Shannon Harvey offers a different perspective on Suzanne Lacy’s artwork Silver Action, which Shoshana Devora reviewed for us last week. Shannon is an activist with Go Feminist and LIFT and works for feminist organisation AVA. She tweets here.
Shoshana Devora was disappointed at the lack of interaction at Silver Action last Sunday, but I was one of the “lucky young transcribers” who had a completely different experience of the event. For a few hours, I stepped into an alternate feminist universe where older women’s experiences and perspectives were valued and listened to.
For four hours, I sat amongst 400 older women at the grid of yellow-topped tables, witnessing their discussions. From Shoshana’s account, it’s clear that what was actually happening wasn’t clearly signposted for the audience, which I suspect is due mostly to the fact that artist Suzanne Lacy doesn’t really do social media herself. We weren’t transcribing what women were saying to the projections on the walls, they were having completely separate conversations which we were communicating to the audience and the outside world through #silveraction, including sharing our own reactions and engaging with online discussion.
These women were then picked out individually to go to the transcription tables to tell their individual stories. Over and over, I watched women being approached by the stewards for this purpose, only to attempt to defer to other women at the table who apparently had more “interesting” stories than theirs.
For Suzanne Lacy, the contrast between different media for recording women’s oral histories – transcription, the separately filmed ‘kitchen table’ and social media – was a key narrative in the performance. In a production meeting, Suzanne spoke of the contrast between older women meeting in physical space reflecting an ‘older’ style of activism, and young women meeting on social media as a ‘newer’ activism. On the day, I felt that although there is truth to this, it exaggerated the contrasts between older and younger women’s activism. Before the event started, I was talking on twitter with older women who were still making their way to the Tate. During the performance, I listened to older women talk about setting up their blogs. And, of course, I’m constantly sitting in activist meetings, so the two methods of organising are hardly mutually exclusive.
It disappointed Shoshana, but Suzanne had deliberately set strict boundaries around engagement between the audience, the social media team, and the older women performers. We weren’t there to interact, and neither were the audience: we were there to listen. Beyond introducing myself and asking for permission to be there, this was their day. It’s rare for me to just listen without also talking and I found that rather than doing what I normally do – half-listening while thinking about what I’m going to say next – I was properly listening. Suzanne is concerned with the idea that older women are not valued or listened to in our society, so creating this space that forced us simply to listen to older women was important.
There was a recurring theme throughout the discussions I witnessed that I found particularly challenging: many older women felt that young women now actually have it harder than they did. This surprised me, because listening to them talk about their experiences as young women, I was reminded of just what a difference their activism has made and felt incredibly grateful for the opportunities they created for me. I was sitting next to a woman who had to find ‘any old man’ to sign a form for her to get a bank account. But they spoke about the rise of ‘girl power’ in the 90s and greater sexualisation of women. One woman suggested that they had believed that if they changed institutions, society would follow. In her view, they won us the legislation but left us with the fight for culture.
I did wonder whether these views reflected the relative privilege of most of the women there, and many of them raised the issue of privilege themselves. As I was listening to them describe looking at their mums in the 1960s and wanting a different life for themselves, they could have been talking about me and my mum thirty years later. They spoke of their mums not being allowed or encouraged to continue education, being expected to marry young, have children and give up work. I saw this too – in the 1990s. For many girls I come across through my work at AVA, this is still reality. Often, the gains won by the middle classes take generations to ‘trickle down’.
The main drawback for me of Silver Action was this lack of diversity, which Shoshana noticed too. Although the performance culminated brilliantly in a Southall Black Sisters campaign meeting at the kitchen table, in general black women were few and far between. While feminism is not white and middle class, representations of feminism still are. We are the media spokeswomen, our books and opinion pieces are published, our performance art is commissioned by the Tate. If we’re going to change the perception of feminism as being white and middle class, we need to ensure that when we tell our shared history, all women are in those stories.
Despite that shortcoming, from where I sat Silver Action was wonderful. Listening to older women activists made me thankful and energised me with a renewed positivity for activism and what it can achieve. As I heard one older woman say with surprise, “When you look back, things have changed, haven’t they?”
The first photo shows the top of a yellow table with two women sitting at it. You can only see their arms and chests: one has her red-manicured hands clasped in front of her on the table, the other, in a big leather jacket, has her hands open in front of her as though explaining something. The second image shows five women sat talking around a spotlit yellow table, with other people mingling in the background. The room is windowless and made of smooth concrete, with text projected onto the walls. Both photos were taken by Shannon.