Manual Labours Manual

Jenny Richards & Sophie Hope

'Manual Labours Manual', Issue 1, is the first publication developed from Manual Labours - 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 during 8-12 April 2013 from our temporary open office in the Peltz Room, School of Arts, Birkbeck College, 43 Gordon Square, London. During that week we held meetings with our co-workers, hosted an archive of films and publications, looked after a collection of office plants, did a very slow 9 mile walk to work, held a public film screening and fed 25 people during a Public Lunch Hour. Comments, thoughts and experiences contributed during this week are brought together within the 'Manual Labours Manual', allowing us to explore the shared, collective concerns and tactics for reclaiming a critical and sensory experience of work/life.


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.

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.

Download the Manual Labours Manual, Issue 1.

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