This presentation of work by the pioneering US social practice artist Suzanne Lacy is the latest exhibition to underpin the Whitworth’s identity as “the useful museum”, a strategy that the museum has been pursuing for the past few years.
Initially conceived pre-coronavirus, the exhibition has been recalibrated around a central question to Manchester residents: “What kind of city can we make together in the wake of the pandemic?”
Three of Lacy’s artworks – her seminal series The Oakland Projects and two recent commissions made in the UK – have been selected to address key themes: young people’s self-representation, the impact of borders on people’s lives and social cohesion.
A fourth work, Uncertain Futures (2021) at Manchester Art Gallery, revisits Cleaning Conditions, a commission for Manchester International Festival (MIF) in 2013, and investigates the working conditions of older women. The earlier project prompted a pay review for the gallery’s own cleaning staff and, similarly, What Kind of City? aims to bring about social change through an associated programme of collaborative projects with Manchester’s communities.
The exhibition also grapples with the issues of presenting an artist’s work that is process-led – comprising conversations, meetings and actions – and made in collaboration with multiple artists, groups and participants.
Lacy’s work is about giving marginalised people a voice and audiovisual material is a key constituent. Across and In-Between (2018-19), a project co-commissioned by Belfast International Arts Festival and 14-18 Now, is a response to the centenary of events leading to the partition of Ireland. Lacy worked with communities on either side of the border to address its impact at a time of Brexit-induced international focus.
The first room displays portraits of more than 100 members of the Border People’s Parliament, an event that Lacy co-produced in 2018 at Stormont, Northern Ireland’s parliament, which was photographed by Belfast artist Helen Sloan. A television screen shows a film documenting this event in which border residents marched to Stormont to draft The Yellow Manifesto, “a true account of a border and its people”. Both have soundtracks accessed by headphones and the film is subtitled.
The next room, blacked-out and furnished with benches and beanbags, is dedicated to a three-screen projection of The Yellow Line, a collaboration between Lacy, producer Cian Smyth and Manchester filmmaker Mark Thomas. This documents a series of performances in which residents, using a variety of playful means, literally drew a yellow line across the landscape.
The central room features The Oakland Projects (1991-2001), a large-scale public art series in California instigated by Lacy to examine the tense relationship between young people and the authorities.
This room looks like a conventional museum or archive display, comprising wall-mounted texts and photographs, cabinets containing documentary material and smaller television screens showing audiovisual content.
A unit doubling as a meeting table features a zine and a film made as part of the Outset-funded the Constituent Museum programme, a partnership between the Whitworth, the University of Manchester and the Van Abbemuseum.
In response to Lacy’s work, local students and teenagers are now working together to develop skills in media literacy while exploring issues of representation in the wake of the Black Lives Matter campaign.
The adjacent room, as well as similar archival displays, contains an audiovisual installation, Voices from The Oakland Projects (2019), made by Lacy with long-time collaborator Unique Holland. This comprises nine screens hung at different heights showing films from the Oakland series with two floor-standing speakers relaying the hard-hitting conversations.
This dynamic presentation complements the powerful content of the artworks, but the archival displays fall a little flat. A more creative approach in the central room might have resulted in a more inviting space for young people to meet and explore the work together.
The final rooms display The Circle and the Sphere (2018), which was commissioned by Super Slow Way, part of Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places programme, in Lancashire to address social cohesion in the town of Brierfield. Lacy brought together former mill workers from the town’s white and Asian communities to perform traditional shape note singing and dhikr chanting in the redundant cotton mill where they used to work side-by-side.
The Whitworth display includes archival material, a screen with a film documenting the project and others showing two of the many interviews made with the workers. In the “special projects” space at the back of the gallery, the film of the performances, made by Mark Thomas and acquired for the Whitworth’s collection in 2020, is projected onto two large screens and seven smaller ones showing more of the interviews. The sound of singing fills the gallery while headphone sets relay the interviews.
Back to the futures
Manchester Art Gallery presents Uncertain Futures (2021) is an ongoing research project led by an advisory group of older women drawn from Manchester’s diverse communities. It builds on Lacy’s earlier MIF commission, Cleaning Conditions (2013), by investigating the precarity of women’s work during the pandemic.
Interviews with 150 women took place in a partitioned space with armchairs and tables in a gallery displaying the painter Ford Madox Brown’s Work (1863), which depicts labouring navvies and is a close observation of social hierarchies in Victorian Britain. The interviews are available to read and form a valuable record of older women’s experiences.
The exhibition installation looks immaculate across both galleries and, in particular, the art films are beautifully presented. However, I had some issues with the audio content: it was difficult to hear the conversations in Voices from the Oakland Projects without standing with my ear against the speakers, and the singing in The Circle and the Sphere overpowered the voices in the interviews, even when wearing headphones. These little things could be rectified in post-opening snagging, but there are other more fundamental problems that will impact access for some visitors.
While the documentary films have subtitles as well as sound relayed via headphones, the projections do not and there is no alternative means of accessing the audio content. The wall-mounted displays consist of both sloped and flat-shelf units, but the contents would be easier to read if all had been displayed at an angle.
Similarly, the table unit in the central space is high making it difficult to see the material inside. Despite the ambitions of What Kind of City? I felt that more could be done to make the exhibition inclusive for people with hearing difficulties and for wheelchair-users.
There is little online content supporting the exhibition or the wider programme. The lack of an engaging digital platform feels like a missed opportunity given the aim to open up conversations with the gallery’s constituents and could provide further access to the material on display.
Hopefully this will change as the public programme develops alongside the Whitworth’s other current initiatives, which include two new spaces: a ground-floor room displaying the newly acquired Arte Útil Archive, open to all to use as a “common room” and a space to connect with the ideas of “useful art”; and the School for Creativity on the upper floor, a workspace for creative play and experimentation.
What Kind of City? is an ambitious project that aims to act as “A Manual for Social Change”.
Lacy will return this spring as part of a fellowship with the University of Manchester where findings from the research with older women at Manchester Art Gallery and through the wider programme at the Whitworth will be shared with the city’s policy-makers in a series of public forums.
Then the real work of the exhibition will begin.