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Spread across two venues, the Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery, What kind of city? began with over 100 faces staring at you. It was a fitting first note for a survey exhibition of the pioneering L.A.-based social practice artist Suzanne Lacy, whose work over the last five decades has focused on other people and their stories. The work, Border People’s Parliament (2018), consists of black-and-white photographic portraits of people that live close to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and was installed with a pair of headphones that plays the sitters’ voices. Put them on and you heard their overlapping voices as they identified themselves by name, hometown, and distance from the border, creating a dissonant soundscape. The piece is part of Across and In-Between (2018), Lacy’s year-long collaboration with artist Cian Smyth and members of the local communities that explored the impact that living near the border had on their lives during the Brexit negotiations. At the Whitworth, the photographs and soundscape jostle for space with the other constituent parts of the project; a documentary, timeline, manifesto, and film projected across three screens. It’s an apt introduction to Lacy’s work, her ongoing engagement with urgent social and political issues, and the complex constraints that come with creating an exhibition presentation from this type of engagement.
Often spanning years and undertaken with collaborators, Lacy’s projects regularly involve intricate layers that are difficult to present to the viewer. The curators of What kind of city? keyed in on a few specific projects in an attempt to hone this in, but the task of conveying the scope and scale of these works in an exhibition was still an overwhelming proposition. This was most evident in the account of The Oakland Projects (1991–2001), arguably Lacy’s most well-known piece (made in collaboration with Chris Johnson, Annice Jacoby, Julio César Morales, Unique Holland, and others) that aimed to engage and empower Oakland’s young people of color through explorations of community, leadership, and public policy. The project included eight major performances, including The Roof is on Fire (1993–94), in which groups of teenagers held unscripted conversations on specified topics with each other in cars parked on the top level of a parking lot. The invited audience could wander freely and peer into the open car windows, and were encouraged to listen to the conversations about school, family, relationships, and drugs, but were asked not to respond, intervene, or comment.
Another performance from the project was No Blood / No Foul (1995–96), which saw a group of young men and police officers play a game of basketball against each other. Taking place in an up-market health club, the game was interrupted by video “ad” breaks, live commentary, and a dance troupe. Each quarter, the referee changed—an adult refereed the first quarter, a youth the second, no one refereed the third quarter. Finally, in the fourth quarter, the audience was left to call the shots. Partly developed to spur conversation around their proposed Youth Policy Initiative, during breaks in the game, the two teams discussed the proposed plans and how they would impact their distrustful relationship (the audience could also call a hotline to give comments about the policy). These performances were groundbreaking for the way that they gave agency to their participants, and The Oakland Projects as a whole remains one of the most well-developed explorations of underrepresented communities in public art practice.
However, in the Whitworth exhibition, the project was largely represented by vitrine-based collections of marketing materials, photographs, questionnaires, and notes—the didactic captions ricocheting you around the room. This display mechanism caused the distinction between each of the eight projects to get lost, and the presentation flattened and reduced powerful interactions with young people to lifeless texts and documentation. Without prior, specialized knowledge of Lacy’s work, the installation at the Whitworth struggled to capture the urgency and excitement of the projects. It’s tricky to feel engaged in or inspired by a schedule of games, a score sheet from a basketball game, a T-shirt, or a 28-year-old annotated map of the top level of a car park, all items that were part of The Oakland Projects display. Lacy’s practice and the specific projects on view were not devised for museum display, and I was left wondering what the aims of the exhibition were, aside from further developing Lacy’s mystique as the decisive figure involved in each work. The exhibition’s lofty subtitle, A manual for social change, positioned it as a kind of best-practices guidebook on how to make a societal impact. Yet a guidebook on this topic is only truly useful if it is accessible to a demographic beyond the typical gallery-going audience. Its messages and actionable suggestions must speak to all, in the most basic ways: with information conveyed in accessible language that is readily visible. Instead, there was verbose language, videos without subtitles, and high vitrines only viewable from above. These more clinical displays and the dense didactic text at the Whitworth obscured the life and nuance that is so embedded within Lacy’s practice.
The exhibition’s other venue, the Manchester Art Gallery, took a different curatorial approach. Located in the center of the city, the civic public gallery exhibited two of Lacy’s Manchester-based projects. A 2021 film documenting Cleaning Conditions (with Meg Parnell), a work first performed in 2013 for which a team of volunteers swept the Manchester Art Gallery floors and discussed labor conditions in England; and Uncertain Futures (2021), a research project co-produced with Ruth Edson and a group of all-women advisors that investigates care, labor, and retirement for women over 50. Installed in an anteroom nestled between the 19th Century and Pre-Raphaelite galleries, the environment felt more welcoming than the museological vitrines at the Whitworth. Comfortable armchairs on top of plush rugs were positioned in intimate groupings, and the walls were painted a calming duck egg blue; this space was relaxed and warm, and seemed to invite convening, discussion, and education (all integral elements to Lacy’s oeuvre). Simple wall infographics presented the issues, stakeholders, and results of the two projects. In 2013, Cleaning Conditions, the didactics explained, resulted in the art institution reassessing wages for many of its cleaning staff. Uncertain Futures was installed in a recording studio constructed inside the anteroom, where interviews with 100 women had taken place. Interviews with the members of the advisory group were played over the speakers, with subtitles projected onto one of the studio walls and full transcripts available on nearby clipboards. Without relying on archival information, the display felt more accessible and direct. Here, the intention and instructions—on what to do and how to engage with the work—were clearer.
Socially engaged projects are notoriously difficult to document and translate for the context of an art exhibition. In these two attempts in Manchester, the Whitworth prioritized information and materials, and the result made the show’s purpose feel opaque, while Manchester Art Gallery considered their audience and how they might interact with the materials. But while it may have been the more successful of the two, the Manchester Art Gallery installation still felt numb to the urgent themes presented therein. A static exhibition can never fully do justice to these kinds of projects. In socially engaged practices, people are both the subject and the medium, and there is no aesthetic way to represent them in all their beautiful, messy glory. The stories told in works like Lacy’s often feel incomplete, and rightly so—they’re not finished, but still evolving. Even after the work is ostensibly over, the participants, the artist, and our world remain in a state of constant change. All we’ll ever get when this kind of practice is distilled into an exhibition is documentation of a moment—a time capsule that immediately starts to age. If we must continue presenting this kind of work in institutions, we need to figure out a way for the exhibition to act as a locus for discussion and activity that goes beyond an affiliated public program. Without participation, Lacy’s projects don’t function, and in an exhibition format, it’s needed to move the dialogue forward.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 28.