Sonic Pixels: The secret history of the radical female shopper…

Rosa May Billinghurst used her tricycle chair to ram police at protests.

Step into a world of sound with Sonic Pixels. Wander through the stunning Victorian shopping mall, trigger speakers in real-time and experience what it feels like to be right at the heart of sonic compositions.

Member of the Cornbrook Creative team setting up the LED speaker system

Working alongside Cornbrook Creative,  my latest sound piece is a feminist interpretation of Barton Arcade.

Built in 1871, you might think of Barton Arcade as typifying the luxury culture of the nineteenth century, with a carriage entrance and raw iron gates. It is certainly not considered a particularly radical space. However, like many other similar arcades it was once one of the few places women could move freely without being chaperoned by a man.

Historian Erika Diane Rappaport explains that it was during this period that ‘a family’s respectability and social position depended upon the idea that the middle-class wife and daughter remain apart from the market, politics, and public space’. Shopping itself may have been fetishized into women’s greatest pleasure, but for many middle-class housewives in Victorian Britain, shopping was their first taste of real freedom and therefore marked the starting point for their push into public life. Barton Arcade was a place in which, for the first time, women were able to share ideas and meet in public without being accompanied by a man.

Whether it was the Women’s Emergency Corps meetings, Pankhurst’s shopping trips, or female pick-pockets, my piece will explore the secret history of the radical female shopper. Using archived materials, and “found” sounds, I will re-imagine the groups who met here; the conversations that may have taken place and bring to life the stories of the women that occupied this space.

Toilets, Utopian Imaginings and finding the Potty of Gold

Changing Places Selfie Campaign

The design of toilets have been based on a historical model of the ‘ideal’ (hu)man, and continues to ignore the diversity of their users.

Travelling Toilet Tales …

 

political toilet roll!

You may have recently read about Italian creator, Maurizio Cattelan’s 18-carat solid gold toilet installation at the Guggenheim Museum, but he’s not the only artist using a toilet as an inspiration for their art.  I have been commissioned to make a soundscape about toilets and utopias, which I have recently finished working on.

Constructed from a collection of toilet themed audio stories, anecdotes and interviews from the Around the Toilet project – this slightly potty sound collage is currently being animated by graphic artist Sarah Smizz.

 

Our combined piece –Travelling Toilet Tales – will be presented as a film exploring toilets, place and utopian imaginings to be shown at events and exhibitions, and available online at aroundthetoilet.wordpress.com.

Sure, toilets don’t usually spring to mind when talking about utopias or sound-art, but the landscape of public toilets is far from ideal for many people. Using sound and animation, Travelling Toilet Tales illustrates how the design of toilets have been based on a historical model of the ‘ideal’ (hu)man, and continues to ignore the diversity of their users.

Finding U-toilet-opia…

My personal interest in toilets came from the complexities of accessing toilets as a parent with a physical impairment. Part M of the building regulations advocate that accessible toilets should not have a baby change table. This is primarily because the baby change table can impede access for wheelchair users if it is put in the wrong place, or left down. But like everything in life ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ and when my child was young I found the best ‘fit’ for me was accessible, private toilets with baby changing facilities – where I could take care of my child and also go to the toilet myself.

Interestingly, two of the storytellers spoke about difficulties they had accessing toilets with young children, commenting on the need for both an adult toilet and baby change unit in the same space. One storyteller described the joy of finding a baby change toilet that had a dropdown table, free baby wipes and a seat for breastfeeding.

“It really made me feel accepted whereas in other spaces you just think I’m not meant to be here.”

For her, coming across a baby change table felt like finding gold dust. And the idea of a suitable toilet being like ‘gold dust’ was common theme throughout the piece.   We all have our U-toilet-opias.

Storytellers described the indignity of being forced to lie on the dirty toilet floor due to a lack of adult changing facilities, restricting what they eat and drink and being harassed for using the wrong toilet. Organisations like Action for Trans Health and Changing Places are campaigning about these issues.  But for many accessing the toilet is such a tricky and unsafe endeavour they are essentially barred from public spaces.   There is, in its most literal sense ‘no place’ for them to go, making greater toilet access high on the utopian agenda.

Cartoon about the shortage of Changing Places Toilet for ddults who need a changing table. S.Smizz

Overlapping waters…

While the storytellers came from very diverse backgrounds, many stories overlapped with common considerations of embodiment flowing throughout the piece.   It’s interesting that widespread publicity around the “bathroom bills” in the USA focused on conflicts between religious freedom and equal rights for the trans community. Yet, Travelling Toilet Tales shows how gender-neutral toilets are not just a political issue for the trans community. They also benefit parents, particularly fathers, or disabled people who may have personal assistants of a different gender. A person with a learning difficulty, for example, talked about being told off for using the wrong toilet because he was struggling to read the signs on the toilet door.

“Society hasn’t grown up that much.”

The idea of gender starts at school.

Toilets, and toilet design are issues that impact upon us all. Pensioners describe feeling isolated and staying at home because they fear being “caught short”, whilst lorry drivers restrict what they drink during their working day. One of the most interesting narratives I edited was from a female truck driver, who regularly has to urinate between the load and the unit of her lorry because of public toilet closures. An issue I’d not really considered. Gillian Kemp, who runs Trucker’s Toilets UK and Public Toilets UK, explained that providing public toilets is not a statutory requirement.  As a consequence, many local authorities often close public toilets when faced with budget cuts.

 Making a bigger splash…

Toilets have traditionally been considered to be an abject ‘bog standard’ space, or a taboo topic – but this piece radically redefines the issue and blends the everyday with the fantastical. From the imaginary toilet of a child to the inventive use of wet tissues instead of a lota, Travelling Toilet Tales takes the audience on an interweaving journey embracing disability, age, faith, gender, class and labour.

Travelling Toilet Tales will be premiered at the Utopia Fair between 24 – 26 June. Somerset House, London – a partnership with the AHRC and the Connected Communities Programme


 

Thanks to the Around the Toilet team, with special thanks to the Principal Investigator, Dr Jenny Slater.

Images by Sarah Smizz

 

For many, accessing the toilet is such a tricky and unsafe endeavour they are essentially barred from public spaces.

changing norms

 

 

A Womb With A View – documentary sound installation

In response to recent cases of growth attenuation and forced sterilisation of disabled people, I composed a unique documentary sound installation – ‘A Womb With A View’.  My installation is a journey into the complexities of ‘womanhood’ and our reproductive rights.

The documentary is both funny, hopeful and at times heart wrenching.  In 2016 I worked in collaboration with visual and textile artist Jennifer Bryant, to present the piece in a physical form.  Their installation piece was showcased at the Shoddy exhibition in Leeds, Spring 2016.

Quotes from ‘A Womb With A View‘:

“Fundamentally it means that I am female, it has dictated the shape of my body and the sound of my voice…. my hormones, so my emotions.”

“It’s holding a little baby.”

“I didn’t start my periods till i was 17 and what it did was heralded the beginning of puberty, and for me that meant I got a lot stronger.”

“Women with epilepsy were routinely sterilised  in this country until quite recently.”

“My sex education came from behind bomb shelters and walls and things.”

“It’s the one thing you can’t give a man who wants to become a woman, the essence of being a woman is having a womb.”

“One of society’s concepts is that to be a real woman you need to have a womb amongst other things like breasts,  and dress a certain way and behave a certain way,  but a womb is an important part of womanhood for a lot of people.”

“Womanhood is about the inner self and not the superficial exterior.”

“Protecting her from pain or distress by cutting into her body and slicing through skin and muscle and membrane and taking organs out, seems a really brutal overreaction.”

“Part of the notion that you should sterilise somebody with an intellectual impairment comes from a deeply discriminatory position tied to a kind of sense of gothic horror that some people might be sexual.”

“I certainly don’t think that people who don’t have wombs, I don’t think they’re not women because they don’t have that, I don’t think you need breasts to be a woman, I fundamentally don’t believe in that tie.”

Enchanted B****cks

I am slightly embarrassed to admit that my partner and I bought our five year old daughter the ‘Enchanted Ball’ game for Christmas. Marketed as a very pink board game for girls, four plastic princesses try to win the affection of one prince. Motorized magnets move the princesses and prince around until he finally hooks one with his arm. The game is very dull (for us, and her), and gives out an extremely dubious message to little girls.

The gender bias in toys starts as young as one or two years old and can have a huge impact on children and their social play.

Educationalists and parents have reported an increase in incidences of children being bullied for liking activities or things deemed to be for the opposite gender to themselves.

Last week an 11-year-old boy tried to kill himself after he was bullied at school for being a fan of My Little Pony, because it was a “girls” programme and therefore he must be “gay”.   This shockingly sad incident has rightly raised issues of homophobia in schools, which according to Stonewall is still a huge problem in the UK.   But should this incident also question the negative impact of enforced gender stereotyping of toys and TV programmes?

CBBC has recently been criticised for gender stereotyping and promoting girls as ‘over emotional’ and ‘manipulative’.   There is evidence that gender stereotyping in toys is putting girls off maths and science, combatted to some small degree by the design of toys such as the Roominate. Research also suggests that it’s not just the potential career paths of girls that we need to worry about – gender stereotyping is also having a detrimental impact upon the behaviour and academic achievement of boys.

Phrases like “boys things” and “girls things” have crept into the minds of children as young as two and three. Young boys are discouraged from playing with toys we feminise, expected to “man up” and hide the emotions needed to developing empathy and self-awareness (such as sadness). Girls are encouraged to aspire to looking pretty and value good looks far above being intelligent. From my own personal experience, at the age of just three my daughter was quick to inform her Nana that she was not smart, she was pretty!

I have no objection to my daughter playing with princess dolls, wearing pink and going to ballet lessons – but what I do object to is her worrying she will be teased for playing with toys that she considers to be “for boys”. As a child growing up in the 1970s I can’t remember worrying about whether the toys I played were specifically “for girls”. Of course, there were toys marketed at boys and toys marketed at girls, but nothing like the extreme gender bias in toy marketing today. In the 1970s we grew up with a lot of gender-neutral toys such as Lego and Play Dough.

A parent led group has launched a Let Toys Be Toys campaign for gender-neutral toys. They are “asking retailers to stop limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys”. This is welcome move and has already sparked leading retailers, such as Marks and Spencer, to make all its toys gender neutral by spring 2014.

Let’s hope that other retailers follow their lead.

 

Two Thirds Column