Manual Labours

‘Manual Labours’ is a long term research project exploring people’s physical relationships to work, initiated by Jenny Richards and Sophie Hope. This project reconsiders current time-based structures of work (when does work start and end?) and reasserts the significance of the physical (manual) aspect of immaterial, affective and emotional labour.’Manual Labours’ started with a 35 hour ‘working week’-long investigation into the embodied, sensory, emotional affects of work which will include meetings with our co-workers, a 9 mile walk to work, hosting a film screening and eating together during a Public Lunch Hour.  Following this, we produced the first issue of the Manual Labours Manual which was printed by AND publishing, and launched alongside a publication from the Flatness project curated by Shama Khanna at X Marks the Bökship. In Autumn 2013 we held a series of  reading groups that explore issues addressed within the Manual within different sites of work including an artist studio, a hospital and a bank. The reading groups were led by artist-researchers Broderick Chow, Claudia Firth and Josefine Wikström, sociologist Nicky Busch, psychologist Amy Harrison and performance art historian Claire Warden and included texts by Robert Hassan, Ivor Southwood, Arlie Hochschild, Kathi Weeks, Sylvia Federici and Jon McKenzie.  In 2014 we have been working on a programme of workshops with a local London council’s complaints team.  These workshops will be drawn upon to develop series of new visual art commissions with artists in 2015.

Through this project we are interested in exploring the transformation of labour processes through an investigation into the ‘physical’ (in its most expanded sense) relationship to work in order to map complex and overlapping experiences of work/life entwinement. Manual Labours through its various activities including screenings, exhibitions, discussions, publishing and workshops continually develop an archive of artist film and video and a collection of publications, to help inform ways in which we can recapture a sense of agency within our current positions.
Manual Labours is supported by the Centre for Media, Culture and Creative Practice, Birkbeck.


Co-workers meaning those working in the locality of Birkbeck, working across different sectors including both informal and undocumented.  The term co-workers we wish to carry no hierarchy between different roles or positions in work but rather address all as our co-workers, collective yet understanding each working under specific and particular structures of employment.

Manual Labours is a term we wish to explore in order to recapture a new sense of manual labour other to that linked to the crippling work of the assembly line.  Rather this historical alignment allows us to track a narrative of manual labour from the factory line to its position within current modes of work in so-called late/financial capitalism.  The plural labours refers to the many different forms of work we are thinking around, with a particular focus on those forms that we insist aren’t soley at the service of a purpose outside of our own wish, that critical, political, and fulfilling work which we wish to acknowledge and position.  Importantly manual labour also references the hugely physical and manual workforce the Western so called immaterial labourers rely on. In our efforts to understand the complexities of work we aim to ensure a constant connection with the struggles of the global workforce in its many different manifestations.

Physical we understand in its most expanded sense.  From the body performing in the workplace to exerting force as one runs to work.  We also link emotions to what we mean by physical, to grant emotions with a weight or physicality and render them part of our understanding of work and working processes.  Questions around physicality we follow as a possible route to locating a sense of embodied understanding, or awareness of the structures as work and how one must negotiate them.  It is traditional to split the mind (cognitive) and the body (manual) both hierarchically but within the individual.  This split has complex relationships to alienation but also through exploitative processes of cognitive capitalism we are interested in the body as a site for a form of critical language or intellect that we might look to explore.  Meyerhold and his research into biomechanics hoped to develop a physical form of intellect and expression, a new form of political language of the body.  We are interested in what the often relegated body stores as a site of experiential knowledge and inherited gesture that cannot be quantified or read by current evaluative methods.

  • What is your body doing when you are sat at your desk?
  • How do you care for your body in your job role?
  • What is your physical proximity to other co-workers?

Research, this project is the start of open ended face to face research.  Whilst defining the research terms this is an open ended project that is shaped by co-workers contributions and the knowledge that informs some of the questions we are asking.  Manual Labours perhaps should be followed by a question mark, as that is where we start, from a series of questions in order to help us understand the complexities of our work(s) and help find ways in which we can collectively work critical or politically within our positions.  This project is not foreclosed but open and all contributions are extremely welcome!

Open Office, is the manifestation of our research.  We hope to create a space in which those question can be asked and answered honestly.  Using the office as a workstation and space for reflection different events bring about moments of intense conversation.  Whilst manual experiments with poster making and breathing exercises offer different insights into this week’s physical mapping of relationships to work.

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  1. […] the summer. The talk by Debi Withers and commentary by Jenny Richards, from curatorial-experiment Manual Labours, brought home how some of the thoughts about how more banal archival documents (shopping lists, and […]

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  • Manual Labours Manual

    Check out the first Issue of Manual Labours Manual
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