About Manual Labours

Jenny Richards and Sophie Hope started Manual Labours in 2013 as a way to reconsider current time-based structures of work (when does work start and end?) and reassert the significance of the physical (manual) aspect of immaterial, affective and emotional labour.

In April 2013 we began Phase 1 of Manual Labours with a 35 hour ‘working week’-long investigation into the embodied, sensory, emotional affects of work. This included meetings with our co-workers, a 9 mile walk to work, hosting a film screening and eating together during a Public Lunch Hour. This initial stage of the research, which carried out in the Peltz Gallery at Birkbeck College, University of London, was documented in Manual Labours Manual #1.

In Autumn 2013 we co-hosted a series of site-specific reading groups that addressed different sites of work including an artist studio, a hospital and a bank. You can read more about these reading groups here.

In 2014 we embarked on Phase 2 of Manual Labour with by working with a London borough council’s complaints team and a series of workshops with cultural workers in Melbourne, Helsinki and Stockholm. The material from these workshops formed Manual Labours Manual #2.

Manual Labours continued in 2015 with Phase 3: an investigation of the ‘complaining body’. We worked with a contact centre in a London borough council, commuters on a train station platform in Worcester and staff dealing with students complaints. We worked with these different groups to explore the physical and emotional experiences of receiving and making complaints. Out of this emerged many accounts of what it feels like not to be able to complain. These workshops also provided the backdrop to three new commissions by choreographer, Hamish MacPherson, visual artist Sarah Browne and writer Ivor Southwood. The resulting visual, written and performance pieces were presented at the Peltz Gallery and Showroom in London and in a third Manual Labours Manual #3.

From 2016-18 Manual Labours carried out a residency at Nottingham Contemporary where we moved our explorations of the ‘(un)complaining body’ into the architecture of the workplace, taking the building of Nottingham Contemporary as a case study. In this Phase 4 of the project we looked into the ways in which buildings and bodies were fluid ecosystems which affect each other. This resulted in a co-produced health assessment of the organisation, which was presented to their board of governors with specific suggestions for improvements relating to staff welfare. We created a new mobile staff room/kitchen (co-designed and built by Effy Harle and Finbar Prior). We also commissioned  Maud Lannen and Olwen Davies two of the invigilators and performance artists in their own right, to devise a performance responding to the theme of the building and body and their working conditions as some of the lowest paid and most precarious members of staff in the institution. We scripted a performance giving members of the public an ‘architectural endoscopy’ tour of the bowels the institution. The resulting Manual Labours Manual #4 (launched together with the mobile staffroom and kitchen) was designed so that other building-bodies could undergo a process of examination, led by the staff who work within them.

Progressing on from our research with staff at Nottingham Contemporary and responding to the necessity for a virtual version of our physical mobile staffroom, Phase 5 (2020-2024) started in 2020 by bringing people together from across the UK and other parts of Europe in a virtual staffroom to discuss care at/as work as a live Podcast. The Global Staffroom was a live podcast we hosted involving conversations and interviews with people about what it feels like to care, be cared for, not be able to care at work. Over 14 weeks during lockdown, every Monday lunchtime we brought together guests from different workforces and geographies to discuss architecture of home-work, racialised experiences of lockdown, emotional labour of health workers, social reproduction and remote working. The podcast was subsequently purchased and archived by The Edinburgh University Art Collection.

From 2020-23 we have continued on the staffroom theme and produced Manual Labours Manual #5 (prototype 1 and prototype 2); created a series of listening station installations; written an article and consulted with activists, researchers, artists and educators to develop a series of proposals for distributed, mobile, covert and permanent staffrooms (outlined in prototype 2), which we will continue to develop in 2024.