Statements in Semaphore was a three year project led by Artist Susan Merrick from 2016-2019. The project aimed to explore how socially engaged research can offer ways to access voices of hidden women whilst also benefiting the artists and the organisations that they work with. With Arts Council England funding Susan Merrick worked with four social organisations, four Arts organisations, seven Artists and over 30 participants. This project produced a large body of work considering voices, invisibility-visibility, language and access.
After a research and development period during 2019 Susan found that the work needed to move on in it’s development and as such this website is being archived and Susan will be continuing the work in her new series of work #Conversations with Aldershot
About the project
During 2016 Susan was part of a group of Artists from UCA Farnham who worked with the National Archives on a creative residency responding to documents, images and articles within the archives labeled under the heading Mental Health. Susan’s work focused on reports and letters about suffragette prisoners and the lack of the women’s own voices in all the documents.
SEMAPHORE – Semaphore is a form of telegraph using arm or flag signals to communicate messages across long distances. Each signal represents a letter of the roman alphabet or a number and allows for full words to be signaled. See here for more about Semaphore. The use of semaphore in this project relates to both the literal use of Semaphore signals that the artist has used in the project, but also to reference the wider idea of visual communication. Susan is a qualified sign language interpreter and as such frequently finds herself using visual communication methods in her practice. These have become a very visual whilst obscure (and sometimes absurd) way to consider issues of control, silence and censorship. Using visual communication along with live art and public interventions creates visible ways to disrupt.
At the end of the National Archives residency in 2016 Susan filmed a performance of herself signalling words via Semaphore from the prison reports she had read, from a balcony on the roof of the National Archives. She was on the roof dressed in a wedding dress, signalling in semaphore with flags. She was very visible. However, what she was signalling was invisible to most, silent and coded communication. She also found that most of the audience (unknowing visitors to the archives) did not even notice her above their heads. This led Susan to consider how using silent but visible forms of communication and action could encourage debate around previously silenced issues or voices.
In 2017 Susan gained funding from Arts Council England to be FiLiA Artist in residence. Through this role she continued to develop the project Statements in Semaphore. The aim of the project was to facilitate creative workshops for women who were often ‘hidden’ from mainstream society and especially the ‘Art World’, Women in prison and Women in refuges. By creating the workshops in collaboration with four other Artists the artist intended to provide a useful safe space for the participants and the organisations who support them. This safe space would provide a safe conversation space in which real time conversations could lead to artistic research that was not simply archive based. It was a very busy and productive year – to read more see Statements in Semaphore 2017
During 2018 Susan received another grant from Arts Council England to continue developing the project, but this time with two residencies, one informal residency in her town of residence, Aldershot and the other a formal residency at Platform 1 Gallery in Wandsworth. Across the year Susan worked with two Artists, Barbara Touati-Evans and Melissa Mostyn and two organisations, DeafHope and YouTrust Hampshire. Again the format involved providing safe spaces for creative workshops which would allow for conversations and discussions. This method for Susan was incredibly important. Not only did it provide the research impetus for her performative and film based work but it also meant that the group of women (non-artists) had the opportunity to access the art world, whilst also ensuring that the Art world paid attention to her local community too.
For more about the work across 2018 please see Statements in Semaphore 2018
Finally in 2019 Susan again received a grant from Arts Council England, this time to focus on research and development. Susan did this through basing herself at the West End Centre in Aldershot as Associate Artist, and also undertaking a self determined programme of professional development session with other Artists. For info about this please see Statements in Semaphore 2019
‘My hope is that this project will start conversations between people in my local communities, as well as with academics, artists and activists. It has the potential to provide an opportunity for direct links between my communities and the Art world. Because it is not just about creating this work, it is about access, for women into Art and the contemporary social issues that are often confronted by Art, and for access to the Art world into the lives of women and women’s experiences.
Through both the socially engaged work that I will continue to develop and my reactive art practice I will be meeting with and working with varied publics as well as artists. Through this I hope to acknowledge and break down a little the frequent barriers between local communities and the Art events that go on within them. I also want to start this residency as I intend to go on, by bringing together women from the local communities that I live and work in, together with Art and conversation. In the long term I want to consider how socially engaged practice and dialogue along with a reactive art practice can effectively further research in a wide range of social issues.’ Susan Merrick 2017