To what extent are we a product of our ‘body capital’, labour and efficiency?
Ilona Sagar has been researching the industrial history of work in Barking and Dagenham. As the original Radio Ballads draws attention to the rights of workers, this research has led her to explore the legal and labour frameworks associated with the difficult, and until recently, untold legacy of asbestos that is central to the history of work in the area.
Due to the docks and heavy industries in Barking and Dagenham, the borough has the highest level of asbestos cancers and mesothelioma in London. Whether it was dockyard workers who unloaded the lethal cargoes, or those in the factories exposed to the fibres, or the carpenters, laggers, plumbers, electricians who routinely used and removed asbestos – all suffered. So did the family members who washed the work overalls and the children who hugged their parents or played in the dust-coated streets.
It was known as early as the 1940s that asbestos could cause lung cancer, but the asbestos lobby ignored, trivialised, and suppressed the scientific. Those who suffer from asbestos exposure are stuck between layers of legal and bureaucratic paperwork. Work Capability Assessments, litigation and statistical scientific measurements have become controls by which the individual can be mediated, the impaired body chained to notions of usefulness, framed by economic and domestic labour. Due to legal ideas of ‘acceptable bodily risk’ workers lose limbs, digits, eyes; they develop repetitive strain injuries, respiratory diseases, skin diseases, diseases from exposure to asbestos, and other hazardous substances. There are discrepancies in perceptions of what a body is supposed to do; how it changes and affects change, leaving us to question to what extent are we a product of our ‘body capital’, labour and efficiency?
Asbestos is considered a historical concern, but it has very present and devastating effects on people’s lives today. The exposure to asbestos in Britain is largely historical but the death toll is alarmingly etched on our future. Asbestos fibres can lie dormant on victims’ lungs for up to half a century; deaths from asbestos in Britain will continue to rise, as we all pay the price for criminal failings by industry and government made decades ago.
Working in close collaboration with London Asbestos Support Awareness Group (LASAG), Sagar will develop a new work that connects individuals affected by Asbestos exposure and different social services who work to support those affected by cancer in the area, particularly lung cancers in need of care, health services and employment support.
To mark the anniversary of the 1970 Equal Pay Act and the momentum for change created by the Dagenham Ford sewing machinists strike of 1968, Serpentine Galleries and the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham are partnering to develop a series of collaborative artist residencies and commissions that will examine the future and histories of work, called Radio Ballads.
The original Radio Ballads were produced by musicians Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, working with radio producer Charlie Parker to make a series for the BBC, focussing on workers’ experiences and issues. The original series of eight one-hour Radio Ballads revolutionised radio documentary and were broadcast by the BBC from 1957–64. A combination of song, music, sound effect and recorded voice, each Radio Ballad presented a view on the working lives of British people.
The Radio Ballad‘s commissions will be shared publicly in London in the summer 2021. More information about these artworks and events will be shared as the projects unfold.
The commissioned artists: Sonia Boyce, Helen Cammock, Rory Pilgrim and Ilona Sagar.
Ilona Sagar, lives and works in London. Using a diverse range of media spanning moving-image, text, performance and assemblage, she has formed a body of work which responds to the social and historic context found in the public and private spaces we inhabit. By instrumentalising historical archives and their institutions, not as an encounter with a safely sealed past, but as something current and unstable that speaks urgently to our present condition, she explores the links between language, surface, technologies and the body through our increasingly mediated encounters in social, political and experiential space. A significant aspect of her practice is the broad cross-disciplinary dialogue generated through collaboration with a range of art and scientific disciplines; including dance, architecture and neurology. Illusion and material [dis]honesty set the stage for works which seek to seduce, alluding to something familiar yet other. Recently Sagar won the 2018 Research in Film Award at BAFTA HQ and is the Saastamoinen Foundation, Helsinki, artist in residence for 2021. Forthcoming commissions include ‘The Radio Ballads’ Serpentine Gallery, where she is one of four new commissions with Sonia Boyce, Helen Cammock and Rory Pilgrim (2020/21), and is embarking on a new solo commission with Firstsite Gallery, Colchester (2021).
Recent projects include: ‘Deep Structure’(2019) S1 ArtSpace, Sheffield, ‘Living with Buildings’, Wellcome Collection, London (2018/2019); ‘Self Service’ publication and event series, CCA and GOMA, Glasgow as part of Glasgow International (2018); ‘Correspondence O’, solo exhibition at South London Gallery, London (2017/2018); ‘GLORIA’, Yinka Shonibare Guest Projects 10 year anniversary, London (2018); HereAfter group show as part of the SPACE HereAfter residency, The White Building, London (2017); solo project at Pump House Gallery, London as part of ‘The Ground We Tread’ (2016).
London Asbestos Support provides practical and emotional support for anyone affected by mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases across London and the South East. The charity was set up by The London Hazards Centre Trust Limited, which was established in 1984 and obtained independent charity status in 2017. All of their services are free.
Support Workers are very experienced in supporting sufferers of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases and understand the impact such diseases have on individuals and their families, both physically and psychologically. They are also knowledgeable about state benefits and compensation schemes and maintain close liaison with other key professionals in the care of the sufferer and their families. The team are available to visit individual sufferers in the comfort of their own home or can be contacted by telephone, to assist with paperwork and provide ongoing support and guidance.
Monthly support group meetings are held for sufferers and their carers to meet others undergoing the same experience. Experienced staff, together with special guest speakers and other professionals will be available to provide information, advice or a listening ear in a safe and private environment.
During 2019, London Asbestos Support helped bereaved carers and family members establish three new friendship groups across The South East. These are informal get-togethers for anyone who has lost a loved one to an asbestos-related disease to come together to socialise and support others affected by mesothelioma. Support ranges from offering a listening ear over a cup of tea, to arranging social events and fundraising activities.
The charity also assists with obtaining legal advice and help from lawyers who are experts in dealing with asbestos disease claims.
New Town Culture
Radio Ballads is part of New Town Culture – a pioneering programme of artistic and cultural activity taking place in adult and children’s social care across the entire borough. This is a Cultural Impact Award winning project, part of London Borough of Culture, a Mayor of London initiative. New Town Culture responds to the incredible stories, knowledge and skills of the residents of Barking and Dagenham, delivering a programme of workshops, exhibitions, radio broadcasts, live performances and courses targeted at people using social care services in our borough. Working closely with social care professionals and artists, the project hopes to unlock the value of art and culture for all our communities. Its ambition is to support social workers and carers to try out new ways of working to enhance the brilliant work they already do.