2015: The Beginning of Around the Toilet
In April 2015, the Around the Toilet project was awarded funding from the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Connected Communities programme for a six-month exploration into the toilet as a place of exclusion and belonging. We started with an initial focus on trans, queer and disabled people’s experiences. An animated video describing the first stage of the AtT project is available to view here.
In June 2015, we held our first public event to celebrate the launch of the Around the Toilet project, ‘Toilet Talks: a speaker event on bodies, identities & design’. We were joined in Manchester Metropolitan University by many important names in toilet research and activism, including Barbara Penner (Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL), Jess Bradley (Action for Trans Health), Jo-Anne Bichard (Royal College of Art) and Morag Rose (University of Sheffield).
Between May and September 2015, we hosted five research workshops in Manchester focusing on the arts practices of storytelling, sculpture, poetry and theatrical performance. The workshops were held in collaboration with three community partners: Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People (GMCDP), Queer of the Unknown (a performing arts collective) and Action for Trans* Health. The discussions produced in these workshops were illustrated live by Sarah Smizz, our graphic artist. These illustrations have been printed on postcards which are now available to be used as campaign materials and teaching resources.
In September 2015 we handed over the ‘findings’ from our workshops in the form of a brief to a group of eleven Masters students at Sheffield School of Architecture. Over the following six weeks, they used the brief to create an art installation which explores what makes a safe and accessible toilet space. The group also created an Architects’ guide, a glossary notebook, a Twitter book which collated our #cctoilettalk tweets, political toilet roll, and a precedent booklet (see below). These outputs were exhibited in the gallery at our Around the Toilet closing event, ‘Re-Imagining Toilets’, in Manchester in November 2015.
The event brought together members of various different organisations and campaigns, including the Loiterers Resistance Movement, Action for Trans* Health, Queer of the Unknown, Truckers’ Toilets UK, the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, Changing Places, Accessible Derbyshire, and the MA Architecture Live Projects programme. Queer of the Unknown brought the event to a close with a performance piece staged within our toilet installation, using the copper pipe arches to create public cubicle stalls.
Finally, in November, the ESRC Festival of Social Science also funded our first Storying School Toilets workshop. Adult participants in the workshops we held earlier in the year had spoken about their memories of using toilets at school. Some participants who had used toilets assigned to ‘girls’ at school talked about ‘buddying up’ to go to the toilet – either because of enforced school rules, or for fear of bullying (we’ve since published on this – viewable here). In collaboration with Nicky Rose from The Bower Wirks, Storying School Toilets workshops have involved making comics with children based on imaginary toilet stories.
2016: Travelling Toilet Tales and Servicing Utopia
In 2016, the AtT project was awarded two further funding grants by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). This allowed us to continue the work we started in 2015, carry out new research, and participate in the 2016 Connected Communities Research Festival Utopia Fair in London in June, where the outputs of our research were exhibited.
In our research the previous year, trans, queer and disabled participants shared with us their difficulties in finding toilets that were functional, easily locatable and safe. One trans woman described how her ability to socialise and go to work was limited by her access to toilets; she explained that when she felt unsafe to use public toilets, she was unable to leave the security of her house. The toilet ‘extends to everywhere’, she said, and accessible and comfortable toilets allowed her to take necessary, everyday journeys away from home. We wanted to think more about these journeys, and the importance of toilets in the seemingly mundane routines of some people’s lives. Thus, our first project, ‘Travelling Toilet Tales’ (led by Jen Slater) was an exploration into the ways in which everyday journeys are planned around the un/availability of a suitable toilet. This project was a collaboration with Gemma Nash from Drake Music, an organisation working in music, disability and technology, and Sarah Smizz, the graphic artist who drew the stories told in the AtT workshops we facilitated in 2015.
Over the course of five months, we met with a range of toilet-users and asked them to share their stories with us. Some recorded themselves from home, others recorded their stories when they were out for the day or chatted to one of our team about their experiences. We used these stories to produce a film (see below), in which key moments have been highlighted in a ‘soundscape’ by Nash and animated by Smizz. The individual stories are also available to listen to and read in full here.
Using the stories of people whose access to toilets is compromised in some way, the film explores how our ability to get out and about is transformed by the availability of toilets: featuring parents of disabled children who require full-length changing benches, non-binary people who are subject to abuse in gendered toilets, people with irritable bowel syndrome who might need to use a toilet with urgency, and women truck-drivers who work for long stretches without a toilet in sight, amongst others.
Our second project, running in parallel with the first, was ‘Servicing Utopia’ (led by Lisa Procter). Working alongside Jess Haigh from Live Works and MA Architect students, Niki Sole and Suki Sehmbi, we facilitated workshops which asked attendees to engage with and construct a digital ‘Toilet Toolkit’ (the main project output). The digital/visual toolkit is designed to support planners, architects and designers to critically and creatively rethink notions of access in relation to the toilet design process. It can be viewed here.
The digital toolkit was developed in response to the stories of people involved in the Around the Toilet project for whom accessing a safe and comfortable toilet space is a continual challenge. From March to August 2015 we led workshops with architects to engage with their responses to these stories and explore the opportunities and challenges related to the design of safe and accessible toilet spaces for many people. Their insights supported us in developing a digital toolkit intended to be both useful and applicable to practice. In the final stages of producing the toolkit we also consulted with Sheffield City Council’s Access Liaison Group who gave us invaluable feedback.
The toolkit aims to communicate design possibilities in relation to the issues faced by different toilet users. It is hoped that the toolkit will allow planners, architects and designers to creatively respond to the design challenges raised by the stories and experiences of those involved in the Around the Toilet project.
The toolkit was developed in conjunction with Live Works, The University of Sheffield School of Architecture’s ‘Urban Room’ in Sheffield city centre, and Content On Demand, a boutique content marketing agency based in Sheffield and London.
In collaboration with Content on Demand, we also made an animated film over the course of the project, documenting insights from the project workshops with architects to illustrate key themes relating to toilet accessibility (see below).
The films, Toilet Toolkit, and other outputs from both projects were previewed on 24th-26th June at the Utopia Fair, Somerset House, London, a public event which showcased a range of academic and artistic projects engaging with the subject of ‘utopia’.
The AtT installation was displayed at the g39 art gallery in Cardiff during their ‘Does that include us? yn cynnwys ni?’ exhibition, and the Travelling Toilet Tales (TTT) soundscape was played in their newly built accessible toilet between July and September 2016. Representatives from the TTT project were invited to speak at a panel presentation for the exhibition opening and artist Nicky Rose led a workshop about utopian toilets. In September, the AtT installation was exhibited alongside other TTT outputs at Loitering with Intent: The Art and Politics of Walking, a special exhibition organised by the Loiterers’ Resistance Movement (LRM) at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. Alongside the exhibition, we hosted a travelling tour of Manchester’s toilets led by Morag Rose, founder of the LRM.
In November 2016, the Around the Toilet project won the ‘Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences’ category of the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement’s (NCCPE) Engage 2016 Competition.
2017: New Spaces
In February 2017, we were awarded further funding from the AHRC Connected Communities to continue the Around the Toilet project. This stage of the project, ‘Arts, Architecture, Activism & Access: Taking Around the Toilet to New Spaces’ (or ‘New Spaces’), focuses on impact and engagement activities to help us to develop the research we have undertaken over the last two years. The project has three strands: 1) working with queer and disability arts organisations and events internationally; 2) sharing our Toilet Toolkit design solutions with trainee architects and design professionals; and 3) exploring toilets creatively with children and young people.
Over the course of 2017, expect to see new toilet films and appearances at local and international arts festivals; further collaboration with Architecture students and the Toilet Toolkit used in practice; as well as an expansion of Storying School Toilets through art workshops with children and young people with learning difficulties and an exhibition of their work.
We’re still committed to expanding our collaboration and communication with grassroots campaigns, activism and communities, whilst also working with organisations who are making decisions about toilet design. Feedback at our project events reminded us of the importance of taking our findings to schools, so we’re also looking forward to the new collaborations which will come through our work with children and young people.
New Spaces includes collaboration between members of Drake Music, Purple Patch Arts, Tabú, Project Re•Vision, The Wisdom Factory, Public Toilets UK, Truckers’ Toilets UK, Action for Trans Health, Queer of the Unknown, and Live Works, as well as three UK universities.