Manual Labours

Manual Labours is a research project exploring physical and emotional relationships to work, initiated by Jenny Richards and Sophie Hope. This project reconsiders current time-based structures of work (when does work start and end?) and reasserts the significance of the physical (manual) aspect of immaterial, affective and emotional labour.

Manual Labours started in April 2013 with a 35 hour ‘working week’-long investigation into the embodied, sensory, emotional affects of work which included meetings with our co-workers, a 9 mile walk to work, hosting a film screening and eating together during a Public Lunch Hour. This initial stage of the research was documented in Manual Labours Manual #1.

In Autumn 2013 we held a series of reading groups that explored issues addressed within the Manual within different sites of work including an artist studio, a hospital and a bank.

In 2014 we carried out a programme of workshops with a local London council’s complaints team and workshops with cultural workers in Melbourne, Helsinki and Stockholm. The material from these workshops formed Manual Labours Manual #2.

Manual Labours continued in 2015 with an investigation of the ‘complaining body’. We worked with a contact centre in a London borough council, commuters on a train station platform in Worcester and staff dealing with students complaints. We worked with these different groups to explore the physical and emotional experiences of receiving and making complaints. Out of this emerged many accounts of what it feels like not to be able to complain. These workshops also provided the backdrop to three new commissions by choreographer, Hamish MacPherson, visual artist Sarah Browne and writer Ivor Southwood. The resulting visual, written and performance pieces were presented at the Peltz Gallery and Showroom in London and in a third Manual Labours Manual #3.

In 2016-17 Manual Labours are carrying out a residency at Nottingham Contemporary where we are moving our explorations of the ‘(un)complaining body’ into the architecture of the workplace, taking the building of Nottingham Contemporary as a case study. In this next phase of the project Manual Labours: Building as Body, we are looking into the ways in which buildings and bodies are fluid ecosystems which affect each other.

Emerging research questions include:

  • How do aspects of the building (storage, lighting, air, access routes) make staff feel?
  • What might an anatomy of the building in terms of its different body systems look like?
  • Where is the building hurting, blocked-up, suffering, sore, seeping, neglected?
  • What impact does a complaining building have on a complaining body? How does architecture constitute a sick body?
  • What are the gendered, female, reproductive aspects of the building and (why) are they taken for granted/forgotten/exploited? What affects does this have on people’s experience of work?

Since November 2016 together with the staff we have started to map body systems onto the building and visited different parts of the site to identify symptoms and then diagnose the conditions. This has resulted in a series of health assessments drafted by the staff which will be fed back to the organisation and board at the end of this year.

About Jenny

Jenny Richards is a freelance curator and writer based in London and Stockholm whose research focuses on the politics of collaborative practices. In 2012 Jenny completed an MA in Art and Politics from Goldsmiths University. Prior to this she worked as Programme Manager of the Collective Gallery in Edinburgh, working with artists and audiences on long term projects of mutual interest including Jesse Jones Against the Realm of the Absolute 2011, Tessa Lynch Alexandrite 2010, Aleksandra Mir The How Not to Cookbook 2009.

About Sophie

Sophie Hope’s practice based research focuses on the relationships between art and society. She has worked as an independent curator (B+B), a writer and evaluator of public and socially engaged art and is now a full-time academic in the Film, Media and Cultural Studies Department at Birkbeck, University of London. Sophie has developed practical projects through which to research cultural policy, labour conditions and community art histories. These include a three-year participant-led investigation into socially engaged art and a large-scale community performance in a Dutch new town. Her PhD, 'Participating in the Wrong Way? Practice Based Research into Cultural Democracy and the Commissioning of Art to Effect Change' explored the limits and possibilities of criticality in the context of an artists' contract.