Uncertain Futures is a participatory arts-led research project involving several elements, and working across different disciplines, with different approaches. It combines art, research, and activism through which, together, it aims to achieve social change.
Uncertain Futures addresses inequalities facing Manchester women over 50 relating to work and worklessness in order to understand how interconnected issues of gender, age, labour, class, migration status, disability and race impact women’s paid and unpaid work. Manchester has higher than the national average rates of worklessness in the 50-64 age group, with 1-in-3 economically inactive. The unexpected change that raised the pension age for women across the UK and the impact of Covid-19 on working lives created an urgent need to investigate and bring these issues to public attention.
The project is comprised of three key areas of work: a series of aesthetic productions organized and presented through three sequential exhibitions at the Manchester Art Gallery; a significant participatory research project, accompanied by multiple public presentations and a final paper; and an activist organizing project aimed at raising the level of awareness about intersectional issues around work and aging.
The project was formed through the vision of American artist Suzanne Lacy working with Learning manager Ruth Edson at Manchester Art Gallery who undertook a fact-finding series of focus groups and identified researcher Dr. Sarah Campbell as a team member to lead the participatory research project.
The first stage was to undertake a consultation across Manchester with various organisations and women’s groups to discuss with diverse groups of women over 50 questions about the pertinent issues facing ageing women in the workplace. The changes in The Pensions Act 2011 accelerated the rise of the state pension age to 66 for both men and women but the issue, as we discovered, was far deeper than the increase in age for women.
Dr. Elaine Dewhurst joined the team as the consultations drew to a close in early 2020, just as Covid-19 began to emerge and impact working lives around the world, particularly affecting older people. Manchester Art Gallery closed to the public and exhibitions were postponed. However, like many organisations, work went online. From March through August of 2020, a series of on-line conversations were hosted virtually by Manchester Art Gallery and Suzanne Lacy. Activists, academics, arts professionals, policymakers and representatives from organisations were invited to discuss issues regarding work for older women and topics like “care practices” emerged in the museum field as a result of Covid. The conversations continued over a number of months, and ideas regarding the project were developed.
In September 2020, an Advisory Group of 15 women was formed. This group, who advised on all aspects of the project, represented a diverse group of women who were active in their communities, from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, women whose ages ranged from 50 – 80, women who were newly migrated to the city and others who had lived in Manchester all of their lives. Weekly meetings were held virtually to develop project goals and co-design a gallery installation and a ‘data matrix’ of key intersectional experiences around work. Through their communities the Advisory Group recruited 100 women from varied cultures with different experiences to take part in interviews held in the gallery.
In June 2021 the first of three planned exhibitions opened at the Manchester Art Gallery. This installation served as an actual interview room with a window opening out from the room where the interviews would take place during museum hours and where anonymized interviews were posted after each interview. The installation consisted of this “recording studio,” transcribed interviews, and a dramatic soundtrack and video projection that played in the window when interviews were not going on. During this installation, workshops, talks and media presentations that explored equity and survival took place, extending the work of the project into the Manchester public sphere.
In March 2022, the 100 women interviewed were invited to a celebratory gala dinner at the Manchester Art Gallery with a program led by Advisory Group members. Alongside this, the group hosted ‘chai and chat’ gatherings, a civic programme of skills-based workshops, and public presentations.
In September 2022, the second of three installations opened at the Manchester Art Gallery, meant to provide an in-depth review of the structure and process of the project and a second film, projected on a second window of the recording studio.