We’re back! Taking Around the Toilet to New Spaces

Good news! We’ve been awarded further funding from AHRC Connected Communities to continue the Around the Toilet project. We’ve called the next stage of the project: Arts, Architecture, Activism & Access: Taking Around the Toilet to New Spaces (or ‘New Spaces’).

Over the last two years, we’ve been working with various communities – including trans, queer and disabled people – to explore the ways that toilets can exclude some, whilst including others. A lack of access to suitable toilets affects people’s lives in all kinds of ways; exclusion from toilets often connects to wider social and spatial exclusion and segregation, as well as personal discomfort. The New Spaces project will focus on impact and engagement activities to help us develop this research further. 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 next year, 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 will include 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.

As always, we’d love to hear from other people who are interested in the New Spaces project or are doing toilet campaigns, activism or research of their own. Get in touch with feedback, ideas, or just to say hello. You can also keep track of our progress on Twitter: @cctoilettalk and #cctoilettalk.

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.

Final event pic 2

[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.

Final event pic 4

[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.

Final event pic 3

[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).

Performance Workshop Summary

Our most recent workshop, an exploration of toilets through the art of performance, was held at Manchester Deaf Centre on Saturday 18th July. Jess, Loz and Rohan from the queer poetry, art, and theatre collective, Queer of the Unknown, facilitated the session in a way which was relaxed and comfortable, even for those of us who – like me – were nervous about performing in front of others. Activities ranged from the absurd to the serious; using our bodies, experiences and ideas to respond to toilets in physical ways which were new, exciting and different from the conversations we’d had in previous workshops.

For our first performance piece, we divided into pairs to dramatize toilet action using movement and sound, but no words. Performances included secret sexual encounters, covert graffiti, the loud threat of the hand-dryer and getting locked inside a cubicle. So many of our toilet encounters take place without verbal communication that this felt like quite a familiar and comfortable mode of expression which also helped us to get used to the feeling of being silly in front of each other.

In another activity, we were invited to imagine our bodies shrinking down to a size which allowed us to fully enter the toilet system. As a group, we swam down into the toilet bowl and then made our own discoveries of what existed past the U-bend. Some found mermaids, fish, and other exciting treasures, and others discovered less creative offerings, such as my own encounter with a ginormous barricade made of fused toilet roll and excrement.

One of the final activities required a different type of creativity. We were asked to conceive of a toilet door covered in graffiti. Amongst all of the gossip, sleaze and slander, we discovered a beautiful sonnet. It was our task to write that sonnet over the next half an hour. Some participants explored their feelings of toilet anxiety, whilst others took the opportunity to serenade and romance their favourite loo.

Toilet love letter

[Image: An image of a tweet which includes a photo of a hand-written ‘love letter to the Toilet’ with the sonnet rhyming pattern written down one side of the paper.

This was a fun, relaxed day which allowed us to express important ideas and experiences in colourful and poignant ways. Thank you Queer of the Unknown!

At our next workshop on Tuesday 11th August we’ll be exploring toilet politics whilst getting creative with art materials. For more details take a look here. Hope you can make it along!

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

Forthcoming Workshops

Performance Workshop

Saturday 18th July 2015, 12pm – 4pm, Manchester Deaf Centre, Manchester

This free workshop, led by Queer of the Unknown, will be an informal investigation of toilets – our thoughts, ideas and experiences – through the medium of performance. If you live in or near Manchester, identify as trans*, queer and/or disabled, and you’d like to attend the workshop, please sign-up using our Eventbrite page, or get in touch with Jenny Slater (j.slater@shu.ac.uk). No prior experience of performance is required. Free lunch, tea and coffee will be provided on the day and funds are available to cover local travel costs and childcare. Workshop places are limited.

Making/Creating Workshop

Tuesday 11th August 2015, time TBC, Z-arts, Hulme, Manchester

Led by researchers on the Around the Toilet project, this free workshop will explore toilet politics whilst getting creative with art materials. Participants will make their own props and exhibits to use in toilet activism or to take home and put up on the wall. If you live in or near Manchester, identify as trans*, queer and/or disabled, and you’d like to attend the workshop, please sign-up using our Eventbrite page or get in touch with Jenny Slater (j.slater@shu.ac.uk). No prior artistic skills needed. Free lunch, tea and coffee will be provided on the day and funds are available to cover local travel costs and childcare. Workshop places are limited.

For further details about the workshops or for more information about the project, please contact Jenny Slater (j.slater@shu.ac.uk).

Storytelling Toilets: Workshop Report

On Saturday 30th May, researchers from the Around the Toilet project met with a group of participants with links to two of our community partners, Queer of the Unknown and Action for Trans* Health. Held at Z-arts in Manchester, this was the project’s first workshop, with a focus on storytelling and experiences of toilet use. A huge range of important issues were covered by participants in the discussion, including the problems presented by toilets labelled as gender binary, anxiety around making ‘noises’ in the toilet, the barriers caused by the architecture of bathrooms and the potential uses of humour in thinking about the toilet.

The stories shared in the workshop were drawn live whilst they were being told by Sarah Smizz, an artist based in Doncaster. We’ll be turning Smizz’s drawings into postcards which will be available for free at future events.

Our next event is Toilet Talks: A speaker event on bodies, identities and design (more info here). We’ll be holding another participatory workshop event in July – this time using performance as a method of exploring toilets. If you’re interested in attending the workshop, please get in touch with us (contact details here).

Keep up to date with our movements by following us on twitter at @cctoilettalk and #cctoilettalk!