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One third of ‘Ply’, for Precarious Assembly at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester

‘Ply’ was the first outing for a collaboration between myself and the two artists that together form Dual Works: Zoe Robertson and Stephen Snell.  We responded to a call from a group of Manchester-based dance artists whose Accumulations project is examining women’s work and how this can be explored through creative practice.  The idea for our performance piece was hatched from Zoe’s purchase of an industrial Brother sewing machine, and the conversations it sparked: with the women who had spent a lifetime working on it, with our own mothers and grandmothers.  We were interested in the frequently mundane nature of women’s work, and the stories that punctuate it.  I am fascinated by the way these stories become part of the work, wrapped up in the embodied behaviour of the workers and entwined into the products themselves: in some factories (sawmills, textile mills) workers developed ‘industrial languages’, a form of lip reading or sign language that allowed them to communicate despite the noise and strict supervision.  The resulting performance centred around a production line – made up of a typewriter, a sewing machine and a sound box – intended to encourage participants to reflect on the work done by the women in their family, considering the lineage of women and the work that went into the making of them as individuals.  We had the extraordinary experience of performing this work at the Revolutionary Textiles Gallery at the Whitworth, Manchester.  The Whitworth throws open its galleries to a range of artists as part of their Thursday Lates series; taking over this slot, the Accumulations project put on a rich evening of body/movement-based performances, called Precarious Assembly.

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Catalogue statement

The result was an evening of conversations about the people who have made us, the qualities and attributes we’ve inherited from them, the work that underpins it all and the poetry of typing on a manual typewriter.  Participants sat in the typist’s chair, capturing their thoughts on paper, before moving along the production line.  I drew their hands at work, and both pieces of paper – with the typed words, and the drawn picture – were stitched, by Zoe, on the sewing machine.  The stories together formed a stream of bunting celebrating women’s work but, before it was released, a circle was punched out by Steve, creating a brooch for the participants to take away.

‘Ply’: Sian, Zoe and Steve

A soundtrack, created by Steve, accompanied the performance, and ensured that everyone knew that we were there.  Microphone pickups on the typewriter, sewing machine and under my drawing pad captured the noises associated with the production line, and re-created the conditions that gave rise to the industrial languages that inspired the performance.  Most significant, however, was the openness of the audience to take part and to share their stories: some words were haltingly pressed out on the typewriter’s key (in English, and Polish), or clattered out at speed; some participants were able to share rich detail about their family members, whereas the knowledge of others was more threadbare.  What has been most satisfying, for me, is the ripples that have taken these memories and ideas beyond the Whitworth’s galleries.  One participant said she’d be giving the badge made from her words to her mother; I also overheard my mother-in-law (who had participated in the show) talking to her mother (who hadn’t) about what her and her siblings had inherited.

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Shared stories; celebratory bunting

This was a fabulous event, in an amazing venue, with two great collaborators.  The only disappointment was not having the opportunities to explore the performances of the other artists.  I look forward to the next outing!

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