Althea Greenan, doctoral student and curator of The Women’s Art Library/Make, describes her recent experience as a participant in a large-scale feminist art work in The Tanks, Tate Modern.
During December 2012 I leapt at the chance to participate in Suzanne Lacy’s Silver Action. I was eager to recreate the spectacle of her earlier art work The Crystal Quilt, where hundreds of women, seated at tables arranged in a vast pattern, discussed age and public life. Tate Modern recently purchased The Crystal Quilt as it exists now in the form of a video, documentary, quilt, photographs and sound piece. Its display helped launch the new space for performance art in the Tanks, but Lacy has long been a personal touchstone of art for social change. Her work, for example, featured alongside other radical feminist art projects in the groundbreaking exhibition Issue: Social Strategies by Women Artists at the ICA in 1980, curated by Lucy Lippard.
Silver Action concentrated on recognizing a generation of women’s action for social change in Britain, and the project specifically invited older women to talk about their experiences. The resulting Sunday afternoon – 3 February 2013 – went beyond mere remembrance, judging by the impassioned discussion it generated and continues to generate, including a letter on the subject in the Financial Times (16/2/2012). Over 400 women participated in shifts of 100 throughout the afternoon. Seated four at a time around tables, we were for the most part strangers. We might forget each other’s names as soon as we heard them, but not the stories that were told. We were asked:
– What do you believe in?
– How has age and experience shaped your ideas?
– What are you willing to take action on?
The function of Silver Action was to “write yourself into history”. Experiences stretched back as far as 1958 when two women started the Notting Hill Carnival to rebuild the community in the wake of the riots. Our timeline clustered around actions taken between 1980 and 1990 and included public protest alongside other actions, from setting up health clinics and nurseries to personal stories of defiance. Crucially, we also discussed what was important now.
During our hour we were invited to join a transcriber at a laptop that was rigged up to project text directly onto the wall of the Tanks. However, finding words as an audience watched your text appear was less like writing a press release and more like constructing a disembodied RSS feed from a non-linear past. Yet all I needed to describe was the event that made me get involved in activism. My answer: hearing feminist psychotherapist Susie Orbach speak about her book On Eating. This led to the founding of AnyBody http://www.Any-Body.org and its wonderful off-shoot http://endangeredbodies.org connecting groups working against body hatred all over the world.
The long admission queues were a tribute to the project’s success. Even though many of the spectators were friends and family of participants, I glimpsed in this art audience a real shift in expectation. One described her astonishment at the first thing she saw: a tall gentleman on bended knee genuflecting to a spot-lit table of older women.
A range of different motivations attracted women to take part in the project. For me, I volunteered to realize an artwork, as opposed to those who came to realize action through the invitation circulated on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour or via the National Women’s Register and other active women’s groups. The Tate website, nevertheless, called us all ‘participants’. So what is distinctive about being a ‘participant’ in an artwork? On the day, the work depends on you; Lacy was nowhere to be seen. However, the week before she had met us to explain how the ‘aesthetic’ of Silver Action was to give voice to the tradition of women’s activism in Britain, and how the event was designed for us. For the audience forced to drift around the periphery as most of the wonderful exchanges remained unheard, this too was the point.
Accounts shared could be hasty or hilarious. Sometimes they were set adrift; at other times they were almost too harrowing to absorb, but absorb we did because we were talking to each other. Lacy knew, perhaps, that with the distance of time and in the company of these smiling women, attending to the pain would be possible. And if that’s possible, anything is possible. In the end these fragmented accounts became shatterproof, reinforced not by placards, by speaking through megaphones or by civil disobedience, but by turning up in the hundreds to a contemporary art museum in the full understanding and faith that this too is action. And yes, this is what activism feels like; it’s like being in a participatory artwork. If you felt it wasn’t participatory enough as a member of the audience, that’s because connecting with social change is not just about the odd Sunday visit to the Tate. But for once, it could be a start.