To the sheeple

In Quarantaine Publication

Artist and researcher Liza Prins was invited by TAAK and Alina Lupu to contribute to the ongoing series Our New Normal and she chose to contribute by thinking with sheep, or rather by humbly starting to imagine a future of collective practices and shared knowledges, with/through them.

“The lamb is not innocent. The lamb knows how to read the motion of the air and knows the air’s stillness. [..] how to read the quivering of the lamb nearby, how to become not one lamb but many lambs in the formation of lamb-like relation, each lamb-back moderately indistinguishable from the back of the next. The lamb knows how to read the feeling of the form of what is each other all together, the fears and pleasures and neutralities of each other, the everything of what is expressed in a bleat or twitch when the lamb is with each other and the next one and there is never one lamb alone.”[1]

As we are entering the second half of April, lambing season has officially started. Images and videos of jumping and nursing lambs are starting to get a bigger hold on my social media feeds, as I am devotedly following several accounts of people who tend to take in bottle lambs this time of year – the tiny creatures that have been cast off by their mothers and have little chance of surviving on their own. Last April when the lockdown had just started, and I was confronted again with an abundance of stories and imagery of bottle lambs, I was determined to use my quiet isolation time to get my act together and move apartments, so I could take one in this year. Well, things didn’t go exactly as planned for many of us and I am still living in my tiny, crowded apartment in the city center of Amsterdam – no place for lamb. Still, even though the prospect of a lamb has been pushed further into the future, lambs are very much on my mind. They are on my mind and not only as the adorable little creatures of spring, but also as teachers of living in togetherness and as practitioners of collective knowledges.

I by no means want to deny the severely troubling ways in which cattle and sheep are held and bred today, especially in western cultures, and I do not want to imply that human interference has not damaged the ways in which sheep live and learn together – it has – but I do want to acknowledge with this text how thinking with and through the wooly creatures can help to dismantle persistent cultural believes and the significant unjust stereotyping that sheep have been subjected to.

So, in the spirit of Donna Haraway, who taught me that it matters what ideas we think other ideas with[1], I want to think with sheep, and more specifically I want to humbly start imagining a future of collective practices and shared knowledges with/through them.

Sheep are sociable creatures; they often function as one flock, collaborating while protecting their weaker members and keeping each other warm when circumstances are dire. 

Although artist collaborations have become a bit more popular in artistic discourses, I still regularly find myself bewildered when a funding or post-academic organization asks me to detail “each participants contribution to collaborative projects”[2]. As if collaborative work is a mathematical equation with clear delineations of labor; of course not! Rather, projects “continuously shift because of collaborative innovation”[3]. In the academic spheres where I have from time to time inserted myself, moreover, “collaborative research is often regarded as a poor substitute for the originality and rigor of single-author scholarship.”[4] It is often assumed – consciously or not – that one engages in collaborative projects because of an inability to conduct research of one’s own or that collaborations unnecessarily dilute didactic messages.

So how do we become not one lamb but many lambs in the formation of lamb-like relation, how do we become truly attuned to each other, when the structures around us continuously force us to disentangle our efforts from those of our collaborators and the only real way to capitalize on a practice is to continuously draw boundaries between the self and other?

Maybe we can start by realizing that collaborations are always already (in)forming our work whether we want to or not. No one creates in a vacuum and those around us – human and non-human – inevitably influence our ideas and practices. It is, in my opinion, an unethical gesture to individualize that input as one’s own work, but surely that is what happens all the time (a process that Fred Moten and Stefano Harney discuss in detail in their book The Undercommons[5]). Becoming aware of artistic and academic practices as always already in collaboration, might be a first step in actualizing a more sheep-like way of dealing with one another and one another’s work. And as this awakening occurs, it will hopefully push institutions to change if they want to remain able to harbor the knowledges under their umbrella’s.

“The lamb knows how to read the feeling of the form of what is each other all together, the fears and pleasures and neutralities of each other, the everything of what is expressed in a bleat or twitch when the lamb is with each other”[6]; Sheep are incredibly perceptive and care-full. 

Collaborations ask for a lot of care and tending. They are fragile and easily corrupted, especially when grown on depleted soil. After my first practice based educational trajectory, that had time and again repeated the message of how we as young artists were each other’s competition, I had a lot of unlearning to do and creating a space for open communication in collaboration was not something I was taught. I had to learn through new methods to establish grounds for healthy communication in collaboration. One of these methods is that of writing ‘care riders’, a concept that was first introduced to me by curator Staci Bu Shea. They explained it – or at least this is my rendering of that initial explanation – as a document that can express expectations from working on a joint effort, but also personal ways and preferences in communication and one’s needs in interactions, so conflicts can be avoided or more easily handled in the future. Care riders, in how I’ve been using them with my close collaborator Layla Durrani, can also function as a way to undermine the seemingly self-evident character of neoliberal work-relations and standards, so a 9 to 5 workday, consistent output etc.[7] Through writing these documents and revisiting them many times since, Layla and I realized how the structure we were building together was very different from the usual expectations of work, but that we were happier and had created space in which new thoughts, projects a­nd healing could emerge. 

It is often assumed that sheep are mindless followers and don’t have a developed comprehension of individuality, authority or leadership. This is, however, untrue; in a flock of ewes the animals might not have a single leader or follow the same ewe every single time but there are dispersed forms of leadership and ewes do follow specific animals in specific situations.[8]They collaborate and form a oneness as a flock, but they also acknowledge and allow for differences between animals, while not adhering to a single leadership paradigm. Moreover, they are so attuned to differences that they “can recognize and remember at least 50 individual faces for more than 2 years”[9], longer than most humans can.

Collectivity does not necessarily mean uniformity, and I do not think collective efforts should aspire to work towards undifferentiated harmonious unity. Rather the power of collective labor lies exactly in its polyphonous character and it is by acknowledging and celebrating different voices that it can push discourses forwards. What I hope we can develop in the near future are techniques for collective efforts that not only respect differences but emerge from them and create alternative organizational structures in the process. I imagine that this is what the Milan Women's Bookstore Co-operative tried to achieve – and achieved to a certain extend – with their practice of “collective difference”[10] and their methods for dispersed forms of authority, a collaborative technique that does not shy away from administering power to individuals, but continuously reassesses its allocation depending on the circumstances or needs of the collective. To be able to use these techniques we need to get attuned to each other’s talents and needs, in continuous interaction, or in the words of the Matsutake Worlds Research Group: we need a “strategy [of] ‘echolocation’, […] that stresses the importance of intersubjective perception in our collaborative process. After all, the aromatic matsutake teaches us to pay attention to the senses.”[11] And after all, sheep teach us how to read the everything of what is expressed in a bleat or twitch.

Sheep are known to self-medicate when ill, finding and ingesting the right herbs to alleviate their maladies, a curious matter that was scientifically researched by animal behavior scientist Juan Villalba. Villalba gave mildly poisoned foods to young lambs, who were then given something to eat that would temper their symptoms. Another group of lambs was offered the restorative medicines only after they had already recovered. When, at a later point all lambs were given food containing the substance that had disagreed with them, and a choice of different medicinal foods, the only lambs to show a preference were those that had learned which medicine would cure them, a preference that persisted for at least five months.

Most of us humans, however, have lost the capacity self-medicate with plants and especially those who were brought up in western traditions have developed a very high dependency on figures of authority that represent the medical discourse[12]. How did we lose such a powerful tool as the attunement with our bodies and the knowledge of how to treat it in illness? One answer to this question is: through the witch-hunts, that in the late Middle Ages terrorized – mostly female – herbal-healers in Europe. As Silvia Federici so meticulously outlines in her book Caliban and the Witch[13], there is a continuous entanglementbetween (the uprising of merchant) capitalism and the violent oppression of herbal knowledges (deemed as witchcraft), because the latter gave too much power to the people – to women, really – and sometimes invited what were seen as superstitious or magical believes, that did not secure a dependable workforce.

These historical practices of herbal healing heavily relied on sharing – sometimes subversive – knowledges within – sometimes selective – communities and Layla and I have been exploring if there could be a way to re-acces the knowledges and methods encapsulated in them. By researching the entangled worlds of (medicinal) weeds and devalued, or feminized[14], practices, that have been neglected and violently minimized under profit-driven narratives of neoliberalism and by learning about our bodies and plants, together, we can hopefully start to make the knowledge-sharing practices of historical herbalism accessible once more.[15] It is not an uncomplicated task and we fully acknowledge that our re-interpretations are inevitably colored by digital media and the traumas induced by the interrelated fields of neoliberal work-relations, colonialism, the witch-hunts and their subsequential misogyny and sexism. But we do hope we can start to occupy some of the cracks in the ever expanding forcefully laminated surface of progress driven narratives. And through it, I hope we can start to heal.

I sometimes dream I am surrounded by sheep, cozy in between their fleece filled bodies, to then wake up and realize this is already partly true. To all the sheeple that have warmed me when I was cold, led the way when I was lost, pushed me back when I took a weird turn, let me lead when I knew what to do, this text was inspired by you. And to the many more sheeple to come!

[1] Boyer, Anne. “When the Lambs Rise Up Against the Bird of Prey”,

I want to mention here that together with fellow textile-infatuated artist Veerle Melis I have been using this poem as a guide while working towards a show/workshop that will take place in Hotel Maria Kapel later this year.

[1] More literally she says: “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.”

Haraway, Donna. Staying with the TroubleMaking Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016: p. 12

[2] You can almost look up any organization’s application guidelines, I don’t necessarily want to name names here.

[3] Matsutake Worlds Research Group. “A New Form of Collaboration in Cultural Anthropology: Matsutake worlds”, American Ethnologist, May, 2009, Vol. 36, No. 2 (May, 2009): p. 380-403

[4] Idem.

[5] Harney, Stefano and Moten, Fred. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Minor Compositions, 2013 ­­­<>

[6] Anne Boyer again.

[7] I want to mention here that the concept of the care rider is greatly indebted to the practice of writing access docs in which workers or artists with disabilities have been sharing their needs, ways of working and expectations with institutions. There is a great website called access docs for artists, with a lot of resources and example access docs, for those who want to work with these documents or see what they look like.

[8] Addison, W.E., Simmel, E.C. ‘The relationship between dominance and leadership in a flock of ewes.’ Bull. Psychon. Soc. 15 (1980): 303–305

[9] Constable, Harriet. ‘Sheep are not stupid and they are not helpless either’., 2017


[10] Martinis Roe, Alex. To Become Two: Propositions for Feminist Collective Practice, Archive Books, 2018: p.49

[11] Anna Tsing, who wrote these words as part of the Matsutake Worlds Research Group takes the idea of echolocation in collaborative practices from geography professor Lieba Faier. 

Matsutake Worlds Research Group. “A New Form of Collaboration in Cultural Anthropology: Matsutake worlds”, American Ethnologist, May, 2009, Vol. 36, No. 2 (May, 2009): p. 382

[12] I want to note here that my argument is not one against the western medical discourse. I am rather arguing for regaining knowledges that work in addition to it, that can re-complexify it and open it up for more nuance and more holistic interpretations of healthcare.

[13] Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch. New York: Autonomedia, 2004.

[14] We use this word with full understanding that these practices were not solely practiced by women. Instead, we use the term to contrast practices and practitioners working in subversive manners and methods to dominant practices under progress-driven narratives.

[15] I am not saying that we should shun western medical treatment – please get your Pfizer/Moderna/AstraZeneca shot – but what I am saying is that re-connecting to more subversive healing practices can re-connect us to our bodies and also to methods of sharing what we have come to know. In that way, it can heal us.

Liza Prins is an artist, researcher and writer based in Amsterdam. Her work focuses on the reinterpretation and revaluing of (material) practices that are often coded as feminine. Through collaborative and personal writings and performative works, she recalls those practices that have been forced to the margins of society because, in the eye of an aggressive capitalist ideology, they are not part of progress, or even endanger it. Her work has been exhibited in various galleries and exhibition places and her writings have been published in academic and less-academic journals, books and zines. In 2019 she received a young talent grant from the Mondriaan Fund.