Where Have You Slept? Romany Artist Gemma Lees makes a stand on outdated laws.

12 September 2022
WHYS - Gemma Lees

Where Have You Slept? An art installation that invites people to (technically) break The Vagrancy Act launched on 1st September at 4pm at HOME gallery in Manchester City Centre.

On the occasion of British Art Show 9 in Manchester local artist Gemma Lees has been operating as an Art Agent connecting the touring exhibition and local groups through her own work. She was inspired to create this piece after learning of the draconian and outdated laws still being upheld by The Vagrancy Act, a 198-year-old law, which criminalises sleeping rough, sleeping in tents on pavements and begging.

The approximately 4250 people who sleep outside on any given night on the UK are often targets for abuse and violence and other factors which make their lives hard, such as there only being 4486 public toilets in the whole of the UK and there being no public bathing facilities, meaning that charities have to fulfil that need.

WHYS- Gemma Lees
‘Where have you slept?’ art installation, HOME Birmingham © Liza Mortimer, TT News

Gemma came up with five fundamental questions, in addition to the titular one: Do you feel safe at home?, Can you have a bath?, Can you use the toilet? And When did you last eat? Gemma herself having lived experience of homelessness knows how difficult these questions can be to answer for some, whilst being easy to answer for others.

Before the installation took place, we asked Gemma what everyday actions people can do to help. Gemma explained that “people need to spend a little bit of money, a little bit of time humanising people”. She went onto say “when you’re homeless you really do feel like you’re not a real person”.

After introductions, the audience was lead to a rough sleeper’s encampment, under a nearby railway archway and Gemma will invite you to climb inside. She has been working with charity The Men’s Room, a Manchester-based arts and social care charity working with people who have multiple and complex needs, specifically supporting male and trans sex workers, to try and answer those five questions through fun and light-hearted arts workshops which included sticking post-it notes all over HOME’s British Art Show 9 gallery, making food collages in response to a sensory buffet and flushing negative experiences down a miniature pink toilet.  

WHYS - Gemma Lees
Words by the participants of The Men’s Room featured in the installation © Liza Mortimer TT News

When you enter the tent, (which is currently illegal to sleep inside if you’re homeless), and try to get comfy on the ground with just a thin sleeping bag you will feel the weight of these words which are embroidered into its fabric, just like our experiences are embroidered into the fabric of our lives. On display on the tent are also protest badges made by the participants and posters based on the five questions, designed and made by Manchester-based designers Office of Craig. These posters will be displayed around the city centre from the week commencing the 5th September.

Asia, an attendee who was rough sleeping for 13 months before he joined The Men’s Room, was asked how it feels to now have safe accommodation. He said “you can have hot water, heating and a shelter but you can still feel lonely”. Asia went on to explain how valuable human interaction is for anyone who is homeless, since gaining his accommodation he has invited two homeless people to stay for a short period to help them out.

Three participants from The Men’s Room and Gemma Lees far right © Liza Mortimer TT News

The audience was then invited back to HOME for a reception and the participants from The Men’s Room was presented with VIP goodie bags. Attendees received a limited-edition concertina book of the Office of Craig posters and project information.

Gemma Lees is a Romany Gypsy, disabled and neurodiverse artist, poet and theatre-maker from Bury. Her work deals with her lived experience of homelessness, mental illness, disability and the contemporary Romany experience. She likes to work with extremes, so will either have you laughing until you cry or crying until you act.

Audience members are then asked to act! Donate to a charity or foodbank, buy somebody a meal, advocate for others.  Linktree with information and articles about The Vagrancy Act, UK poverty and homelessness and charities you can donate to in Manchester can be found here (this is also linked to a QR code on the posters): https://linktr.ee/wherehaveyouslept

Information on the piece is being shared online with hashtag: #198istooold

For more information about The Men’s Room or to find out how to donate click here.

© British Art Show 9 logo, © HOME logo and © The Men's Room logo

lead photo of Gemma Lees © Liza Mortimer, TT News

TT News/ Press Release