‘The Soft Rebellions’: An introduction to Chloë Brown’s Soft Rebellions and ‘Dancing in the Boardroom’

About the author

Chloë Brown is an artist and Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at Sheffield Hallam University, UK. She has an MA in Sculpture from Chelsea College of Art, London (1994), and a BA in Fine Art from the University of Reading (1987). She has exhibited internationally over the last 30 years including three international biennials (Istanbul Biennial, Mardin Biennial and the British Ceramics Biennial) with work recently included in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA).

Using a range of media including film, sculpture, book works and drawing, Chloë Brown’s research examining the relationship to sociopolitical questions that focus on the post-industrial city from an auto-ethnographic feminist perspective. She has become interested in how acts such as dancing, eating and applauding can be seen as a playful subversion, a form of liberation. This was explored in her exhibition ‘Dancing in the Boardroom’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) from January 15th to April 24th 2016 and has gone on to inform her ongoing research and practice.

Welcome to the first in a series of blogs on Chloë Brown’s Soft Rebellions:

An introduction to the Soft Rebellions

Film still: Dancing in the Street, Chloë Brown (2016)

Since 2013 I have been working with what I term ‘Soft Rebellions’ as a way of questioning the representation of certain post-industrial cities in relation to my position as a woman born and bred in the city of Sheffield in the UK; cities whose ‘reason for being’, their industry, has transformed so significantly that the use of their nicknames: ‘The Potteries’ (Stoke-on-Trent, UK), ‘The Motor City (Detroit, USA), ‘The Steel City’ (Sheffield, UK), becomes a melancholy gesture that talks about the past, not the now, nor the future.

A Soft Rebellion questions what happens when the economic engines of a city slow down but the people don’t. This research focuses particularly on the citizens, asking this question with optimism by rejecting the production of ‘ruin porn’ in favour of art work that is uplifting, celebratory, even life-affirming.

So far, the Soft Rebellions have been a series of actions and events that involve:





Yelling in places where it is considered transgressive to do so.


Dancing in the Boardroom (Turnin’ My Heartbeat Up)

Film still: Dancing in the Boardroom (Turnin’ My Heartbeat Up), Chloë Brown (2013)

This film was the first work I made as a Soft Rebellion and features two Northern Soul dancers dancing with passion in the empty, once splendid Boardroom at the disused Spode ceramic factory in Stoke-on-Trent, UK.

Northern Soul is a uniquely British genre that began as an underground club movement in the late 1960s. It arose out of the escapist desire of largely white working class young adults who worked all week in mundane jobs but at weekends travelled to north of England venues to dance all night to raw, rare, soul music produced in America’s industrial heartland, particularly Detroit. These records were commercial failures when they were originally released in the USA, but those failures, and their subsequent rarity, became Northern Soul.

Dancing in the Boardroom leads to collisions of meaning, not least the questioning of the sanctity of the Boardroom, a place where traditionally the Managing Director and the Board would entertain buyers and guests. In the film, the room is transformed into a ballroom, a dance hall, where uplifting music is played and a couple dances, absorbed in their own movements and thoughts.

Through this film and it’s installation as part of the British Ceramics Biennial in the Managing Director’s office at the Spode Factory issues such as the class system, labour and norms of behaviour are questioned. Notions of the industrial ruin in combination with Stoke-on-Trent’s prominence within the history of the Northern Soul movement are explored through the film making connections between Stoke-on-Trent and Detroit (from where the music largely originates). The work articulates with contemporary questions around site, dance and music as a way of addressing emotional responses to particular places.

The film was originally made in response to the Topographies of the Obsolete research project (a site specific research collaboration between the British Ceramics Biennial, Sheffield Hallam University, Danske Kunstakademi, Copenhagen, Muthesius kunsthochschule, Kiel Germany, The Bergen Academy of Art and Design, Norway, Alfred University, USA, University of Newcastle and the School of Art and Design, Nottingham Trent University since 2012).

The film can be accessed on Vimeo (HD Video, 2013, 07:37).

Since August 2015 I have been visiting and working in Detroit to further extend this on-going practice-based research. Detroit is renowned for being the epitome of a city in post-industrial crisis but my interest in the city extends to the development of soul music during the 1960’s and ‘70’s due to my previous research into Northern Soul. Utilising artistic research methodologies I use this history to challenge, question and contribute to specific narratives within the city, working and collaborating with native Detroiters, including Martha Reeves, of seminal Motown group Martha and The Vandellas.