Symposium: ‘Absence, presence and embodiment’

People who are disappeared leave traces behind: traces of presence, photographs and personal possessions. Though the demand is “We want them back alive!’ in the end it is often only human remains—skeletal traces—that are recovered and identified. The relatives of the disappeared also make traces of their own: their shoes wear out as they walk from office to office demanding action, as they march in protest, and as they search for the bodies of their missing relatives. They trace the names of their sons or daughters in thread, embroidering handkerchiefs or headscarves in their honour, and keeping the possibility of their return alive.

We explored how these material traces made by relatives form an embodied challenge to absence, one that can be animated and set to work, and we looked at the spread of the search for and forensic identification of remains beyond ‘experts’. The symposium took place alongside two exhibitions: Footprints of Memory: Searching for Mexico’s Disappeared, by Mexican artist Alfredo Lopez Casanova, and Stitched Voices, an exhibition including textiles marking disappearance.