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Light Research @ MMU

Sex work, liminality and light

Posted by Mary Laing, Northumbria University

I really enjoyed reading Emily Bowe’s blog entry: Massage parlours: an alternative Blackpool illuminations ( The post appealed to me on a number of levels; initially because I grew up not too far from Blackpool, and regularly as a child and later as an adult, made the trip to walk along the prom to see the illuminations and to eat hot salty chips with a wooden fork, through gloved fingers.

chips at the illuminations










Photo: Chips at the ‘luminations  (Image with permission of Ed Gibney, 2012)

But also, it interested me because like Emily, I have recently started to think about spaces of sex work in terms of their illumination (or lack of). I have visited the window districts of Antwerp and Amsterdam, the massage parlours of Manchester as well as the heady night-time sex spaces of Bangkok, and my memories of these spaces centre on the colourful neon signs lighting up the night; they contrast starkly with the ‘gloomier’ and less illuminated spaces of street sex work I have visited in Manchester, Liverpool and Vancouver. Indeed, spaces of sexual commerce are traditionally depicted to ‘come alive’ at night-time, and the night has long been (re)presented as an appropriate play-scape for those seeking transgressive and sexual pleasures in the city

soi cowboy










I intend to collaborate with artist Gloria Ronchi (, whose practice uses light as a medium to create immersive art spaces, Alessandra Mondin (University of Sunderland) and visual anthropologist Michael Atkins on a project exploring themes of sex work, liminality and light.  Throughout the residency we will consult with sex workers and other experts and work towards the creation of a public art space to explore these themes. We will ask questions like: how does light affect access to different spaces (physical, digital and psychological; private and public) and why? How does the (lack of) illumination of public spaces influence the affective experiences of those spaces? Levels of light and darkness provoke ‘affective and emotional resonances, cajoling bodies into movement, activating passions, instigating sensual pleasures and discomfort’ (Edensor, 2013: 456), so how does this subtle balance affect the ambiguity of red light landscapes? And, how are concepts of sexuality reinforced, challenged, or subverted through the dark?  Through the work we will seek to develop a more nuanced, corporeal, sensate and visceral reading of sex work and commercially sexed spaces. We hope it will develop unique and original insights, whilst challenging public perceptions of sex work through art.

November 3rd, 2014 - 11:38am

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