Filled with tables, yellow tablecloths and matching chairs, the mammoth South Tank, part of the Tate’s impressive performance space, The Tanks, it would be easy to assume you had stumbled into a somewhat industrial coffee morning. Seated at each table are groups of elderly women, all aged over 60 and all unified by a major similarity – they have all played a significant part in women’s activism and social change in the UK.
This is the first event of the Tate’s new partnership with BMW, the aptly named BMW Tate Live Series, but this is no coffee morning, it is the latest participatory artwork from Suzanne Lacy – Silver Action.
Taking place over one day, the room is filled with the excited buzz of the past, and the future, as hundreds of women share experiences of their involvement at the events that shaped social welfare and the feminist movement from the ’50s to ’80s. The conversations are documented live by film, social media and text as the stories of the individual women, bound by this powerful shared experience, are projected across the walls for all to see. Extending beyond the tables, the openness and frankness of the women’s discussions seeps into the crowds of people here to join Silver Action as listeners, and therefore also participants.
Crowds gather to read the women’s stories, projected onto the concrete walls that encircle the tables. Gently led to an illuminated seat beside a typist, we watch as their words appear behind them. We read tales of sexual abuse in women’s mental health wards, racism in clubs and forbidden integrated dances, the violence of protests while on the other side of the room we read messages of mothers inspiring their daughters, defiance against oppression and the continued work these women do for women’s rights today.
Describing the inspirations behind Silver Action, Suzanne Lacy explains: ‘I find great beauty in the way people reflect upon their values and experiences’. The air is indeed full of reflection, visitors almost taking a backseat, allowing the women’s words and actions to be the focus as they reunite and look back over the impact they made together.
Our role is to stand close and eavesdrop on their conversations. While the idea of participating through listening may sound passive, in fact the experience of coming together to listen and learn and observe is overwhelmingly powerful. For too long silence has been a state women have been forced into; it was the voices of these women that empowered us once and now, Lacy has given them their voice back, no matter how advanced their years may be.
Silver Action champions the ordinary women who have done – and often still do – extraordinary things. The woman sitting next to you on the bus, waiting in line in the post office, our mothers and grandmothers; we never know their stories if we never ask, and thankfully, Suzanne Lacy has done just this. A truly inspirational and thought provoking day and, speaking for myself and I’m sure many other women (and men) in that room, an honour to be able to share it with such women who inspire me every day.
Visit the Tate blog to find out more about Suzanne Lacy’s Silver Action and explore the timeline of significant events from the ’50s to the ’80s that brought these women together.
Silver Action took place on Sunday 3 February at:
Photo by Rachel Williams