Radical feminist artist and well-known figure of the Manchester punk scene, Linder Sterling, is famed for her collages exploring the objectification of the female body through the subversion of porn and household appliances. Linder’s provocative work was monumental in challenging the cultural expectations of women and confronting the construction of gender.

Does it anger you that all Manchester’s ‘icons’ are men?

The dominant voices of the history of twentieth-century popular culture in Manchester are predominantly male, heterosexual and white. Their history is set aspic, carefully preserved and presented to all without anything else available on the menu. I really think that it’s time for a change and magazines like Galchester prove that others think the same way.

I recently made a film for the Glasgow Women’s Library and the camera deliberately lingers on a photograph that shows Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested outside Buckingham Palace in 1914. The photo is far more shocking than any photos of punks at the Electric Circus in 1977. Pankhurst was born in Moss Side in 1858 and her intelligence, bravery and advanced political strategy helped to create changes in national politics that we’re celebrating this year with the 100 year anniversary of the Representation of the People Act.

Which women do you feel should be classed as regional treasures from your era living in the city?

Amongst my contemporaries in Manchester in the late 1970s were Pip Nicolls in The Distractions, Una Baines in The Fall, plus the writers and musicians Cath Carroll and Liz Naylor. After punk, there have been innumerable women all eager to throw the city’s aspic in the bin.

Film still from Linder’s “Bower of Bliss”, cinematographer Fatosh Olgacher. It shows a close up of a photo of Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested outside Buckingham Palace in 1914

You mentioned that in 1976 the Dickens club on Oldham street was one of the only places you and your friends could go and not get beaten up, it being one of the three gay clubs in Manchester. Does this taint your view of the city?

I’ve lived in various areas of Manchester, but the longest period was between 1976 - 1985 in Whalley Range. At that time, Whalley Range was known as the red-light district and the police were sometimes present during their ineffective and disorganised search for the Yorkshire Ripper. The threat of violence was ever present in the city centre as well as on the outskirts, safe places were few and every woman that I knew was verbally and physically assaulted at some point, male friends too. Dickens, Stuffed Olives and The Ranch were clubs that offered safety, great music and friendship, there were also various gay bars. I don’t dwell on negative memories of the city, those memories are outweighed by so many more memories of pleasure, innovation and celebration.

Linder Sterling, Untitled, 1978, Courtesy of Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

You wore the meat dress before Lady Gaga did. Can you tell me about that performance at the Hacienda in 1976, that involved decorating the nightclub in bloody Tampax and handing out meat packages wrapped in images of pornography?

The Hacienda often showed porn films mid-week, they may have been aiming for irony but the men watching the films looked very engaged in the projected subject matter. You’re describing the Ludus performance in which I wanted to make a trifecta protest at the club’s showing of pornography and its serving of meat. I was also protesting at the gross national pride that had emerged when Buck’s Fizz won the Eurovision Song Contest, the male singers in the group had removed the female singers’ midi skirts to much applause. As I removed my midi skirt at the Hacienda, the audience moved back as one as they saw the sex toy that had been hidden under my skirt. My ensuing screams kept everyone from taking their places at the front on the stage again, it was the last time that I played at the club and the last time that I played in Manchester.

Your most well-known work is the 1977 Buzzcocks ‘Orgasm Addict’ single sleeve, but what is your personal favourite?

My preferred work is always my most recent work, I love newness. The last works that I made were a series of photomontages during my recent residency at Chatsworth House. I normally only use found images from the 20th century in my work, but at Chatsworth I was presented with almost five hundred years of imagery to work with, my time there was pure delight. Over in Nottingham Contemporary gallery, visitors can see the photomontage that you mention, the image has been blown up so that it’s literally larger than life. I enjoy experimenting with extremes of scale in my work, the show at NC illustrates the shifts in my practise and my perpetual fandom of other artists.

“The dominant voices of the history of twentieth-century popular culture in Manchester are predominantly male, heterosexual and white”

Linder Sterling, Untitled, 1978, Courtesy of Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

You have in the past described your work as a ‘cultural post-mortem’, can you explain?

When I look through magazines and books from the present day back to the early 20th century, the fashions in dress often reflect the fashions in the prevailing sexual politics of the time. Just as a pathologist cuts up a cadaver to ascertain the cause of death, I cut up books and magazines to find out who was doing what to whom via the catwalk. I’m an artist working with the techniques of montage in film, performance and on paper. I still work very low tech a lot of the time, I can set up a studio anywhere with magazines, scissors and a glue stick.

In 2000, you had a near death experience and the woman that took you into her car whilst the police arrived said to you “It’s a man’s world. That man nearly Killed you. Be angry.” Did this event change the way you worked at all, did that sentence resonate?

The car crash changed everything, it was the closest brush with death that I’d ever had. It galvanised me into making The Return of Linderland, a large body of work looking at aspects of male culture in Manchester, I positioned myself at its centre. I researched the biography of Mother Ann Lee who was born in Manchester in 1736 and who helped to founded the utopian Shaker religious sect there. Lee sailed to America in 1774 when the persecution of the Shakers had become intolerable, by the time that Mother Anne Lee died in 1784 there were tens of thousands of Shakers in the States and many ensuing innovations in design that emerged from their unique lifestyle. Do we see a blue plaque anywhere in Manchester celebrating Lee’s achievement? No.

Linder Sterling, Daughters of the Promised Land ii, 2012,
Courtesy of Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

How did this affect your work?

Linderland widened my lens to look how at both men and women are portrayed in the media, up to that point I’d only ever worked with images of the female body. I have continued this enquiry and produced large series of the male sexualised body alongside its female counterpart.

How did your recent project with Glasgow Women’s Library come about?

I love the Glasgow Women’s Library! It reminds me very much of the Equal Opportunities Commission library on Deansgate in the early 1980s, I used to meet Morrissey there. The GWL has a large percentage of the EOC library now, my heart skipped a beat when I first opened a book in Glasgow and saw the EOC logo, I thought that the collection had long been destroyed. GWL has thankfully become a home for many other similar collections from women’s libraries that were forced to close due to lack of sustainable funding. The GWL goes from strength to strength, it’s been nominated for Art Fund Museum of the Year 2018, it’s the biggest museum prize in the world and it’s a great time to be working with everyone at the library!

Linder Sterling “Bower of Bliss”,
the inaugural flag and film created for the Glasgow Womans library 2018

Tell me more about the film and flag you have created for them

Making the film and flag for GWL was pure pleasure, I was artist in residence at Chatsworth at the time and I’d been researching the relationship between Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick. Bess designed the first house at Chatsworth in the mid 16th century and she had to imprison Mary there under the jurisdiction of Elizabeth I. I wanted to make the dynamics of the relationship between Bess and Mary legible to a sixteen-year-old living in Cheetham Hill now, I worked with fashion designer, Louise Gray, to further my cause. Lauren Fitzpatrick, who plays Mary Queen of Scots in the film, is a world champion Northern Soul dancer as well as an amazing actor, she and her fellow dancer, Kirstin Halliday, are filmed on Queen Mary’s Bower at Chatsworth and walking amidst fallow deer.

The inaugural flag features women’s mouths and eyes nestling amidst herbs cut from the same earth at Chatsworth that Mary Queen of Scots would have walked upon. Both Chatsworth and the GWL are treasure houses of objects and ideas, both institutions are equally inspiring to work with. I’m about start a new commission for Art on the Underground, it’s very ambitious in scale and the creative possibilities are very exciting. Rather like Chatsworth and the Glasgow Women’s Library, there are all sorts of archives of the history art on the underground waiting to be discovered, I shall start by looking at Man Ray’s poster for the London Underground from 1938. Man Ray and Lee Miller are my imaginary adopted parents.

Which women most inspire you?

It’s impossible to name one woman when there are infinite inspirational women in the world! When I was younger, the female surrealists, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Meret Oppenhiem, Frida Kahlo, Lee Miller et al had a huge influence upon me, I still loop back to their work and find new layers of inspiration. When I was sixteen, writers such as Germaine Greer, Kate Millet, Mary Daly and helped to rewire my brain long distance. I still often prioritise reading, looking and listening to women rather than to men, not that I’m in any way anti-male, it’s just that there are only so many hours in the day and I want to keep up to date with the females of the pack.