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.

Too much?

Rachel Thomson

The idea of working with a group of drama students came about when re-encountering the original data set and finding and remembering an interview (MAG50) with a young woman studying drama at Manchester University. MAG50 was eager to talk about her own complicated emotional life as well as the ‘false and forced intimacy’ of the drama scene.  She shared stories of non consensual sex as well as intense relationships with powerful older men. She also articulated her understanding of the sexual politics of the theatre industry where women may need to be sexually available in order to get work.

Reading this interview in a new historical moment framed by the #metoo movement and  the exposure of predatory men within the entertainment and creative industries encouraged me to take this material to todays drama students at Manchester University. I wanted to find out if they would be interested in the material and in collaborating in a project of reanimation that would help us think about social change and continuity. We began by making contact with Alison Jeffers in the drama dept at MU who put us in contact with Elena and Lea – two third year students who had recently taken over the stewardship of the Women’s Theatre Society – a student led theatre society for women.

The work began. We shared two further transcripts with the group – both interviews with young women who were drama students at UM in 1989.  After 6 weeks of workshopping the material I was able to join them.

Before leaving for Manchester I gathered some memorabilia to take with me – objects from my life at the time the research was done; an old diary, photographs and a copy of my handwritten Masters dissertation on Women and AIDS, which lead to me being part of the WRAP project. I also read MAG50 again on my way to Manchester as well as reading my dissertation. Through these objects I tried to remember my 23 year old self. When I met the young women that evening they jumped, as if they had seen a ghost. I understood that they had got to know a version of me in the interviews and that meeting the 53 year old me was strange for them. I tried to explain that it was strange for me too.

I shared my memorabilia and to began a Q&A session that lasted over an hour where we did the work of weaving feminist webs between our shared relationship with this interview and our shared co-presence, uncannily in the very building where the original research had taken place. There were a number of moments in this conversation when connections were made between the old me and the new me, between the young women and MAG50, between 1988 and 2019 in that building. I felt like we were doing a collaborative analysis.

Making sense of the boldness of the sexual discourse.

A burning question for the group was how it was possible for the original conversation to have taken place. It was so bold, intimate, open. At first I thought that they were telling me that from their perspective the research was unethical, that the questions too direct, transgressive. But over the discussion I began to understand that they were curious about how such a discourse became possible. They wanted to know about the staging of the interview and the lead up to the conversation (did they know what would be asked?) and about whether I had supervision to prepare me for the ‘heaviness’ of the discussion. It became evident that having a conversation like this now would be very difficult, constrained by concerns about safeguarding, consent and triggering. But rather than chastising me for bad practice I discovered that the young women were eager to re-enact this way of talking.

Rachel: I think that’s really interesting because I think now we would see a study like this through the prism of mental health and it absolutely wasn’t how we looked at it. So, we would now … I don’t know, tell me what you think, I think we would think about triggers things like that, is it triggering? Could you ask that because that might…? Whereas in a way this was the stuff that happened before that whole way of looking at  the  world  came  about,  this  was  much  more  political  I  think  in  a  straightforward way, well nothing is straightforward is it? But it was much more about trying to say, “That’s not fair.” Or, “Put that into words; what words does that…?” Because we didn’t really have any vocabulary to talk about sex, people didn’t know what to call bits of their body, they didn’t know how to name power, and I say ‘they’ I would speak of myself as well, you know, like we didn’t really have a vocabulary to describe any of these things so it was the basic work.

Together we worked out the relationships between now (2019) and a time (1989) where speaking out about sex and about power was a project of making the personal political, naming the unnamed and developing a new vocabulary. As threads connected the two moments in time the young women articulated that this formed a necessary foundation for a future culture that is saturated in the knowledge of sexual violence. Yet we also mused that something had been lost in the reframing of sex from a political to a more psychological register. We realised that there is a complicated new kind of silencing that reigns in the young women’s worlds in which sex is both seen as casual and no big deal, as well as too much trouble, too difficult and too important.

#metoo

At the end of the session I asked them about the #metoo movement and about the sexual politics of the drama world and the entertainment industry. Again the young women told a story of unevenness and contradiction. In many ways things are better for young women – there are pockets of feminist practice and areas of the business dominated by women (documentary film was given as an example). Yet elsewhere in the industry things are worse then they have ever been, with market forces determining what it valued and valuable. An actress still has to rely on her body and her youth. It is not sexism as such that is to blame, but the laws of the industry and the preferences of the audience. We talked about women withdrawing from exposed patriarchal spaces, deciding that it is just ‘too much’ and not worth it. I began to understand what they were trying to tell me about contemporary sexuality and to grasp how what came before is part of what is now in a way that escapes the linear narratives of progress and decline that stand in the way of generational connection.

Urgent mini interviews

The evening culminated in an urgent series of mini interviews, with young women choosing fragments from one of the three interviews to revoice and discuss or simply asking me to ask them questions like I had asked the WRAP young women. The interviews were double documented – I recorded them as ‘data’ for our reanimating project and Elena recorded them as useful material that the group might use for devising a performance.

I learned a lot from these conversations: that it was still hard to be a virgin; that it was hard to find a ‘middle ground’; that the protection of men and families is vital for many people still; that loving oneself can be harder than loving someone else. It was an overwhelming and moving experience that I am in the midst still of understanding.  These re-enactments were the frenzied culmination of a long slow process of engagement which I would like to think of as a single method spread out in time and space and certainly a kind of co-production that we both documented and made our own.

Watching the performance several months later I could see how strands of our conversations in the workshop had been worked with creatively and brought to life through performance. Although the performance did contain extracts from the three interviews, reperformed by the young women, the focus was on the 2019 young women’s stories. In the discussion after the show the young women told us that engaging with the material gave them permission and a desire to tell their own stories and to think that someone out there might be interested in listening.

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.

Wormholes

Rachel Thomson

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.

Experiments with re-animating data

By Ester McGeeney

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.

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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.