From Tahrir Square to Wall Street, territorial occupations have some impact in the media, in social media, and on the ground. But what form can occupation take when those involved in the protest need to defend their anonymity? Petra Bauer’s new film Workers! documents an occupation by sex workers, a group in a marginal profession that Trade Unions rarely stand up for and which the public hardly ever sees at work.
Sex workers run a great risk if they are identified: they may be evicted, arrested, or deported. In order to keep them safe, Bauer, their portraitist (this is a group portrait in film), had to consider camera placement with care. In one long shot after another, we find the women and men from Scot-Pep filmed in rear-view profiles, unfocused in mirrors from the neck down, and, outside, under umbrellas. When the group eventually gathers for tea and cake, Bauer captures the scene with an aerial shot that takes in the milling crowd, while showing none of their faces. The need for anonymity leads Bauer to experiment.
The occupation, a collaboration between Swedish artist Bauer and Scottish sex worker charity SCOT-PEP, is politely held at rented space at the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC) in Glasgow, and it unfolds as a series of symbolic activities: opening blinds, wiping down tables, bringing in boxes, stacking chairs, preparing food, and ironing a navy blue cloth banner of the type frequently carried on marches by the labor rights movement in the UK for more than a century. The tasks are carried out doggedly and filmed in long, uneventful takes.
Several minutes pass before the first participant speaks, perhaps surprisingly criticizing the Scottish Trade Unions: “I don’t think actually they are listening to sex workers, and they have their ideology, and they’re only listening to sex workers who back up what their ideology says.” The speaker is one of two STUC occupants who huddle together against a carpark wall. A red umbrella, symbolic of SCOT-PEP, hides their faces. The pair discuss some of the issues that come with sex work. They talk about identity, the stereotypes around their profession, and the representational dead ends that characterize public discourse around prostitution. In other words, these women realize they are defined, in a one-dimensional way, by their trade.
Bauer’s film works against the negative stereotypes that surround sex workers. Her cast dresses soberly, works hard, values cleanliness, and they are neither victims nor vamps. They are also an articulate bunch, who discuss the history of the worldwide campaign for sex worker rights, along with the stresses of the job, the hazards of the job, and the factor of migration in the context of sex work. If the film achieves one thing — and her title suggests that Bauer had this primary aim — Workers! reconfigures prostitution as a job of work, and renders it as everyday and unsensational as the various tasks undertaken in the course of the film: from stacking the chairs, to washing grapes, from putting out biscuits, to ironing and sewing.
From the conversations that Bauer captures, it is clear her subjects place this illicit, staged, performative occupation within a history of sex worker protests. Chief amongst these was the occupation of five churches in Lyon, France in 1975. But the group in Glasgow also draws inspiration from sex worker rights movements as far afield as Australia. With no union voice within STUC, several of the women take down photos of former trade unionists and replace them with an array of photos from their protests.
This is a form of hi-jacking that characterizes the entire filmed performance. The occupiers first clock in and slot colorful timecards introducing their first names into the timecard rack. Elsewhere, one of the agents occupying a kitchen replaces STUC mugs with SCOT-PEP mugs. In another space, a purposeful sex worker puts SCOT-PEP stickers on the washroom mirrors. Bauer’s film lingers on the architecture of the STUC building and the images and texts which, although they celebrate worker rights, don’t accommodate sex work. Rather, they show social realist tapestries, poetry about the environment, and frieze-like compositions of black and white photos. The final stage of their occupation sees them sharing refreshments and then head out onto the Glasgow Street with their new banner.
Bauer’s slow moving camera and framing shots all seem to say one thing: nothing to see here, just a group of workers in a union building. The zero-degree visual approach focuses the ears rather than the eyes. As happens with radio, without a face to put to the voice, we concentrate on the language and on the meaning. By encouraging us to listen rather than look at this objectified group, Bauer creates a world in which sex workers have as much dignity as miners or steelworkers. And, by showing them engaged in cleaning work, menial work, craft, and debate, the artist leaves space for the proposition that the rights of sex workers are the rights of feminists, migrants, the disabled, and the poor in all places and at all times. As the film draws to a close, a voiceover by one of the group lists the SCOT-PEP demands. “We demand the redistribution of the world’s resources on the basis of need not profit,” she says, finally. These sex workers on film are a long way from Hollywood clichés.
The piece spends half an hour slowly building to a big reveal. It is predictable, even keenly awaited, but it is no less powerful for that. No spoilers to be found here — suffice to say that it is a brave denouement, reached with the calm atmosphere and lack of fanfare that characterizes the entire film. Bauer’s is a sensitive treatment of a sensitive subject. Her film will occupy your thoughts with as much quiet insistence as her subjects.
Workers! will be screened at Collective, Edinburgh, from April 13 to June 30, 2019. Find out more at collectivegallery.net