When Val and I started our collaborative conversations, we had a discussion about how I expected to see a range of unique postures and activities that reflected the vast range of art practice. Val expected to see more common postures and movements. Working with the Firstsite Research Artists allowed us to explore these positions, and in so doing opened up the project to a wider range of experiences and perspectives.

Talking to a number of practitioners from diverse practice backgrounds allowed Val and I to collect individual testimonies about a range of topics: posture, pain and discomfort, tools and equipment and wider factors related to work space set up and work organisation. The conversations were illuminating, revealing individual work routines and their connection, for some, to their conceptual concerns.

Talking about their experiences of art making and posture without having physical work, tools or equipment to hand produced some really interesting demonstrations of activities. These hand gestures or recreations of actions were a natural extension of the spoken description. The very nature of art practice as a physical endeavour was evident as we asked questions and for detailed examples.

The art practices varied: construction, printing, drawing, digital recording and editing. Each activity did seem to have a set of unique combination of movements as I was expecting, but as Val predicted these could be categorised in terms of general movements of pinch, grab, lift, twist and so on and thus have commonality with people working in a wide range of professions and industries. Some of the creative processes described dictated particular working postures, and some were more physically demanding. On several occasion details of the ways in which burdensome objects and materials were carried were described and acted out; hips used as props for heavy weights, arms held in close to the slides to give stability.

Each person described how the computer was a regular feature in their everyday work. I wonder how many artists remain free of at least one form of ‘digital device’. At times postures associated with computer use were framed as admissions, in so far that the individual knew that they may not have the best workplace set up but were also pragmatic about the issues that prevented them from doing so, primarily finance. With the majority of artists being self employed, health and safety is the responsibility of the individual and as such ergonomic chairs, desks set at correct height and laptop stands are sometimes not possible and adaptations are necessary. Adapting workspaces, and for that matter domestic settings, is a common occurrence the world over and artists are not a special case in this sense.

Accounts of muscle ache differentiated between those that came from long periods of fairly static posture, and those that came from using the body in new ways. There seemed to be a sense of satisfaction from an aching body that came from working on a new process, with a new tool, managing to carry large or heavy material. ‘Technology’ aches from extended computer or uneasy digital postures were not held in the same esteem. The act of digital computer work is in effect a mostly passive concern: movements are small, concentration high. It is almost as if the energy that was not expended on physical activity during the ‘digital working hours’ becomes somehow trapped in the body. If no escape route is available for such energy through exercise or engaging in physical making, it can in turn cause an inability to relax.

It was evident from the practitioners we spoke to, and grounded by wider research, that artist activities do fluctuate widely between working over a range of activities within a day or over the course of a week, to engaging in a small number of tasks. The practitioners we spoke to were all managing portfolio careers, different strands of activities and income, both employed and self employed. This variety gives rise to a change in posture after a period of time. Concentrated pockets of time to work on practice (the actual art making as apposed to running the practice / business) within a working week were accompanied by longer periods of time that continued over 4 weeks of activity for particular jobs. Administration and replying to emails were used as a break from activities which were intense or immersive. Having the freedom to dictate working patterns and hours, when to take breaks and at what frequency, can be seen as cornerstone and key benefit of being self-employed. With this freedom comes responsibility: the ‘all nighters’ to complete work on time, and the inability to switch off from work thoughts.

As Val and I sat with the practitioners I was interested to know if what she was hearing was in any different to what I was hearing, and in turn what our shared understanding might be. Here she details some of her observations:

“I was interested that manual handling as it was such a big part of each of the participant’s work which included moving, lifting and transporting large pieces of work, carrying rucksacks and bags with cameras and other equipment on location, lifting very heavy equipment and tools in order to make their art. Long carrying distances were reported where the loads were carried away from the trunk of the body. Other postures mentioned in relation to these activities were elevated shoulders and raised arms while carrying heavy and bulky loads, resulting in fatigue and pain and discomfort but usually satisfaction and a sense of achievement! Repetitive hand and arm movements, with ulnar and radial deviations of the wrists, were demonstrated when using heavy equipment.

The artists were generally very aware of their bodies and often knew when they were adopting less than perfect neutral postures. Working at a laptop on a dining room table and sitting on a dining room chair was mentioned, where little about the workstation set-up was ideal. The user was conscious of taking breaks and this is fantastic. No one adopts the perfect posture all the time, but postural variety is key and getting up after an intense working session at the computer is great even if it’s just for a few minutes. Computer work (and poor workstation set-up) was also part of other jobs that took them away from their main art focus but were necessary financially.

Prolonged squatting postures were essential for one participant in order to reach into and work on large bulky pieces of work with various hand tools. Heavy power tools such as sanders were also commonly used. These tools place a lot of demand on the hands, wrists and fingers and the vibrating element of the tools caused discomfort. Others mentioned precise and close work, where a high visual demand was required. Other postures demonstrated included over spanning of the hands, rapid hand movements and excessive bending of the neck.

The work environment was frequently mentioned – most people shared their space and had different techniques for ensuring privacy in order to work. Environmental factors such as light, noise and heat were discussed repeatedly. Heat was often lacking at the workplace but the artists generally just put up with this situation and got on with their art practice”.

Working from our different professional positions of ergonomist and artist, its clear we hear and therefore process and understand accounts and activities from diverse directions. The differing perspectives of the same information or topic is what makes cross discipline collaboration so interesting and unpredictable.

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Val and I have been preparing for the first Focus Group we will run at Firstsite in a couple of weeks. The Focus Groups are an essential part of the Postures of Making project, as it allows us to gather a wider range of experiences from artists that in turn will inform the project development. I have been wanting to find out more about Val’s work as an ergonomist so we took time for a Q&A.

NN: What is your educational background?

VW: I gained a degree in Psychology from University College Dublin, Ireland in 1989. I then went on to complete a Masters degree in Environmental Psychology at the University of Surrey. While doing this degree I became interested in the area of Ergonomics, it was one of the modules on my course that fascinated me the most – I remember my first assignment was to conduct an ergonomics assessment of a telephone box!

NN: So what did that involve  – as it’s such a small space?

VW: The first thing I did was to go and make a call in the telephone box in order to think through the whole process, each step I needed to take to make that phone call. At that time telephone boxes were much more highly used. I measured the door and considered any access issues and thought about groups of the population that had not been considered in the design. The telephone boxes back then had a very heavy door with a half-cup handle that was difficult to grip. A wheelchair user would not have been able to use the telephone box, as there just wasn’t enough room. Even if the door could be opened, it would have been incredibly difficult to reach the telephone receiver. Accessibility wasn’t regarded as such an important issue in 1989; it was just starting to appear on the horizon as something that should be considered. If you were a parent with a pram it had to be left outside, and the door was difficult for older people or those with less strength to pull and hold open. I also looked at the height of the telephone in the box and the weight of the bulky telephone receiver that was quite heavy so again if you had any physical limitations you may not have been able to use it. I also looked at the space between the number buttons and the size of the buttons to compare to anthropometric data on finger sizes – were the buttons large enough to hit just one button at a time or were they too small for efficient use? I also thought about the presentation of information on the wall that gave instructions on how to use the phone, emergency and directory enquiries numbers. I really liked exploring aspects of usability, physical ergonomics and access issues.

I subsequently worked at The Robens Centre for Health Ergonomics at the University of Surrey for 18 years conducting consultancy work, applied research, training and lecturing.

NN: What was it like working in the research department?

VW: It was incredibly interesting, some people worked in the lab, others were out in the field conducting in-depth research projects and I worked in the office ergonomics consultancy team, responding to the requirements of the Display Screen Equipment Regulations.  These were published in 1992 when complaints of repetitive strain injury were increasing. The team went into office environments (e.g. newspapers, data processing centres) to assess tasks and workstation set up with the users. We also provided training – teaching employees and managers how to assess and set up their own workstations.

NN: Did the office work become repetitive?

VW: We did see similar issues in different workplaces regardless of the work people were conducting. Although the work content, control and demands of a journalist are different to that of person carrying out data processing work, the physical requirements of the job were often similar. The work was kept interesting with the continual changes in technology, and we were also seeing the evolution of the appearance of the office. At the start, the box computer monitor required a deep desk, which is no longer the case; there were few input devices, the keyboard was the main input device and the mouse was not a feature of the workstation. There was a move from small offices to big open plan offices, and work changed with the increasing use of email. People were emailing the person next to them, rather than standing up and walking a few steps to have a conversation. It changed work dramatically; people were staying at their desks for incredibly long periods of the working day. After a few years with this group, I became more involved in research and conducted many short research studies in a wide range of workplaces. These studies often required workplace observation and assessment and then further exploratory work in the lab.

NN: What was the lab work? What did the lab look like?

VW: Our labs were big spaces, with lots of weird and wonderful equipment, e.g. submersion suits, a treadmill, a large stadiometer which is an anthropometric measuring stand – it took up nearly a quarter of the room! Height and weight information is generally collected in most lab studies, but this allowed all limbs to be measured and then compared with anthropometric data from other working populations. The lab was a place where users were studied in detail doing their normal work tasks. With the cleaners, we studied their 3 main tasks – buffing, mopping and vacuuming. Buffing and mopping tasks were conducted on the hard floor of the lab, and we used an adjoining meeting room for observation of the vacuuming task. We used lots of different measuring equipment to investigate what was going on in the body while working – a lumbar motion monitor to investigate the flexion and rotation of the back, wrist goniometers to explore the flexion/extension and deviations of the wrists, and heart rate monitors to look at the demands of different aspects of the work. We also asked users lots of questions regarding the task, their perceived rate of exertion, their estimates of force required to conduct the tasks, and any pain and discomfort experienced. We looked at hand grip strength and compared this data with the forces required to operate levels and controls of the equipment.

NN: How did people find being ergonomically studied/observed like that?

VW: Most people really enjoyed talking about their work in all the workplaces we went to. In the lab, workers were fascinated by all the equipment we used to observe them and collect data and were really enthusiastic.


The subject of posture was been around in my practice thinking for a number of years – 10 years or more – which means I have a collection of research articles that I have found and been given. Someone gave me a double sided page from what I believe to be a 1963 publication ‘In search of charm’, by Mary Francis Thornton. The illustrations clearly show a series of posture movements (umbrella) or ways of carrying weight (handbag – see below). The written descriptions that accompany the images, which detail how to walk in a particular way to achieve poise and elegance, can be linked to the verbal protocol I need to do for our Finger Collars study which Val and I are pulling together at the moment. In order to do this accurately I will need to reenact the Finger Collars work, recording a verbal commentary on the activities and tasks I undertake together with any pain and discomfort I experience. In section 4 of the umbrella instruction the user / reader is advised: “Practice this rhythm in an exaggerated way until you’ve really got hold of it, and then begin to modify the whole thing, allowing the wrist to take over some of the control and developing your own casual style”.

The suggestion of practicing a movement in an exaggerated manner is something that is closely associated with the concept of Finger Collars. Within the work movements become exaggerated, increasingly awkward and laborious. The act of wearing an increasing number of Finger Collars produces a spectacle of movements which amplify and overplay the everyday movements associated with threading a needle and tying an end knot. The work comes from a question: does being a hand maker inhibit practice? At the time of making, digital processes were becoming increasingly prevalent and I was exploring their integration into traditional practice. As an artist I felt, at that time, I had to ask myself if I needed any aspect of the handmade in my practice at all. By literally inhibiting practice, the otherwise fairly fluid movements of the hands become somewhat disabled, and a new set of dexterous movements emerge. What wider effect these new and difficult movement have on other parts of the body is the origin of this Postures of Making work.


At the beginning of yesterday I was wondering what the protocol that Val was bringing to the studio actually was. As I thought it was the plan: a systematic preparation and way of working to ensure that everything that needs to be recorded is. Detailing timings, how often measurements might be taken or questions about pain and discomfort asked. It combines the subjective (verbal protocol analysis – a description of what the user is doing in their own words) and objective (measurements of angles, temperature, noise).

We tested the protocol: I sat re-enacting Finger Collars and Val observed, took photographs, notes and asked questions. Actions were named: picking up, cutting, threading, knotting – each of which has a different posture and a different risk. Areas of the body were observed: neck, shoulders / wrists / fingers (mainly right side), upper back and upper arm in the later stages of the artwork as the movements become more unusual. The lower back didn’t really move throughout. Val thought nothing seemed to be excessive, and it doesn’t feel excessive as it’s not a task I would be repeating all day or even each week. Very different from some of the tasks that Val has studied in the past, where repetition has been a key feature found in jobs such as intensive data processing.

It was very difficult to measure angles during the task, the baseline finger goniometer we had ordered was heavy and hard to use. The finger collars also got in the way. Taking measurements from the video footage is a possibility and also staging some postures, removing the finger collars so accurate measurements can be taken. That said, Val’s experience is such that she can estimate angles of flexion and extension, radial deviation and ulnar deviation. Val took lots of notes over the course of the day, and together we worked on a large mind map / ideas map to record the things we were talking about. Val will be reviewing and amending the protocol ready for January when we will next meet up.

Our wider conversation over the course of the day was interesting and wide ranging: sharing information about particular artist’s work, ergonomic studies, other professions and job titles which we could investigate and connect to our study. Next week I have time in the studio to start developing some initial visuals, and to investigate some new processes.


Second visit from Val is coming up today, the Fingers Collars have been located and are ready for action. So I can learn about ergonomics Val will carry out an analysis on me and one of my existing pieces of work – Finger Collars. I made the work while I was studying for my Masters and was investigating labour, dexterity, hand and digital skills and manufacturing: terms of reference and topics that I continue to focus on and expand. Finger Collars is a 14 minute video which was made to explore the question Does being a hand maker inhibit practice? At the time it was made in 2003, digital technologies were new to my practice. Working with moving image allowed me to frame and reframe ideas and activities, documenting process and exploring the role of hand labour in art practice. What was the point of doing anything by hand, I asked myself, when digital processes were so exciting and innovative? However exciting and innovative that they were / are, I wanted to take into consideration and value the enjoyment of hand labour. Finger Collars explores the increasing inhibiting / disablement of movement while carrying out a regular task of threading a needle and tying an end knot. By progressively adding Finger Collars my movements become difficult, uncomfortable, exasperating.

When I re-enact this work today with Val looking on, I will be measured, documented and asked to describe how the activity feels. Val says she is bringing a protocol planned out that we can work with, alter, adapt; and to be honest despite talking about it last week I’m not absolutely sure what the protocol is. I think it’s the order of things; a plan, a checklist, to make sure all the information is recorded so a holistic picture can be collated ready for analysis.