Searching for embodied experiences of work and labour in the Institute’s archive

Henrietta Hale, Dog Kennel Hill Project. You can probably turn this into something. 2019. 

He came to see that reading was a kind of continuous unfolding within his own body of a story invented by himself

— Matthew Goulish

The title of my PhD project is ‘Relational practices and the Tavistock Institute Archive: embodiment and social engagement’. It is a collaborative doctorate with the Centre for Dance Research at Coventry University and so brings with it a focus on, and implications of, embodied or movement-based methods of research. I’ve proposed that reading is a performance and movement practice, speculating that dancing can be a form of reading and that reading can be a form of dancing. 

I’m hypothesising that reading the archive and engaging with a selection of its materials with the manner of attentional presence that I apply to dancing and performing might change how those materials are perceived and offer fruitful ways of being in dialogue with them. What does it mean as a researcher to bring movement and dance practice methods into the reading of a body of mainly written reports, fieldnotes, letters, from the Tavistock Institute’s 70 + year history? The anomalies and contradictions between experiential movement and the written word, between preservation and liveness, history and presence, are all glaring at me.

I’m looking particularly at embodied experiences of work and labour. I still don’t yet know what specific materials from the archive will be my main focus. It’s still early days and in re-acquainting myself with academic study I’ve been taking small steps and side shuffles in my approach to the selection boxes that can be summoned up from storage. I’ve been looking generally at how Tavistock is situated within a history of 20th century organisational thinking and work cultures. I’ve also been looking for roadmaps from other researchers, examples of research practices that hold the tangled relationships of bodies with history and the written word, to help me work out what I need to bring to my methodology of embodied research. I will bring myself along.

I’m using an intuitive process of following leads and threads, to explore the archive, based on connections to my history of making performances and research about “work”, or expanded reading about Tavistock. The DHSS Stress and Satisfaction project - 1979/81 SA/TIH/B/2/57 aimed to understand difficulties faced by staff and claimants in social security offices in Tottenham and Highgate. Tensions emergent in the interview fieldnotes resonate with some of the timeless qualities that surround our relationship to work. This takes me back to the People Working project 2010, made with my collective company Dog Kennel Hill Project. It involved a series of one-to-one encounters, exchanging ideas with people about what work meant to them, when work stopped, what it looked like, who cares about it. They traversed boundaries of the personal/professional, allowing people to think about what they were working for, who was gaining from it, who and what was being mined and for what purpose.

Stress and Satisfaction contains data lists, measures of work disturbances, interruptions such as phone calls and questions. This strikes me, since my sense of contemporary working conditions is the managing of questions and so-called interruptions. A sense of attention pulled and dispersed in multiple directions feels like a very familiar condition which rewards those who can navigate it successfully. It makes me wonder whether the concept of successful work then was of a steady concentrated flow of productivity along a single line, producing a succession of giros, (the primary task) and where in-person interactions were deemed inefficient? 

Descriptive details of how creativity may or may not be an integral or essential aspect of effective leadership also draws my attention in The Use of Government scientists: Aging and Effectiveness project, (1973) SA/TIH/B/2/73 Tavistock’s relationship with creativity as vital to organisations is a fascinating line of enquiry to track. I sense that the term creativity is now more elusive and easily co-opted into a capitalist agenda than it was then and I’m curious to know more about Tavistock interpretations of the term and whether embodiment and imagination, elements so important to my understanding of creativity, play a role. 

I have a nest of sea sponges in my solar plexus and my legs trail as willowy ferns in the sea.[1] My mind is a flea...

I read an article by Isabel Menzies Lyth in which she highlights the importance of researchers practicing evenly suspended attention (1990) and I’m now haunted by that term.[2] 

Suspended, not distributed or dispersed – but hanging attention in a state of suspension, as though held. This makes me think of the drone sounds of Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening[3] projects, that I find so helpful in movement practice where I feel held or contained to let myself immerse in a flow or radiating experience. The trail is a smooth flowing one but it goes all over – I can track it while it happens. It’s a state of being both with, and following my meandering lines of attention, noticing the leaps and gaps, and moments of suspension. Its evenly suspended in that I don’t place value on one area of attention more than others and I’m resisting end-gaining toward a goal, I hover in a state that never fully lands on anything, keeps moving through.

I stand up to do a little dance in the living room – constantly hearing my gut/nervous system telling me to go into the kitchen and see what’s in the fridge. A message from the attentional field.

One repeating term arising in all the archive projects I’m looking at so far is that of the primary task, and how researchers seek out the systemic barriers that prevent workers achieving their primary task. Movement is a relational practice, maybe it never fulfils its primary task because it’s always in process. In the archive rare materials room, I reach toward a sheet of type-written paper in an archive box and pick it up.  This is a movement. What is the primary task?  to come closer to the writing, in order to…… to read its words, in order to understand something about its author, in order to complete the reading, in order to find another sheet of paper, in order to move on to the next box, in order to enjoy reading and call myself a reader, in order to learn about a system of thinking that I don’t recognise immediately, in order to know more about groups of people and their language from another time, in order to share more or question more, in order to accumulate experiences of closeness to writing, in order that recognition comes more easily, in order to move with ease amongst boxes, to know when to move toward or away from something, moving up or down, over or above or under, moving with something, moving as something. How might I move as the archive of TIHR, move as the Tavistock office in Gee St. The humbling process of becoming something other.

[1] This image comes from work with Skinner Releasing Technique, an approach to creative movement through imagery to create attentional states that I want to bring into my reading.

[2] Menzies Lyth, I. (1990). A Psychoanalytical Perspective on The Social Engagement of Social Science, Volume 1: A Tavistock Anthology: The Socio-Psychological Perspective, 1, 463.

[3] See https://paulineoliveros.us/

Henrietta Hale

PhD researcher at the Tavistock Institute (in partnership with Coventry University and Midland4Cities Doctoral Training)

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