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Suzanne Lacy: What Kind of City? review – art that breaks down borders

·4-min read

It is the morning after the preview of Suzanne Lacy’s new solo show at the Whitworth and there is a buzz about the place. Apparently there was a banquet for 150 people, a choir of Sufi singers and a bus load of visitors from Lancashire. The staff have the tired, twinkling eyes that come with a satisfying night out, and Lacy is spotted racing through the gallery on her way to host a meeting with the exhibition collaborators. This is because much of what the Californian artist does has little to do with art hanging on walls. Instead, Lacy’s art happens in mills and car parks and community centres, connecting people and using creativity as a vehicle for social change.

Activism sits at the heart of Lacy’s work, which makes it tricky to categorise; “performance” negates the long-lasting impact of her collaborative interventions and “project” ignores the aesthetic value of her presentations. In simple terms, Lacy has spent the past five decades using art to chip away at inequalities and injustices, building bridges where silence has kept people divided. What Kind of City? across the Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery brings together four of Lacy’s works, spanning 30 years from The Oakland Projects (1991-2001) to Uncertain Futures (2021).

Across and In-Between opens proceedings at the Whitworth with 102 smiling faces staring us dead in the eye. The black and white portraits cover three walls and represent people that live close to the border that splits Northern Ireland from the Republic. Pop on a pair of headphones, and you’ll hear their voices, indistinct and echoing, stating their name, home town and distance from the border. Accents, genders and ages blend with the sounds of the Irish landscape, generating an intrinsic bond between inhabitants and habitation.

In 2018 while the Brexit negotiations were well under way, Lacy journeyed along the Irish border to generate a conversation about how life has been shaped by the divide. Harrowing tales of children having to traverse rivers to cross the border in order to get home from school and incidents of women smuggling food to feed their families are captured in a documentary. With these recollections fresh in my mind, I step into a dark room with a three-screen projection of yellow-clad participants drawing a border. With paint pigment, kites, hay bales and kayaks, a thick, bright boundary appears across the rugged Irish landscape. The figurative recreation of a literal border introduces the possibility of removing borders all together – if the landscape can be marked so easily, surely the opposite is true too?

But borders make inroads in our minds as much as they do on the ground. Lacy’s art often returns to this theme, searching for ways to challenge historic prejudices. And sometimes that means reopening an old mill that used to draw a diverse community together. The Circle and The Square is the culmination of Lacy’s work in Pendle, Lancashire, where she orchestrated a three-day performance in Brierfield Mill that relied on the cultural heritage of the south Asian and Lancastrian population that once worked together. The performances are captured in film and projected opposite seven screens of individuals talking about their experience of living in Pendle or working at the mill. I sit at the centre of the room – in the midst of the participants – as Sufi chants blend seamlessly into the undulating flow of the Lancastrian shape-note melodies. A camera stays close to faces, mouths, hands and eyes, attempting to catch that undefinable magic that unites humans when they sing communally.

Attempting to exhibit a previously concluded performance is not an easy task. The placement of films on thoughtfully positioned screens in immersive spaces does much to capture the dynamic and inclusive nature of Lacy’s work, but there are moments in What Kind of City? where the original energy of the intervention is lost. The majority of The Oakland Projects (a 10-year-long initiative to empower young people of colour to challenge stereotypes in the media) is primarily reduced into vitrine-based artefacts. Questionnaires, letters, marketing materials and jottings do little to spark excitement and alongside a 14-channel video work of interviews, the sheer scale of information pulls my head in different directions. There are moments of incredible insight – such as the sketch of emotive faces squashed into a bottle produced by a teen mum – but with a lot of text-based detail, the true impact and power of the programme is diminished.

The world is a better place because of Suzanne Lacy. After her Cleaning Conditions performance at Manchester Art Gallery in 2013, the institution reassessed cleaning staff wages; Uncertain Futures (interviews with 100 Mancunian women over 50) is part of a research project that will aid a better understanding of how to recognise care and unpaid labour; and Oakland Revisited invites local young people to reclaim their presentation in the media. Lacy asks us what kind of city we want to live in, and the answer is certainly the one where she is making art.

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