Working with questions

Ester McGeeney

Back in October 2019 I went to one of the Women’s Theatre Society’s Reanimating data workshops. The group were coming to the end of five weeks of workshops in which they had been exploring data from three of the WRAP interviews using movement, games, creative writing exercises, song, music, ephemera from the 1980s and lots and lots of discussion. The project was led by third year drama students Elena and Lae with different women invited to facilitate the workshops, of which there were two a week. The workshops were popular, with between 8 and 20 women coming each week and new participants continuing to join. The workshops were also productive, generating so much material and so many ideas that Elena and Lae decided to put back the performance by a few months to give them longer to work with the material.

This was the first (and only) workshop I went to. I was keen to observe the group and see how the young women were working with the data we had given them but the group soon put me to work. Elena asked me to talk to the group about the Reanimating data project and then run a workshop in any way that I wanted to. A few weeks previously I had been in Brighton to see the sound installation that has emerged from another one of the project experiments – What really counts? In this experiment Rachel Thomson and sound artist Alex Peverett had been working with fragments of original audio recordings collected as part of the Men Risk & AIDS Project (MRAP). They also worked with original MRAP interviewer Janet Holland, asking her to re-record some of the questions that she asked the young men 30 years ago. Thefinal piece includes a combination of the new material re-voiced by Janet (and 2019 young person Issac Thomson) and the original poor quality recordings of Janet, the other MRAPninterviewer Tim Rhodes and some of the young men they were speaking to.

What stood out to me as I listened to the installation were the questions. Taken out of the context of the interview they sound blunt and obtrusive, making the sociological ‘sex’ research interview strange as you reflect on what it is possible to ask and say in this public/private space.

Listening to the installation I was also interested in the interplay between deliberate and random selection. Rachel had been through the MRAP data and coded it, carefully selecting questions to re-voice and material to include in the installation. But what the viewer hears at any time is selected at random by the algorithm that Alex created. There are chunks of data that come round cyclically but as a listener you are never sure what question or answer you might hear next and whether it will be Janet from 2019 that will speak or Janet from 1991.

Fresh from viewing this latest experiment I decided to play around with these ideas in the theatre workshop. I was interested in working with the questions from the Women Risk and AIDS Project (WRAP) and playing with this tension between purposeful and random selection. We don’t have the audio from WRAP like we do from MRAP, but we do have the transcripts and had previously given the group three transcripts from the archive that had been very deliberately and purposively selected. All three interviews were with young women who, in 1989, were all drama students at the University of Manchester. We were interested in how drama students at the university thirty years later would engage with the material and its descriptions of sex, gender and the role of women in the ‘drama scene’.

I handed out print outs of the three interviews to the group. I asked them to throw the papers up in the air and then to mess them up, to mix them up, to stamp on them and scrunch them. I wanted them to know that they could be irreverent with the data – to mess with it and play with it. A month earlier when I had met with the society committee one of the young women told me that she had read all three interviews and felt overwhelmed by them. They were so rich. There was so much to say about them and so much material that she could use for the workshops she was going to deliver. Her feelings were very familiar to me. I frequently felt overwhelmed by the data set of over 60 interviews and often struggled to know which interviews and which extracts to use when working with other groups. Today I wanted to work in a different mode. I wanted to work with the data more randomly, more irreverently, more playfully.

Next I asked each person to select one or more sheets of paper at random and to chose questions that stood out to them and to cut them out. These could be questioned that interested them, or jarred them and they could discard the sheet they chose and select another if nothing stood out. As they cut them out they stuck them on coloured pieces of card.

Working in pairs the group had a go at re-asking each other the questions from their newly created interview-question-collages and then reflecting on how this felt. I’d asked them to keep the original pages from the transcription that they had cut their questions from and put them to one side. Once they had tried interviewing each other they compared their own responses to those of the original participants, captured on the cut-up transcripts.

The final task was to devise a short scene that captured their experiences of re-asking the questions and reflecting on the responses past and present. After some time for experimenting, devising and rehearsing the pairs and trio performed their scenes to the rest of the group. I recorded each of these, with consent, on my phone. [Available to view here]

There were six scenes in total, each capturing different themes. There was religion, faith, death and dying and hospital care; school sexual culture, gossip, slags and virginity; AIDS, changing attitudes and sex education; the mother-daughter relationships, periods and sexual learning; sexuality and relationships. Some of the scenes reflected on the research process itself, exposing the questions as blunt and strange tools, offensive and unusable when taken out of context. Other told personal stories, intergenerational stories or captured moments of discussion. The young women used words and silence, their bodies, chairs and bits of paper and other props. Some played with time – spinning it round, splicing it up, juxtaposing now and then, 1989 and 2019.

As a mini-collection then scenes seemed to me to show the range and the breadth or what the WRAP data (+ these women and their creative practice) can do and become – the conversations, stories and silences, as well as the reflection, thinking, performance and play.

  1. Are you Catholic?

This trio started their scene with one young woman asking another: are you Catholic? The question was abrupt and jarring but effective. Her respondent opened up, talking about her dad’s experiences of Irish Catholicism and telling a story about her Grandad’s funeral, in which the priest, who turned out to be her Grandad’s cousin, barely mentioned her Grandad at all. ‘My Grandad’s body is right there’ she said, ‘and no-one has mentioned him for like two hours’. As she was telling her story the other two group members used physical theatre to act her stories out. Then they switched and the same question was asked again. The new respondent told another intergenerational story about her families experience of being Christian scientists. She tells the story (whilst her co-performer acts it out) of her Grandmother being in a car accident and refusing to go to the hospital even though she was in ‘so much pain’. Her dad took her Grandmother there against her will. ‘I wish’ she said, ‘they didn’t have to think like that’.

2. Back to back

There’s no question in this scene. Just two young women sitting back to back on the floor, talking. It’s a snapshot of a discussion about their experiences of sexuality at school, naturalistically performed as if they are just talking to each other as two friends. School is a place where women’s sexuality and virginity are policed and gossiped about. There is always a ‘slag of the year’. Knowledge of who has done what is public and school seems to kettle the gossip and the cruel labels so that nothing can escape. It’s only once you leave school and come away to university that you don’t hear those words and those labels and sex doesn’t seem ‘naughty’ anymore.

3. AIDS? I mean I’ve not really heard of it before

In this scene there are two performers – one is 1989 and one is 2019. 1989 says – AIDS: I mean I’ve not really heard of it before. 2019 says – AIDS? Why shouldn’t it be included in sex education at school. Anyone can get AIDS. 1989 is shocked and appalled – ‘even heterosexuals?’. The scene is funny. The joke is on the past – for thinking that straight people can’t get AIDS and for thinking that if we teach children about AIDS, something terrible might happen.

4. A daunting task

In this scene the performers also sit back to back, but this isn’t a naturalistic, intimate discussion of shared experiences of school sexual culture. This is a highly stylised scene that captures the power and discomfort of sexuality research, highlighting how strange and inappropriate interview questions can be when taken out of context.

When I spoke to these two young women they said they found it unsettling to re-voice the questions and found themselves silent in response. They said the questions were obtrusive, invasive. Silencing. They capture this beautifully in their scene and shoe that when you decontextualize the interview questions they are stark, shocking and unanswerable.

In the scene the two young women are on chairs and take it in turn to read out the questions that they have cut out from the transcripts. When one asks, the other responds largely through body language. Head in hands, body turned away. Silence. An exasperated ‘yes!’. A long stare – of disbelief? And more silence. A shy look towards the floor. And more silence. A quiet – ‘I mean I guess so’. And finally, an abrupt leap out of the chair and cry of: I’m not answering that question.

5. Quite a closed question

This scene starts with one young woman holding up a piece of paper that says: 1989. The other two performers act out the start of an interview and the interviewer asks (reading from the original cut up transcript):  We are talking abouts sexuality and differences between men and women. I wanted to ask you do you think of your sexuality in terms of physical things like orgasm or in terms of emotional things like getting close or relationships?

The response also comes from the 1989 transcript. The young women tells us that it is  ‘difficult for me to say right now’.  She’s quite ‘career minded’ and doesn’t able to get into a relationship as she fears ‘it might hold me back’. For her a career and a relationship are incompatible.  

The first performer returns, this time silently holding up a piece of paper that says: 2019. The interviewer and interviewee have switched round this time but the question is the same. This time, the respondent speaks as herself, a young woman in 2019. Her response is quietly delivered, and moving:

I mean, I feel like it’s quite a closed question maybe? I mean. I don’t know. I feel like it’s only recently I’ve been properly confronting what my sexuality means to me and I feel like that binary thing that its either a physical sexual thing or its emotional I feel like women typically either being consigned to having no sexuality or just the emotional side of it is quite limiting and I think sexuality I’m trying to navigate having both and accepting both and it being my own.

This scene has played on my mind. I was struck by how much has changed since WRAP and since I was a teenager, when it felt like young women didn’t know they had a sexuality to confront or to understand. We barely knew that we had a choice about being straight, let alone that being straight (or gay or bi) could be done in so many different ways. We were navigating something, but I’m not sure we had the language, reflexivity or self-awareness to know that we were doing it.

Through this project I have come to understand that one of the features of WRAP that made it a landmark study is that it was able to name and denaturalise heterosexuality. This scene reflects on one of those moments in which the researcher is spelling out a feature of asymmetrical heterosexuality in which physical sex is for men and emotional relationships are for women. The respondent is living with this asymmetricity – choosing a career over a relationship, because women cannot have both. In 2019 this language and construction of sexuality is so limiting that the young women cannot relate to it. It is too ‘closed’ and they see a sexual future that offers much more for them. I’m relieved and grateful that these young women feel able to access a more expanded version of sexuality and also mindful of how much hard work it all seems.

6. Mum – what are these?

The question in this scene comes from a child, who asks her mum, ‘what are these?’, referring, we guess, to a box of condoms. There are three mini scenes here that tell us a condensed story about the relationship between a mother and her daughter. The passing of time is marked by the daughter standing up and spinning round and telling us how much time has passed: 3 years later! 6 years later! They have a lovely and loving relationship. The mum, it seems, wants to deliver age appropriate sex education for her daughter but she is uncomfortable when her young daughter finds the box of ‘sweets’ and distracts her by offering Haribo. At 16 she tried to give her daughter ‘the sex talk’ but her daughter is cringing, barely able to listen, and at this point knows all about condoms from school based sex education anyway. When she starts her period at school, she calls her mum from the school toilets on her mobile and her mum reassures her and helps her out. Go to the reception she says, they will have something there.

7. It was like therapy.

There was one final pair who didn’t perform a scene. Instead they ‘played’ around with the questions and got talking. They found the questions productive and provocative. They had ‘a couple of rants’ and joked that ‘it was like therapy’. One of the pair remarked that reading the questions ‘makes you think about things that you wouldn’t normally think about on a daily basis’. In particular a question about ‘positivity’ seemed to resonate. Or rather –  the participants response. Whatever the question was she said something like:  ‘now that I think about it I was actually really sad but I didn’t realise it at the time’. This led the pair to talk about how women experience and manage their emotions and how this effects sexual relationships and friendships. ‘Its interesting’, one commented, ‘because as women…there’s a lot of pressure to put on a positive font but sometimes you need to take a moment and then you realise – oh actually I was kind of sad then but I didn’t let myself feel like that.’  

There wasn’t much time to discuss the scenes or reflect on the task as we’d taken up most of the three hours already. In the final part of the session the young women reflected on the work they had been doing over the past five weeks, writing down activities they had enjoyed and themes that stood out for them so that Elena and Lae could use these to plan the next stage of the project. I looked at these and saw that one young women had written that they had realised how ‘seeing how doing little is actually a lot in theatre’.

In this workshop I was struck by how little data was needed in order to do a lot in theatre. One line, one question, one comment could become a long discussion, an intergenerational story, a highly crafted silence, a joke. Watching the performance months later I saw some of the scenes from the questions workshop in the play, along with movement pieces, songs, group scenes and a series of beautiful monologues in which the young women told their own stories about love, sex, sexuality, relationships and their bodies. It felt like there was no end to what the WRAP data + these young women and their shared creative practice could do.

Previously in workshops with other groups we had struggled to select small amounts of data for groups to work with and had become burdened by the scale of the archive and the belief that we needed to have sound logic in our data selection. We had experimented with bringing along extracts to workshops, carefully selecting data that related to a theme we thought the group might be interested in or from interviews that seemed a good match in terms of age, religion or ethnicity. This was often clunky and what resonated with different women and different groups was surprising and of course unpredictable.

In this workshop data selection had been careful – a deliberate match between the young women and the data in terms of age, gender and occupation but the method had been playful. It allowed the group to work with small amounts of data and explore what the data could do now. The women worked in part in part randomly (chucking the data up in the air and picking up the sheet that fell close to them) and part deliberately and incisively selecting questions that jarred or connected with them.

At the end of the session in October I reflected to Elena what a special space they had created. I mused: It feels safe, participatory, inclusive. There are different women there, bringing different experiences. There is so much enthusiasm and appetite for the project – it feels like there really is the opportunity to experiment with the data and the archive as I had hoped we could. This – what’s happening in the workshops – is what I wanted to do in this project. I’m wondering why this has ‘worked’ and the others haven’t – at least not in the ways that I had hoped.

Importantly this experiment was the only one that was led entirely by young women. In the other projects I often felt uncomfortable, like we were taking over a classroom or youth group space that didn’t belong to us. In this experiment, everyone was in the room because they were interested or invested in the project. They also had a shared creative practice, unlike in other groups were the young women had a shared investment in their youth group perhaps, but not in a shared creative or artistic mode.

Reflecting on ‘what worked’ helps us pull out the learning for future projects but I also know that meeting Elena and Lae was a moment of luck and serendipity. As third years and women’s theatre society committee members they were perhaps looking for an opportunity for the society to do something different and they were also in a position to be able to make something like this happen – to craft the project, to bring together and nurture a large group of young women and craft the experimental work they were doing into a final performance.

You can view the final performance of Reanimating data here and read more about the teams reflections on the project here.

Standing on shoulders

Rachel Thomson and Sue Scott

What does it mean to take data back to a community? When thinking through the return of the WRAP data to Manchester we had to think about whether any of the spaces or access points from the original research still existed or made sense. We quickly found that many of the youth centres we had visited in the 1980s had closed down and in some cases been demolished. One access point that did seem possible was the drama department at the University of Manchester. In the original study three interviewees were drama students at the University. These interviews captured a particular culture of sexuality – political, reflexive, cosmopolitan but also complicated in term of the sexual politics of the drama scene and expectations of intimacy and availability within the theatrical community. Read again against the elapsing thirty years these interviews seemed to be #METOO before the hashtag.

We approached the University drama department to see if there might be any young women who would be interested in revisiting these interviews today. What would it mean to do this? How much trouble might be involved in this digging up of the past? We were keen to share the anonymised material but also concerned that these accounts would be treated with respect and care. It felt very complicated, yet the possibility of working with contemporary drama students, engaging with verbatim theatre practices and utilising performance as a mode for opening the material up for exploration was an exciting possibility.

Through the help of Alison Jeffers we found the Women’s Theatre Society at the University of Manchester- a student society lead by Lae and Elena, two final year drama students who had recently taken over the leadership of a safe space where female students can engage in performance. Elena and Lae were very open to our invitation and ran with the project – workshoping the material, inviting researchers to join them for questioning abut the original context and engaging themselves in short interviews with original researchers. On Saturday 15 February they presented their final piece at the student union and were met with standing ovation.

Here are some reflections on the performance by the two original researchers who interviewed over 60 young women in Manchester 30 years ago. We hear first from Sue Scott and then Rachel Thomson.

Sue Scott

The weekend had been a bit of a rush and I arrived ‘just in time’ from a crowded train so had not really thought my way into the situation and wasn’t at all sure what to expect. It was delightful when Rachel and myself were greeted by enthusiastic and excited young women – the play’s directors, Elena and Lae.

I had a sense of being a ‘celebrity’ by virtue of being part of the original WRAP project  – very strange when it was all so long ago, but as they made clear in the Q and A they wouldn’t have done it without WRAP and they had clearly got so much out of it that whatever else happens to the play it has played an important part in their student experience.

Such a lot of them on stage – and so colourful – it gave a sense of the best sort of ‘Girl’s Group’ turned theatre. I’m sure that for some of them the confidence was hard won, but they inhabited it, at least for the period of the play. The way that they developed and interwove the stories from the interviews with there own was very well done, if a bit of a whirlwind experience at times. They were brave in what they said – not just because they were saying it in public, but also because they had already said it to themselves and each other and carried on. Yes sex is discussed everywhere, but yet it isn’t. 

The continuities and commonalities were striking and yet the drama students who Rachel interviewed in 1989 probably couldn’t have done this, so something has shifted. The students demonstrated wonderfully some of the many and various ways of being a young woman in relation to their sexuality and their presentation of gender in a way that might have been easier in 1979 than in 1989 – but of course only for a minority and in a safe feminist context.

It struck me so forcibly that the young women of the WRAP data would now be old enough to be these young women’s mothers – older perhaps than some of their mothers. It was clear in the Q and A that this was not lost on them, but there was no time to ask them if they discussed the play and the WRAP project with their Mother’s or Aunts – I would love to know. The ‘imaginary’ interview with one of their mother’s was powerful.

It could have been depressing as many of the negative aspects of sex and relationships for young women were clearly portrayed but they had their appropriate place and not to the exclusion of some positives and also ‘ordinary’ and ’mundane’ experiences being recounted, of which there were many in the WRAP data, but perhaps we didn’t take enough note at the time…

I was struck by the dynamic of the interviews – very odd to hear Rachel giving voice to her younger self! And the way the young women took this as a starting point to – as Rachel put it – then ‘interview themselves’. It definitely made me think about different ways of accessing data and stories.I think the theme that I came away with though was ‘friendship’– or at lease comradeship – and in the young women’s stories and my thoughts about not having explored this sufficiently in the original project. I now want to read the transcripts of the interviews they drew on.

It’s also important to think about what the theatre society can do with this now – all the hard work should have more of an airing and it would be great to share it with other young women.

Rachel Thomson

 There is much to be said about the performance, but the point I want to note here is how it was so very different to what I had originally anticipated and how this difference gives us both insight into the way that social change is lived and hope for the future of gender equality and sexual revolution.

When working with the material, what the young women in the theatre society notice and are moved by are the interview encounters themselves: the communication that took place between a young women (much like them) and a researcher (not much older). The interview questions were bold, much bolder than would be possible or acceptable today (when was your first sexual experience, did you enjoy it, how did you know…).  They found the questions problematic and part of the performance shows their irritation. But they also noted that the space that the WRAP young women took in these interviews was remarkable – speaking with an honestly and openness that was transformative. Not simply in the moment, but again and again as the material is performed and reanimated. The young women in the Women’s Theatre Society wanted to do justice to the realness of the young women’s accounts. In doing so they created their own monologues, effectively interviewing themselves but in the context of solidarity from others – both in the present and in the past.

Witnessing the performance was an extraordinary experience for me: understanding that a form of evolution has taken place, but that it demanded an engagement with a tradition of speaking out together about sex. The young women’s monologues did not start from scratch, they began from where the interviews in the WRAP archive left off and they honour the form of talk and communication that marks the highpoint of those conversations. Some of the monologues deliberately used the interview as a form. For example Savannah’s piece was an imaginary interview with her mother that allowed her to step into her mother’s shoes and to speak about a vivid experience of gay pride in Ghana and Black Gay pride in London – luxuriating in the beauty and freedom of her daughters.

As an original interviewer who has now spent much time revisiting the conversations that took place thirty years ago I am very sensitive to the plasticity of our subject positions: I am me now (a mother), and me then (a daughter). I am the interviewer and yet the interviews tell my story as well as the women I spoke with. It was this fluidity, possibility and pride that I heard most clearly in the performance. Yes, there were and are things that don’t change. Sex and power still combine in cruel ways and new generations of young women appear to have to learn things again painfully. Yet it is also possible to stand on each others’ shoulders, to share knowledge and build possibility. When this happens we are very powerful.

Watch the live performance of The Reanimating Project.

Making poems with data and data with poems

Ali Ronan

Setting up and getting going: Film-maker, Sue Reddish and I had met earlier to discuss the filming and go over the plan for the evening. We arrived at the venue in Manchester at 6.  There were 10 young women there plus 2 youth workers. Hebe the artist and youth worker came at the same time. And then another young women then joined us. Hebe is well known to the group and I had met some of them before, I also know the youth workers well.

We did a quick name round + our chosen pronoun + whether people been on TV or radio/ round which raised some laughs and generated some curiosity about why people had been on TV etc.  I introduced Sue and she talked through the consent form and the way that she would do the filming. 2 young women did not want their faces to be filmed but were happy to be recorded, otherwise everyone was happy with the filming.

Time travel: We then introduced the project and talked very briefly about the 1980s at that point.  We did another game introducing ourselves plus our date of birth to a 1988 Top of the Pops soundtrack. We also had to say one thing that happened in the eyar that we were born. The dates of birth in the group ranged from 1951-2003 so this got us talking about the decriminalisation of section 28, the new labour landslide victory, the 2002 commonwealth games, the introduction of the right for gay people to adopt, the release of the film Body guard, John Major and Spitting Image, rationing and the end of World War two, the 1999 solar eclipse and the release of the first Toy story film. A lot of discussion was then generated about the 1980s and 1990s. We mentioned the miners’ strike, Greenham and Section 28.  Section 28 generated more discussion about sex education now and the difficult discussions that are being had in Birmingham and in Manchester around the rights of parents and faith groups to have a say over the Relationships and Sex Education curriculum.

Who am I? Each person was given a Who am I? sheet to complete and used the answers to create a soundscape. Hebe encouraged the group to draw something on the sheet that describes or represents you in some way, something that is important to you or a symbol or shape that you associate with yourself. This generated more discussion about identity.

  • I am an activist
  • I am Israeli,
  • I am a student,
  • I am resilient,
  • I am happy, I am a lesbian
  • I am autistic,
  • I am a non-binary woman,
  • I am brown,
  • I am wonderful,
  • I am a daughter,
  • I am a sister,
  • I am patient,
  • I am a walker,
  • I am a community member,
  • I am 16 years old,
  • I am a good friend,
  • I am indecisive,
  • I am a woman,
  • I am organised,
  • I am a friend,
  • I am frowning,
  • I am kind,
  • I am an aspiring gardener,
  • I am a youth worker.

Warming up: We then broke for coffee and started again with a warmup moving game – creating a rainstorm with  tapping, clicking, stamping, jumping. There was lots of laughing.

Working with data: We introduced some interview extracts that I had chosen from the selection that Niamh Moore had used during a workshop at Sapphormation – a festival in Manchester for ‘women who love women’. The extracts were taken from the one interview in the archive with a young women, Hannah, who explicitly identifies as ‘gay’ plus one extract from the interview with Sarah whose first sexual experience was with a woman.

The young women split into groups of three and each had a look at a couple of extracts. They read the extracts out loud and talked about the data. The brief was to see what stood out for them, to highlight it and talk about it.

The young women were really engaged with the material, sitting on the ground and pouring over the interviews. I went around, clarifying anything and trying to provoke more discussion. After about 10 minutes of lively discussion in the small groups, we asked them to tell us what they thought. They were interested in the short extracts and they were happy to read them out, to talk about the questions and how the interviews were conducted. They felt many of the questions were intrusive.

We then sat down at the table and used the interviews + magazines to cut up and create collages or poems or whatever- this created much more discussion.

We read the poems out, we talked about words and phrases that had meant something to the young women. We talked about the magazines – they were intrigued by the notices of meetings etc.

Hebe talked to the group about how we could take the project forwards. She suggested making some kind of banner that the group could put up when they are in session as part of the ritual of coming into the space and setting up the session. She suggested a table cloth but left this open for further discussion. The poems could be a starting point Hebe suggested, we could edit them down further to identify key words or to create an image- like a young women’s group coat of arms of the things that are important to us. Hebe opens things up to the group and we agree to think some more.

We said good bye – a quick post–it note of one word feedback on the session: Insightful, open, exciting, powerful, intriguing, brilliant, fantastic.

International Women’s Day, Manchester Central Reference Library, March 2020

It was only 3 weeks ago, but it seems like another life-time already – a reminder of how the arrival of a new, untreatable virus can change the world.

The Reanimating data team travelled one last time to Manchester on the evening of March 6th in order to prepare for our finale event at the Library. We had sent ahead some of the physical documentation of the project to be housed in the vitrines of the archives plus section of the library: the original WRAP questionnaires, pamphlets and some data; feminist youth work posters and magazines from 1989 taken from the Feminist Webs collection and examples from our different youth work projects in Manchester which during the last 9 months have ‘reanimated’ the WRAP data. It was exciting to see these materials behind glass and preserved as history.

We then went upstairs to get our meeting room ready – spreading banners, craft materials, and ephemera from 1989 around the room. We had a playlist with some musical highlights and we waited to see who would turn up.

Before long we had a room full to bursting. Young people from all the different youth groups were there. Our critical friends. The original researchers and new generation researchers working with the materials. Youth workers and sexual health workers from across the city and the lifecourse. We all got to know each other by playing human bingo – looking for members of the original research team, a youth worker, a member of a youth projects.

Niamh Moore opened the workshop by welcoming participants and explaining how the old WRAP project links to the new RAD project. We began the day by sharing the film that Sue Reddish and Jim Dalziel have made explaining what it means to ‘reanimate data’ and capturing the different youth work projects in Manchester. Huge thanks to Sue and Jim for documenting the work and helping us make sense of it all.

After this young people from each of the projects then had the opportunity of talking about their experience of the project – sharing what they had done with the data, what they learned and what surprised them. We started with Emma Okomoh from the Levenshulme Youth Project who showed and talked about the short animated film that she had made working with one of the WRAP interviews, noting how important it is to find someone you can identify with in the material as a starting point for connection. Emma had been supported in this by Paula Carley and Siobhan O’Connor and Marianna Vareli, the lead youth worker for the Levenshulme girls group.

Next youth worker and artist Hebe Phillips and young people from one of the Proud Trust ‘s LGBT young women’s groups talked about their work with the ‘purple pamphlets’ and how they had used music to try and get a taste of the 1980s. The group were uncertain whether any of the original interviewees had identified as lesbian or bisexual and in their work on the project had tried to read between the lines of the interviews. They also had a go at asking some of the questions posed on the interviews of themselves as a way of filling the gap. This group’s creative work developed into the creation of self portrait squares that capture their identities as this is what they came to realise was happening in the original interviews as each WRAP participant was invited to tell her story. The making of squares was opened up to participants on the day and in the library after the event. These squares will be stitched together by textile artist and youth worker Hebe Phillips to make a banner that celebrates the voices of young women and takes their stories into the future.

The best thing about the data for this group was the lack of subtlety of the interviews making it possible to talk explicitly about sexual practise and feelings. What surprised one of the young women, Bethan, was how little has changed in terms of formal sex education despite big shifts within the culture towards openness. Answering the question of how they had learned about sex the young women at the Proud trust were surprised to find that their answers were very close to those of young women in Manchester thirty years earlier.

Listen to some of the Proud Trust group talking about what the reanimating data project was like for them in their own words.

Young people from the Women’s Theatre Society talked about how they had worked with the interview material since September, using drama exercises and bringing it to life in different ways and in the process creating a show that included skits, extracts, and personal testimonies inspired by reading the stories of others. Again, the directness of the original questions were valued, even if they had been surprising and transgressive at the start. By working with these direct questions the group found themselves having conversations that they would not otherwise have had, making themselves vulnerable and naming experiences in such a way that they were able to identify with each other and with an audience. The positive reception that the show received had taken them aback, being so wrapped up in what the process has given them the young women were surprised and moved to realise that this process would continue with the audience who also identified with and responded to the authenticity of the material, feeling that they had been understood through the story of another.

Hear from some of the Women’s Theatre Society in their own words (and bear with the bad audio – it gets better!)

Lecturer and former youth worker Jayne Mugglestone from Manchester Metropolitan University talked next about working with her final year Early years and Childhood studies students to explore the WRAP data. Jayne reflected on how the creative and participatory methods used to work with the data had transformed the students’ understandings of research but also how she had been reminded herself about what was possible in a university classroom setting. From a predominantly South Asian backgrounds and living in Greater Manchester the young women Jayne works with had been fascinated both by the continuities over the thirty years (nothing has changed) but also positive changes such as the way social media facilitates community for those who might otherwise be isolated. The experience of being in a community of women, asking difficult questions about sex that spanned thirty years was a powerful experience for the group – opening up their understanding of well-being and the role of women’s spaces of inquiry in making this important work happen.

Next up was Claire Fox Reader in Educational Psychology at MMU and Charlotte Bagnall, PhD student and associate lecturer – who shared with the audience how they had worked with BSc Educational Psychology students to use two transcripts from the WRAP archive to teach qualitative research methods, including the coding and interpretation of qualitative data. The richness of the material meant that students could focus on just three pages each from two transcripts generating rich findings about the inadequacy of school sex education and the workings of an informal sexual culture characterised by a sexual double standard and governance by sexual reputation. Here is their blog about their experience of using the archive as a teaching resource in higher education(and how to make methods teaching lively, ‘experience-near’ and feminist!)

Ali Ronan who acted as the coordinator for the youth work projects thanked all the projects and shared her view that the work has only just begun.

The final part of the event involved sharing the archive that has now been formally published in the University of Sussex repository where it will be preserved. Rachel presented this and thanked Rosie Gahnstrom for the huge amount of work that she has been doing in anonymising and cataloguing the data set. Janet Holland and Robert Albury were also thanked for the tricky and time consuming work of freeing the original data from obsolete media and machines. The archive will also be available through our Omeka platform (FAYS) where we will be creating ‘exhibitions’ using material we have collected and generated over the course of the project. This will give potential users a taste of how the WRAP archive can be used and explored and will help build a community around the archive.

The archive has been reverse engineered, and Manchester has been put back into the material and made visible. The archive will also remain in Manchester and people were encouraged to use it. 

Over the course of the project we have been exploring different versions of sharing and exploring and animating the archive, including the kinds of youth work and creative practice shared at this event. To conclude the event Rachel shared some initial reflections from another experiment we have been working on – the feminist chatbot. This has been developed in collaboration with a group of women learning to code at the University of Sussex as we explore new ways of asking questions directly of the archive. We introduced the room to the bot and asked everybody to write down one question they would like to ask of the archive. We tried one and the bot couldn’t answer, but we’ve kept their questions to help us understand what potential archive users might want a feminist chat bot to do and what future work might be done with the WRAP archive.

At this point the group went downstairs to the archives section of the library which was buzzing with people who had come for the International Women’s Day celebrations. Members of the public were invited to make their own felt square using material from the archive, an invitation that they responded to enthusiastically.

A huge thank you goes to Ester McGeeney who managed the reanimating work from a distance and planned and lead the day. An exhausting, exhilarating ending for an extraordinary project.

Digging where I stand

Rachel Thomson

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 own.

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.

Taking you back to 1989

By Rachel Thomson

Let me take you back to 1989 . Think Neneh Cherry’s ‘Buffalo Stance’, Madonna’s  ‘Like a Prayer’, the B52s ‘Love Shack’ and A Guy called Gerald’s ‘Voodoo Ray’. Let me also take you to Manchester. It is the time of Clause 28 and the galvanising of a generation of queer-as-fuck activism that linked feminism, gay liberation, post miners strike political activism, dancing and DMs. In Manchester this took the form of marches through St Peters Square, dancing at the Number One club and Flesh at the Hacienda.

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.

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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.