Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


VIRTUAL EVENT: IAS Growth/Waste — Key Work and the Anxiety of Public Space

03 February 2021, 9:00 pm–10:15 pm

Trash Museum

with Hélène Frichot (Melbourne), Cecilia Vallejos (artist), Lotika Singha (Wolverhampton), Matthijs De Bruijne (artist) and Nicola Baldwin (IAS). Chaired by Albert Brenchat-Aguilar (Birkbeck/Architectural Association). Introduced by Maritza Castillo Calle (IWGB)

This event is free.

Event Information

Open to







Albert Brenchat-Aguilar

Please join the event here.

In the time of coronavirus, public lavatories closed for several weeks. These are, generally, small spaces where distancing others is difficult, and where bodily fluids and particles in suspension increase the risk of viral infection. Newspapers from The Guardian to The Telegraph would report during May and June 2020 that public lavatories were ‘a cause of anxiety, distress and frustration’, especially amongst the elder. Citizens would find relief in parks’ peripheral masses of bushes and trees.  

In 1992, artist and architect Katerine Shonfield (along with Frank O’Sullivan) covered the glazed tiles of some run down public lavatories with goose feathers. This artwork, called Dirt is Matter Out of Place, aimed to create a porous surface that trapped germs and dirt in it, related sexual practices and criminal behaviour to dirt, and presented spatial forms associated with dirt.  

But something was missing in Shonfield’s critique and that the coronavirus crisis has brought to light: the labour of those workers that take care of public spaces, usually from Southern countries and the Global South and who speak languages other than North European Languages. In the time of coronavirus, some workers including nurses, doctors and couriers acquired the new social category of ‘key workers’. However, cleaners are still fighting for full recognition in this category. The current pandemic has proven, as the media and unions have been denouncing, that some key workers endure degrading working conditions.  

The panel will present union-engaged positions on the intersection of labour, race and dirt in response to key workers’ role in dealing with viral spaces and a response from an academic from the Arts and Humanities. 


  • Hélène Frichot is an architectural theorist and philosopher, writer and critic. She is Professor of Architecture and Philosophy, and Director of the Bachelor of Design, Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, University of Melbourne, Australia. She is the writer of  Creative Ecologies: Theorizing the Practice of Architecture (Bloomsbury 2018), How to Make Yourself a Feminist Design Power Tool (AADR 2016), and Dirty Theory: Troubling Architecture (AADR 2019) amongst others. She is on the steering group of the AHRA (Architectural Humanities Research Association) based in the UK. Please find more about her work here.
  • Cecilia Vallejos is a theatre director who has oriented her practice toward dramaturgies of texts based on testimonial narratives. From 2003 to 2014, she produced a versatile way of working based on statements, biographical accounts and recollections of stories. In the year 2011, she started collaborating with domestic workers and artists of the Dutch Union of Cleaners in producing joint projects, in particular videos and publications as part of the group’s ongoing struggle for legalisation of their labour. Please find more about her work here.
  • Matthijs De Bruijne’s work explores the relations between economy, culture and social life in order to achieve critical collective consciousness. During the last years it has taken the form of collaboration with trade unions and other labour organizations. You can find his work for ‘cartoneros’ in Buenos Aires at www.liquidacion.org, his collaboration with local activists and independent labour organisations in China at www.1000dreams.org, and with the Dutch Union of Cleaners FNV in The Trash Museum.
  • Lotika Singha received her doctorate in women’s studies from the University of York. Her research interests centre on social inequalities in everyday life and cross-cultural theories across various population groups. She is the author of Work, Labour and Cleaning: The Social Contexts of Outsourcing Housework published by Bristol UP in 2019.
  • Nicola Baldwin is a writer for performance and currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the IAS, UCL. Her projects include: Nosocomial, a science fiction drama based on workshops with Healthcare Scientists, which won 2019 CSO ‘Partnering Citizens’ Award of NHS England; We The Young Strong about far right radicalisation of young women in 1930s; Wasteland, developed as inaugural UCL Creative Fellow; Woman From Mars, as recipient of 2019-2020 MGC futures bursary; and Camberwell Green for BBC Radio 4. Please find more about her work here.

New (Normal) Materialist Decay Series

Decaying matter is an essential component of our built environment. From compost in our gardens, to lichen and fungi in our brick and stone walls and tile roofs, to bacteria on our skin, our environment grows thanks to and along with non-human decay. However, we neglect these non-human agents and, now more than ever, we fear them as they also include viruses and the surfaces where viruses inhabit. We wash our hands with antibacterial soaps, interact with the world through gloves, masks, scrubs, glasses and screens. We now sterilise our built environment more than ever, thus polluting it with toxic antibacterial matter. To ignore decaying matter and the waste of our new material mediations (as well as their destinies and trajectories) also means to neglect the human workforce that physically deals with decay and the organisms that support it.

New (Normal) Materialist Decay will showcase a series of conversations under a new materialist approach to the built environment. For this revised series, we want to question how the new normal challenges previous revolutionary approaches to decaying matter (compost, soil, bodies, food, weeds…) and question if it is still possible to shift thinking about them. Before COVID-19, one could have imagined a poetics of waste co-existing with the repurposing of waste so that it comes to signify as non-waste. But what can we do now?

This series of panel debates and conversations will involve academics, artists, gardeners, botanists, chemists and landscape architects. These conversations and their outcomes will be free and open to everyone. This series is partly funded by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and supported by UCL Urban Laboratory and the Institute of Advanced Studies at UCL as part of their collaboration on the research theme of Waste. This series is part of a bigger project conceived by Sabina Andron (UCL, Ravensbourne) and Albert Brenchat (UCL, BBK, AA)

We propose 5 sessions:

  1. The Dissimilar Architecture and Politics of Rot - from Positivist Ecology to Intersectional Theory
  2. The Aesthetics and Care of the Soil in the Urban Environment
  3. Skin
  4. Key Work and the Anxiety of Public Space
  5. Exhausted Matter

All welcome. An event link will be posted on this webpage.  Please do not hesitate to contact us if you need assistance on the day, and follow this FAQ link for more information and to read our virtual events code of conduct. All of our events are free, but you can support the IAS here.

Image from the Trash Museum