On Saturday I visited Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery to catch the end of an exhibition I’d only recently found out about but which I was very keen to experience on its final weekend.
Normally, I would avoid travelling into Manchester on a Saturday, battling through the shopping and pub crowds, and facing the prospect of train chaos, but there’s a fast bus I can use that goes from Leigh, my neighbouring town, down Oxford Road and stopping opposite the gallery, so ideal for my purpose.
The Circle and The Square is the creation of public performance artist Suzanne Lacy. Between 2015 and 2017, Suzanne brought together diverse communities from the East Lancashire town of Brierfield, to take part in a unique musical performance incorporating traditional shape note singing and Sufi chanting. According to Suzanne Lacy’s website, the object of The Circle and The Square is to explore: ‘the demise of the textile industry as an economic and social driver in the North West of England and the resulting separation of South Asian-heritage and white communities who used to work together in the vast mills there.’
Brierfield is a place I’m familiar with, having visited quite a lot when a close friend lived there for a few years. It’s typical of similar towns in that part of Lancashire: streets of stone terraced houses, running parallel and very steep; high unemployment and social deprivation and with a large percentage of its population being of South Asian heritage. Brierfield Mill overlooks the train station, an imposing building, closed since 2007. The Brierfield connection is what initially piqued my curiosity about a project that would bring together diverse communities through the medium of traditional folk song and spiritual chanting. Many of the participants would be former Smith & Son employees, possibly even former co-workers.
The performances and interviews were filmed over three days in the empty mill, voices made all the more rousing and powerful in the cavernous space which once housed deafening looms and where lip-reading helped workers to communicate through the mechanical din.
The installation consists of a split screen film and approximately 25 short interviews with members of the Nelson and Colne communities, accessed through eight monitors with headphones. Those interviewed include former workers at the mill and members of their families. Together, the interviews and the film (which lasts about 20 minutes) tell a story of work, place and productivity connecting people from the same locality whilst at the same time very far apart in background, culture and religion. It also explores what happens when that connection ceases.
This short video by producers, Superslowway, gives a short insight to the background of the project and its production.
Sufi chanting is a form of Islamic devotion involving repetition of sacred words and phrases, practised throughout the Islamic world, including South Asia. Joining in a circle expresses the idea of unity and eternity, no leader, no breaks in the connection, all equal. the participants are mainly Asian, some in traditional Sufi dress. Focusing on repetition the same words – usually the attributes of God – helps devotees to achieve a mindful state.
Shape note singing, a form of traditional 18th century folk song, harks back to an England of yore, often narrating the life experiences of the poor and disempowered. It was also popular in the southern states of America in the 19th century. In this installation, the singers include professionals, brought in to give instruction and to lead the performance. On the music sheets, notes are represented as shapes, making them easier to recognise for those not formally trained in reading music. Projected into the huge, bare space of the empty mill, the song – narrating the story of a working life that started at the age of six – is very powerful.
The Circle and the Square
The split screen creates an impression of both groups performing simultaneously, separate yet together. On closer observation, it is clear that both performances have been filmed separately and then juxtaposed on screen, and it appears that a few people are taking part in both.
The performances are impressive and moving, audibly and visually, but are only one half of this installation. For me, it was the insightful interviews that provided most food-for-thought. Made up of former workers from across the communities, family members of some who are no longer around and local people who, whilst not having worked in the mills, are affected by its legacy and its loss as the main local employer, the interviewees speak candidly about life, work and inter-community relations. I probably got to listen to about half of the 25 – 30 short recordings, and was struck by the vastly different – in some cases quite polarised – views, some quite surprising, such as the middle-aged Pakistani chap who blamed local high unemployment on eastern European immigrants and by extension the EU, for there being too many “foreigners” in the area: “We shouldn’t have joined the common market in 1973. We shouldn’t let them in.” The Circle and The Square was completed before Brexit, so perhaps he is happier now, though possibly not, as many of those Europeans will now have settled status in the UK. He seemed unaware of the irony of his position.
Some interviews were about factory life; older men and women spoke of days of high employment and having the pick of work in an abundance of local mills and factories, literally walking out of one and into another on the same day. Work was hard, but skills were shared and passed on, there was camaraderie but also sexism: one lady described the intense antipathy towards her from male workers who she had been put in charge of, thus enabling her to earn more than them. She related an incident in the rest room where one of the disgruntled chaps pulled out a chair from under her, causing her to fall onto the floor and injure herself. He got a telling off from the boss, didn’t speak to her for the next three months but eventually became a friend.
A couple of the contributors spoke in their Asian mother tongues, presumably interviewed through an interpreter. No subtitles or voice-over translations were provided, the artist allowing the audience to draw its own inferences and to experience that language barrier, not knowing if the speaker prefers not to speak English, or is unable to, though he has presumably lived and worked in the locality for decades. It also made me think about us, the audience, and if that barrier was there for all, or most? Who would the audience be? Who would be engaging with this art?
A young woman, certainly just a small child when the mill closed, expressed her hopes for better integration in the future and her enthusiasm for diversity. In contrast, other contributors felt that there was greater polarisation now than ever. The hub of work where diverse lives intersected daily had gone, and nothing had replaced it; links were broken, the divide had widened, comfort zones inhabited and positions entrenched.
Another young woman, London-based, recalled her grandparents’ lives in the mill. Indian Muslims originally, they were relocated when partition came in 1948, suddenly finding themselves part of the new Pakistan, whether they liked it or not. An opportunity presented itself to bring their skills and dexterity to Lancashire; a new life, initially lived in shared, cramped houses with extended family, until they could establish themselves and make their own way. They embraced life here, retaining aspects of their heritage and culture, having the best of both. The third generation interviewee is and feels English; the fabled old country a place resigned to family history, and she is understandably frustrated when asked – not infrequently – where she is from. Conversely, within the performance spaces, others of the same age as her, and younger, choose to wear the traditional clothing of their elders, though they may never themselves have set foot in their ancestral lands.
Some residents speak of a bleak future in a rundown town, where shops have closed (‘Morrisons has killed off the food market’) and drugs are rife, whilst others remain optimistic: the good times will return and community spirit is as strong as ever.
The mill stands empty: shabby, crumbling, useless. There’s an interesting and somewhat ironic tale about the looms. Becoming obsolete in the defunct mills of Lancashire, they were found new lives in the emerging and growing economies of India and Pakistan, shipped overseas to where the work is.
Below are a few of those interviewed
So, what did I take from the installation? Integration is perhaps an ideal that cannot be realised, at least not in the lifetimes of those first generation immigrants. Over time, that may change as their descendants choose their own identities, holding onto those aspects of culture and tradition that they still cherish, and leaving behind what they no longer feel connected to. But in the same way that the circle and the square cannot merge to form an inseparable whole, they can co-exist, side by side, mutually complementary and allowing for movement between the two. Is tolerance, acceptance and coexistence a more authentic ideal than a determination to force homogeny? I was left feeling quite saddened in one sense, but with a lot to ponder. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the exhibition immensely and would certainly have returned to watch the rest of the interviews if there had been time. That all of these people desired to take part in the project, playing their part, telling their stories and bringing something to the mix is perhaps the most positive message of all.