Caroline Radcliffe in performance

This month (September 2018) sees the unveiling of ‘The Machinery’, a new sound and visual installation developed by University of Birmingham academic Dr Caroline Radcliffe, composer and digital artist Sarah Angliss and filmmaker Jon Harrison. It will be premiered on Friday 21 September 2018 at Enginuity, one of the ten Ironbridge Gorge Museums in Shropshire.

This immersive, challenging and dynamic work explores how industrial workers react(ed) to the dehumanising and alienating effect of machinery by interacting with it and mimicking its motions. It will be featured as part of the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Festival 2018.

The three-screen installation layers a film of Radcliffe’s performance of a clog dance, based on one that can be traced back to the early 19th century, onto looped sounds and multiplied film clips taken from a working 19th century cotton mill and a modern call centre, a working environment that shares with the cotton mills many characteristics and impacts on workers.

This clog dance, also known as The Machinery, was created by the machine operatives – mainly women and children - working in the mills. Its steps – ‘the pick’, ‘over-the-tops’, ‘two-up-two-down’, ‘weaving’, ‘shunts’ and ‘the cog’ – replicate the mechanical components and actions of the machines they were operating in stifling, noisy conditions.

The workers conceived the steps as they worked. Tapping their heels and toes in time to the machines’ rhythms, they devised steps that emphasised the machines’ rhythmic repetitions. Due to the restrictive movements imposed by the body's close proximity to the machines, and with the hands busy working them, the heel-and-toe style evolved. Its small, intricate steps use all the areas of the wooden clog soles as opposed to other, more active, travelling styles of clog dancing that covered a wider area.

After its launch, the plan is to source funding that will enable The Machinery to tour UK industrial museums and arts festivals.

This installation represents an evolution of an earlier, performance version of The Machinery, developed by Radcliffe and Angliss in 2007. This received its premiere at the ‘Repeat Repeat’ Conference, Chester University on 20 April 2007.

Subsequent performances followed at cabaret venues in London and as part of the Brighton Festival Fringe, 2007. It was then selected for a Quake contemporary dance award and performed as part of the 2008 Quake festival hosted by Derby Dance and Dance4. Other performances include the Science Museum London, 2015; the 2016 Algomech Festival in Sheffield and at Café Oto in 2017.

A film of the Algomech performance was recently featured in the ‘Marvellous Mechanical Museum’ exhibition at the Compton Verney Gallery in Warwickshire, with it being singled out in several reviews as one of the highlights of this popular exhibition.

Dr Radcliffe says, “Many theorists, including Marx, witnessed the machinery of the Industrial Revolution replacing human actions, demanding that the people operating them became mechanical, with workers reduced to human automata. The same could be said of contemporary call centres, many of which occupy the spaces that once housed the textile industries, with global outsourcing a shared feature of the 19th and 21st centuries.

“The Machinery offers an extraordinary example of a creative challenge to automisation and alienation in the workplace. Rather than allowing herself to be subsumed by the machines she operates, the worker coalesces with the machines by appropriating their sounds and movements. In the performance, through the use of sensate technologies, we see and hear the dancer embodied in the moving machinery, literally dancing with the machines.”

Reviews for the earlier version of The Machinery

  • “…a brilliant 2016 film called the Machinery by Caroline Radcliffe and Sarah Angliss in which the former performs a heel-and-toe clog dance that was once tapped out daily by female workers in Victorian cotton mills. Industry turned them into automata, almost. The dancer resembles a latterday Coppélia.” The Guardian, 29 June 2018; The Observer, 30 June 2018.
  • “One of the standout pieces of the exhibition is the collaboration of Caroline Radcliffe and Sarah Angliss in The Machinery. It was inspired by women working in 19th century Lancashire mills who devised a clog dance to directly mimic repetitive sounds and movements of cotton mill machines. The ‘heel and toe’ clog dance is juxtaposed with a modern-day call centre. Mesmerising and melodic, it taps into the debates of how technology can dehumanise the workplace.” ‘Just a platform’, 8 July 2018.
  • “Lancashire clog dancing was far from a rural tradition; it was a response to the sounds of the cotton weaving mills. In Radcliffe and Angliss’ reading, the repetitious rhythm of weaving looms forms a proto-Industrial music soundtrack to a mechanoid dance.” ‘Science Museum Group Journal’, Autumn 2017.
  • ‘The Machinery’ will be available to view from Thursday 20 to Wednesday 26 September (10.00am – 4.00pm). Entrance is free of charge
  • A film of the performance of the first version of The Machinery at the Algomech Festival can be seen here