When performance art enlightens social issues

Suzanne Lacy’s Silver Action at the Tate Modern gallery


 A l’heure où les femmes et les personnes âgées sont toujours victimes de discriminations, Suzanne Lacy a voulu rendre hommage à toutes celles qui se sont battues pour la condition féminine depuis la deuxième vague de féminisme des années 1960 jusqu’à la troisième vague des années 1990. En les invitant à débattre de leur condition actuelle à la Tate Modern, Suzanne Lacy’s a réussi avec brio à mêler protestation sociale et performance artistique.

On Sunday 3 February 2013, 400 women aged 60 and over who have contributed in key social and political movements from the sixties to the nineties in Britain were invited to participate to Suzanne Lacy’s day-long performance. The idea was for them to have a one-hour public conversation about their experiences as activists and feminists in groups of four, sitting around tables. Meanwhile their conversations’ transcript was projected on the walls, blogged and twitted.

This performance comes quite long after another one of Suzanne Lacy’s work, the Crystal Quilt which took place in 1987 in Minnesota. 430 women over the age of 60 talked about their views on growing older around tables set up in the shape of a quilt pattern (designed by painter Miriam Shapiro. They mixed personal observations and social analysis about the unutilized potential of the elderly. Since twitter and blogs didn’t exist at the time their performance was broadcasted live on television and over 3000 people watched it.

The question raised by this performance is: where can the line be drawn between life and art, between political activism and art? Suzanne Lacy is a pioneer in inclusion of random volunteers in her art. In fact every woman who was involved in social or political movements is invited to come. Suzanne’s work consists in a delicate combination of conversation and visual setting. Its success depends both on the attendants and a degree of vigilance so that the subject of the work doesn’t overwhelms aesthetics concerns. Some may not consider performance art as art but as long as the artist keeps the aesthetics in mind, it is a perfect way to address very different audiences simultaneously. Besides some might think using mass media to spread art work and its message would make the artistic dimension disappear behind the political and consumerist dimensions but Suzanne Lacy says she regards art as a necessity and is concerned about social issues. She is aware that her art won’t change everything however she hopes it can help people to understand each other better.

Elder women are the main characters of the Silver Action. Indeed, aging and inequalities between men and women are two  of today’s most crucial issues.


First let’s talk about being a woman in the 20th century and after. Among the women participating in the silver action, one could listen to Ann Rossiter, an abortion campaigner who is famous for speaking publicly about her backstreet abortion in the early 1960s, before the 1967 Abortion Act. Another attendant is Jenny Stanton, a protester against Apartheid. One of the founders of the Housewives’ register, Maggie Smith, spoke at the silver action as well. The Housewives’ register was created in 1960. Its founder wrote: “Perhaps housebound wives with liberal interests and a desire to remain individuals could form a national register so that whenever one moves one can contact like-minded friends?” She was overwhelmed by requests from women wanting to join “her” register and the Housebound Wives’ Register was born. Other events in which women took part such as the Ford sewing machinist strike in 1968, which led to Equal pay act in 1970 or the women’s peace campaign against nuclear weapons, were discussed on Sunday.

Those women, the ones who were activists mostly in the 60s, 70s and 80s are afraid that the younger generation of women won’t be as strongly engaged as they were and sometimes, still are. One of the sentences quoted on Sunday was: ‘It’s so frustrating to talk to young women who think they are living in an equal world’. Indeed, nowadays, women still suffer issues such as the pay gap or “workaholic culture” which makes it very difficult for them to achieve a carrier and have children at the same time.

ImageAs women tend to live longer than men and life expectancy is globally increasing in developed countries (one of the side effects of the baby boom), the second issue we’ll discuss is aging. Even though elder people are being one of the favorite subjects of universities, media, industry… the society we’re living still mainly targets the young. People are afraid of growing old, aging is associated with death and this leads to the feeling that the aged should neither be heard nor seen. Furthermore, as the current economic crisis seems to be far from ending, older people and their need of pension are seen as a disadvantage for economic health of European countries. The European elderly are even “relocated”, indeed young generations get rid of them by sending them in the outskirts of Europe such as Poland where old people’s home are cheaper. Yet we should be thankful for all those experienced people who have a lot to transmit to us, especially when it comes to culture and history. There is a real interest in the welfare achievements of the second half of the 20th century. Lacy says in a very relevant way: “we should see older women as an amazing resource- not just talking about them taking resources”





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