BRIERFIELD, UK — There’s a train to and from Brierfield that runs on a single track back and forth all day, through the picturesque county of Lancashire. Just a stone’s throw from the station, a visitor soon encounters a disused mill; it once employed a whole town. Now the locals are more likely to commute, by road, to the nearby city of Burnley and beyond.
Cloth production here came to an end 10 years ago, and the area is up for redevelopment. In that sense Brierfield Mill is a typical English po t-industrial ruin. Once a focal point for a community made from longstanding local families and migrant workers from Pakistan, it stands on the cusp of a new, gentrified life for a fortunate few who, if they work at all, work elsewhere.
My invitation, on behalf of the American artist Suzanne Lacy, told me to dress warmly in dark colors and wait for an escort by the back stairs of the six-story mill building. It did not say, come prepared to sing and appear in photographs and on film, but that is precisely what happened. The day was one of art, more specifically social practice, with a filmed performance by Lacy. I spotted her marshaling a contingent of choristers, in a pair of boots that might not look out of place on a circus ringleader.
It soon transpired that I’d been corralled into taking part in a shape-note choir. It mattered little that shape note is a simplified form of notation — the hymn-like songs taken up by our mid-sized congregation proved difficult to sight-read. And yet, it was possible to muddle through, even as I reflected on the incongruity of becoming part of the work which I had travelled the length of the country to critique.
Meanwhile, we were all well aware of the cameras. There was a sound desk and two screens that projected both ambient and artificial light. A clapper-loader with an iPad signaled each new take with a flourish. And then the music would take over, as a diverse group of people joined voices as one; it was poignant, to say the least.
While Lacy was not singing, the hand of her orchestration was felt. The singers were arranged in a square formation, surrounding a bohemian–looking choirmaster. As the sun filtered through the grimy windows, and the voices weaved in and out, the optimistic event gave form to a utopian social fabric.
There was a break for lunch: sandwiches and tea. The chairs were rearranged in a circle. And I became more aware that there were some two-dozen men in turbans and kurtas. The afternoon gave over to Sufi chanting, a sacred activity of the same order as shape-note. The Sufis are more rhythmic with a more limited range; they don’t work from a score, but their song builds in speed and intensity. As with the shape-note singing, there was a clear religious intent, and once again the few members of the press were invited to take part, giving a chance to forget the business of reporting.
Once we had a wrap on the Sufi chanting, it was time for the shape-note singers and the Sufis to join voices in a semi-improvised performance billed as a fusion. I sensed a few nerves going into this; it was not at all clear this would work. Indeed, when could it have ever been tried before? But both song traditions are familiar enough with call and response to fashion something interesting and elevating out of their contrasting forms. One might reflect that at a moment like this, as philosopher Emmanuel Levinas insisted, that holiness does exist. It is a phenomenon, often brought to light by art, which cannot and should not be written off.
After the day’s filming, we all shared a meal at a banquet. Curry and soft drinks were served; solo musical performances were given; and issues around the regeneration of Brierfield were discussed, prompted by cards on each table. So it soon became clear that Shapes of Water, Sounds of Hope is an ongoing project with amorphous boundaries; the impact it might have on participants is beyond the artist’s control. But through the project’s harnessing of local history and spirit, you could say the mill wheel is turning again in Brierfield.
The week following the performance, I talked with Lacy via Skype, by now returned to her home in Los Angeles.
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Mark Sheerin: Some of your audience were in tears. Is moving people a measure of success?
Suzanne Lacy: Yes, on one level it definitely is, but there are other yardsticks I would apply. I do believe in an experiential level; it’s one way I relate to diverse groups of people. Simple compassion and empathy are very much part of my work. On the other hand, for me to be really interested in a work of social practice, it has to have political implications that have meaning for that community. This work explores the idea of representation and the politics that impact people’s lives in this community and beyond. Another yardstick I would apply is the questions of fine art that are explored. To be of interest to me, a work has to take on questions about the relationship of this art to other art, to art history, to audiences, and to life.
MS: How do you reconcile the political realities of 2016 with the spiritual aspects of Shapes of Water, Sounds of Hope?
SL: I’ve studied social and personal psychology and different spiritual practices. When one’s heart opens, people experience something different than normal discourse. Empathy is a form of aesthetic that promotes a relationship to the world at this moment. I think it’s more common, you’re right, that at this particular moment we might experience empathy in a painful way because there are few moments of genuine connection.
MS: In what sphere is your work most far reaching: the art world, or the communities with whom you get involved?
SL: I’m not sure what you mean by “far reaching.” One of the challenges of my work has to do with different audiences and forms of communication — how to develop a work that truly operates within various spheres. The problems of conceptual art as I encountered it in grad school are not the problems of working in a community. When you do art within a community, you have ethical, cultural, and communication obligations. When you work in a community, there’s a need to translate work into a form that is understood by people who do not have art training, yet as an artist there’s also a desire to experiment with form and meaning and content and representation in a way that is not immediately available to people who aren’t engaged in fine arts discourses. Looking at communication modalities and issues with varied sites and contexts, and taking on the conflicts that arise and the negotiations that are necessary is an important aspect of the conceptual issues I’m engaged with as an artist.
MS: Does social practice or community-based art have a positive impact through a ripple effect?
SL: One of the questions interrogated by political artists in the ’70s was “Who is the audience?” I tend to think about this no matter whom I address. In this project there were literally no audiences but only participants; we didn’t seek to have a spectator audience. Most of my performances now draw over 1,000 people, but that wasn’t the concern here. Instead we invited people from the community to participate in various acts of making and representation over three days. I was interested in the idea of a film made to represent a community that evaded the tropes of training people to take up their own cameras or running POV interviews where the filmmaker’s vision is fulfilled by editing choices of subjects interviewed. In this work, I am trying to problematize that still-current documentary and representational model. The basis of my work is an exploration of where art and life practices intersect.
MS: Where might you look for an authentic working-class musical tradition in the 21st century?
SL: I don’t know much about music really, nor is this about a class-based musical form. However, class is very much at the heart of the performance, class and ethnicity. In terms of class, we are quite obviously sited within a post industrial site in the midst of an improbable gentrification. One of my collaborators, Massimiliano Mollona, did his PhD research on class in this region and the demise of industries. I don’t represent myself as a scholar but I certainly am a working class person. This of course has implications for the reading of my work. I’m interested in exploring forms of creative expression that can talk to both the art world, which tends to be an educated class, and diverse communities and publics.
MS: Many, many people got on board to make the performance work, but are there ever people who try to block a venture like this?
SL: At every level. It’s just part of the work, the struggle for representation and ideas about how to move forward. My colleague Grant Kester has foregrounded negotiation as part of the practice. I remind my students, if you can’t negotiate your way out of a conversation, out of a bad relationship with a classmate, you’re not going to operate very well in the larger world of social practice because problems and negotiations are the name of the game.
MS: Will you be going back to Brierfield at any time?
SL: I have long-term engagements and friendships with the people I work with. It’s a part of my extended friendship network. The reason I return to communities I work in is more about my form of “family,” than an indicator of my art, although relationship is a central concept for me. “Returning” in art is a much more complex question. Many years ago the critique of social practice was about parachuting artists who exploit the community for their career. These questions were simplistically framed, without knowledge of complicated forms of relationships that actually take place during the production of a work. People like myself who have been operating with much more sophistication around those questions understand that it isn’t merely “return,” but rather how to communicate the deep materiality of the artwork and its complexities as a practice that operates somewhere between aesthetic production and meaningful community action.
While I don’t think “return” is a necessary precondition for a work to be successful, I do think understanding the ways relationships are formed and operate within the work is one measure of ethical practice. If you’ve been successful, as with this project, you leave a stronger place, people and organizations in situ. It’s never the artist alone doing something that benefits a community; it’s many, many people working together.
Suzanne Lacy’s Shapes of Water, Sounds of Hope took place at Brierfield Mill in Lancashire, UK on October 1, 2016. The resulting film will be shown in 2017.