1st May marks International Workers Day when the world comes together to celebrate the working classes. At a time when the vital work of certain workforces is being deservedly reassessed, it is more important than ever to use this date to create conversations around the meaning and importance of work in all forms.

Continuing our Digging The Archive! series, staff at Liverpool Biennial and the International Slavery Museum have delved into their vaults to find pieces that resonate with today’s theme. Take a look at some objects, happenings and documents which help us make sense of the world through the prism of ‘work’.

Fatoş Üstek, Artistic Director of Liverpool Biennial: 
“On International Worker’s Day, we commemorate the past labour struggles and remind ourselves of our long history of exploitation of labour, where many people worked extremely long hours in harsh conditions. This day gives a chance for us to remember those who struggled and fought to create a more protected working environment for us today. It also encourages us to think about the meaning of work, the conditions and rights that we currently have and do not yet have.”


Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson, ThE right tO RighT, 2012. “For the 2012 Biennial, Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson presented this project in two iterations. One was a flashing neon sign that illuminated the city from the south façade of St George’s Hall. The sign projected alternating texts: ThE riGHt tO RighT, ThE riGHt tO WrOnG, and ThE right tO RighT/WrOnG with the words RighT and WrOnG placed on top of each other. The other was in the form of a newspaper distributed for free throughout the Biennial venues, in city’s social hubs and online. It featured a newly commissioned text from British writer and philosopher Nina Power on ThE right tO RighT/WrOnG, in dialogue with the artists. The text addressed the paradoxes of the document The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and included within was their own satirical version The Partial Declaration of Human Wrongs. In the Articles 23 and 24 on the rights to work and working hours, the artists satirically added “Note: There are no jobs”. It is a commentary on the underlying preconditions of these human rights, that the fundamental right to right (to work) is the first step towards a real and communal socio-political liberation.” – Liverpool Biennial

Image: Jerry Hardman


Richard Woods, innovation-investment-progress, 2008. “For this piece presented at the 2008 Biennial, Richard Woods transformed the interior of a former DIY shop in Liverpool’s city centre. Woods encapsulated the space with repeated patterns of positive words and pictograms, such as ‘progress’, ‘innovation’, and graphic drawings of the thumbs signal. Though the project only survives through the photographic archive today, it still resonates with us when we look closely at the project’s visual component consisting of positive words and imageries of encouragement. It is particularly relevant for us today, where our working environments are uncertain with the ongoing lockdown. It creates a powerful statement of positive thinking and encourages us to take positive attitudes towards our work.”- Liverpool Biennial.

Emily Rose Smith, Curator of Contemporary Forms of Slavery at International Slavery Museum:

“International Workers Day is an opportunity for us to reflect on the past struggles against a host of workers’ rights violations, which would include long working hours, poor working conditions and child labour – but also to acknowledge that a lot of these struggles continue in contemporary society. One of the main objectives of the museum is to inform and help visitors understand the wider issues of freedom and injustice.”


Black Panther Community News Vol 5 No 4 (1/8/1970). “The Black Panthers were in common struggle against capitalist oppression, including through joining unions in picketing businesses. The willingness and ability of the Black Panther Party to find commonalities across class based lines enabled them to form successful and mutually beneficial alliances in solidarity with workers and unions.” – International Slavery Museum


Cotton slave Adam, Cotton Slave Eve by Alice Kettle. “Cotton was bound to the economy of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and today cotton is bound to the global economy of modern slavery. Artist Alice Kettle: “21st century single mother Eve supports her child through factory labour.”  One of my favourite things about this artwork is that stitched within the background is hidden text inspired by news stories of modern slavery, linked to the retail industry. This includes suggestions that some workers may be given little to no payment and may work in extremely hazardous conditions.” – International Slavery Museum.

The artwork is part of the International Slavery Museum’s Challenging Histories exhibition. Take a virtual tour.




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