Published  30/05/2019

Petra Bauer – interview: ‘The crucial thing was to make sure the sex workers were the ones leading the discussions, that they were the ones with agency’

Petra Bauer – interview: ‘The crucial thing was to make sure the sex workers were the ones leading the discussions, that they were the ones with agency’

Inspired by feminist film practitioners who emphasise the importance of making films with their subjects, not about them, Workers! is very much a collaboration between film-maker Petra Bauer and SCOT-PEP, a sex worker-led organisation in Edinburgh

Workers!, Petra Bauer & SCOT-PEP, film still, 2018. Photo: Caroline Bridges.


Petra Bauer (b1970, Stockholm) is an artist and film-maker who explores the possibilities of women’s organising and resistance through film-making. Her usually collaborative works are concerned with feminist issues and the role of moving images in, and as, political practice. In 2015, she exhibited at the 56th Venice Biennale as part of All the World’s Futures. Workers!, commissioned by Collective in 2016, is a collaborative work between Bauer and SCOT-PEP, a sex worker-led charity advocating for the safety, rights and health of sex workers in Scotland. It presents a social space in which personal and political ideas can be aired, challenged and debated. Premiered as part of the opening week of Collective’s new home on Calton Hill, Edinburgh, in 2018, Workers! is now being shown as part of a larger exhibition including some of the research materials from the project and a banner made by SCOT-PEP and the artist Fiona Jardine.

Workers!, Petra Bauer & SCOT-PEP, installation view at Collective, Edinburgh, 2019. Photo: Tom Nolan. Courtesy the authors and Collective.

Anna McNay: Tell me a bit about how Workers! came about. How did a Swedish artist and film-maker get called on to make a film with a sex worker-led organisation in Scotland?

Petra Bauer: There are really two answers to that question, or maybe several. But the concrete answer is that I was invited by Collective to come and do some research in 2015, while they were constructing their new building. They invited me because they had seen some of my earlier work, including the film Sisters!, which I made with Southall Black Sisters, in London, in 2011. This was a collaborative film project that addresses the organisation’s fights for rights for black and minority ethnic women in the UK. The invitation for research was very open-ended, but I have – and maybe this leads to the second answer – been working for many years with women’s organisations and am interested in how women organise and resist, both in terms of political organising, of course, but, also in terms of what this implies with regard to films and aesthetics. I had been looking into that historically, as well as in a contemporary setting. Another point of departure was that I’d been thinking for some time about revisiting Jeanne Dielman, a film by the Belgian film-maker Chantal Akerman. It was made in 1975 and was a very important film for feminist discussion on women’s work conditions, as well as on the potential of a feminist aesthetics.

Workers!, Petra Bauer & SCOT-PEP, film still, 2018. Photo: Caroline Bridges.

Anyhow, I was invited, and I went to Edinburgh, and I said I would be curious to visit some women’s organisations to get an idea of what women struggle with in Scotland. One of the organisations I met was SCOT-PEP, which is a sex worker led-organisation, and I was very intrigued by the way they talked about their struggles and the way they work and how they connect to the larger feminist movement. I have to say, at that point, I knew very, very little about sex work, but I became curious to learn more and to find out about the struggles sex workers have on a political level. That’s where it all kicked off, in summer 2015. The whole project has been a collaboration. There are two authors. I mean, there are many authors, but the two main authors are SCOT-PEP and myself. The fact that it was a collaboration was crucial.

AMc: After your initial proposal, you came back to Scotland for the filming. Was it all done on one day?

PB: No, there were two different film shoots. The first one was in 2017, and the second one in 2018. Altogether, it was shot over 10 days.

AMc: Ah, OK. I think I got confused because it seems as if it is all taking place during a one-day occupation of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) building in Glasgow, with participants taking down the framed pictures from the walls and replacing them with their own collage of protest photographs.

PB: Yes, exactly. We edited it so that it appeared to be a one-day occupation, but we shot it over several days.

Workers!, Petra Bauer & SCOT-PEP, film still, 2018. Photo: Caroline Bridges.

AMc: Was there a fixed number of people from SCOT-PEP who were involved with the filming?

PB: No, it’s very unclear how many people are involved in SCOT-PEP because of the vulnerability of being visible as a sex worker. They don’t have proper member records, or, at least, they are kept hidden from anyone not on the board. There is a core group of maybe 15 or 20 people, who are really active on a daily basis. But, for the film project, I think there were approximately eight members, who were very actively involved from the beginning to the end. It shifted slightly as someone dropped out and someone else came in at a later stage.

AMc: Did you ask specific people to become involved or did they volunteer themselves?

PB: It functioned fairly organically. There were two members who took on the project, so to speak, and who were the two who really organised it all from SCOT-PEP’s side. I spent a month or so in Edinburgh in 2016 and we did loads of research together. Then they sent me tons of articles and I shared my films with them. I learned some basics about sex worker politics and sex workers’ conditions, and then I came back for a longer period and we held workshops, which provided a platform for exchange. I talked about what film-making implies because, of course, they had more or less no experience of this. In order to really work together, they needed a certain, basic knowledge. Otherwise, it would have been really difficult to know what we were talking about. So, I talked about film-making, and then SCOT-PEP talked about sex worker politics and labour conditions and their struggles.

Workers!, Petra Bauer & SCOT-PEP, workshop, 2016.

We had these workshops once a week, for several weeks, and that’s how people got involved in the project. Some people would have liked to have been involved, but felt that it was too much visibility and would make them vulnerable. This is a group about surviving economically and socially, and so there’s a lot of vulnerability and precariousness and problems in being visible. There are, of course, some sex workers, for example queer activists, who see sex work as a form of empowerment, but this is not what SCOT-PEP is about. One of the key discussion points from the get-go was about how we could make a film, without making people too visible, but, rather, focusing on the politics. On the other hand, however, we had to consider how we could focus on the politics without having visibility. This was a really a key question for us and some people couldn’t take part in the film project for this reason. They were involved in the discussions, but not in the actual shoot.

AMc: The film is not anonymous at all. I mean, at the end, you see people’s faces.

PB: Yes, but, not necessarily everyone’s. You see allies and other people who can be visible. But there also many who turn their backs. But I find it interesting that you, and many others, think that it is those who have performed in the film so far who are also those showing their faces.

AMc: I noticed there were also some men in the film. Were they sex workers, too, or were they allies?

PB: We want to keep it unclear who is a sex worker and who is an ally. This is the strategy that SCOT-PEP uses. But there are also male sex workers, yes.

Workers!, Petra Bauer & SCOT-PEP, production shot, 2018.

Can I just return to the film Jeanne Dielman, which I mentioned earlier, because, it’s a crucial starting point for what we were trying to do with this film?

AMc: Of course.

PB: As I said, it’s a film by the Belgian film-maker Chantal Akerman, who sadly passed away a few years ago. It was made in 1975 and it depicts three days in the life of a housewife in Brussels. We more or less just see her. Sometimes we see her teenage son. She’s a widow, and the whole film takes place within a flat. She cleans, she polishes shoes, she cooks, and the whole film is shot in really long takes. For example, the scene where she peels potatoes doesn’t end until the potato has been completely peeled. It’s really beautiful and it’s been one of my absolutely favourite films ever since I was in the art academy. Dielman is a homemaker, widow and a mother. But she also sells sex to men. What’s interesting with this film is that she does everything with the exact same rhythm – her movements are all very slow and calm, so you start to compare peeling potatoes, talking to your son and having sex with a client. You see a link between the different activities. At the very end, in one of the final scenes, Dielman kills one of her clients and the film ends with her sitting in the living room, while the body of the client is still in the bedroom. She just sits there, staring out into the darkness, and her teenage son has not yet come home. It ends with this completely unresolved narrative – but, also, an unresolved political situation. It’s been a really important landmark in the discussion on women’s work, women’s conditions and feminist aesthetics.

Workers!, Petra Bauer & SCOT-PEP, production shot, 2018.

A few years ago, I thought I would revisit it and consider whether the figure of Dielman could be rethought. What or who is the contemporary Jeanne Dielman? Can we think of her today from a slightly different perspective? I had this in my mind when I started working with SCOT-PEP. I have decided to make three films, each relating to one of the thematics from Jeanne Dielman – sex work, motherhood and homemaking – and I asked how we can think of women’s work, women’s conditions and feminist labour today, but also women’s agency in struggles. This was my starting point. And SCOT-PEP’s starting point was that sex work is work, full stop. For them, it’s not interesting to discuss whether it’s work or not. For them, it’s work, and once you state that, you need to ask, OK, so how do we make visible the working conditions? How do we improve safety conditions for sex workers and how can sex workers, themselves, have a voice? These were the starting points. And for us, it was really important to connect sex work to other forms of feminised labour. So, therefore, in the film, at the beginning, you have all these women – and men – doing various forms of work: moving tables, washing up, reproductive labour. This was, of course, a way for us to connect these forms of labour so we could start to ask, like in Jeanne Dielman, but from a slightly different perspective, what are the links between these different, precarious forms of labour, or the link between domestic work and sex work? Through working with SCOT-PEP, I learned the importance of not extracting sex work from other forms of work. The structures are the same, even though the effects are, of course, different.

The other crucial thing was to make sure that the sex workers themselves were the ones leading the discussions, that they were the ones with agency, and for those of us who were not sex workers to really listen to them as experts on their own lives. Sex workers are so targeted by society. Society always seems to know what’s best for them. There’s always someone who has opinions about what the best law would be, and the sex workers, in that sense, are really silenced. I think it’s crucial to try to address this.  

Workers!, Petra Bauer & SCOT-PEP, installation view at Collective, Edinburgh, 2019. Photo: Tom Nolan. Courtesy the authors and Collective.

AMc: The film itself doesn’t provide the solutions though. It seems to leave things deliberately open.

PB: The film doesn’t say exactly where we should go, although, to some extent, maybe it does. It does say sex work should be decriminalised at the end.

AMc: True.

PB: But, it’s not seeking to provide solutions, rather, maybe to open up or to see if we can start to ask questions about these relationships. What it does offer, I hope, at least, is that it inserts itself into the labour movement history and says that sex work is also part of the labour movement history. In that sense, it rewrites history. Do you remember the scenes when they take down the union images and put up their own photographs?

AMc: Yes.

PB: So, literally, on a visual level, they are inserting themselves into that history.

AMc: And it’s particularly significant because a previous event had been banned or disallowed at that venue, the STUC in Glasgow.

PB: Exactly. In 2013, I think it was, they had booked the STUC for an event and then, just beforehand, the STUC cancelled the event because it didn’t want to be seen to be supporting sex workers. So, we thought, OK, let’s see if we can talk back – on a visual level, of course.

AMc: There’s a lot of discussion in the film about certain assumptions and links and, in particular, about the link between migration and sex work. Can you elaborate on this? Is there a significant link?

PB: There is a link. Again, though, I really want to stress that this is not my own finding. But SCOT-PEP says, clearly, there is a link, yes. Many people in SCOT-PEP are undocumented migrants and the reason they are in sex work is because that’s the only way they can support themselves because they don’t have the right to work otherwise, or they have no visa, or they are paperless. What they say is that we must create an alliance between sex worker struggles and justice for migrant struggles because, again, we can’t extract sex work. We need to address the border situation or immigration policies and immigration control. Actually, it’s the closing of borders and not giving the rights for migrants to come to Europe and live that causes the problem. By shifting the focus to sex work, the politicians evade the actual problem – borders. That’s what SCOT-PEP means by saying that they always need to link sex work to other forms of political structures, and this is exactly what they are trying to highlight in their work.

Workers!, Petra Bauer & SCOT-PEP, installation view at Collective, Edinburgh, 2019. Photo: Tom Nolan. Courtesy the authors and Collective.

AMc: I was reading the SCOT-PEP website and it seems there are three key laws, or legislative areas, that they think could – or should – be changed that would improve the situation: repealing soliciting laws, kerb-crawling laws and brothel-keeping laws. I suppose, again, this all comes down to decriminalisation as a whole?

PB: Yes. Again, I’m concerned that I don’t speak on behalf of them, but what I have learned is that what they want is a legal system that is actually seeing to the best for the sex workers, improving their lives and conditions. Decriminalisation doesn’t solve things, but it’s a tool that gives the power and agency to the sex workers instead of to the state. I think that’s what they are really fighting for. But I think that, most importantly, they want to fight for a living wage and proper benefits for women because then they would have more agency over their own lives, instead of being forced into sex work in the first instance. A lot of the people involved in sex work are migrants or students who can’t pay their loans or university fees. If you work as a receptionist, the wage just isn’t enough. You can’t survive and you certainly can’t support a family, so then one option is to do sex work.

AMc: Did any of the people you worked with actively wanted to be sex workers or do you think they all were doing it because they could see no alternative?

PB: Well, there are multiple reasons for people entering sex work, but I would say that almost all of them are doing it to survive financially.

Workers!, Petra Bauer & SCOT-PEP, production shot, 2018.

AMc: You’ve talked about Jeanne Dielman, but I think you had a second historic film that acted as a starting point for Workers! as well.

PB: That’s right, yes. The other film is actually a film I learned about when we started the collaboration. It is a documentary about an event that took place in France, coincidentally also in 1975 – Les Prostituées de Lyon Parlent. Two hundred prostitutes occupied a church in Lyon. They had been really harassed by the police for a long time and some other prostitutes had been killed, and they felt that they had had enough and it had reached the point where they needed to make a public demonstration. But, as is still the case now, there was the problem of visibility because of the stigma attached to sex work. So, they occupied a church. They knew the priest and he was sympathetic to their action. They closed the door, so it meant they could make a strong public demonstration without being visible. The church gave them cover and they had one spokesperson, who spoke to the media. The feminist film-maker and activist Carole Roussopoulos knew some of the prostitutes or, at least, gained their trust, and she was allowed to film inside the church. So, there is this film document of the occupation and it’s perhaps the starting point of a larger sex worker movement where prostitutes came out and claimed a political voice. This was where the idea came from that we might do something similar and play with the idea of the visible and invisible.  

AMc: Your dissertation was an exploration into the potential of film to act politically, in Hannah Arendt’s sense of something public and unpredictable within the “space of appearance”. Talking about the idea of occupation makes me wonder how much this research has been, and still is, an influence on your work?

PB: Absolutely. I’m super-interested in the idea of film as a political act. I showed the film to my former PhD supervisor and he asked me to talk about the filmic act in this film. I wanted there to be a political act to it, and this time I think it’s a lot stronger than in earlier work. To me, the film is a political act, in the sense that we are occupying the STUC. We are occupying it on a filmic level, but it’s still an occupation that can never be undone. The event has been written and, therefore, it’s in the world. I truly believe that it is a political act in itself. Of course, whether it has any effect, well, that’s another question. It is impossible to say. But one thing that I’m proud of is that we managed, no matter what one thinks about sex work, to insert it into the labour movement struggle and talk about it in terms of work.  

AMc: The film has recently been acquired by the University of Edinburgh. Do you know what its plans are for using or showing the film?

PB: It has bought it for its research collection, along with our research material and a copy of the banner we made that appears in the film. We have a deal that it can start using it once the show is over. As far as I understand, it will use it in teaching and in seminars. Of course, anyone who wants to do research can also go and see the film and engage with the additional materials that we have provided. We have also produced a production dossier, which is being printed now. Both SCOT-PEP and I are really happy that students and researchers will now be able to continue using and discussing the work.

Petra Bauer & SCOT-PEP: Workers! is at Collective, Edinburgh, until 30 June 2019 and also at Edith-Russ Haus in Oldenburg, Germany, until 23 June 2019.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

studio international logo

Copyright © 1893–2024 Studio International Foundation.

The title Studio International is the property of the Studio International Foundation and, together with the content, are bound by copyright. All rights reserved.

twitter facebook instagram

Studio International is published by:
the Studio International Foundation, PO Box 1545,
New York, NY 10021-0043, USA