The more I learn about the history of women’s activism throughout the United Kingdom, the deeper I am moved by the depth of women’s engagement in creating a civil society. Just look at what women fought for: housing, the right to live without constant threat of violence, fair wages, the recognition of so-called minorities and socially disenfranchised people, to protect the environment, to stop war – the list goes on and on. Of course men were in almost all instances critical too, but the leadership roles of women in these social transformations begs the question: why are there still so many fewer women in public leadership roles?
This question of women’s role in public life, particularly as they age interests me more than the issue of ageing itself. How do women feel as they achieve the level of experience that predicates leadership, when they are progressively excluded from those roles? Although all of my artistic work is not directly political, for those pieces that are socially engaged, I find great beauty in the way people reflect upon their values and experiences.
In these socially engaged works, the context is critical. I’d point to two key topics in public discourse across the UK today. In the first, there is a real interest in the last half of the last century and the social welfare achievements for which activists fought. Think about the number of recent projects and exhibitions exploring parts of this history. In the second there is much political conversation about an increasingly ageing population, which encompasses issues of poverty, isolation, and health care. On the positive end of that spectrum of concerns is a focus on how older people, the majority of whom are women, can continue to meaningfully contribute.
How would I put this together in a participatory performance? Allowing women to explore their own experiences with each other, within the context of women’s activism and public engagement, is the most important part of the image. The South Tank in the Tate Modern offers a beautiful industrial setting with room for multiple actions, most focused on improvisational and real conversations. Creating a setting for this, and allowing audiences to eavesdrop, is part of the aesthetic strategy. These performances become almost “life-like”, in the words of my mentor Allan Kaprow, in that real people are doing real things – they are performing themselves. Hopefully this collective of individual voices that holds up social issues for our consideration will support seeing, and listening, in new ways.
Equally important is the impact of the project on the women participants: how questions are raised and the conversation is nurtured within public life. We start with Silver Action on 3 February, and we continue to build this conversation Southbank Centre’s Women of the World Conference and with the Sussex University and British Library’s Sisterhood and After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project. Stay tuned for more.
If you’d like to be involved in Suzanne Lacy’s performance Silver Action join the conversation and follow the debate online on Twitter using #silveraction.