‘The Circle and The Square’ reveals a history of disabled people in the textile industries

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Suzanne Lacy’s film installation The Circle and The Square was shown at Northlight (Brierfield Mill) in the Pennines for two weeks last month. Gill Crawshaw reflects on the work produced by Super Slow Way to find a wealth of potential for an untold history of disabled people’s lives.

Photo of an elderly woman sat on a chair whilst talking to the camera

The Circle and the Square by Suzanne Lacy. Photo by Richard Tymon

I could hear the uplifting sound of communal singing that is the basis of Suzanne Lacy’s The Circle and The Square as I approached the large, disused mill in Brierfield, Lancashire, well before I stepped inside.

Alongside the sound of singing, I also found stories of deafness, sign language and lipreading. A part of disabled people’s and non-disabled people’s history comes together when we look back to the height of the textile industries in the north of England. I shouldn’t have been surprised that these stories were part of an installation which was, after all, taking place in a former textile mill. The constant din of the looms and other machinery in the mills struck everyone who entered. Sign language and lip reading were the only ways to communicate.

The Circle and The Square comes from an ambitious project from two arts organisations that are firmly rooted in East Lancashire. Super Slow Way works with communities along the Leeds-Liverpool canal, from Blackburn to Pendle. Brierfield is in the heart of Pendle, and this is where In Situ works. Both organisations have a deep commitment to this area and the people who live there, aiming to make art part of everyday life, action and transformation. Super Slow Way commissioned Suzanne Lacy, a renowned American artist whose work engages with social issues, to work with local people over many months.

People came together to sing. They were filmed and this was shown on two adjacent screens that filled the back wall of the mill’s vast main room. The singing is loud, it’s forceful, it’s heartfelt – they sang to reclaim and celebrate the place where many of them worked, or where parents and friends worked, a place that has dominated the town. And, as different communities worked side by side in the mill, so different communities sat and sang side by side, across from each other, together – either in the circle of Sufi chanting or the square of Shape Note singing.

Photo of an elderly man sat on a chair whilst talking to the camera

The Circle and the Square by Suzanne Lacy. Photo by Richard Tymon

Also lighting up the dark room were around 20 screens, showing local people talking about the past, present and future of Brierfield and its mill.

Finally, once the main film ended you were drawn to a smaller room at the back showing two more interviews on adjoining screens. An older man and an older woman shared their memories of working here.

As a counterpoint to the communal signing, these individual interviews worked well. They looked dramatic on the standing screens, and they were engaging and thoughtful. And it was in these interviews that several people spoke about how they used sign language and lip reading at work – and many people continued to use these methods of communication at home as well. This is where Deaf and hearing people’s histories converge as alternative ways of connecting and communicating were used across the board. Well, almost. According to one of the interviewees in Brierfield “some people wouldn’t do it” – despite almost universal use it seems some stigma around sign language remained.

Industrial injury was acknowledged, as older interviewees pointed to their hearing aids – with a shrug of acceptance and seemingly no bitterness that their hearing had been destroyed by their working conditions. Perhaps because they had worked in an environment where hearing was practically redundant, they knew that there are other ways to get on and live your life.

photo of a film installation showing a series of photoportraits in a dark background. A film shows on the wall in the background

The Circle and the Square by Suzanne Lacy. Photo by Richard Tymon

Apart from people who had lost their hearing in later life, I don’t think Deaf people had been involved in this project. This was a missed opportunity. The Circle and The Square was all about bringing people together, and Deaf people are too often forgotten in community projects. Their stories would have enriched the project. And I thought connections were begging to be made between sign language and the hand gestures that are part of Shape Note.

Despite these frustrations, I found The Circle and The Square immensely moving and powerful. Importantly, it’s had a really positive effect on local people, breaking down barriers and mistrust between communities and instilling pride.

It’s also revived my interest in trying to find out more about the role of disabled people in the textile industries during the industrial revolution and later.*

There must be other stories running alongside those of industrial injury or exclusion from the workplace, with disabled people making a positive contribution to the trade. For example, Deaf people were often employed in the mills. Managers recognised that Deaf people could work just as effectively as hearing people in a noisy environment. Did other disabled people work in the mills as well? Did the need for a large, local workforce mean that some disabled people did find jobs?

We know that the industrial revolution was a time of large-scale exclusion for disabled people, the workhouse or poor house being the fate of many. But perhaps if we dig a bit deeper we’ll find stories of action and empowerment, not just misery and charity, and uncover more of our history.

* See https://shoddyexhibition.wordpress.com/2016/03/06/disabled-mill-workers-shoddy-fever-harsh-times-positive-contributions/ for some initial thoughts about disabled people’s roles in the textile industries.