Nothing About Us Without Us

Nothing about us without us is a project by artist Petra Bauer and sex worker-led organisation SCOT-PEP that explores debates on women’s work beyond the polarising divisions prevalent in feminism, past and present.

It includes the film Workers!, a digitally printed banner, a research folio that brings together written materials shared during the research process, an archive of audio recordings, and a production dossier.

Part of: Looking for Jeanne

Petra Bauer and SCOT-PEP

Contributors: Frances Stacey, Gem, Molly Smith, Petra Bauer, Scot-Pep and others

"Workers!" production image
Petra Bauer & SCOT-PEP, Workers!, production shot, 2018. Photograph courtesy the authors and Collective.

Nothing about us without us was developed over four years by artist Petra Bauer and sex worker-led organisation SCOT-PEP, and produced by Frances Stacey with Collective, Edinburgh, and HER Film, Stockholm. The collective approach is inspired by feminist film practitioners who emphasise the importance of making films with their subjects, not about them. Through an ongoing process of listening and sharing ideas, guided by the questions: how do you act politically when stigma prevents you from being public? How can you create new images of sex workers without revealing the identity of those involved? How has (women’s) work been represented historically and what new strategies can be used for filmmaking today?

Workers! is staged in the Scottish Trade Union Congress, a building rooted in workers’ struggles for rights and political representation. During SCOT-PEP’s one-day occupation of this institution, conversations unfold that centre the voices of sex workers demanding to be seen as experts on their own labour and lives.

Noting about us without us includes a 38-minute film, a digitally printed banner by SCOT-PEP and artist Fiona Jardine, a research folio that brings together written materials and images shared during the development process, an archive of audio recordings, and a production dossier. The banner is inspired by the traditional iconography and craft of Trade Union banners and tapestries; and the archive of resources is intended to provide insight into the process of making Workers!, the complex discourses around sex-work politics and contemporary experiences of work.

Two historic films are important starting points for the new film work: Les Prostituées de Lyon Parlent (1975) that documents the occupation of a church by two hundred sex workers denouncing police harassment and dangerous working conditions; and Chantal Akerman’s iconic Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Brussels (1975), which depicts the daily routine of Jeanne as a mother, housewife and sex worker.

“There are two very important things that I have learned from working together with SCOT-PEP. The first, is the importance of seeing sex work and sex workers’ struggles in relation to other forms of work and feminist struggles, such as the fight for migration justice, a liveable wage, environmental sustainability, rights for disabled people and women’s rights. An important aspect with our film is to point towards those connections, as the conditions for sex workers are intrinsically connected to larger societal structures. The other important lesson is that we who are not sex workers have to acknowledge sex workers’ agency and voice, we have to listen to their demands. Only then can we achieve a change that is worth speaking about. For this specific reason, our film should be seen as a collective articulation of a political position, and not as a film that speaks about sex workers.” – Petra Bauer, 2019

“Working with Petra and Collective was fascinating in terms of helping us think through how we juggle the demands of political speech – which entails making yourself in some sense visible – with sex workers’ need for safety through anonymity. Making the film brought theses contradictions around speech, visibility and safety into the foreground in a new way; and working together to find solutions was an amazing collaborative process. We loved how Petra and Collective so quickly ‘got’ the connection between sex work and other kinds of women’s work, whether paid or unpaid. Making these connections puts sex workers back at the centre of the women’s movement.” – SCOT-PEP, 2019

“In starting this collaboration, we aimed to find common references and build relationships based on trust, initially without knowing it would be possible to make a film together. This open, social space in which personal and political ideas were shared enabled us to learn reciprocally and to understand on a material level the deep rifts that exist in feminism in relation to sex work, and the challenges faced by SCOT-PEP members, who are actively trying to change the labour conditions of sex workers in Scotland and beyond.” – Frances Stacey, Producer (then Collective, 2019)

Workers! was first screened in Edinburgh in 2018 and exhibited in early 2019 at Collective, Edinburgh, and Edith-Russ-Haus for Media Arts, Oldenburg.

The film was commissioned by Collective, Edinburgh, and produced by Collective with HER Film, Stockholm.

Petra Bauer&SCOT-PEP at Edith Russ Haus_2019
Workers!, Petra Bauer & SCOT-PEP, installation view at Edith-Russ-Haus for Media Arts showing Les Prostituées de Lyon Parlent (1975), Oldenburg, 2019.