Artists Features ,

Voices Carry: Suzanne Lacy’s Polyphonic Art Defies Museum Curating—and Is Helping to Reinvent It

Suzanne Lacy photographed in Marina Del Rey, California, on September 27, 2018.

KATHERINE MCMAHON/ARTNEWS

Sitting at an easel under the direction of master draftswoman Andrea Bowers four years ago, Suzanne Lacy provided the art world evidence of her repeated claim to have no expertise in any medium of art. “Andrea Bowers and Suzanne Lacy: Drawing Lessons” was a nine-day exhibition at the Drawing Center in New York, over the course of which Bowers and Lacy lived in the gallery. For the price of admission, anyone could come in and see Lacy trying and failing to draw. “I knew that it was impossible,” Bowers said, looking back on her instruction. “I had an idea that maybe she was not going to be the best student.” Lacy reveled in the humor of it all. “I really thought it was funny,” she said. “Acknowledging in front of the art world that I don’t know how to draw.”

The evenings were a different story: demonstrations of the unique genre of art Lacy has spent decades shaping. Lacy invited her feminist artist peers from the 1970s, including Martha Rosler and Carolee Schneemann, to engage in conversation with Bowers’s, like Nicola Tyson, who are 20 years Lacy’s junior. Like the daytime portion of the exhibition, these conversations were open to the public. The women sparred over things like representation in public art practice, the relationship between first- and second-wave feminism, and the translation of field-based art into the museum setting. When the talk wound down and everyone left, Bowers and Lacy retreated to tents at the back of the space and went to sleep.

“It was an exploration of our relationship and intergenerational feminist issues,” Lacy told me recently during a visit to her beachside home in Marina del Rey, where the living room’s few accommodations to comfort give precedence to studio necessities: a long wooden table, stacks of documents, external hard drives. Lacy met Bowers 10 years ago, when they were both on faculty at the Otis College of Art and Design, and they have remained close. Their performance made light of their opposing art practices, which encapsulate half a century’s worth of avant-garde debate: Bowers’s meticulous drawings and installations run counter to the dematerialization of the art object; Lacy’s public performances are resistant to presentation in the gallery space. Both artists are political in their work, but rather than pencil and paint, Lacy’s primary tool is the human voice.

That Drawing Center show was one of Lacy’s rare forays into the white cube. Her artworks go beyond site-specificity. You might call them site-ephemeral. The dialogues that constitute them take place in public, at places like brownstone stoops and parking garage rooftops; they involve interfacing with numerous public agencies, and can run over the course of years before they disappear. This coming April, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in collaboration with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, will give Lacy her first full-scale museum retrospective, “Suzanne Lacy: We Are Here.” In assembling the show, the curators are facing the challenge of how to re-create Lacy’s work in the museum space. Her elaborate, multivoiced performances foreshadowed social practice, and are now providing a roadmap for implementing such practice in the museum setting.

Suzanne Lacy, Across and In Between, 2018.

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND LUHRING AUGUSTINE, NEW YORK

The act of listening has been central to Lacy’s practice from the beginning. She grew up in a small town outside Bakersfield, and arrived at California State University, Fresno, in 1969, her feminist convictions already firmly in place. Studying psychology initially, she openly criticized Freud’s attitudes toward women. She started spending her evenings in the company of artist Faith Wilding, then a grad student in English lit, and together they organized women’s consciousness-raising groups on campus. The following year, Lacy and Wilding joined Judy Chicago’s newly formed Feminist Art Program.

Chicago employed what she called “circle-based pedagogy,” an exercise methodology that gathered her students to identify personal subject matter for their art. What surfaced was an awareness of women’s position in society, and rage. In 1972 Lacy was one of four artists, including Chicago, Sandra Orgel, and Aviva Rahmani (founder of The American Ritual Theater where rape had been an important theme for several years) who created the performance Ablutions. Lacy and Chicago had been tape recording victims of rape, and these recordings played as performers stapled beef kidneys around the perimeter of the room, wrapped a nude woman in gauze from head to toe, and bathed in metal tubs filled with eggs, blood, and clay. At the finale, the tubs, the bodies, and the meat were tied together with a web of string. Lacy described it as “a public autopsy.”

In 1971 Chicago and Miriam Schapiro brought the Feminist Art Program to the California Institute of the Arts, and Lacy soon followed. There she was introduced to Allan Kaprow’s ideas about art that is unrecognizable as art, and is defined instead by immaterial variables like duration, the relationships between performers, and the audience’s emotional release. She put those ideas into play in 1977 with In Mourning and in Rage, a performance in protest of the sensationalist media hysteria that was exploiting the victims of the serial rapist-killer dubbed the Hillside Strangler. She and artist Leslie Labowitz, who would become a frequent collaborator, organized a motorcade to deliver to Los Angeles City Hall in a hearse a group of grim, imposing figures: 10 women cloaked in black, with veils hanging from headpieces that made them seven feet tall. Draped in red shawls, they assembled on the steps of City Hall in front of a banner that read “In Memory of Our Sisters, Women Fight Back.” Lacy framed the performance as a press conference: the banner was sized and situated ideally for TV’s horizontal camera frame. Labowitz handed out media kits, and city council members took questions from reporters.

Lacy wasn’t interested in claiming authorship of the piece. She and Labowitz ultimately credited it to Ariadne, a fluid coalition of artists, policy makers, journalists, and others who worked together on media interventions between 1977 and 1980. The Ariadne archives, which are now available online, contain a set of instructions for how to reclaim agency over one’s representation in the media. Step 3 is “Learn about images and how the messages one gets from them depend on the arrangement of color, form, and content. Once you have demystified the image-making process, you will be able to respond more objectively and critically to the bombardment of visual media in your daily life.”

For Lacy, the prerogative was to control every aspect of the image.In the mid-’80s, she spent three years in Minneapolis doing community workshops with women over the age of 60. The culmination of the project was The Crystal Quilt (1985–87), a performance in a shopping mall in which 430 women sat at carefully arranged square tables with red and yellow tablecloths. The tables sat atop a sprawling black and red rug designed by Schapiro. The participants laid their hands on the tabletops in a choreographed sequence that evoked the block patterns of a quilt, while they spoke from personal experience about what they thought their demographic’s portrayal in media said about their place in society.

Along with some of her peers, Lacy was carving out a space somewhere between activism and performance. In her 1994 anthology, Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, she collected the writings of fellow travelers like Allan Kaprow, Mary Jane Jacob, and Lucy Lippard. It is possible to see in retrospect how “new genre public art,” an attempt to untether public art from the object, is on a continuum with what we now call social practice. “The idea,” Lacy said, “was to consider many forms of work that were more inclusive of the context, the public meaning, the audience, the participants, and how these, taken collectively, might suggest new directions.”

It was an exciting new frontier, but it meant that Lacy’s work was tough to represent in typical galleries and museums, or even forward- thinking alternative spaces. With the exception of some photo- based work, she didn’t produce objects. What remained from her performances were photographs, videos, and written documentation. More important, her pieces weren’t meant for the gallery space. She conceived them for the communities in which she made them.

Suzanne Lacy, In Mourning and In Rage, 1977.

COURTESY SUZANNE LACY

In recent years, the advent of new media and evolving exhibition strategies have given Lacy the tools to create plastic works that come close to conveying the experience of her site- and time-based performances. Greeting visitors to the portion of the Lacy retrospective at SFMOMA will be a chorus of shape-note singing and Su chanting recorded in the echoing expanses of a disused English textile mill. The multichannel video installation, The Circle and the Square (2017), features Christian and Muslim former millworkers from Brierfield, England, who were participants in “Shapes of Water, Sounds of Hope,” Lacy’s 18-month collective meditation on labor, immigration, and industrial collapse. Following the closure of Brierfield’s mill, a rift ensued between the white and South Asian residents who used to work there, and a local artist collective invited Lacy to orchestrate a community intervention. With local activists, an anthropologist, and a musicologist, she facilitated community meetings, meals, and singing rehearsals. Music was a unifying force, and so was food—the final note of the piece was a banquet for 500 people.

By far the most challenging piece for the curators, Rudolf Frieling and Dominic Willsdon of SFMOMA and Lucía Sanromán of YBCA, has been The Oakland Projects. For 10 years starting in 1991, Lacy and Chris Johnson, an artist and professor (and now chair of photography) at the California College of the Arts (CCA), where Lacy was dean at the time, began a series of eight major works involving public and private dialogues that doubled as media interventions, and engaged not only Oakland high school students, but their teachers, the Oakland police, and the community at large. At the time, the racist term “super-predator” was becoming associated with black and brown youth.

Over the course of the decade, Lacy and Johnson worked with a number of collaborators whose whose roles shifted with each project. They staged the first performance, “The Roof Is on Fire,” with director and media specialist Annice Jacoby, on June 4, 1994. More than 200 teenagers sat in cars scattered across the roof of a parking garage in downtown Oakland, discussing preselected topics: the stigmatizing portrayal of minority teenagers in the news; sex, pregnancy, and abortion; drugs; and unemployment and poverty. More than 1,000 people gathered to watch, including reporters from local and national TV stations, who walked from car to car and eavesdropped on the conversations through the windows and sunroofs.

The piece “was collaborative and unscripted,” said Sanromán. “But it was also choreographed [to] within an inch of its life.” An hourlong NBC special documented the painstaking planning: the formation of a media literacy course for teachers, and the building of a coalition of students. The documentary follows Lacy sporting a headset mic as she oversees the placement of the cars, and shows students venting frustration during production. At one point, a drama teacher questions the exploitation of black teenagers for the sake of an art project. Lacy told me it was she who suggested the teacher repeat her comments on camera.

“One of the ethical issues that comes with social practice is, you have to be really careful so as not to violate other people’s vulnerability,” Lacy said. “In order to negotiate in complex works, you’ve got to be vulnerable. You’ve got to be transparent in your process and show the flaws.”

To bring The Oakland Projects to today’s audiences, the curators invited Unique Holland and Moriah Ulinskas, who worked in their teens as producers on the project, to retool it. In the process, they cycled through four different proposals. In the end, none of them took.

“I felt uncomfortable not thinking through the deep shift in contexts, awareness, experience, and media representation in today’s continuing political struggle,” Lacy said. Instead of a restaging or re-creation, YBCA will be presenting an entirely new piece by Holland and Lacy that maps the current relationships between the original Oakland Projects participants. It will be the centerpiece of a group show within the Lacy retrospective that will feature local artists and nonartist youth organizations, and a program of public talks.

In this way, Sanromán said, the museum is engaging Lacy’s desire to question the “preponderance of the single author. We’re exploring elements of Suzanne’s practice that are transferable to our field as curators, testing the limits of that, distributing authorship, and really, in a way, taking on her legacy.”

Suzanne Lacy, The Circle and the Square, 2017.

COURTESY SUZANNE LACY

For a recent class at the University of Southern California Roski School of Art and Design, where Lacy has taught since 2016, she invited a representative from the art therapy nonprofit Able Arts Work to instruct her students in methods of reflective listening. It’s a technique used with people who have experienced trauma; the listener repeats and affirms the sufferer’s words, rather than questioning or analyzing them. For Lacy, listening is the first step in organizing, and “organizing,” she told me, “is a skill set not taught in art schools.”

Nevertheless, the art world now celebrates interventions in local communities under the banner of social practice. Part of Lacy’s legacy is the Center for Impact at CCA, which she founded in 1998 as the Center for Art and Public Life. Its mission is to connect art students with community organizations. Alumnus Hank Willis Thomas, whose project “For Freedoms” features an image from “The Circle and the Square” on a billboard in Albany, cites Lacy as a major in influence.

“She and Chris Johnson are part of a generation of artists who opened doors in the minds of young people as to what you can call art,” said Thomas. “I can say pretty confidently that that was the first time I heard the words ‘art’ and ‘public life’ in the same sentence. I saw through the work that they were doing that there was a role for artists to engage.”

Can social practice really create social change? Lacy holds no illusions about having changed the world. The problems she has tackled in her work, like violence against women and mass incarceration, are far from solved. “But,” she said, “I would say that [art] is not only, or necessarily, about affecting change. If this were my major interest I’d probably have become a politician.”

She’s more interested in the steps along the way, the subtle ones that perhaps only an artist can address, like intimacy. “Intimacy is related to truth,” she told me. “And personal truths, amassed collectively, begin to reveal inequities and demand political address.”


Update, January 15, 1:35 p.m.: The version of this article in the Winter 2019 issue of ARTnews described the 1972 piece Ablutions without properly crediting the full efforts of all four of the artists who had conceived it. It also incorrectly stated that the performance was done “several times,” when Ablutions was performed only once. The article, as it appears above, has been corrected. Below is a collaborative statement between two of the artists, Lacy and Aviva Rahmani, which more accurately describes the work.

Clarifying the art historical account, there are four artists who co-created the performance artwork, Ablutions: Aviva Rahmani, Sandra Orgel, Judy Chicago and Suzanne Lacy. They convened to collaborate early in 1972 while teaching/studying at California Institute of the Arts. The artists each brought unique experiences and creativity to what emerged as a seminal Feminist Art work on rape and a model of collaboration.

The one-evening performance in Guy Dill’s studio included the participation of several performers that night: Jan Oxenberg, Shawnee Wolleman, Jan Lester, and Dori Atlantis, in addition to two of the artists, Sandra Orgel and Suzanne Lacy. The four collaborators had previously experienced consciousness raising or encounter groups, or both, and brought the values of transparency and inclusion to their work. Lacy, Rahmani, and Chicago had each been previously developing a body of work based on personal narrations of rape. Chicago brought her connections to the LA art world to bear on attracting an impressive audience and providing a sophisticated understanding of context. Sandra Orgel contributed the metaphor of raw eggs from an earlier sketch in Chicago’s performance class. Aviva Rahmani contributed her insight derived from a personal experience of rape as well a deep understanding of performance art as founder and director of the American Ritual Theatre (1968-71) and from a series of previous works on rape.

The Ablutions collaboration was remarkable for its boldly egalitarian approach to production long before crowd-sourced social practice became a routine goal for many in the artworld. The success of the work is a testimonial to that strategy.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of ARTnews on page 88 under the title “Voices Carry.”

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