Around the Toilet at the Utopia Fair

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[Image: ‘Utopia Fair’ sign on a block of wooden crates with Somerset House in the background, people to one side and a cloudy sky above.]

The three-day Utopia Fair event at Somerset House began on 24th June – the morning Britain found itself plunged into Brexit, an irony in terms of timing which was lost on no one. The Fair was part of the UTOPIA 2016: A Year of Imagination and Possibility activities, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s radical imagining of a better world. The grand, cloistered courtyard of Somerset House was to provide a pop-up version of More’s imagining of a ‘no place’ that is also a ‘good place’ – at once located centrally just off London’s West End, and yet strangely set apart from the rest of the city. The carnivalesque juxtaposition of worlds was a theme that continued throughout the event – from Brexit to utopia, academics mingling with tourists, to the country fair style of the stalls set within the walls of a Tudor palace, this was to be a weekend of playful and stimulating contrasts.

The Fair presented a number of different stalls presenting outputs from various Connected Communities projects, all engaging with the creative and political possibilities of utopian imaginings. The event proposed future-oriented thinking as a gesture of hope and political agency. As one person noted at a speaker event on Utopian Housing which took place in one of the wings at Somerset House, communities are often asked to reflect on the ‘history’ of a place, group or institution. But often, when the conversation turns to plans for the ‘future’, then experts – architects, designers, councillors – will step in to declare what is possible or permissible (or affordable). In other words, there is often an unspoken privilege – or symbolic capital – in speaking about and for the future which is not always afforded to community groups. The Fair’s celebration of utopia seemed to suggest that everyone should have the opportunity to radically reimagine, shape or design the way the future. Utopian thought, in this way, has the potential to be a levelling act – one that is creative, ambitious and a powerful statement of a shared, collective will.

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[Image: Around the Toilet stall decorated with drawings, signs, and other materials. Two people sit behind the table.]

Travelling Toilet Tales and Servicing Utopia both had connected stalls at the fair in which we provided ‘hands-on’ activities for members of the public as well as exhibits from our past activities. The public received the first viewing on iPads of our animated Toilet Tales film, an exploration into the ways in which everyday journeys are planned around the un/availability of a suitable toilet and featuring stories from a range of toilet users, including truckers, disabled parents, and non-binary people. Visitors also got the chance to listen to the individual toilet stories in full, browse our postcards designed by artist Smizz, and talk to the special guests who were helping on the stall. At various points over the weekend, we were lucky enough to be joined by members of Accessible Derbyshire, Changing Places, Action for Trans Health, Truckers’ Toilets UK, and the Loiterers Resistance Movement, as well as the storytellers and artists behind the films for both projects and the digital Toilet Toolkit.

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[Image: L-R: The Toilet installation posed in front of Somerset House; two people looking at an ipad, one sitting down with headphones and the other leaning over behind; a close-up of the stall – hanging luggage tags for feedback, a tote bag saying ‘smash the cistern’ and decorated toilet roll.]


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[Image: The utopian model town – a cardboard landscape with colourful handmade buildings and scenery.]

We were also delighted to have with us Nicky Rose, an artist in mixed and recycled media, and Tom Gayler, a designer at the Royal College of Art, who led interactive sessions which invited visitors to create utopian toilet models from cardboard, wooden blocks, pipe cleaners and other bits and pieces. The intermittent sunshine over the weekend allowed us to stretch our craft materials out onto the floor for visitors of all ages to get involved and get messy. Once built, utopian toilets were added one-by-one to a utopian model town, assembled by Leap of Faith: Anarchy and Play on the stall next-door. If only all towns had so many (sparkly) public toilets…

Toilet models

[Image: Nine photos of handmade toilets or various shapes and sizes created by people attending our stall. One says ‘rotating loo’, another says ‘don’t put me in a box’ and another says ‘compost loo’.

This weekend also presented the first opportunity for the public to use the interactive digital Toilet Toolkit and view the short animated film produced by the Servicing Utopia team. The toolkit is aimed at architects and other design professionals to promote the accessible design of toilet spaces, and allows users to virtually ‘walk around’ toilet spaces and interact with the items and facilities. This will be available to view on our blog very shortly (watch this space).

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[Image: A close-up of the toilet graffiti people wrote on the acrylic boards of the toilet installation. The installation asks ‘Can we improve toilet design?’ and ‘Why are toilets funny?’]

Our interactive toilet installation, designed and built by MA Architecture students at the University of Sheffield, was constructed for visitors to view, prompting conversation and graffiti contributions. Written comments from our visitors ranged from a poll about toilet roll use, toilet confessions and jokes, to reflections on personal habits. People wrote on the back of artist Smizz’s postcards to include their own toilet tales, sharing stories that were informative, funny and sometimes disturbing: a dad being told off for changing a baby in a women’s toilet; one person’s account of the inadequacy and fallacy of ‘Community Toilets’ (businesses allowing the general public to use facilities); cleaners rebelling against unacceptable toilet mess; recollections of an instance of violent bullying in school toilets; library toilets providing ‘safe spaces’ for users to have private conversations; one person having to resort to using the ‘please wash your hands’ sign as emergency toilet paper; stories of global lavatory etiquette from the Gambia to the Himalayas to Tokyo; and important notification of a new venue in Liverpool that has a toilet DJ. All of these contributions turned into conversations over the course of the weekend as new visitors responded to the comments left by other people attending the Fair.

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[Image: Some of the toilet team. Six people stand in a row, smiling at the camera. The person in the centre holds a ‘Changing Places’ leaflet.]

As toilet specialists, we were curious to see what kind of facilities would be provided in the historic grounds of Somerset House. There were plenty of options available, including gender neutral toilets near the main reception area which were the source of much discussion (and not just on our particular stall). These were impressive ‘state-of-the-art’ toilets that had given some consideration to providing gender neutral options for everyone, with gleaming surfaces, modern fittings and private washing facilities in each stall. But what was striking was how far the disabled toilets fell short in comparison. Dated, not quite as clean and certainly not intended to be any utopian ‘showcase’ for twenty-first century toilets, the small-ish cubicle also functioned as a boiler room and the only space for baby-changing. Like many accessible toilets, it could have been more accommodating and indulgent…and accessible.

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[Image: Cobbled flour in front of our stall. A range of craft materials in the foreground. Children and adults sitting to the right.]

The Utopia Fair also gave us the opportunity to meet with other researchers working on Connected Communities projects and to reflect on the potential for new links and points of connection. The Stories of Change project, which explores energy and community, transported their mobile photobooth across to our stall and asked us to contribute a vision of energy-efficient toilets.  Ours included a wind-powered flush and use of recycled/‘dirty’ water. The open and informal setting meant that there were fluid interactions between the various stalls, and the opportunity to share experiences, tips and stories about our diverse projects. What was particularly effective about the Somerset House Fair was the combination of abstract thinking and imagining on the one hand, alongside a more tactile sense of getting stuck into hands-on activities, talking, designing and listening – from building utopian playgrounds, to model-making, to finding yourself immersed in a live puppetry performance. It was also wonderful to reunite various members of our Toilets team – and for us to also think creatively and ambitiously ahead to our own future projects.

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[Image: Somerset House lit up in pink at dusk. A dark, cloudy sky above, with tented stalls and people standing and chatting in the foreground.]

Toilet Utopias: Successful further funding!

We’re very pleased to announce that the Around the Toilet project has recently been awarded two funding grants by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). This will allow us to continue the work we started in 2015, carry out new research over the next four months, and participate in the 2016 Connected Communities Research Festival Utopia Fair in London in June, where the outputs of our research will be exhibited.

Our first project, ‘Travelling Toilet Tales’ (led by Jenny Slater) will be an exploration into the ways in which everyday journeys are planned around the un/availability of a suitable toilet. We will be making an animated film based upon people’s experiences of these ‘toilet journeys’: journeys that can’t be taken due to a lack of a suitable toilet, journeys that are re-planned due to a lack of a toilet, imagined journeys based on an ideal world with the best possible toilets… or something else entirely!

This project is 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 Around the Toilet workshops we facilitated last year. Our collaborators will transform the toilet tales provided by our storytellers into a soundscape overlaid with animation. This will be presented as a film exploring toilets, place and utopian imaginings to be shown at events and exhibitions, and available online. Details about where you can view the film will be announced in the forthcoming months.

We are also very pleased to be working with Morag Rose of the Loiterers’ Resistance Movement, who will be facilitating a city walk in Manchester around the theme of public toilets and urban space.

Our second project, running in parallel with the first, is ‘Servicing Utopia’ (led by Lisa Procter). Working alongside MA Architect students, Niki Sole and Suki Sehmbi, we will be facilitating workshops which ask attendees to engage with and construct a digital ‘Toilet Toolkit’ (the main project output). The digital/visual toolkit will be aimed at architects to promote the accessible design of toilet spaces.

We will also be making an animated film over the course of the project, documenting insights from the project workshops with architects to illustrate key themes relating to toilet and accessibility.

The films, toilet toolkit and other outputs from both projects will be previewed on 24th-26th June at the Utopia Fair, Somerset House, London, a public event showcasing a range of academic and artistic projects that engage with the subject of ‘utopia’. This year’s theme takes inspiration from the 500th anniversary of the publication in 1516 in Latin of Thomas More’s Utopia. From March to June 2016 the Festival is supporting activities across the UK bringing together researchers and communities to creatively explore diverse perspectives on community futures and what ‘utopia’ means for communities in the 21st Century.

We’re very excited to get started – please keep an eye on our progress by checking the blog and twitter, as usual!

Jen, Lisa, Emily and Charlotte

@cctoilettalk
#cctoilettalk

 

Connected Communities

[Image: Connected Communities logo]

Re-Imagining Toilets: An event summary

At the closing event for the Around the Toilet project, we celebrated the provocative, visual and artistic creations produced in our research workshops over the last seven months. The exhibition space provided by Z-arts in Manchester gave us plenty of room to display the ‘Toilet Stories’ comics created by children at a local Primary School, toilet drawings and postcards by Smizz, the alternative toilet symbols created by members of Venture Arts, and the incredible installation game designed and built by MA Architecture students at the University of Sheffield as part of the Live Projects programme. In a separate workshop area, creativity continued to flow on the day thanks to resident artists who helped us to stencil political toilet slogans and designs onto t-shirts and tote bags. A cinema room also offered people attending the event the opportunity to watch a range of activist, artistic and Hollywood depictions of toilets.

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[Three images: L-R: T-shirts printed with toilet slogans; Venture Arts alternative toilet signs; the toilet installation game. Photos courtesy Eleanor Lisney, Jana Kennedy and Niki Sole.

Activists, campaigners, academics, architects, and others with an interest in toilets, space and access, assembled at our ‘Re-Imagining Toilets’ event on 27th November to continue the conversations that the Around the Toilet project – and many campaigners and academics before us – have been having around the safety and accessibility of public toilets. In particular, but not exclusively, the event considered provisions for queer, trans and disabled people. Dr Jenny Slater, Principal Investigator on the project, introduced the day by reflecting on the social perceptions of toilets, toilet research and campaigns around access. Slater notes that despite toilets playing a fundamental role in all of our lives, the Yorkshire Post recently dropped an article they had invited Around the Toilet researchers to write to mark World Toilet Day. The article was unsuitable, the Yorkshire Post claimed, because it was believed to focus too much on ‘minority issues’. Slater argued that not only were the Yorkshire Post wrong to think that toilet issues were applicable to an insignificant number of us (in fact, we all use toilets), but also that ‘minority issues’ shouldn’t be addressed in their paper.

The speakers joining Slater on the panel had also played key roles on the project. Like Slater, they reflected on how toilets are crucial yet mundane parts of our everyday lives. Dr Emily Cuming, Co-Investigator on the project, considered how toilets are both materially and socially forged, ‘hooked up’ through plumbing and mechanics, but also understood and used as part of a wider public, cultural space. There is nothing natural or given about the categorisations our bodies acquire through toilets, adds Cuming; toilet designs, location and labels are always ideologically loaded. Disability equality trainer, Gemma Nash, spoke about disabled parents’ use of toilets, noting the stigma and moral judgements which place them under greater scrutiny regarding their ability to care for their children. Nash argues that this can unfortunately lead to disabled parents doubting themselves. Communal baby changing spaces may work well for some, Nash adds, but due to the judgement many disabled parents face, shared spaces may feel intimidating or uncomfortable for others.

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[Three images: L-R: The ‘Toilet stories’ comics; ‘The only good tory is a lavatory’ t-shirt; Smizz’s drawings of the event. Photos courtesy of Action for Trans Health, Jenny Slater and Eleanor Lisney.]

Morag Rose, co-founder of the Loiterers Resistance Movement, discussed how the power structures of our built environment need to be incorporated into our consideration of toilets. She pointed to the rich social history of public toilets, reflecting on whose bodies and identities have been considered in their planning, and the often unexplored boundaries of public/private space. Jess Bradley, Action for Trans* Health Trustee, was the final speaker in the first session. She argued that that by labelling toilets as ‘male’ and ‘female’, we assume that these two categories are the only ones available. Toilets do not only reflect how society understands gender, Bradley comments, toilets produce our ideas about gender. However, things are changing. Bradley notes that gender neutral toilets are becoming increasingly commonplace, and are very often incorporated into building designs without controversy. We do, after all, use a gender neutral toilet every day in our own homes.

Following a refreshment break, the next panel addressed the importance of architects’ perspectives on toilets. Dr Lisa Procter, Co-Investigator on the Around the Toilet project, illustrated how the historical model of the ‘ideal’ (hu)man had been used to design toilet facilities and that these measurements were taken to be a universal standard. Whilst approaches to design have changed, toilets still fail to adequately reflect the diversity of their users. Procter provided many visual examples of the aesthetic potential of toilets. In some cases, toilets are not simply hidden away, but incorporated into the design of the city as their own feature; toilets as public art. Following Procter, Niki Sole and Suki Sehmbi, MA Architecture students at the University of Sheffield, talked about their roles on the Live Projects toilet team. A group of eleven students spent six weeks designing various tools for disseminating and exhibiting our research findings. One of the key outputs from the Live Projects group was the installation game on display in our gallery on the day. Sehmbi and Sole discussed the design process behind the installation, reflecting on some of the challenges of their brief – especially the size limitations, given that the disassembled installation needed to fit inside the boot of Slater’s car. Both Sole and Sehmbi emphasised how participating in the project had transformed their understanding of toilets and the design and planning processes involved in accommodating access requirements.

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[Three images: Photos of some of the outputs produced by the MA Artichecture students. L-R: Toilet roll with Smizz cartoon drawings; Installation game; Toilet twitter handbook. Photos courtesy of Y Mu.]

Our final panel of the day brought together members of 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. It was inspiring to hear so many voices dedicated to putting toilets on the political agenda. We discussed the ways forward for toilet activism, practice and research; covering a wide range of topics including: the closure of public toilets, the re-labelling of toilets to include a gender neutral option, the use of direct action in response to accessible toilets used as storage cupboards, the lack of consideration given to Changing Places toilets when training architects, on-street urinals and gender socialisation, school toilets, menstruation and learning disabilities, and the radical potential of toilet protests. Many of these discussions were framed within a broader context of austerity and welfare cuts. Morag Rose argued that if the city is presenting itself as open 24 hours then its toilets, too, need to be available at all times. Similarly, Jess Bradley reminded us that toilets need to be included in anti-austerity campaigning, just as a critical perspective on cuts and privatisation needs to be incorporated into our discussion of toilets.

After a delicious vegetarian buffet, a performance from Queer of the Unknown brought the event to a close. Jess Bradley and Loz Webb staged their piece within the toilet installation, using the copper pipe arches to create the public cubicle stalls in which their performance was set. The piece drew on a range of performance practices, including dance, poetry, movement, and even some (well-received!) audience participation. They encouraged us to think about many of the themes of the day; access, safety, transgression, policing and solidarity. Scene-by-scene, Queer of the Unknown negotiated an artful balance between funny, political and poignant; proving all three are possible at once.

Final event pic

[Image: Queer of the Unknown performing. Two people: one sitting within the toilet installation and one standing, reading form a piece of paper. Blue lights overhead and the audience sitting at the front. Photo courtesy of Steve Graby.]

Thank you to everyone who attended Re-Imagining Toilets, or has contributed to the project over the last few months. Hopefully this won’t be the last you hear from us…

(A storify of the event is also available to view here).

Toilet Talks – An Event Summary

On Monday 29th June, we held our first public event at Manchester Metropolitan University to celebrate the launch of the Around the Toilet project, ‘Toilet Talks: a speaker event on bodies, identities & design’. We were so pleased by the interest shown in the event and the project itself, both by those who attended on the day and others who weren’t able to make it in person but sent their support. It’s quite a challenge to cover the breadth of critical toilet insight provided by the speakers and other parties attending the event, but below is a small glimpse at some of the thoughts shared on the day, along with some reflections of my own.

[Image: A photo of the ‘Toilet Talks’ programmes: white booklets with a photo of a row of sinks]

In her introduction to the event, Emily Cummings (University of Leeds) briefly considered the literary, art and social histories of the toilet. She alluded to the number of literary bathrooms – such as in James Joyce’s Ulysses and Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests – which, despite their frequent portrayal, are not always noticed by critics. The importance, but persistent invisibility, of toilets was then situated alongside current struggles against austerity and the social effects of neoliberalism. Cummings encouraged us to reflect on the consequences of the privatisation of public spaces and the importance of defending and recognising the value in the commonplace parts of our cities such as our libraries, parks and public toilets, which can often be taken for granted.

This half-day event, however, took nothing of the toilet for granted. Key figures in the field of toilet research, as well as an exciting range of cross-disciplinary voices on the history, design and role of public (and private) toilets, delved into the meanings, politics and uses of the toilet. The venue itself was decorated with multi-coloured postcards, featuring the illustrated toilet experiences told by Around the Toilet participants at a storytelling workshop last month, and for four precious hours #cctoilettalk became a trending topic on Twitter in Sheffield (storified here).

The first speaker, Barbara Penner (Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL), discussed the high stakes of toilet talk, which she believes is always politically charged. When people argue about toilets, Penner observed, they’re talking about the rights of certain social groups to occupy public space. In this sense, Penner points out that toilets can be a powerful indicator of social status. She drew not just on the current struggles for toilet access in the UK, but also on past movements and those outside of the West, such as the dispute that broke out in 1900 over a proposal to introduce a women’s public toilet in Camden Town, London; the continuing battle for usable, sanitary toilets in the township of Khayelitsha, South Africa; and the Occupy Men’s Toilet movement, started by Li Tingting in China after she became tired of waiting in long queues for women’s toilets. Campaigns for equal access to toilets have been around, notes Penner, for as long as – if not longer than – the first public toilet.

[Image: A photo of Penner’s powerpoint presentation showing the two editions of Kira’s ‘The Bathroom’. Photo courtesy of Eve Stirling.]

Penner’s main emphasis was on the heritage of Alexander Kira’s (1967) widely-celebrated monograph, The Bathroom. Despite the huge media interest at the time, Penner notes that the book is particularly interesting for its failures – Kira’s anticipated readership (primarily designers and architects) restricted his ability to suggest anything too radical, and there were many major omissions in his work. The second edition of the book (1976), however, appealed directly to the public and took greater interest in discussions of gender and disability. Barbara asked for us to follow Kira in recognising the importance of incorporating/considering the user and the body in the toilet design agenda.

Following Penner, Leo Care (University of Sheffield), provided a useful example of how these considerations can be incorporated into architectural education. Care discussed the projects undertaken by the Sheffield School of Architecture, including Live Works, an exciting multi-disciplinary collaboration between staff, students, graduates and alumni. Care argued that our aspiration to maximise accessibility should include accessing knowledge, an understanding of how things work, and an interaction between the built fabric of the environment and its users. Care called for an optimistic approach to toilet design, hoping for unification, rather division; social change, rather than conflict; and a place which can be used for inspiration and reflection, rather than solely functional needs.

[Image: A photo of Leo Care’s powerpoint presentation which shows the Sheffield School of Architecture’s reflections on gender netural toilets. Photo courtesy of Jen Slater.]

After a short break, Jess Bradley (Action for Trans* Health), one of the community partners of Around the Toilet, introduced the second part of the afternoon. Bradley pointed out the massively important day-to-day impact of toilet access for trans* and disabled people (amongst others); it’s not just about the right to pee, but also the right to leave the house and get out and about. She argued that toilet politics are a microcosm of the gender structures and policing seen in society more broadly: who is recognised as what, and who gets to decide who’s allowed into certain spaces? Bradley, like Penner, recognised just how long these conversations have been happening. Trans* people and feminists have been arguing for greater toilet access for years, she notes, but are very often dismissed. She believes that this is why projects like Around the Toilet are so important.

Morag Rose (University of Sheffield) explored the history of the public toilet in Manchester, from issues during the Industrial Revolution right up to the present day. Rose’s talk was illustrated by a huge range of fascinating photographs she’d taken on her walking tours of the city, including a collection of toilet signage from around Manchester. Rose reflected on the way in which disabled people can often be de-sexualised and de-gendered by accessible toilets, in contrast to the hyper-gendered spaces intended for ‘able-bodies’. She commented on the heavily gendered environment of public toilets, which aren’t only subject to the policing and surveillance of ‘acceptable’ bodies and behavior (reflected on by many of the speakers throughout the day); but can also be spaces of comradery (e.g. chats in the queue and the passing of toilet paper under cubicle doors). Following Cummings’ earlier resolutions, Rose also incites us to incorporate a critical response to austerity measures in our discussions of toilet politics. She refers to the ban on homeless activists using toilets in a Manchester public library, the huge number of public toilets getting closed throughout the city and the £80 fine if you’re caught peeing in public. Rose advocates for social change, resistance to these measures, and more poo activism(!).

[Image: A photo of Morag Rose pointing at her powerpoint presentation, which shows a number of images of toilet signs indicating ‘female’ toilets. Photo courtesy of Jen Slater.]

The final speaker, Jo-Anne Bichard (Royal College of Art), provided an introduction to The Great British Public Toilet Map, a free interactive online resource launched at the end of last year which locates over 7,000 public toilets. Using an audit tool to assess toilet accessibility and usability, Bichard found that the most common access requirement which fails to be met by public toilets is a colostomy shelf (only 3% of audited accessible toilets had this feature). As she notes, shelves could be used for many other access needs as well, but a fear of these surfaces getting used by people taking drugs means that they’re not incorporated into the designs of public toilets. The concern around toilet mis-use and criminal behaviour, Bichard points out, often means that toilets are much less accessible than they could be. She also adds that the range of impairments which necessitate certain toilet requirements are homogenised by the blue wheelchair/accessible symbol. Bichard notes that architects will often only consider the needs of wheelchair-users when creating an ‘accessible’ toilet, neglecting to incorporate a huge number of other access features which could make going to the toilet easier, or even possible, for many.

Lisa Procter (University of Sheffield) eloquently summarised the event, briefly reflecting on the hidden emotional geographies made present when we negotiate toilet spaces. She observed how issues of control and policing had been key themes of the day; especially the policing of space, of bodies, and of behaviour. In Procter’s closing remarks, she reminds us of the need to de-standardise these designs, listen to the narratives of people using these spaces, and battle on towards a future of toilet transformation.

– Written by Charlotte Jones, Research Assistant on the Around the Toilet project