What kind of history?

by Amy Tobin
Reviews / Exhibition • 23.02.2022

Two concurrent exhibitions in Manchester of work by the American artist Suzanne Lacy (b.1945) offer a manual for social change. Manchester Art Gallery presents Uncertain Futures, a new project based around the artist’s interviews with women over the age of fifty about their work and retirement. This is shown alongside film documentation of her project Cleaning Conditions, staged at Manchester Art Gallery in 2013, which concerns the pay and working conditions of cleaners employed by the gallery. For the exhibition What kind of city? A manual for social change at the Whitworth, the curators have focused on three of Lacy’s past projects: Across and In-Between (2018); The Oakland Projects (1991–2001); and The Circle and The Square (2015–17). Each is staged across two galleries: one documents the process, while the second displays Lacy’s impressive moving-image installations. Together, the two exhibitions trace the extent of Lacy’s ambitious practice – from her engagement with diverse social issues to her use of art as a vehicle for activism – but they also reveal her tactics, strategies and preoccupations, honed over a six-decade career.

Lacy is most often described as a performance artist. Her earliest works, from the visceral Ablutions (1972) to the stark In Mourning and In Rage (1977), were forged in the crucible of the Los Angeles feminist art scene. She was a student on the first iteration of the Feminist Art Program (FAP) at Fresno State College developed by Judy Chicago (b.1939), before transferring to California Institute of the Arts, Santa Clarita (CalArts). There, Lacy met the Happenings pioneer Allan Kaprow (1927–2006), who was also an important influence on her practice. Whereas the FAP introduced Lacy to the politics of women’s liberation, Kaprow prompted her interrogation of form and context. As he noted: ‘Art shifted away from the specialised object in the gallery to the real urban environment; to the real body and mind; to communications technology; and to remote natural regions of the ocean, sky and desert’.1

Lacy’s Cleaning Conditions premiered at the 2013 Manchester International Festival. The performance was based on one of Kaprow’s score-like texts: 

Sweeping the dust from the floor of a room,
Spreading the dust in another room
So it won’t be noticed
Continuing daily.

For two weeks, a team of people from labour, living wage and immigration organisations volunteered to sweep the gallery floors every day FIG.1. Following Kaprow’s instructions, they redistributed not dust, but instead  a ‘litter’ of printed political ephemera onto the floor. In the film documentation of the performance, the work of sweeping the galleries is spliced with facilitated discussions between the cleaner-performers on race, migration, citizenship, sexism, workplace exploitation and social status FIG.2. Here, Lacy translated Kaprow’s invocation of routine activity back into the gallery as a site to make visible the social dynamics of invisible labour. As in many of her projects, the role of the audience is key – not only the audience of gallery goers, but also the media who might document and report the work, as well as the management, politicians and social agents who can effect change. And change did follow: the cleaners’ rates of pay at the gallery were guaranteed.

The outcomes of Uncertain Futures are less direct. The testimonies of the interviewed women are fragmented, presented in the form of projected text FIG.3, audio or printed transcripts. Unlike the spectacular performances that are often the culmination of Lacy’s projects, Uncertain Futures requires time and attention. Whereas her performances depend on partial encounters and open dialogue, this project manifests more as a repository for consultation. The project was born out of a collaboration with researchers at the gallery, Manchester University and Manchester Metropolitan University, and its form fits its academic context. Here the gallery functions as the site for engagement, where public consciousness can be raised and policies changed. However, the emphasis on gender inequality, testimony, visibility and practical change is only one side of Lacy’s practice.

At the Whitworth, a more complex picture emerges. The exhibition exposes the scale of Lacy’s projects, which often span decades, involve numerous stages and have multiple outputs. Her work depends on engagement with a particular place and its people, most often enacted through collaborations with community organisations or activists. This is immediately evident in What kind of city?, which begins with Across and In-Between, a project about the borderlands of Ireland and Northern Ireland undertaken during the Brexit negotiations. The Oakland Projects documents a decade of installations, performances and political activism that Lacy staged with young people based in the titular Californian city. The projects engaged with a range of issues: teenage pregnancy and welfare support in Expectations (1996–97), relationships between students and teachers in Eye 2 Eye at Fremont High (2000) and young people and the police in The Roof is on Fire (1993–94), Youth, Cops and Videotapes (1995), No Blood/No Foul (1995–96) and Code 33: Emergency Clear the Air! (1997–99). The third project, The Circle and The Square, brings us back to Northwest England – to Brierfield Mill in Pendle, Lancashire, one of many derelict sites that were once foundational to the British textile industry, and a mill that benefited from the labour of Commonwealth migrants.

In each of these works, communities are shown to be both exemplary and ordinary sites of conflict and political struggle. In each case, Lacy allows the viewer to see the relevant issue from multiple perspectives, before offering up points of unexpected equilibrium. In Across and In-Between, this is demonstrated by ‘The Yellow Manifesto: A True Account of a Border and its People’, the result of an event convened by Lacy at Stormont, in which 150 participants were asked to consider various questions about the borderland. In No Blood/No Foul, a basketball game between young men and police officers is documented through video, photographs, invitations, instructions to players, press releases and scorecards. In The Circle and The Square, shape note singing meets Sufi chanting in a performance with local community groups at Brierfield Mill. The testimonies of workers, displayed on separate screens, reveal that the factory was a rare point of congress between the white and South Asian communities in the area. This cohesion is also a formal strategy for Lacy. Most often, she achieves this by adopting a bird’s-eye view, as seen in the aerial shots of the shape note singers in a square formation and the circle of Sufi chanters FIG.4, or in the various border formations with yellow kayaks, yellow powder pigment FIG.5 and yellow-wrapped bales of hay FIG.6 in Across and In-Between.

One of the strengths of the presentation of Lacy’s work at the Whitworth is the range of material on display, not only the accomplished moving-image installations and infographics, but also the plans, permission slips, correspondence, flyers, programmes and, most interestingly, the performance instructions FIG.7. Primarily, we see paperwork relating to The Oakland Projects, which saw Lacy attempt to give agency to young people through discursive spectacles. In The Roof is on Fire FIG.8 FIG.9, groups of teenagers gathered in cars on the roof of a car park, where they held conversations based on a list of prompts. The audience, which was circling the cars, listening to the conversations, was instructed not to respond, intervene or act on anything they heard. The work was covered by local and national television channels and subsequently aired as a one-hour documentary. The format changed in Expectations, which consisted of a six-week summer school art programme that contributed towards the students' high school credit, for thirty-two pregnant and parenting teenagers. At the Whitworth, a two-screen video work shows the participant Asha Zitani reading a reasoned but passionate public letter to then-Governor of California, Pete Wilson. While an example of Wilson’s ill-informed speeches plays on one monitor, Zitani rejects his claims that state welfare support produces laziness and criminality on the other. The contemporary resonance of her diatribe – connecting poverty, racism and demonisation with the contradictions of political corruption – is made explicit in another video, part of Oakland Revisited (2019–ongoing), which features young people from Manchester. 

In Code 33 FIG.10 FIG.11, Lacy returned to the open expanse of the car park roof, gathering 150 young people and one hundred police officers in small groups, caught in the headlights of parked cars, to discuss fear, safety, crime and power. Like all the works in The Oakland Projects, Code 33 had a long trajectory, developing over two years through workshops with the participants and consultations with the police, but it was also a response to longstanding police violence in Oakland. This was also the dominant issue identified in The Roof is on Fire, which began only a year after community resistance to the acquittal of the four police officers who brutally attacked Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991.

One of the display cases in the exhibition includes a list of topics to be covered by the twenty-four small groups. It is split into two: one side labelled ‘youth issues’, the other ‘police issues’. There are also ground rules: ‘Permission to speak honestly and freely [. . .] No name calling [. . .] Take care and only reveal what is safe for you’. The discussions were documented and are available as part of a large, multi-screen installation comprising footage from each of The Oakland Projects, conceived with Lacy’s long-term collaborator Unique Holland in 2019 FIG.12. At points, there is accord, a shared joke or a realisation of commonality, but elsewhere there is tension: police insistence that they are only doing a job; a probing inquisition on the morality of bringing drugs into the community; a recalcitrant claim that a police officer has never seen any instance of violence. Frequently, police interrogate participants to desperation, or refuse to understand questions about double standards. The work is a lesson in power and authority, in which violent control enforces racialised, classed and sexualised suppression.

Lacy’s work, at least in part, aims to make the invisible visible, to better connect art with the media and society and to enact social justice, but Code 33 does not provide the same hope for political assembly as the other works presented at the Whitworth. The aim of this exhibition is to start a conversation on what kind of city Manchester could be after the social upheaval and tragedy of the pandemic. This forward-looking ambition is auspicious, but as the participants in Across and In-Between and The Circle and The Square warn of historical amnesia and of things misremembered, a question arises from each of the social tableaux Lacy stages: what kind of history is this? This is most evident when listening to the voices in Code 33, which cannot be contained by that Oakland rooftop of more than two decades past; they lurch forwards and backwards and across the transatlantic arc traced by this exhibition. Forms of dialogue may allow stories to be told and recorded, even for histories to be transmitted, but Code 33 demands a different kind of activism: one seen in the Black Lives Matter protests and the Abolitionist Movements that have grown from them.2 Can the museum host these arguments for change? Following the furore over the Palestinian solidarity statement expressed by Forensic Architecture in the exhibition Cloud Studies at the Whitworth last year, the museum had to reconcile its status as part of the ‘non-political organisation’ of Manchester University, with its ambitions to incite social change.3 However, with the summary dismissal of the Museum Director Alistair Hudson this week, we are reminded that no institution is apolitical.4


Exhibition details

Suzanne Lacy: What kind of city? A manual for social change

Whitworth, Manchester

26th November 2021–10th April 2022

Suzanne Lacy: Uncertain Futures and Cleaning Conditions

Manchester Art Gallery

24th June 2021–1st May 2022

About the author

Amy Tobin

is an associate professor in the History of Art at the University of Cambridge and Curator, Contemporary Programmes, at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. She is the author of Women Artists Together (2023).


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