Cromwell RE-BOOTED

It is the 17th of December, International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, I am on a tram on my way to a rally when I get a text that begins “Hi Jane sorry to bother you if you know this already and if you don’t warning that its about Cromwell…”

It contains a link to a site called ‘Slate’ and mentions interior photos of Cromwell.

The story so far on Cromwell can be found first here MANORISMS & also here Cromwell Re-Visited

But the short version is that a Victorian sex industry workplace was closed with workers records and belongings inside, re-opened as an art gallery (with records and belongings still there), and then the exhibition cancelled after workers protests.  It’s been a highly traumatising process for the workers involved – compounded by persistent failures to communicate with workers, to treat their records/belongings or their work as anything other than some sort of sideshow.

This is probably why I react so strongly to the Slate article.  It includes so much stigmatizing language I don’t know where to start.  I am mystified that Christian Pearson (the photographer) is talking like this.  Did StrEAT not contact this person and explain the situation after the exhibition closed?

Pearson begins the article by mentioning (& linking to) an Arts Hub interview suggesting that Cromwell was “abandoned”.  Actually that’s a LIE, workers were locked out.  But I guess that’s not as interesting as suggesting that Cromwell is the Marie Celeste of brothels?  Also interesting is the fact that Arts Hub have removed my original comment on their article pointing to my Blog posts on the subject…

Pearson continues the Marie Celeste motif saying Cromwell is “frozen in time”.  Talking about “cigarettes..left in ashtrays”, “sheets..dormant in dryers”.  Holy cow!  You can find both of those things in my house at the moment but it’s in no way “abandoned”.

There’s an extended bit about how freaked out Pearson is to be in alone in the building, that they “felt a sense of dislocation from my own reality”.  Seriously?  I’d get that checked out if I was you.

Apparently “the rooms were full of easy-to-make gratuitous images”.  Is that a reference to the fact that sex used to happen there, for money?  Subtle.

But I think my least favourite bit is Pearson stating “he was determined to photograph the brothel in a way that did not place any judgment on the space” – well you know what?  That’s a FAIL.

Talking about my ex-workplace as some weird, scary fucked up place – divorced from the reality of what actually happened – which has now been brought to the attention of both StrEAT (the current lease holders) and RMIT (who were involved in the art exhibition) is actually extremely stigmatising.

I would seriously invite Christian Pearson to take the time to meet with some of the Cromwell workers and other Victorian sex workers who have been supporting us in dealing with this.

As usual I will report back to let you know whether I get taken up on this offer (& also on what StrEAT have to say about this…)

CROMWELL RE-VISITED

… this is a continuation of Mondays post ‘MANORISMS‘…

I am sitting in a sex workers bedroom not wanting to look at the stack of paperwork sitting on their bed.  Sex worker’s individual paperwork and medical information is here.  My own worker paperwork from Cromwell is here.

In an environment of prevailing whorephobia no-one should ever have this information.

Anyone, sex worker or not, would prefer that their personal and medical information is secured.

The worker whose bedroom I am sitting in, who is also an ex-Cromwell sex worker, found the records in an open cupboard in the Reception area of Cromwell, last Friday night at the ‘Manorisms’ exhibition opening.

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I listen as they describe their experience & show me photos that they took of the ‘exhibition’ –

  • an art ‘installation’ including a handmade knife, pieces of human skin (molded in latex), reproduction human bones, ‘instruments’ laid out on a table as if ready to dissect – in one of the rooms I used to work in
  • a shower unit in one of the rooms, where our names have been painted – having been accessed from records left at Cromwell – my name is there, my best friend’s name is there, the worker who is showing me this points out their name
  • one of the beds left ‘untouched’ as if to memorialize Cromwell, essentially fetishising both sex work and sex workers
  • a sex worker’s belongings left sitting out, accessible to anyone, on top of the lockers in the locker room
  • telephone numbers left taped up behind reception, visible and accessible to anyone in the space

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I go outside and smoke a cigarette, my hands are shaking.

We agree that all of the paperwork should be burned.

I call Consumer Affairs Victoria (as I did in June 2012 when Cromwell Manor closed). They advise they will look into it and get back to me.

I spend the day speaking to sex workers.  Online.  In person.  We talk about how angry we are.  We talk about our memories of Cromwell.  It is decided that a public statement is necessary, so I write a blog post.  A pretty restrained blog post given all of the above.  I call StrEAT & leave a message.

Then something happens.  StrEAT call back.

We have a tense conversation – I find myself stating several times “you must let go of the idea that what you have done is defensible, it is intrinsically whorephobic.  Admit that, admit you have made a mistake and we can begin to move on”  I say sex workers feel the exhibition must close, it is non negotiable.  I explain that any meeting is the first step in a process rather than simply a token gesture to make this go away.

We arrange to have a meeting.

We discuss all of the above issues.  We resolve some and make progress on others.  The names have been removed from the ‘installation’ listing sex workers names by the artist.

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StrEAT has closed the exhibition and it will remain closed.

We agree that we will need to meet again.

At the end of the meeting I thank StrEAT.

Why would an angry sex worker thank the organisation that committed a whorephobic act against their community?

Because they did two things that are necessary for progress when an individual or organisation has committed an act of whorephobia:

  • they LISTENED to sex workers
  • they acknowledged they had made a MISTAKE

These are not easy things to do.

People should listen to marginalised communities.  But they generally don’t.  StrEAT did.

It’s not easy to admit when you made a mistake.  StrEAT did.

StrEAT spent time working through the concepts with sex workers and spent time listening to our stories.

Am I still angry?  Hell yes.

There are still sex workers records that need to be handed back.  We have informed StrEAT that these need to be handed to Vixen (Victoria’s peer only sex worker organisation), so that they are under sex worker control.  Any sex workers that want to access their records should be able to do so (& do so via a peer organisation) and remaining records should be destroyed – by sex workers.

There is still the issue of the breach of privacy, for which there is now a RMIT ethics complaint in progress.

There is the matter of what will happen with the current site & the ‘artworks’, even though it is not re-opening as an Art Gallery prior to re-development.

There is much yet to discuss, but importantly – sex workers are part of the discussion.

Where sex work is the topic – sex workers should ALWAYS be part of the discussion.

To borrow a phrase from NSW sex worker organisation, NAUWU (who hopefully won’t mind):

NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US!