Playing my part: reflections on being a participant in art works

Cleaning Conditions at Manchester Art Gallery – copyright Manchester City Galleries

The other week I did a spot of moonlighting at Manchester Art Gallery (MAG) and swept their floors. Fortunately this wasn’t some sort of museum exchange programme brought on by the cuts (although I probably shouldn’t be putting ideas into people’s heads!), but a foray into MAG’s do it 2013, an evolving exhibition created from a series of instructions written by artists. Initiated by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist with artists Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier 20 years ago, do it has been enacted in 50 different places, making it the widest-reaching and longest running ‘exhibition in progress’ ever to occur.

I had volunteered to participate in Suzanne Lacy’s Cleaning Conditions, a response to Allan Kaprow’s 1995 instruction:

Sweeping the dust from the floor of a room,

spreading the dust in another room

so it won’t be noticed.

Continuing daily

As described by MAG: ‘Cleaning Conditions – takes cleaners and the act of sweeping as its starting point. Lacy is interpreting Kaprow’s instruction through the lenses of gender and activism, provocatively framing the instruction in terms of the social and political climate in Manchester. Conversations on immigration, class and the struggle for global equity will be framed within a context of current issues in women’s role in the care and service industries and the corporatisation of such labour.’

At the pre-performance briefing around 15 volunteers, all female (although this wasn’t deliberate, and there were some male volunteers at other performances of the piece), from a number of backgrounds were introduced to the concept of the piece and how we would execute it on the day.  We were there for different reasons: some had been invited by MAG to take part in order to highlight particular issues (at the performance I participated in there were women representing migrant communities from China, Poland and Somalia, in other performances invitees included representatives from the cleaners’ strike in London and campaigners for a living wage); others already volunteered at MAG; some were artists; and I was there to research how participatory approaches could highlight some of the issues we cover at the PHM.

We were told that we would file into the gallery and be taught how to sweep by two of the museum’s cleaning staff (there actually is a ‘correct’ way to sweep, which I’d been getting wrong!).  Then we would sweep each gallery in turn.  In the archways between the galleries we would stop and two of us would use a dustpan and brush to clear away the dirt.  They would then go back and distribute ‘literature’ in the gallery we’d just cleaned.  These were small folded information cards, highlighting organisations and campaigns such as Migrant Workers North West, Living Wage 4 Manchester and the Greater Manchester Poverty Commission.  This would continue throughout the galleries until we’d got back to the first gallery.  We would then sit down and have a discussion next to a painting.  We were instructed not to talk to any of the museum visitors, but we could talk amongst ourselves.  As it was the press launch the start of the performance was delayed as the train from London was late!

When we started sweeping it was very unnerving having a bank of press photographers snapping away, however once I got into a rhythm something very strange happened – I became invisible.  About halfway through I suddenly became very conscious of the fact that I had had my head down the whole time, staring at the floor.  I don’t think I’ve ever spent that long staring at the floor of an art gallery!  I was oblivious to the wonderful and inspiring artworks on the walls, all that mattered was the floor and the sweeping of the brush.

When the sweeping was complete we all sat down next to Work by Ford Madox Brown. Meg Parnell, the Lifelong Learning Manager at  MAG who had worked with Lacy to organise the performance, explained some of the history of the painting and how the artist had depicted different forms of work – from the navvies to the thinkers.  With this as a backdrop, Parnell then facilitated a discussion between the participants.  We discussed how we felt when sweeping, feelings of invisibility, gender, experiences of women migrant workers, and wider social issues. This at times felt like a private discussion in public, as we were so engrossed in the conversation.  I was not aware of any gallery visitors listening to the conversation as it felt like such a bubble until someone interrupted and offered her opinion.  This highlighted to me the importance of having these conversations in public, to tell stories about issues that are often hidden away, at places where people will listen.  Whilst an artist had constructed the situation, the conversation itself felt natural and real – it did not feel like I was ‘art’, it felt like I was human.

In 2010 I participated in Spencer Tunick’s commission for The Lowry, Everyday People.  Tunick is famous for producing large scale, site-specific photographic works featuring mass gatherings of nude participants posed in artistic formations within major urban landscapes.  Everyday People was intended to be Tunick’s first visual response to the work of another artist for the entirety of a project – the work of LS Lowry.  As The Lowry’s press release stated: ‘Tunick will focus on the concept of ‘everyday people’ for the Salford and Manchester installation as a reference to the compositional style of LS Lowry, whose figurative works depict a mass of bodies going about their daily life. In contrast to his usual, static compositional style, Tunick will break new ground in his approach by capturing the movement of everyday people within each photograph.’

My experience of participating in both artworks was very different.  Whilst participating in Tunick’s work was very liberating (and very, very cold!!), I very much felt a small part of a whole.  The participants were not seen as individuals, more as drops of pigment to be arranged on the artist’s canvas.  At each shoot we were instructed (through a megaphone): ‘Don’t look at the camera! Don’t smile! Don’t move!’ However this did help overcome any reservations I may have had about getting naked, in public, on the streets of Salford and Manchester.  I was an anonymous part of the bigger picture, and as a result didn’t feel exposed.

In contrast, by participating in Lacy’s work I felt very valued as an individual.  The artist met all the participants beforehand and introduced herself personally to each of us in the pre-performance briefing.  In fairness, the scale was a lot smaller than in the Spencer Tunick piece.  Whilst the first part of the performance, during the sweeping, the participants were definitely seen as a group – all dressed in identical red tshirts, sweeping together – in the second half of the performance we became individuals again, contributing our opinions.

What I would find more interesting, however, is the long term reach of Lacy’s project.  How will it affect the participants, observers and gallery in the long term?  Is it an important way to highlight social conditions, or superficially ‘parachuting’ in an artist to exploit an issue?

My experiences as a participant in artworks will inform how I approach any participatory activities I develop as part of our Play Your Part project. As a representative of an institution I need to be aware of how we work with groups and individual participants, how we value their input, and the importance of creating a dialogue, not exploiting people’s experiences and memories.  This is all basic ethics, and what I would have thought about already, but experiencing something sharpens my understanding of the relationship between the institution and the individual and how this can be developed into something that is mutually beneficial, informative and inspiring.

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2 thoughts on “Playing my part: reflections on being a participant in art works

  1. Fascinating account. I was really interested in your reflections. I and about 20 others are participant volunteers for Pedro Reyes’ Sanatorium, part of Whitechapel Gallery’s “The Spirit of Utopia” exhibition, where we act as ‘therapists’ creating the environnent and facikitating the participation of the public. I’d like to write back to you in more detail once my computer starts working again! I have shared your post with our facebook page Spirit of Utopia so hope other volunteers read your piece too.

    • Thanks! I’m glad you found it interesting and thanks for sharing. I’d love to hear more about your experiences so fingers crossed your computer starts working!

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