Infrastructural bodies: The Living Structures of Bodies, Buildings and Archives

Sagar, Ilona and Sweeney, Josephine. 2023. 'Infrastructural bodies: The Living Structures of Bodies, Buildings and Archives'. In: Latent legacies: the afterlives of asbestos. University of Cambridge, Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), United Kingdom 2 November 2023. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

Ilona Sagar (Somerset House Studio) in conversation with Josephine Sweeney (Leighton House)

In their article ‘Breathing Late Industrialism’, Chloe Ahmann and Alison Kenner describe breath as having ‘sentinel qualities’ — warning of trouble in the air, rendering the violence of late industrialism legible, calling for us to conspire or breathe together. Breath can also carry latent legacies which remain dormant for decades, eventually emerging in unpredictable and unnerving ways. Joining us next Thursday, 2nd of November (5-7PM), Ilona Sagar and Jo Sweeney will both trace the afterlives and aftermaths of asbestos, linking the seemingly innocuous fibres to British military, extractive, and labour histories. They will consider the frequent failure of conceptual and bureaucratic systems in apprehending asbestos and its toxic effects. The seminar will include a screening of ‘The Body Blow’, a film directed by Ilona Sagar, exploring what risk means in the context of care, work and our health.

Ilona Sagar
‘Infrastructural bodies: The Living Structures of Bodies, Buildings and Archives’

The Body Blow was developed through long-term collaboration with those with lived experience of asbestos cancers, London Asbestos Support Awareness Group (LASAG), social workers, end-of-life carers, asbestos removal experts, campaigners, and medical and legal professionals. Focused on ideas of ‘acceptable bodily risk’, the film considers what risk means in the context of care, work, and our health. Asbestos is considered a historical concern, but it has very present and devastating effects on people’s lives today. Asbestos fibres can lie dormant in victims’ lungs for 20- 50 years with health issues usually appearing long after retirement. The film navigates the layers of legal and bureaucratic paperwork those exposed to asbestos are stuck between. Work Capability Assessments, litigation and legal statistical measurements have become controls by which the individual can be mediated, chained to notions of usefulness, framed by the value of their economic and domestic labour. A collaborative script made during a series of workshops asks us to think about the way that we navigate the language which permeates the legacy of asbestos. Who is allowed to be exposed to risk and how is risk quantified?

A screening of the Body Blow will be followed by an artist talk reflecting on themes of maintenance, notions of risk and care, and material and structural ’toxicity’ explored within the film. The Body Blow was recently exhibited as part of ‘Radio Ballads’ at Serpentine Gallery, London which was one of four new commissions with Sonia Boyce, Helen Cammock, and Rory Pilgrim.Radio Ballads takes its name from a revolutionary series of eight radio plays by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger broadcast on the BBC between 1957-64.

Josephine Sweeney
‘Finding the fibres: asbestos, memory, and aftermath’

Asbestos is an umbrella term given to a group of fibrous minerals highly resistant to acid, heat and most notably fire. Asbestos cladding, lagging, pipes, insulation boards and spray, floor tiles, putties, adhesives and paints have been used everywhere from domestic homes, hospitals and schools to nuclear power stations, military aircraft and naval ships. By approaching asbestos from a heritage perspective, I consider how asbestos might steer attention to the ways in which the material legacies (militarised and domestic) are neither clearly defined, contained or static.

Even when enmeshed within seemingly solid composite material, asbestos fibres can be reanimated, and thus inhaled, if the material is broken or disturbed. Further, the harmful bodily legacies of the mineral can surface decades after exposure. With reference to the site formerly occupied by the world’s largest asbestos textiles factory in Rochdale, England, this paper explores how the mineral’s properties might challenge notions of an ‘aftermath’, and instead draw attention to the shifting, compounded, sudden and slow repercussions of industrial and militarised material residues.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Talk)

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2 November 2023Completed

Event Location:

University of Cambridge, Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), United Kingdom

Date range:

2 November 2023

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Date Deposited:

11 Mar 2024 15:07

Last Modified:

11 Mar 2024 15:07


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