relation, which are so much more specific than the generic ‘Dear’ at the outset. You have set our next inquiry on solidarity into motion.

So here is a final provocation. It is to do with the idea of ‘the relation’ itself and what you call the ‘penchant for relationality’ (ibid, 167). Our dilemma pertains to a claim that idea of the ‘relation’ itself is putting a brake on other kinds of knowing about being in the world. The anthropologist Stefan Helmreich reminded us recently that we may have become too quick in our habit of thinking relation as assemblage. He asked us all - do we use relation to stop ourselves thinking about bodies and substances? Does it foreclose what thinking we can do? Ours is an opening question, as we haven’t discussed what we, as a group, would answer.

Best wishes, and good luck,



Freeman, Elizabeth (2010) Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Duke University Press.

Helmreich, Stefan (2016) Elementary Forms of Elemental Media, Paper given at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science, Barcelona, September 3rd 2016

Murphy, Michelle (2016) Afterlife: what a body can’t do, Keynote Address to the Annual Meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science, Barcelona, August 31st 2016

Pope, Simon (2015) Who Else Takes Part?: Admitting the more-than-human into participatory art, University of Oxford, 2015. [printed in an edition of 100]

Savransky, Martin (in press) The Social and Its Problems: On Problematic Sociology, In Marres, N.; Guggenheim, M. & Wilkie, A. (eds.). Inventing The Social. London: Mattering Press.

Stewart, Kathleen (2011) Atmospheric Attunements, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Vol 29, No 3, 445-453

Wittel, Andreas (2001) Towards Network Sociality, Theory, Culture and Society Vol 18, No 6, 51-76

Nina Wakeford is a Clarendon Scholar at the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford. She has studied fine art and sociology, and teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is the co-author of Inventive Methods: The Happening of the Social (Routledge, 2012).