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.