One of the ways that we have been thinking about our methods
of reanimation is through the metaphor of the ‘worm-hole’ (thanks to Caroline
Bassett at our kick-off event for this). The definition of a worm-hole is
something that connects two points in space-time – allowing travel
between. We think that this is a great
way of thinking about the different experiments that we have been making in
this project – using documents from the Women, Risk and AIDS project as a
medium through which to connect now (2019) and then (1989). Wormholes can take
many different forms. Auto-biography is one way of doing it – maybe the easiest
for me: connecting me-then and me-now. But it is a bit exclusive. Opening up a
worm-hole so that others can join in is where the action is.
On October 21st we will be showcasing one of our worm-hole experiments as part of the Brighton Digital Festival. We are working with fragments of original audio recordings in which young men and sociologists talk about sex (collected as part of the Men Risk & AIDS Project). If it works, our experiment will communicate something of the 30 years of time encompassed by the project – a period characterised by a revolution in technology alongside spectacular yet elusive changes in sexual culture and values. The question of ‘what really counts’ focuses attention on number and marking time – including a sensitivity to timing in making a relationship; how the passage of time makes things look different; and the struggle over time that underpins an attention economy.
In creating this worm-hole we have layered and combined different practical strategies for connecting moments. It is a ‘spell’ that brings together heterogeneous materials with focused intention. We have included biographical time (by inviting original interviewers to re-speak and record questions with questions first asked in interviews in 1990). We have included material time (by changing analog into digital and digital into analog), methodological time (counterposing two generations of feminist methodology) and aesthetic time (connecting a 90’s ‘cut and paste’ aesthetic to a contemporary cut and paste political economy). Paradoxically, the intensity of the mash-up creates space – between questions and answers, between contexts and media and between generations. We hope to have forged a worm-hole that is inviting, inclusive and collective.
Please join us on 21st October at the Sussex Humanities Lab (Silverstone Building) where the installation will be open all day culminating in a question and answer session at 4pm where collaborators Rachel Thomson, Alex Peverett and Janet Holland will hold a Q&A. All welcome.
Today I went to Levenshulme and back to go to a session with
the project that Ali Ronan has been running with the Levenshulme girls group. Our
pilot reanimating data project where we work with a group of girls aged 12-18 to
explore different ways of working with data from the WRAP archive and finding
out what it means to ‘reanimate’ it in 2019. We want to see if the girls are
interested in the archive and in the 1989 young women’s stories, to develop
some reanimation techniques and in doing so see what we learn about sex, gender
and social change. I travelled up for what would be their fifth session. So far
they have looked at clips from 1980s Top of the Pops and discussed black women
in music. They have read short extracts from the WRAP archive, usually
performing the roles of interviewer and interviewee in pairs. The extracts have
kicked off conversations about lying to your mum, being a Muslim in Britain, sex
education, periods, taking risk sand gender roles. The group have also played
games, got to know each other and discussed research ethics and
Former youth worker and historian Ali has been running the
project, working with youth worker Toni who has now left to start another job and
project lead Marianna. I don’t live in Manchester and for me to take part in what
will be session 5 its an 11 hour round trip. A long day for a 1.5 hour session but
well worth it. Because it ended up being much more than a 1.5 hour session. It
was a meeting with Ali in the community café at Inspire, where the Levenshulme
girls group meet to reflect on the work so far and plan the next stages. A chance
to see the STUFF the group have been creating – long rolls of paper with body
outlines on them, where the girls have had a go at naming and fleshing out the
WRAP interviewees. They imagined one WRAP girl – until now called MIS09 – as
Haleema. 15 years old, really smart, a small group of friends (but popular),
loves sport, running and football, 6 siblings. Very strict and religious. She
wears a headscarf but remains otherwise faceless. The other girl (we’ve been
calling her AMB18) is Malaika. She takes pictures of nature, she doesn’t wear
make up, she’s pretty, beautiful, she can sing, she’s artistic, a nice person,
she’s popular, she cares about the world and she’s finished school. She wears
her hair half up and has one big eye open.
My trip was also a chance to meet Paula Carley, a fantastic new addition to our project team who is working with us on several of the Manchester projects as part of her engagement role for Manchester libraries. Paula is a digital artist who brought along 6 ipads, a bag of sharpies, paper and microphones to the session. Just seeing this STUFF got me excited about the possibilities for reanimation. Paula also brought print outs of some of the images the group had made the previous week when she had come along to the session with her colleague Siobhan. Siobhan had worked with half the group who were interested in comic strips. They had experimented with using the app ‘Comic’, taking photos of themselves (and of Malaika) and adding captions.
My trip was also a chance to see Marianna Vareli, who leads
the Levenshulme girls group, again. Marianna was just back from Greece and had
missed a couple of sessions. Ali brought her up to speed and we planned for
what would happen over the summer. Marianna explained that the numbers often
drop off over summer as most of the girls come straight from school and when
school finishes they have quite a distance to travel. We agreed to keep the
project going if the girls are interested. It was volunteer youth worker Nadine
who first introduced us to the project but she hasn’t been able to come for a
few weeks. Whilst Marianna has been away youth worker Toni has kept things
going but she has now left to go to a new job. Ali has been running the project
but she’s also now off on holiday for 6 weeks so now the project is over to
Marianna and Paula and me. A rotating team of youth worker, researcher, artist
Sitting in the community café we also had a chance meeting with
Dez who heads up the Levenshulme Youth Project. Dez was interested in the
project and what we were doing and asked us what would happen at the end of it.
He’d like us to have a community event in the café at the end of the project, perhaps
with screen showing any films the girls have made. He says he always looking
for ways for the community to see what the youth project is doing. We reflected
that we weren’t quite sure how the project would end as it depended on what the
girls would like to do. The group have been working in a participatory mode. Allowing
time for the girls to consider how they might want to take the project forward
and what kinds of creative modes they might like to explore. Four weeks in and we
are still not sure where the project is going or what the focus might be. There’s
an interest in illustration and comics and themes have emerged around risk,
respect, periods, mothers, boundaries and race. But we’ve yet to negotiate
where the project might go or what the end product might be. Ali reflected that
going into a project without your agenda (Right! We are doing a drama project)
is much slower, more uncertain and unpredictable. We all reflected that youth
work is slow. In this project each session is only 1.5 hours and by the time
everyone has arrived, chatted, introduced themselves and played some games, there’s
not much time left. Each week Ali has observed that there has been too much to
say and too much to do. The previous week had been particularly hectic as film-maker
Marie had arrived and consent forms and permissions needed to be negotiated and
Paula and Siobhan from Manchester libraries had been there. There were lots of
adults and time was needed to get to know each other and start to build
Outside of the sessions it has also taken time to sift
through the data to find extracts that might be suitable. The archive is not
yet in any order. Not all of the transcripts have been anonymised and there are
certainly no codes or tags to help navigate easily to extracts or interviews
that would ‘work’ for this particular group. Most of the Levy girls are younger than the
WRAP girls (sometimes by about 10 years) and it appears that sex, sexuality and
relationships are not hot topics that are easily discussed within the group. We
were told from the outset that the girls are young and that many of them are
from strict religious families. A warning perhaps? And one that was somewhat confirmed
In the first session when Ali showed a clip from Top of the Pops as a safe and
easy starter to the project and one girl remarked that she isn’t normally allowed
to watch that kind of thing at home. A risky move when we thought we were
playing it safe.
Starting our creative work in Manchester with the Levy girls
has been productive. Forcing us to think about what it is possible to do and
whether the work is possible at all. It has challenged me to think again about
what it means for material to be ‘appropriate’ in education contexts. I keep checking
that in my selection of extracts from the group I am not censoring material unnecessarily,
falling into the age old sex education trap of giving young people too little
and too late, perhaps shaped also in this case by (my own?) racist ideas about
what young religious and migrant girls do and don’t need in relation to
sexuality and relationships. Not that it
has been hard to find extracts. Each interview is full of material about women’s
lives, families, career choices, friendships, social lives, bodies and health.
There’s material about politics and discrimination, migration, poverty and social
mobility. It’s within this context that the interviewees talk about (and as a
reader you come to understand) their sexual experiences, relationships, desires
For session five we had decided to focus on risk. This was a
theme that had emerged from earlier discussions, with one young woman
reflecting that she doesn’t take risks but would like to die her hair purple. Ali
and I decide that we will re-ask one of the questions that the interviewer asks
to lots of the interview participants: Are you someone who likes to take risks?
In the WRAP archive the responses are beautifully varied. One young woman says
she sometimes doesn’t pay the right bus fare, another says she once smoked
dope, another has booked a holiday she can’t afford and another stole some
tampons from a club toilet. Our plan is to explore this data and reanimate it,
using Paula, the iPad and the comic app.
Unusually most of the girls don’t turn up, perhaps because it’s
the end of term. So we only have the two older girls who act as peer educators
within the group. We all introduce ourselves and then Ali opens up a
conversation about confidentiality. E and A say that this isn’t something that
they talk about much at school, only when the teacher wants to take you outside
of the room to have a talk. It comes up a bit in E’s health and social care
course and in A’s psychology course and in her photography course where they
are told that they need to get people to sign model release forms. Although as
Paula reflects, as a photographer you don’t actually need consent to take
photos of people in public places.
We work in pairs, two peer educators, two youth workers, a researcher
and an artist. Paula gives each pair a mike and we record ourselves being
asked: are you someone who likes to take risks? Paula and I reflect on how this has changed
over time with both of us feeling like we used to be a lot more able to take
risks than we do now. We all reflect as a group that this is a hard question to
answer. Much like many of the WRAP girls we struggle to come up with something
to say. Next A and E perform a couple of extracts, audio recording so that we
will have material that the group can use to play around with in making
animated material. The first extract is about the girl who says the only risk
she takes is going on a holiday that she hasn’t paid for. This doesn’t seem
that risky initially, although it leads to A telling us about the time she went
to Lonodn on her own on the coach. This was scarey (and something E. definitely
feels that she would never do) and A. didn’t feel brave enough to leave her
friends house much in the three days she was there. When it came to getting the
coach home she couldn’t find the coach stop and found herself wondering up and
down the Hammersmith Road looking for the coach and then crying as she realised
she’d missed her coach and had no idea what to do. All the adults imagine that
young people get taught lots of about ‘risky behaviours’ at school but A and E
don’t seem to have. There’s not much on drugs and when we read the extract about
the girl who smoked dope once, A and E reflect that this doesn’t seem that
risky anymore. Lots of people do it and the police don’t care. Next we read about
the girl whose risk is sometimes not paying the right bus fare and once taking
tampons from a club toilet. Not paying the right bus fare isn’t possible anymore
the girls say although you can back pass your bus pass, slipping it through the
line of people so that more than one person can use the same pass. And stealing
tampons is fair enough. They should be free anyway. We all agree.
We run out of time and there was none left for doing and
making. Its hard to find the balance between unpicking and discussing and
creating and doing. Ali observed that the previous week they had split into two
groups, one led by Ali and one by Siobhan. Youth worker Ali focussed on
process, discussion, meanings and group relationships. Artist Siobhan focussed
on product – creating the comic strips and using the comic app. We agree we
need a combination of both and that perhaps its time to orientate this group towards
making a product.
We are learning that the work is slow, that we need to talk
as we do or the doing will never happen and that youth work is unpredictable. We
are also learning that the WRAP extracts will take us in unforeseen (and
forseen) directions. Or as Rachel Thomson has suggested – that the WRAP extracts are wormholes – tunnels
through space-time that you dive in to at one end and never quite know where in
space-time you will journey to. Jumping into one story from 1980s Manchester about
NUR19’s ‘risky’ decision to go on a holiday she can’t afford takes us straight
to London in 2019 and A’s story of getting lost and panicky in London. Then we
are off to 1980s Paris as Paula tells us her partners story about getting separated
from her friend on the metro and roaming around the city to try and find her in
a pre-mobile, pre-digital era.
We plan for future weeks to try out creating a comic strip
or using the book creator app to create a book that animates the WRAP girls
stories. The girls are interested in stories of migration, of fitting in and
not fitting in when you move to a new place. More wormholes to fall down and
see where we end up.
In March we held two workshops in Manchester. The first was an academic workshop: Rematriating the WRAP: Connecting academic and community archives. Centring around the key concept of ‘rematriation’ we explored what it means to bring an archive back to the place it was created and abstracted from. We were a mix of mainly historians and social scientists drawing on our different traditions to explore the following themes of revisit and return, archiving and digitzing, reanimating and accessing.
Rematriation: We were in Manchester – one of the two cities from which the WRAP material was extracted. We are working there over the next year to return the data – to give it back to the communities from which it came and see if anyone wants it. An ambivalent gift. The term rematriation helps us to make complex the process of ‘repatriating’ archives materials – taking objects out of museums and returning them to the communities they came from. Drawing on post-colonial indigenous movements we can understand this process as more than the gifting of materials but a process of (re)building relationships with and within communities.
We are already deep in the process of doing this – working with youth and community groups, to reanimate the data and work out what we can ethically show and do with the original material. Some of these are the 2019 versions of the 1989 communities that the WRAP team worked with but we are finding that the landscape of youth groups and sexual health outreach work has dramatically changed in the past thirty years, as Rachel reflects on in her post Digging where I stand. (re)building relationships has been slow, exciting and painful.
Digitizing and sharing: Jenna Ashton reminded us that it is important to think about why you are digitizing an archive beyond the desire to ‘save’. She called our attention to the desire to digitize and get everything ‘out there’ without thinking about Who, why and what is it for? Jenna also cautioned against the allure of shiny tech and VR, reminding us to pay attention to sensor experience and the digital. Julie Mcleod also reminded us of the need to think about ‘ordinary people’ as well as ‘teccy people’ when considering how best to ethically and effectively show our digital archives to others.
Our work in Manchester helps us to work out who might use the archive or to whom the archive might matter. We will be working with university students, school pupils, youth workers, teachers, community workers, community members and activists – exploring what is interesting and useful, what resonates.
Anonymity: to harm or protect? Andrew Flinn and Niamh Moore’s discussion unveiled the different ways in which anonymity is viewed within oral history interviews and social science traditions. Within the oral history tradition people it is presumed that people will be named. This is an important way of giving people voice and connecting people with places and historical events. To remove someone’s name in this context is to do harm.
Within the social science tradition it is presumed that participants will be anonymised. And this is usually to protect them from harm.
We are currently anonymising the WRAP material and facing challenges in working out what is ethically ok. We are removing participants names and the names of the boyfriends, ex-boyfriends and friends. But we are leaving many of the details about place. It often feels uncomfortable as we try and work out how much of the detail about place should we remove to protect participants anonymity without erasing the rich details about Manchester city life and its communities thirty years ago? Talk about Hulme, Moss side, Moston and Salford tells us much about how socio-economics, community and place shaped sexual cultures and responses to HIV and AIDS in 1989. One young woman tells us that she feels less at risk from HIV from having unprotected sex with men than she does from working with children at a school in Moss side. A community she images as risky due to drug use and prostitution. Although she also (along with other young women in the archive) wonder how their own sexual behaviour differs from that of prostitutes. They are sure it does. But they aren’t always sure how.
Emotional communities.Historian Claire Langhammer has been working with Rachel and reading some of the WRAP interviews. She observed that there is a ‘raw’ emotional quality to the data. She encouraged us to think about historically situated ‘emotional communities’ and ‘affective ecologies’ to help us work with the data and understand the heterogeneous nature of social change in Manchester as uneven.
Claire observed that there is little talk of love in the WRAP interviews but rather an overwhelming sense of anger and disappointment. She shared a moment from the archive in which a young women expresses frustration about the amount of emotional labour she has to do in her relationships. She wonders, in conversation with the interviewer, whether the relationship might not be worth doing. Claire invites us to see this in the context of wider shifts in the 1980s in gender and sexual relationships in which women were starting to see themselves as having greater choice in their relationships, compared to their mothers, and a desire for greater equality, but were not always seeing these choices and desires translating into safe, contented and equitable relationships.
That’s not my Manchester! Rachel Thomson presented an account of 1980s Manchester as captured in the Manchester based magazine City Life. There is a public concern about sexual violence. Manchester is a trendy city and there is a feeling of change – City council privatisation. The arrival of ecstacy. Entrepreneurship. International travel. We see scallies and yuppies and education, gender and class trouble. This Manchester – an increasingly privatised, global and globalised Manchester – was not familiar to many of the participants in the room who had lived in the city in the 1980s. They reminded us of the many other archives – in particular queer archives – that tell different stories about the city and its communities. We were reminded by Liz Stanley of Borges and the powerful deception of the archive in making you think that it is give you ‘the’ story.
Feminist webs. The WRAP project developed out of a web of feminist academics and community activists. It was not a purely intellectual project but as a response to work that the WRAP team and others were doing in community groups where they met women who were angry about the way that women were meant to be solving the problems – by getting men to wear condoms.
The feminist web is an important metaphor for this project we revisit a project that took place as part of a feminist web whilst also using modern day webs and connections to make our project happen. As participants reflected, these are webs with messy boundaries where academics and communities are in conversation, not without tension.
Day two was a workshop for youth workers in which we had a go at reanimating the WRAP data through poetry and craft.
Images from our craft workshop are available here. Below is a summary of the poetry workshop, led by Ali Ronan and some examples of the poems created with/from the archive.
We started with brief
introductions to relax the group. The group takes the lead from the workshop
‘leader’ so I was brief and informal in my own introduction and because the day
was intense and with lots of questions/memories to discuss – I decided to work more
quickly than I usually would. I used ‘flow writing’ to start.
Flow writing:The task was to just write for 2 minutes without stopping about a young woman. It could be you or someone imagined. This exercise was just to get the workshop going and to get people relaxed. I made it clear that there was no sharing of material at this stage. This was important so that people were not feeling vulnerable or exposed.:
Clusters:The next task was Clusters, which is an exercise using a word to link with other words that are evoked. For example: :
Sex –Fun-Funny-Awkward-Secret -Bodies —
So the next task was to
ask people to start a cluster of words with Sex in the centre. We worked quickly to avoid overthinking the
Lists and patterns:I then asked people to create a list/patterning poem by starting with the phrase Sex is …. I kept it simple in this workshop but you can make it more complicated by adding different ideas such as Sex is .. Sex is not… This time I made it clear that we might share some of these lines/lists if people wanted to.
After 5 minutes I asked
people to read out one line each, I started and then we went round the table so
that a poem was created line by line – some lines were repeated and or echoed
which made people laugh in wonder.
Working with WRAP
Then I distributed two
short WRAP extracts and asked people to read them and circle ideas and works
that sparked a response in them. We then used the same patterning / list making
technique with these words to start to write a poem. I used
short ones – just one side of A4
QU: Do you talk to your dad about this [a sexual experience with someone who refused to wear a condom, which led to Michelle refusing to have sex with him]? AN: Yeah, and my mum. QU: That’s great. Have you always been able to? AN: Yeah, I mean I had a one night stand when I was only 14, and I’ve not told my mum and dad, not for the fact that they would have done anything or said anything, but the fact that I was so ashamed. It’s part of something that I’d rather forget, it’s personal to me. And I think it would have disappointed them both if I’d’ve told them, and if I told them now they’d..(unclear). But that was something that was for me, that I wanted to block away, my little skeleton that goes in my little cupboard. I mean everybody’s got them. But from then on we talked about this, that. They came home and I told my dad. And he said – What would have happened if he had actually have gone through with it, if he’d have worn it [a condom]? I said – Well, I’d have been regretting an act then, not a near act. I said – It’d’ve happened and I would be regretting it, I would have found out the hard way that that wasn’t what I wanted. QU: It might have been fun? AN: Yeah, it might have been fun, but that’s.. QU: Would you feel guilty, or alright about casual sex for the fun of it? AN: No, I don’t think, I felt fine, I felt lovely up until the time when he said – I won’t wear one of them’. But I mean that’s all I wanted at the time. And if it had gone through that I would have been quite prepared to continue. But that was all I wanted. But time passed, and I realised that it’s not what I need from a man. I mean if I’m going to do it I’m going to do it properly. You know, have a bit more up top behind it, as well as down below. I mean he was really, we didn’t even talk, and I fancied the arse of this lad, and that was all.
Michelle, (EDD135) Aged 20. The WRAP archive.
emerged. And we shared what we had written, to laughter and astonishment.
The term digging where you stand was introduced in 1978 by Swedish oral history activist Sven Lindqvis who called upon factory workers to investigate their own workplaces as a form of self-organisation. I know this because Andrew Flinn provided a compelling overview of community history making and archiving at the Sussex Humanities Lab. Andrew has used the slogan ‘Dig where you stand’ to describe and organise community heritage work – inviting people to research their own communities, and localities. Sometimes this means literally digging where they stand.
Last time I was in Manchester I went to the Whitworth Art Gallery to see an exhibition about the Reno night club, demolished in 1990 and dug up in 2016. Lead by community activist and playright Linda Brogan and funded by the HLF, archaeologists at Salford University literally dug at the site of the Reno, with community members joining in to reveal treasures including the original dance floor, old library cards and a thirty year old bag of weed! The Reno had been a haven for a generation of young people who identified as ‘half-caste’, the children of white Mancunian mothers and African or west Indian fathers. On the back of the excavation an oral history and community memory project has been undertaken that documents how groups of friends installed themselves within the club, had their own spaces of standing, watching and dancing – how the Reno was part of a network of community spaces in Liverpool, Nottingham and Cardiff . The Whitworth Art Gallery has given a large space over to the project and includes vitrines displaying objects, screens for listening to A/V recordings of interviews, collections of memorabilia, an in-memorium wall marking the faces of the many players in the story who are now dead, long before their time. The project and the website that accompanies has the feeling of a community endeavour. Interviews are full of laughter, reminiscence, shyness and pride. Taking over the museum is a political intervention as is the task of maintaining control over the character and methods of the project.
I found out about the
Reno revival on one of my trips to Manchester for The Reanimating Data Project.
I lived in Manchester between 1985-90, for a time just over the road from the
Reno. Between 1988-90 I was research assistant on a project documenting young
women’s sexual cultures. My job was to interview young women in Manchester and
I found them in lots of different ways: through youth clubs, through colleges,
through workplaces, trade unions and universities. The reanimating data project
takes me back to Manchester thirty years later to find out about whether there
are still traces of these places and people and whether there is meaning or
purpose in bringing this body of research back to the place in which it was
generated so long ago. It would be so much easier if I could dig where I stand,
but I stand two hundred miles away in the south coast of England, not far from
where I started before I left for Manchester in the autumn of 1985. So I have
instead to try and work out how to dig where I stood.
In 1988 when the WRAP
project went about recruiting young women into the project it was able to
collaborate with a vibrant network of youth clubs across the city, where
feminist youth workers were intervening in creative ways. Our project talked to
young women at Ardwick and Moston Youth Clubs – encouraged by youth workers
such as Nora Davies and Cath Lambert to capture young women’s views and
experiences of what was often a tough life for young women but which produced
wit, insight and ambition. The YWait project was a jewel in the crown of
Manchester youth work, a peer education project promoting sexual health for and
by young women. With the help of Pam Muttram we made contact with a young
mothers group in Higher Blakeley who were self-organising and speaking at
schools just as teenage pregnancy was beginning to be articulated as a problem
in a new way.
An article in Manchester based magazine City Life in 1988 called ‘Pregnant Thoughts’ by Penny Anderson reports how ‘high teenage pregnancy rates have shocked local welfare workers …according to new Government figures Greater Manchester has more teenage mothers than any other English county’. The piece comments that there is ‘no real stigma to illegitimacy any more’ with early and unmarried pregnancy operating as an intergenerational phenomena ‘if Mum gets caught the daughter is likely to get caught out as well’.
Fast forward thirty years and Ardwick youth cub has been demolished, targets to address teenage pregnancy have been met (partly by the widespread use of long lasting contraceptive implants) and the last strand of support for teenage pregnancy city wide disappeared two year earlier when pregnant school girl units were disbanded and FNP was not replaced. ‘Once we hit the target non-one was bothered’ explains Maggie Flint, who has worked with young women include the 1980s, a time she remembers fondly as a golden era, where ‘everything was possible’. Tracking around the new and shiny academies and youth hubs that have replaced the post-industrial landscape we notice that teenage sexuality and public health are no longer on the agenda. At the Academy we hear lots about early intervention, about tracking progress and intervening to address obstacles to progress. The intervention is more likely to be time-limited speech therapy for a parent in order to facilitate educational progress in a child than a service built around notions of equality or collective empowerment. The whole area was ‘swept clean’ for the Commonwealth Games explains Maggie. Local slums and local services where rationalised into strategic plans for the whole city – a multi-agency approach lead by a common assessment framework. The end of bottom up services. Activists become contract managers, freelance trainers, retire. How do we dig in this landscape? Where do we stand?
At the 2016 Tory Party conference Theresa May declared ‘if you believe you’re a citizen of the
world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.’ She counterposed elitist cosmopolitan
drifters with ‘the people down the road, the people they employ, the people
they pass in the street’. This phrase has come to my mind several times during
this project as our team searches for traction with communities in present day
Manchester – finding ways of connecting an extraordinary set of interviews
generated in the city thirty years ago with the city today. An obvious problem
is that the team is not based in Manchester, we come as visitors, attempting to
drum up interest in a past that is complicated. I find a similar ambivalence to
the past in the archive where I read a Jim Reeve review from 1989 of and
exhibition of Shirley Baker photographs that suggests that in the 1980s this past was too close – Reeve
comments on how in these images ‘the 60s
can be seen creeping up on a timeless people, tower blocks looming up over
back-to-backs, bee-hives and mini-skirts against a background of outside
toilets. If you close one eye you could imagine a scene from the 30s. Its
alarming to think that the fairly momentous 20 years covered by the pictures
still saw flabby arms folded around wrap-around pinnies, men with trilbies and
spectacles covered with Elastoplast, which is why anyone over 30 should steel
themselves before perusing these pictures. They are a grainy reminder that you
are becoming part of history…. The book left me with a dull feeling. That is
not to say that it is a dull book’.
I am very aware that I left Manchester in 1990 and the city
I return to now is a different place. Skyscrapers are sprouting up in the
centre of the city, rumoured to be funded by Chinese capital. Trams connect
neighbourhoods in new ways and the University expresses a new-found confidence
and ownership of the civic space. We convene a reunion of the old sociology
department where the study was born, attempting to retrace the lines of town
and gown that characterised the city in the late 1980s. We discover fellow
travellers who also passed through Manchester University during this era and
appreciate their nostalgic connections to the project. Yet for those still
living in Manchester, still working in the department, it is an unconnected
history – perhaps producing dull feelings. Our various gambits to capture
interest are productive but not always successful as our agendas slide away
from each other. Drama students in 2019 appear more interested in the stories
of working class girls that revisiting the dubious sexual cultures of middle
class drama training culture of the 1980s. Our hottest connection is with the
Proud Trust, still meeting in the Sydney Street building that is a living
connection with the Manchester of the past, celebrating the city’s history of
activism around section 28, of radical feminism and activism in the area of
young women’s sexual health. Workers and
clients see themselves in a local feminist activist tradition that includes our
study. As an organisation the proud Trust move easily across the lines of
academia/ local government, the voluntary sector and corporate fund raising. They
have not been swept away or built over, in fact they are key players in
building the new Manchester as they begin a major building project of their
I like the idea of digging where I stand. If I had stayed in
Manchester I would be able to align the geographical, biographical and
historical – but working peripatetically in this way alerts me to Manchester’s
place in a history of cosmopolitanism, of exporting and drawing in talent, of
reinventing itself and of looking forward rather than backwards. The metaphor
of digging where you stand is powerful and compelling. I want to be able to do
this and to claim the dubious authority of a living local. Instead I seem to be
burrowing, making channels below and along the ground, sometimes my personal
worm holes trap me alone in an auto-biographical past, but increasingly these
become connected spaces where I bump into others following their own leads.
Back in the mists of time and irritated by something I can no longer remember, I started editing a series of working papers called ‘Studies in Sexual Politics’. The titles were all research-based, the first ones featuring papers given at seminars and conferences, then others originating in dissertations and oral presentations of research. The series started in 1983/4 and the last title appeared in 1993. Over this period 37 titles were published. Initially they were printed by the Communist Party printers in Manchester, Progress Printers; and then by a Rochdale-based printer who had earlier worked for the University, Cedric Hardcastle.
Copies were taken to conferences and seminars, including to meetings of the BSA study group on Sexual Divisions, word went round about them in various women’s movement and gay groups, students heard about them, professionals working in the organisations that these research-based titles were concerned with also heard. From printing 25 or 30 copies at the start, by the end the print-run was 500 copies, and for some high-selling titles over 1000 were eventually produced and sold. They cost £1 each, a no-profit amount to cover just basic costs. As well as me, other people became involved in what turned into a time-consuming process of production and distribution (talking, encouraging, typing, editing, re-typing, letraset-ing covers, collecting huge boxes of printed titles, addressing labels, stuffing envelopes, trips to the post), including for varying periods of time Marilyn Porter, Sue Wise, Sue Scott and Olivia Butler among others, all of us associated with the Sociology Department at the University of Manchester as staff or undergraduate or postgraduate students.
The SSP working papers morphed into
a related series called ‘Feminist Praxis’ (which in turn produced an edited
collection published by Routledge). They were intended as an alternative to
mainstream publishing, which I viewed then and view more strongly now as
creaming off its profits from academic labour and giving relatively little in
return. This is not to say that I did not publish in the mainstream, or
relative mainstream, for I did and do. These were also the days of Virago, he Women’s
Press, Pandora. High-profile feminist publishers were also working in
mainstream publishing houses, and I had productive encounters with them all, not
to mention the rise of the academic feminist journals that so encouraged us in
academia. But even so, ‘hot off the press’ was not their strong suit, and also their
referees could be conventional and timid or just not very knowledgeable. This
is where SSP was such a joy, for there were many women (and a few men) with
much that was interesting to say, nobody could say no, nobody could say you
can’t, other than readers by not forking out that magnificent sum of £1. And
the readers kept coming, indeed they increased in number.
Along the way I was told by some
feminist academics that energy should not be put into working papers, for this
would mean that the women involved would be deflected from publishing in
mainstream outlets, which latter would benefit their careers much more. A
sensible comment to make. However, when I review the SSP authors now, I can see
no sign that any of the people concerned were deflected any more than I was. We
all had things to say, and to say loudly, and we were saying these things in an
array of outlets. A large proportion of the authors indeed became high profile
academics or similar in other organisational contexts. I thought that the comment
was misplaced at the time and still do now. And I still continue to publish in
DIY places as a point of principle.
The SSP project came to a natural
end, for its very success meant it became impossible to deal with the ever increasing
print-run without it taking on the attributes of a ‘proper’ publishing
enterprise, albeit one that did not actually make money, while my commitment
was to my day job as an academic and regarding the family deaths that occurred
at the time. No decision that ‘the end’ had been reached was made, it just
became too difficult to do another title. The final title no.37, was concerned
with feminist research in and on the Mass-Observation Archive.
So what is the relevance of
remembering these things now? A mainstream corporate academic publishing empire
is still with us and is more rapacious than it was back then in dominating the
forms that academic publishing takes, in journals and monographs and textbooks,
and also in gobbling up anything else we might do. There is no high profile pro-active
feminist publishing that stands between us and ‘the empire’ anymore, alas. But,
there is a larger reading public existing across a whole variety of platforms
than ever before. And, there are technologies available that can help prevent
energies being siphoned off into the distribution side of things. And,
these technologies mean we can do our own thing and not be led by a publisher
interested primarily in profit. And, there are still things that can
best be said in forms that are not books or articles or chapters, and which
have many of the attributes of old-style essays or working papers because they
have an open-ended and provisional ‘for now’ character. And, in the UK
at least, our academic research assessment framework is neutral about any
specific publishing outlet and cares instead about the significance and reach
of the work itself. And, readers are more likely be and to remain
interested if things are said that are not just the same old yawn stuff that
everyone else is doing, but work which takes chances and pushes at the
The day of the hugely selling
working paper may be over but its heirs are around us and, regarding my own
activities, the Olive Schreiner Letters Online and the Whites Writing Whiteness projects do some similar things (and I
am also Impressed with the Discover Society venture). What these
activities of my own don’t do is to bring together a large and diverse group of
people, all with something to say, all saying something different, and in many
cases disagreeing. This is what academic journals are supposed to do but rarely
achieve because they strive for respectability and conformability. And so enter
here the blog, the vlog, the podcast, and yes, the downloadable working papers
that can be published on research websites. Not all blogs need be the length or
sub-substance of a tweet, podcasts can act as a useful introduction or addendum
to a piece of written work, working papers can presents ideas in progress and
encourage debate, and people can agree, disagree and productively coexist while
doing so. In short, more interesting and more innovative use could be made of
the possibilities presently available – aspects of medical journals and related
publishing are of considerable interest here. The now ready availability of the
means for DIY publishing should be grasped and made full use of. Go for it! Let
a thousand projects bloom!
Archives are pedagogical spaces. Before the digital revolutionised the technical form of the archive and its role in everyday life, we might have considered archival pedagogies solely in relation to the contents of the archive: how artefacts can be used to provoke learning, questioning and exploration through the educational encounter. What we find in any given archive collection can help us learn about the world they reflect. In a digital environment the pedagogical territories of the archive are extended to encompass the material around collections. These also become a location where learning and social relations can be animated through activities of exchange and contribution.
To realise this, archives need to be understood as more than
their data – the contents of the collection I might visit to acquire
information. They also include an archive’s Meta-data:
the catalogues that feature complex webs of linked classifications and
descriptions that support the discovery of information. ‘Meta in Greek means three things: with or
among, between and after,’[i]
and it is within the ‘Meta’
capacities of digital archives – around its contents that co-mingle the past,
present and future – that transformative pedagogical practices can be
established and imagined.
‘Meta’ realm of digital archives are three key concepts – Transmission, Storytelling
and Care – that can be unlocked through pedagogy. To teach in the digital’s ‘Meta’ milieu is to activate and socialize
understanding of the catalogue as a transmission machine, a site of
inter-generational transfer and time travel, a contact zone with materials
assembled by persons in different times and spaces. For archives of feminist
social movements and other unofficial knowledges, these materials endure in the
present because people have cared: cared
enough to spend time and expend energy to collect, organise and preserve
the ‘Meta’ archive enables learners to participate in this circuit of care.
This might take the form of contributing descriptions and constructing new
connections between contents in the archive. The first step of any archival
activity is assembly – the salvage of materials from oblivion. What comes after,
however, is equally important, less emphasized and visible: the continued work to
maintain the integrity of collections and ensure they can remain animated, so
they might become a resource for (re)making society. In a digital environment
this reality creates pedagogical opportunity, a vehicle to devise learning
activities that socialize care and transgenerational responsibility.[ii]
Through embodying the ‘Meta’ space of the archive, learners gain sense (in the
muscles, hands, bones and eyes) of their capacity to take care of the knowledge
they attend to, and reflect on and among.
The technical concepts of archival science and computational
programming languages are opaque and distinctly apart from everyday life. They
are ‘hard to access.’ To support
movement into the ‘Meta’ space of archive it can be reclaimed as a Storytelling
location constructed in direct correspondence with archive materials learners
encounter. These ‘stories’, or descriptive layers, give further meaning to
archival content. They create traces that record how a reader responded to and
made sense of an artefact in a specific time and place. They are part of a
trans-generational dialogue that future readers might also contribute to,
reflecting on the different contexts in which the archive is accessed and
animated. Storytelling within the
catalogue realises the potential for care and transmission that can be realised
through digital archival pedagogies.
Archival collections do not come fully formed. They are
often messy and disorganised rather than neatly catalogued. For archive
collections created in the past 50-60 years, they are likely to contain
personal information about living, identifiable persons. Some of this material
will be ‘sensitive’ and some of it will not. Some people will know material
they created is included in an archive; others won’t be aware. This raises
ethical questions about access to materials but, importantly, legal problems
too. Teaching in the ‘Meta’ archive may help support the acquisition and
negotiation of socio-legal literacies that inform relationships with data in
the archive, but also in everyday life.
May 2018 saw significant changes to Data Protection Law
through the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which ascribed a new
legal identity to people in a digital society: data subject. GDPR introduced
new regulations about how organisations store and ‘process’ personal data. Archives,
which might be public authorities or a public or private body that holds
records of public interest, are able
to ‘acquire, preserve, appraise, arrange, describe, communicate, promote,
disseminate and provide access to records of enduring public value for general public interest.’[iii]
Archiving in the public interest is the legal basis for archives to process
personal data. This means archives are not subject to the same restrictions as,
say, an online clothing company who must have a different – and more
time-limited – legal basis for collecting and storing data.
Because the GDPR is focused on the ‘processing’ of data it
places new legal constraints on the pedagogical activities that happen in the catalogue or ‘Meta’ space of the
archive. It transforms participants from learners into ‘data processors’ who
may, inadvertently, be involved in making judgements about materials they read.
This is especially likely if pedagogical activities respond to un-catalogued or
unpublished artefacts. Discussions about GDPR, when practiced in a context of
group learning, may also support collective
articulations of public interest vis-à-vis the archive collection in
question. After all, archiving in the public interest is not a self-evident
statement with fixed guidelines. It is a framework that must be contextualised
and argued for. Immediately it raises two compelling questions: which public(s)?
For a project such as Re-Animating Data, which is seeking to
activate a complex archive relating to young women’s sexuality and sexual
health created in the late 80s by feminist social scientists, this is an
opportunity to clearly articulate what ‘the public interest’ of re-using such
material is. This need not be a tick boxing exercise. It can be located in
pedagogical action, part of the project’s collective exploration of how ‘well-kept
and accessible archives contribute to the democratic functioning of society’[iv]
through the valuation, circulation and re-interpretation of marginalised
perspectives. In this manner archives can be leveraged to ask questions about
social change and organisation, enabling archival sources from a different time
and place to press into the contemporary context, offering orientation,
provocation and evidence. Introducing the socio-legal frame may also be used to
facilitate discussion about the wider rights of citizens-as-data-subjects,
whose social orientation is engineered to produce data, but not necessarily
exert control over where it is stored, or how it is used.
Robin van den Akker, Alison Gibbons & Timotheus Vermeulen (2017) Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect and Depth
After Postmodernism, London: Rowman Littlefield International, 8.
[ii] Bernard Stiegler (2010) Taking Care of Youth and the Generations,
trans. Stephen Barker, Stanford University Press.
The Mass Observation Project (MOP) is a volunteer writing project based at the University of Sussex. There are currently 450 writers (often referred to as ‘observers’) who respond to ‘directives’ or open ended questionnaires that are sent to them three times a year by email or post. The Directives contain two or three broad themes that writers are asked to comment on ranging from personal issues to wider social and political themes and events.
Each observer is issued with a code which is used to give them anonymity and allows them to write candidly if they wish. As a result, the Project solicits in-depth accounts of everyday life: stories, memoirs, lists, letters, diagrams, drawings, maps, diaries, photographs, press cuttings, confessions, reports on people, places and events, across a wide variety of topics. Since it was launched in 1981 over 4,500 people have volunteered to write for the project.
Observing the 80s is a relatively small scale project, which brought together oral history, mass observation
responses and ephemera from the 1980s. The material, which has been made available as an open educational resource, offers a unique insight into the lives and opinions of British people from all social classes and regions during the 1980s.
The value of digitising these collections is that there was previously no established historiography of the 1980s. The decade was largely represented as polarised and the work that did exist was similarly divided into oppositional camps. By bringing together these resources from the MOP and the British Library Oral History Collections, students and academics are able to make and illustrate connections across and between these polarised approaches.
Observing the 80s was ostensibly a teaching led project, but it has taught me a lot about how I want to research, and how I might think about the journey between a piece of evidence’s initial context of production and its ongoing accrual of historical meaning, through use, and subsequent reuse. When we reuse data, each time it is picked up and picked through we add a new layer of our own meaning. The Mass Observation Project (MOP) writers have taught me to think about that historical acquisition of meaning, from production to reception, and to listen to the producers of our evidence as analysts or collaborators.
Mass Observation perforates the line between who is the researcher and who is being researched. It builds collaborations between the original researchers asking their questions in the past, between the respondents who shared their analysis, and between researchers since.
To illustrate this I’m going to use two MOP directives from 1988 to draw out the complicated ways in which events and linear narratives are intertwined, and how the barriers between evidence and analysis are perforated over time. I combine the directives and the responses to them, and the contextual explanation of the directives that Prof Dorothy Sheridan produced for the Observing the 80s project.
27. Autumn 1988: Part 1: Regular Pastimes SxMOA2/27/1
The first directive is form Autumn 1988. It was intended to capture TV-watching within a broader context and asked the correspondents about their leisure activities described as ‘Regular Pastimes’.
Regular Pastimes – that is to say not occasional (e.g only at weekends) or seasonal (e.g only in the summer). Reading is an obvious example but there are others things like listening to (and making) music, writing (letters, MOP observations etc), listening to the radio or watching TV, and crafts of all sorts of which knitting is only one example. What I would like would be a record of the place that such activities have in your daily life: when do you engage in them (e.g every spare moment, or set times); for how long usually; do you do something else as well; how do they fit in with the activities of other members of the household; if there are financial costs or limitations what are they, and, if there are end products, what happens to them?
The answers to this directive focus on newspapers, magazines, and all sorts of writerly and readerly pursuits as well as the physical space that readable objects, or their shelving, occupy in the home, The respondents interpreted the directive’s prompts in various different ways. Some produced a diary of what people did to pass the time, other provided a detailed account of their leisure activities. The respondents also interrogated the meanings of particular terms, for example the meaning of ‘regular’.
Some explore what reading means to them in vibrant ways. Reading romantic novels, or magazines like Valentine, mark life-cycle stages and book clubs provide social connections outside the family.
Not only does their voluntary participation in the project as a whole demonstrate the importance of the written word, their answers share the variety of ways in which writing matters and how it connects different parts of their lives. The etiquette around a quick response time to a letter, or regret for unfulfilled ambitions to become a writer as a younger woman, (C1191), another attended creative writing groups (G218).
The respondents also use the directive as an opportunity to think about what time means to them, and indeed the emotionality of time. Whether they are talking about how the day, or the week or year is structured by activity, the responses map periodisation as an experience. They also challenge some of the divisions between activity as leisure and work. As Langhamer has pointed out the categories of work and leisure are emotionally forged through gendered structures. A woman’s leisure activity (baking, sewing, playing with children) could equally be seen as work in a different context. Together these writers have taught me to be mindful of the ways in which people define these borders and perforations for themselves, rather than expecting them to fit into my boxes as a researcher.
And to think about how time, and life cycle stage intersect.
When writing about their pastimes respondents include where they
shop, what they listen to on the radio, some also include MO as a pastime,
occupying this space across and between unpaid work and leisure.
The List is a classic MOP frame. Respondents are often invited to make lists, and revisit them with others, to be the observer. But lists are also a way of taking control of content. Sometimes when the directives they are responding to are wordy, unclear or laboured, the respondent uses a list to gets down to what really matters to them; just the key objects or events.
27. Autumn 1988: Part 2: TV Day-Diaries SxMOA2/27/2
The British Film Institute (BFI) approached the MOA to participate in a national ‘Television Day Diary’ to capture on one day what people were watching on TV. The directive went out in the post with a colour printed form which explained the BFI’s intentions and offered space on the form for the day diary. The form was not restricted to the Mass Observers – it was the BBC’s general public form. Copies of the form were donated to the MOA.
Dear Observer, An unusual package this time. The British Film Institute has asked for our cooperation in their lst November “Television Day Diary” project – an idea inspired by MASS-OBSERVATION in the first place. The enclosed leaflet is self-explanatory but I’d like to emphasize two points: – The “Day Diaries” must be sent to the British Film Institute, 21 Stephen St, London W1P 1PL, and not to the Archive. – The BFI competition deadline is November 19th. This deadline does not apply to your response to the topics below which should be returned to the Archive as usual. I would be grateful for your help in this because your TV “Day Diaries” will finally be returned to us and will be a valuable addition to our collections. Please fill in the tear-off slip at the end of the Directive and return to us with your Directive reply. This will give us an idea of how many of our correspondents have taken part in the BFI project.
Setting the directive up as a letter (“Dear Observer”) breaks
down the relationship between contributor and archivist reiterating that we are
in this together in a shared endeavour, but more interestingly for this
Directive the commissioning process is explicit in the form and content of the
In terms of content the responses map different social values; some observers had embraced breakfast TV and it had the changed shape of their day; responses show the perennial concerns over violence in children’s cartoons appear regularly; respondents felt that there were too many quiz shows and too much Snooker coverage in the schedule and a number of respondents engaged with discussion of Pat Butcher’s earrings and how depressing Eastenders had become. There were those who identified themselves by their taste, whether they loved or hated Neighbours, or Terry Wogan. Responses also show people starting to use video recorders to fit TV into their life rather than the other way round. There were also numerous concerns about TV ‘ruling our lives’.
Even though this directive was explicitly for the BFI, and even though it looked different than the usual directives in form, MOP writers took their expectations of MOP with them in their answers. As researchers we also get some slightly different contextual information. BFI ask them to add their current marital status, and occupation. As Annabella Pollen has demonstrated looking for representivity is not the most interesting way to work with MOP. Because MOP is a writing project not a survey it is generally less interested in blunt markers of category around class for example. If I’m honest, this is what I love about working with MOP but it can be a bit frustrating when you just want to know a bit more basic background on the writers.
Respondents showed how perforated their own lives were.
These are reflexive researchers.
They record the process of their own research…
… and make their own analysis of what the research is for and why it matters.
As co analyst MOP writers feel entitled to take control of the agenda, this is ‘their’ project after all.
And they also feel licensed to critique the agenda and the process.
In this post I have worked through a few responses to a couple of Mass Observation Project directives. For me the scale or the breadth of the evidence is not the point, it is the journey that the evidence has made, from complex context to complex context, accruing meaning, resisting agendas, setting new ones, and inviting us to think in perforated rather than disconnected ways.
“Some 6,000,000 U.S. teen-age girls live in a world all their own — a lovely, gay, enthusiastic, funny and blissful society almost untouched by the war. It is a world of sweaters and skirts and bobby sox and loafers, of hair worn long, of eye-glass rims painted red with nail polish, of high school boys not yet gone to war. It is world still devoted to parents who are pals even if they use the telephone too much. It is a world of Virgil’s Aeneid, second-year French and plane geometry, of class plays, field hockey, “moron” jokes and put-on accents. It is a world of slumber parties and the Hit Parade, of peanut butter and popcorn and the endless collecting of menus and match covers and little stuffed animals.”
While researching my book on adolescent temporality I found myself transfixed by a photo essay from a 1944 Life Magazine called “Teen-Age Girls: They Live in a Wonderful World of Their Own”. The photo essay portrays a sea of happy, white, middle class, mostly blonde, American girls doing all the things we associate with the bobby-soxer: dates, sodas, high school football games. The photos and captions give the reader a sense of the divide between adults and young people that becomes more noticeable around the 1940s. The article has a tongue-in-cheek anthropological tone; the teenager seems like an alien intruder with a strange set of rituals and habits. 1940s teenagers are pictured as confusing to their parents’ generation who grew up without access to that identity. The Life Magazine story makes it seem as if to understand modern teenagers, adult readers need to be anthropologists of their own children, studying them to try to understand their newly emerging culture.
During the course of the 20th
century adolescence goes from being seen as a potentially troubling and
anarchic stage everyone passes through to an identity category bound up with consumption
and style. We know that adults are
often anxious about the potential radical rebellions of adolescence – think
about contemporary panics over youth radicalization for instance.
Simultaneously youth as a stage has often been romanticized—either as blissful innocent
idleness or safely navigable anarchic rebellion. Adult society anxiously
criminalises the behaviour of teenagers, feeling it needs to keep a close watch
on them, while at the same time idealizing adolescence, and wanting to remain
in it. There are paradoxes that gather around adult attitudes toward the teenager
in every time period. Are teenagers sloths (hiding in their rooms or apathetically
on their phones) or are they dangerous revolutionaries? Are they where we now
put the possibility of fun, play, adventure, or where we unload all our most
troubling fears for the future?
From the mid 20th century onwards, youth begins to become an object of desire in itself, rather than just a stage of life to be endured. This shift accompanies more possibilities for young people to spend time together in public space, at dances, in clubs or schools or hanging around on street corners. Jon Savage’s book Teenage charts this change all over Europe, tracing the ways adolescents claim new kinds of freedom and organise in new forms. Changes in education laws in Europe and America feed this change. From the 1870s in England when education becomes compulsory, public funding for schools meant that children stayed in schools for longer. Conscription during both world wars also played a part in prolonging the space before entering the adult world of work. Adolescents had more leisure time and eventually more money to spend. At this point adolescence morphs into a shiny new identity: the teenager.
Before the 1940s then, there are no
“teenagers” but many of the concerns and worries that we find about teenagers
and how they are spending their time, are clearly apparent much earlier, from
the end of the 19th century when we find growing concerns about
adolescents’ leisure time and activities and how adults can be sure they grow
up properly into certain socially sanctioned directions and not others. The Life Magazine article features something
we probably want to call fun; there is a lot of hanging out in packs with
friends, at the record store, at the soda fountain, at the drive in movie. But
this fun is shot through with rigidly disciplinary gender and sex expectations
for teenage girls who are negotiating this new identity. Notice especially the
“sandwich girl” “who is considered a real crumb” in the words of the Life Magazine photo caption. Pictured surrounded by boys in a diner,
the sandwich girl allows her body to be in too close proximity to boys and puts
herself in the centre of the picture.
Life asserts this will not go
unnoticed: “girls will not invite her to their hen parties and will try act
cool towards boys who formed sandwich.” Is Life
simply reflecting or is it helping to create this punishment of the new teenage
girl at its centre?
Adolescence transforms into modern
teenage identity at this (very white, very middle class, very American) Life Magazine moment. What kinds of data
re-animation might allow us to understand this movement from adolescent phase
to fashion-conscience, consumer oriented, explicit teenage girl identity we see
in the process of sexualisation here? What kinds of stories come into play
alongside the visualization, celebration, and punishment of the teenage girl
emerging here in the 1940s? How does data like this, obviously faulty, idealised, light-hearted
and depressingly creepy still matter?
Our new project will return to an academic data set back to the community from which it was once abstracted. Our data is a set of 150 in-depth interviews with young women living in and around Manchester in 1989-1990. These were collected as part of the Women Risk and Aids project and formed part of a landmark study that changed the way that researchers and youth workers were able to talk about young people and gender, sexual risk, sexual pleasure and sexual agency.
Our plan is to work with new generations of young women and practitioners currently living and working in Manchester to reanimate this data. This will involve re-using the data and opening it up for collective reanalysis to create new stories and new understandings of the changes in the experience and portrayal of teenage sexualities over a thirty year period.
In 2013 I worked with Rachel Thomson and the young people’s sexual health organisation Brook on the ESRC funded ‘good sex’ project. This project involved reanimating data from my PhD (a mixed methods study of young people’s understanding and experiences of ‘good sex’ and sexual pleasure) to create a series of short films that could be used by education practitioners and hosted online by Brook.
At the start of this project I had no idea what it meant to ‘reanimate’ data so we worked in an experimental mode, inviting young people and artists to join us in developing methods for working with data in open, participatory and creative ways. First we worked with theatre director and writer Lucy Kerbel who shared with as a series of techniques for visualising data and creating written responses. ‘Get comfortable and close your eyes’, Lucy told us, before reading out a short extract from an interview with a young woman talking about her tugging sexual desire.
‘Look out through the eyes of the person who is talking…What’s above you? Look down at your feet. Look to one side and then to the other. What is the air like? Are you inside? Is it warm? Cool? What’s the quality of the air like?
Look around and spot one object. An object that appeals to that person. Move towards it, touch it, can you pick it up? Does it make any noise? How does the young person talking feel about that object? That place? Is the young person in a familiar place? Choose one word to describe that space. What would it be?’
The young people imagined the interview participant in Nandos, on a bus, at a house party, on a desert island and in her bedroom. She feels trapped, confused, despair. Time is moving slowly. There’s an iPhone, a hoody, a tin-box, windscreen wipers and a clock. Next Lucy asked the group to write non-stop for one minute expressing themselves as if they were the interview participant speaking to someone she felt comfortable with and then again to someone she did not feel comfortable with. The imagined scenes and scripts created a series of responses to the data, reanimating it whilst also creating new stories and scenes.
Watching Lucy work with the group I was struck by the ease with which young people engaged with the data and were able to imagine themselves to be a young woman with a set of desires perhaps very different from their own and to relate her experiences (as a young, black, muslim woman who wants to wait until she is at least 20 to have sex with a man) to the everyday objects and practices of their lives. The space Lucy created was the space that theorists argue for in the literature about sex education – a safe space in which young people are able to listen to and engage with sexual stories and desires of others, to imagine sexuality otherwise and to talk about and respond to stories about sexuality in ways that did not leave them vulnerable or exposed. A space that prioritised creativity, possibility and emotion – working beyond the didactic and judgmental modes so often mobilised in sex education. Here knowledge was not a thing made to be passed to young people but a thing in the making in which young people were active participants.
Our next attempt at reanimating data was led by the group of young people I worked with and facilitated by documentary film-maker Susi Arnott. The young people in the group found the stories captured in the interview data compelling.
They found stories that they had never heard before – stories of attempted first sex where the penis just wouldn’t go ‘in’ to the vagina for want of trying – but that perfectly mirrored their own and their friends experiences. They found others that they couldn’t believe someone had told me – stories of vulnerable masculinity and sexual failure and stories that they wanted every young person across the country to hear – stories of female pleasure and sex getting better over time. They wanted these stories to be heard by other young people in a simple format; a short film showing one young person speaking directly to camera, telling the story as if it were their own. So we experimented with asking young actors and peer educators to re-perform the stories captured in the data, speaking directly to camera as if in Youtube confessional mode. We also asked our actors to step out of role and comment on the story that had re-performed. Our films became movement of re-analysis. In their performances young people interpreted and gave meaning to the data and in stepping out of role they engaged in more straight forward analytic commentary – working out meaning, giving judgement, relating, commenting and empathising. We created new sexual stories in these films that simultaneously reanimated those found and recreated from the interview data.
In our new project I’ll work with Ali Ronan and local youth workers and artists to engage new groups of young people in reanimating and re-analysing the WRAP data, using methods that generate new sexual stories and commentary on what has changed for young people over the past thirty years. I imagine that performance will be a key strategy, but if my previous experiments have taught me anything it is that this work is unpredictable and that young people are capable of leading and developing their own methods that may be quite different to what I had previously imagined.
Manchester in the late 1980s was a complicated but cosmopolitan space. The music scene looked to New York and Detroit with its back turned firmly away from London. The once futuristic housing estate of Hulme became a rent-free republic for the unemployed: revolutionaries, students, villains all artist of various kinds. North and South Manchester were different worlds, the south shaped by the presence of Universities and the north by the relics of what were, until the early 1980s, thriving engineering and chemical industries that provided men and fathers with a family wage. Further afield in the cotton towns of greater Manchester a different gender regime held sway, where fast-talking funny women earned their own wages and refused to suffer fools gladly.
It was into this landscape, with a new Sony Walkman in hand, that I emerged as a 23 year old social researcher, recruiting young women to talk with me about sex. I was pushing at an open door. Hairdressers, school girls, beauty therapists, shop girls, shop stewards, trainee nurses, beauty therapists, telecom workers and a sound recorder at Granada Studios all responded to an invitation to speak out about sex. We were in a new moment made public by official alarm about the HIV virus which could only lead to AIDS and untimely death. Two years previously every house in the country had received a government warning not ‘to die of ignorance’ and now films featuring young heterosexuals dancing in discos showed at the cinema warnings viewers: ‘There is still no cure for AIDS. And its on the increase.’
The testimonies that we collected capture worlds in turmoil and transition. Young women are questioning the grim advice of mothers, making sense of the collapse of the industrial working class family, and troubling the boundaries between respectable and unrespectable femininity. This was a moment of popular feminism – a no-going-back kind of feminism, emerging from the ruins of deindustrialisation and divorce where young women understood that they needed to forge their own way in the world as best they could. In retrospect we can see them as having invisible resources: unmentioned housing benefit and ‘free’ education. But they also had to contend with violence, with shame and with being shamed.
It is this set of interviews that forms the heart of the Reanimating data project, offering opportunities to revisit this moment in time and think again about what was happening. The project promises to conduct experiments with people, places and archives. Our first step is to secure the interviews. For thirty years the interviews have been stored privately by one of the original research team. Our task is now is to digitise and archive them in a form that means they are safe for the future. We then will work with our collaborators in Manchester to generate as much contextual material as we can about the time that they capture. We will revisit the places and some of the people involved in the research exploring what has and has not changed and what it means to bring data back to the people and places it emerged from. Working in partnership with community archive project Feminist Webs we will find ways of bringing this material back to life and into conversation with young women living in the city today.
This is the first blog post for the project and marks the moment when we open our work to a wider group of fellow travellers – people who might be interested in our experiments and their outcomes. The project is a collaboration from the beginning. A collaboration between the original research team that conducted the Women Risk And Aids project and who are the custodians of the material (Janet Holland, Caroline Ramazanoglu, Sue Sharpe and myself Rachel Thomson) and a team of new generation sexuality researchers including Ester McGeeney who will be working on the project; a collaboration between Universities (Edinburgh where Co-I Niamh Moore is based and Sussex where Sharon Webb and I are based) and community organisations including Feminist Webs (represented ion our team by Alison Ronan) and the Manchester people’s History Museum; a collaboration between sociologists and historians as well as between generations of feminists.
On December 7th 2018 we held a kick-off workshop through which we launched the project. The workshop enabled us to convene a group of critical friends who are helping us imagine and deliver this project and over they day they provided us with expert input on the key concepts and methods that underpin our work:
Key concepts: The teenager (Pam Thurschwell); feminist time travel (Caroline Basssett); collaborative history (Lucy Robinson); sexualisation (Sara Bragg) and collective biography (Janet Batsleer)
Key methodologies: the archive as boundary object (Niamh Moore); critical digital pedagogies (DM Withers), reanimating data (Ester McGeeney), preservation and access (Sharon Webb)
Over the next few weeks we will publish these contributions as blog posts, opening the conversation to a wider community. Right now we can share a short film made by Susi Arnott that captures some of our excitement about the original WRAP project and the opportunity to revisit it now.
The Reanimating Data project is in 2018 funded by the ESRC under its Transforming Social Science programme. The original Women, Risk and AIDS project was funded by the ESRC in 1988 as one of a series of social science projects responding to the AIDS crisis.