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A soft rebellion in Paradise: 500 women to gather in Sheffield square for new film inspired by activism and #MeToo

Chloe Brown in Paradise Square, Sheffield. Picture: Andrew Roe
Chloe Brown in Paradise Square, Sheffield. Picture: Andrew Roe

Hundreds of women will gather in Sheffield's only Georgian square for a major public art commission inspired by the city's history of political activism.

Artist Chloë Brown's short film A Soft Rebellion in Paradise will have an all-female crew - a response to the #MeToo allegations that have swept Hollywoood - and aims to highlight the way women's voices are often silenced or ignored.

Chloë is looking for up to 500 women to take part next month, when contributors will be asked to perform three quietly rebellious acts in Paradise Square behind the Anglican cathedral in the city centre. These involve staying silent for a period of time - a reference to the Chartists' noiseless protests in the square in 1839 - applauding in a particular manner and reading a poem by Sheffield writer Geraldine Monk that is 'part song, chant and incantation'.

The project is part of Making Ways, a three-year initiative backed with £550,000 from Arts Council England and co-ordinated by the Sheffield Culture Consortium, made up of local arts chiefs.

"I'm hoping it's going to be quite a celebratory, fun thing to do," said Chloë, senior lecturer on the fine art undergraduate course at Sheffield Hallam University.

She has made similar films in two other post-industrial cities, Stoke-on-Trent and Detroit, where the term 'soft rebellion' was first suggested to her by an attendee at a talk she gave. To make the atmosphere more vibrant she asked some of the audience to stand up, put headphones on and 'dance in their own world'.

"She said 'It was a bit like a soft rebellion'," said Chloë. "I thought 'That's genius, I'm going to use that'. It's a way of making a statement that is positive and uplifting, and has a bit of joy in it somehow."

In Stoke she undertook a residency at the former Spode pottery factory, videoing two Northern Soul dancers doing a turn in the disused boardroom. "It was a way of transgressing codes of conduct. Northern Soul is a largely working class movement and there is no way any of the workers would have been allowed in a boardroom."

In Detroit - synonymous with car manufacturing - she got people to dance in the street to, appropriately, Dancing In The Street by Martha and the Vandellas, a girl group associated with the US city's Motown record company. She also persuaded community figures to do the 'Wigan Clap', a type of applause given by Northern Soul audiences at the famous Wigan Casino in north-west England.

"The applause starts off really slowly and speeds up to a point where you can't clap any faster. At that point it stops dead," said Chloë, who will be asking people to do the Wigan Clap in Paradise Square, as well as using it as the basis for a separate, multiscreen installation. She was introduced to the peculiar style by the Vandellas' leader Martha Reeves, who she met in Detroit. "She said it used to give her goosebumps every time."

Sheffield 'has a lot in common' with her previous hosts, she said. "The Steel City - we still make an awful lot of steel, but there aren't a lot human beings making it. Sheffield was perhaps on its knees in the 1980s but it's slowly started to develop and move on, and work out what it's becoming."

She said she wanted to 'celebrate cities rather than show them as something that's in decline'.

Chloë was 'thoroughly chuffed' when Making Ways commissioned her. Through research she learned about the Sheffield Female Political Association, the first women's suffrage organisation in the United Kingdom, and the Women of Steel statue in Barker's Pool was another driver.

She sensed a need to 'address the loss of women's voices in history' following the outcry earlier this year when it was felt politician Mo Mowlam was denied proper credit for bringing peace to Northern Ireland. "There was a moment where I was beginning to think 'Maybe women's voices are being heard a bit more'. I suddenly realised it was still happening."

So far 290 people have signed up for the filming in Paradise Square. "Any woman can take part," said Chloë. "I think most women are pretty inspirational, to be honest. We'll have to repeat things to get filming from different angles, but I think the whole morning overall will be a bit of a hoot."

The finished work will be shown on a big screen in the square next summer. "The history of that square is extraordinary. It was regularly used for big gatherings of people. We kind of overlook it - it's a car park. It has the potential to be extremely beautiful."

Filming will take place on September 2 from 10am to 1pm, after which lunch will be provided by the Wig & Pen. Visit https://bit.ly/2mJsMqw to sign up via Eventbrite. Email asoftrebellion@gmail.com or jenny@penciltrickproductions.com for details.