Meet Jennifer Irons, co-creator of (in) Dignity of Labour.
What does it mean to be subjected to unemployment and benefits sanctions as a young person? (in) Dignity of Labour combines the movements, music and words of young people from Hull to give voice to stories of struggle and offer visions of hope for a city that’s seen its share of tough times.
Designed by award-winning choreographer Jennifer Irons, and international audio-visual artist Zach Walker of makeAMPLIFY, the Made in Hull installation seeks to engage the people of Hull in a rarely-spoken narrative, challenging old mindsets and inspiring change.
We spoke to Jennifer to find out more…
Where might we have seen your work before?
makeAMPLIFY work with diverse communities, often transforming stories and experiences into large-scale installations and performances. You might have seen our Apparitions piece, commissioned by London Legacy for the opening of Queen Elizabeth Park in London, which featured local residents dancing 45 metres above the park on a chimney.
Elsewhere, our visuals have featured live with recording artists such as Moby, Flying Lotus and DJ Shadow as part of the Decibel Festival of Electronic Arts.
Why did you want to get involved with Made In Hull?
Both myself and Zach have a long-standing love affair with Hull. Zach initially came to Hull University on an exchange programme in 2000 and has been finding ways to return ever since. We love the people, the sense of community and the humour in this city, so we jumped at the opportunity to be involved in the opening of this great year.
Can you describe your installation in one sentence?
(in) Dignity of Labour looks at life on the sharp end of the benefits system.
What drew you to this idea?
We are greatly interested in the subject matter of unemployment and the benefits system. We have heard so much about it and it’s been a focal point recently in film and the news.
We wanted to learn more about the realities of life when you’re in that system instead of the rhetoric and vitriol reported in the news.
It’s about getting beyond the prejudice and stereotyping and hearing about young people’s real experiences.
How did this idea develop into your Made In Hull installation?
We were able to develop our idea entirely by speaking to several young people who live in Hull and were willing to share their experiences of employment, unemployment and the benefits system. Their stories were turned into movement and were filmed, then projected onto key sites around the city that reflected their stories. We then re-filmed and re-projected these stories as part of the installation.
The soundtrack was composed of sounds captured in Hull and samples taken from local singer-songwriter Jody McKenna and everything was interspersed with archive footage of the old jobs that used to be available in manufacturing.
The piece follows the trajectory of what happened here with the end of manufacturing. Jobs that could be relied on disappeared and created a vacuum. The young people told us that the only jobs left for them were either in factory-work or in a call centre.
How have you used public spaces to display or shape your work?
The buildings of Hull tell the city’s story. We are fascinated by the ignored spaces of a city and we wanted to highlight these spaces in Hull and reflect how the city has changed over the past few decades. Some of the buildings we filmed are Lord Line at St Andrew’s Dock, Blundell Street School off Beverley Road, the old Co-Op on Jameson Street and the Rank Hovis building.
The disintegration of these buildings reflected the collapse of Hull’s manufacturing industries and their effect on employment. The Hovis factory, for example, was obviously a destroyed building, but by projecting it onto another building, something beautiful can come out of it.
What kind of issues are these young people facing on a daily basis?
Everyone we spoke to wanted a job, but there weren’t many available. They dealt with the stigma of signing on and felt that job centres tarred them all with the same brush, assuming they were lazy, using drugs or just couldn’t be bothered.
All of our young people told us of the bureaucracy that didn’t acknowledge them as individuals and their feelings of dehumanisation when signing on.
There was a great deal of discussion about the fact that unemployment is often tied up with other factors such as physical and mental illness, homelessness, the care system, pregnancy, addiction and family breakdown.
The longer that these young people were in the benefits system, the harder it got to access – everything was done on computer, the rules could be nonsensical and inhumane and for some, it got to the point that leaving the system was the only option. Others even contemplated suicide.
How do these young people retain hope for the future?
They are pretty resilient young people. Every single person we spoke to has great ideas for their future, from law to the arts.
Catch makeAMPLIFY’s (in) Dignity of Labour at Scale Lane from 4pm-9pm on 1-7 January 2017.