Public Engagement Awards: Dr Sophie Hope and Jenny Richards – Manual Labours: The Building as Body

This is the fourth in a series of blogs showcasing the Birkbeck 2020 Public Engagement Awards winners and highly commended participants. This project was announced the winner of the category ‘Engaged Practice’.

Manual Labours: The Building as Body is part of the long-term project Manual Labours, which explores physical and emotional relationships to work. This particular iteration took the Nottingham Contemporary as a case study and focused on the ‘(un)complaining body’ in relation to the architecture of the workplace. Research questions included:
– How do aspects of the building (storage, lighting, air, access routes) make staff feel?
– Where is the building hurting, blocked-up, suffering, sore, seeping, neglected?
– What impact does a complaining building have on a complaining body?

Since 2013, Dr Hope and Ms Richards (Independent Artist, Curator, Researcher, Partner of the Manual Labours Project) have been exploring physical and emotional relationships to work by carrying out workshops and interviews with different workforces (including cultural workers, commuters, call centre workers and complaints workers). For this phase of the research, they were invited by workers in a public cultural organisation to deliver a workshop on working conditions. At their request, they returned to work with them over a period of two years, responding to their needs to explore their workplace in a critical way. This was an iterative process where the research was driven by the content of the workshops. This collective investigations of the building became a useful reflexive and supportive space for staff to share their experiences and identify aspects of the organisation that they wanted to change. Thus, the project provided an experimental, well-needed space to reflect on the experience of work from different perspectives. The workshop format allowed people to meet from across the organisation and share experiences of their workplace, fostering conversations that otherwise were difficult to have. One of the creative outcomes of this project, the Manual and Wandering Womb Mobile Staffroom/Kitchen remain in use by the staff, and is so popular that it has its own booking system.

Dr Hope and Ms Richards’s work with the staff of the Nottingham Contemporary has also led to practical improvements to their shared kitchen, the refurbishment of the existing small staff room for invigilators and the reformatting of the open plan office. While these were cosmetic rather than structural changes they have led to improved staff communication and wellbeing. The presentation of the Health Assessment to the Board led to staff health and wellbeing becoming a standing item on the Board’s agenda. It has also been reported that there has been a changing attitude to having embedded practice-based researchers in the organisation as this was a first for the staff, demonstrating a new way of working with artist-researchers that can be taken into future work.

Birkbeck warmly congratulates Dr Hope, Jenny Richards, and the Nottingham Contemporary on their outstanding project, which was chosen as the winner in the category ‘Engaged Practice’.

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