In her four decades of artistic practice, Suzanne Lacy has dealt with rape, violence, aging, poverty, racism and issues of gender and youth culture. In installations, videos and unconventional performances that blur the line separating art and political activism, she collaborates with other artists and members of the local communities in which she works. As a part of large-scale pieces that might take place over weeks and even months, she conducts media outreach and often schedules public policy debates.
Born in 1945, Lacy grew up in a working-class family in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley, northeast of Los Angeles. In 1971, she left a psychology graduate program to study with Allan Kaprow and Judy Chicago at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). In 1977, Lacy staged her groundbreaking work Three Weeks in May, which focused on rape in Los Angeles. A collaboration with scores of artists, including Barbara Smith and Leslie Labowitz, the work incorporated political speeches, radio interviews, news releases, art performances and self-defense demonstrations. Lacy tracked the occurrence of rape during those 21 days on a large map displayed on the L.A. City Mall. In its linking of community groups, media and government, Three Weeks in May was a pioneering example-avant la lettre-of art-making via social networking.
Last January, in conjunction with the initiative “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945–1980,“ the Getty Research Center and LAXART sponsored a performance and public art festival. Lacy restaged Three Weeks in May under the auspices of Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), renaming the piece Three Weeks in January: End Rape in L.A. Like the 1977 original, Three Weeks in January focused on rape, this time documenting incidents that occurred from Jan. 12 to Feb. 1 on a map installed outside police headquarters. Lacy’s collaborators included the Los Angeles Police Department, writers, activists, organizers, artists, and groups such as CODEPINK, the Downtown Women’s Center and the Rape Treatment Center. In just one of the work’s 50 public and private events, Lacy instigated Storying Violence, a performance/debate in a lavishly decorated Art Deco room at the top of the tower of City Hall. Through a headset, she cued a local TV reporter, who moderated the discussion among the police chief, the deputy mayor, a California legislator, a university professor and a screenwriter/playwright, all of whom proposed ways to communicate the urgency of confronting rape today. Lacy also organized a cadre of bloggers who were simultaneously networking with their constituencies.
There were additional works by Lacy in “Pacific Standard Time“ (PST). Apart from documentation of her early feminist performances, the exhibition “Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974–1981” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A. included her 1976 video Learn Where the Meat Comes From, in which she matter-of-factly handles a whole lamb carcass while discoursing on cooking methods and butchering techniques. As part of “State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970,” the Orange County Museum of Art displayed her 1973 sculpture Lamb Construction.
Among other large-scale activist pieces Lacy has produced during her career is The Skin of Memory (1999), in which she worked with Colombian anthropologist Pilar Riaño and local organizations to produce public art that explored alternatives to violence in Medellín, Colombia, a city then ravaged by near-civil war, drug cartels and youth gangs. She and Riaño re-created the piece in 2011 for the Medellín 11 Biennale as The Skin of Memory Revisited, examining the role of memory in the creation of a civil society.
Crystal Quilt (1987), a series of events that addressed the issue of aging, culminated in a live, televised performance in which 430 elderly women sat four to a table in the atrium of the Crystal Court, a Philip Johnson-designed building in Minneapolis. The Tate Modern, which recently acquired elements of the piece, will display them beginning July 16 in the museum’s new Tanks exhibition spaces. (Lacy will also be the subject of a symposium at Tate Modern on July 21.) On view will be media documentation of the project and a quilt, designed by the artist Miriam Schapiro and produced by Minnesota quilters, which served as the basis for the floor design in the 1987 performance.
Lacy was a cofounder of the Women’s Building, the center of study and activism for women artists that grew out of the Feminist Studio Workshop, established in 1973 by Judy Chicago, Arlene Raven and Sheila Levrant de Bretteville. Dean of the School of Fine Arts at the California College of Arts from 1987 to ’97, Lacy now chairs the Public Practices MFA program at Otis College of Art and Design in L.A. In 2010, Duke University Press published her book Leaving Art: Writings on Performance, Politics, and Publics, 1974-2007.
I talked with Lacy by the pool at the Standard Hotel in Los Angeles in January 2012.
PAUL DAVID YOUNG I’m trying to figure out a trajectory in your career.
SUZANNE LACY Good luck!
YOUNG It seems to me that you started with feminist issues then moved on from there.
LACY No. That’s just what’s been published. Did you see the “State of Mind” show at the Orange County Museum? There’s a lamb constructed out of plastinated sheep parts which I’m very happy with. That’s what my early performances were, you know: pieces of meat flying through the air, ripped in half, with guts coming out. Stuff like that.
YOUNG But in terms of the issues you’re dealing with . . .
LACY Though that early work was very much about embodiment, I don’t think having a female body was all that relevant. Sometimes it was. I did some vagina dentata pieces that were very funny, that involved putting teeth in my vagina and photographing it. But most of my work was about living in a body, be it gendered or not.
YOUNG You began in science, getting a BA in zoological studies at UC Santa Barbara.
LACY I was fascinated with medicine, with the autopsy.
YOUNG Were your broader social concerns about race and class and so on always present in your life?
LACY From when I was a kid, long before feminism. I was conscious of racial issues from the time I was eight, in the San Joaquin Valley, where I grew up. Class is much more subtle [than race] in this country, so it’s harder to get at. The San Joaquin Valley is the Appalachia of the West. And my grandmother came from Harlan County, Kentucky. I eventually worked in Appalachia for five years, with the artists Susan Steinman and Yutaka Kobayashi [Beneath Land and Water, Elkhorn City, Kentucky, 2000–05].
YOUNG PST has revived a history of which you were an essential part.
LACY I’m working on a similar project with Jennifer Flores Sternad of LACE. We trained 15 artists and historians and sent them out to interview 50 performance artists who were operating in this region between 1968 and 1983. What was performance to them? What were their relational networks, who did they rub up against? Where did they draw inspiration? We found it wasn’t the usual suspects. PST has exposed some of this field.
California has always been extremely experimental and at that time it was particularly so. There was this big community of engagement. Vanguard artists were out here experimenting. Chris Burden, Nancy Buchanan and Paul McCarthy were key, and Mike Kelley a little later. Barbara Smith and Allan Kaprow were equally inspirational, and Eleanor and David Antin down in San Diego. There was an influx of people—artists and critics—who were brought from New York to teach at art schools in California. Irvine, San Diego, Cal Arts were big centers, UCLA later. In L.A. you had Baldessari and Judy Chicago, and then their students, and then the students of their students. Conceptual art was moving in, and the dematerialization of art was happening.
Some students, like Kim Jones or John White, were older, coming back from the Vietnam War. California had a policy that every kid could get a low-cost education at one of the state colleges. The working class flooded in, the browns and blacks and women flooded in, and suddenly we were all in art school, exposed to people like Allan [Kaprow]. Out of this came performance. Many of us had been involved in various political movements. Feminists figured out really quickly that performance was the way to go.
YOUNG Do you believe that this history has been inadequately told?
LACY Absolutely. It’s a function of geography to some degree, but also of the art world’s willingness to get rid of the political. Some key figures have been well recorded. But the complexity of the era and the influences have not been understood-Larry Bell’s influence on Paul McCarthy, Paul’s on Barbara Smith or Barbara’s on Ulysses Jenkins. That was clearer in the catalogue essays for PST, though I’m not sure how Paul Schimmel found out about some of the people he included in “Under the Big Black Sun.” Carlos Villa, for example-he is a Filipino-American performance artist and painter who also did sculpture-a very interesting man, a shaman. If you were in performance you would have known about him. You’d know Jimmie Durham or James Luna in one circle, but not in another. PST destroyed some boxes and began to mine a lot of unknown work and people for more interesting ideas, deeper histories. I think it’s been very good.
YOUNG You said a moment ago that women discovered performance and realized it was a particularly powerful medium for them. How did that happen?
LACY In California a lot of the feminist performance came from teachers like Judy Chicago and Eleanor Antin. Judy in particular used performance strategically, politically, pedagogically. The theory was that women are trained in expressing themselves verbally, they’re good at acting, they really love costuming. They have everything it takes to move right into a performance strategy. I know that’s a little simplistic, but it was very helpful in consciousness-raising. Not everybody was a feminist, but a lot of us were, and those that weren’t became so, retroactively. Like Hannah Wilke, for example.
Nobody was going to get really famous doing performance art. Nobody thought about that or cared; nobody got paid for it. It was a very different form of exchange, and took place in intimate communities. Like John White said [in his performance Preparation F (1971), re-created during PST], “35 people came the first time.” That was very common.
YOUNG So it was a small community.
LACY Or multiple communities. As it began, performance art was inherently conceptual. Maybe not later. There is a certain kind of entertainment branch that moved more toward theater-like Guy de Cointet. In the beginning it was very conceptual.
YOUNG And political?
LACY For some, not everybody. Paul McCarthy’s 1975 performance, Sailor’s Meat-it’s seen as political, but personally I think that’s reading back into it later. Politics was pretty unpopular at that time. Being a feminist was pretty unpopular, or a Marxist. It wasn’t the sexy thing that everybody wanted. Social art, political art—those were really bad names then.
YOUNG So you think we’re experiencing a bit of revisionist history?
LACY I think it’s more that now the political is okay to talk about.
YOUNG You have said that at one point you shifted focus and began looking at how the audience was responding to your performances.
LACY As the political imperative became more critical, some artists took to engaging with broader publics.
YOUNG And that’s what you did?
LACY Yes. I’m from a working-class background. I’m interested in issues of poverty, class and education, and I have an ability to communicate with people outside the art world. It’s one thing to talk about rape; it’s another thing to know that people are being raped all over and you’d like to change the situation, right? But I’m not an activist, I’m an artist. Maybe I hold myself to a more rigorous standard than most about the impact of my work.
YOUNG Does it matter to you whether people call you Suzanne the artist or Suzanne the activist?
LACY I am totally identified as an artist. I would act differently if I were only a political activist. The creative identification is important strategically, in the same way that people used to say “I’m a feminist” as a political statement. “I’m an artist” means that I’m intent on addressing the language of that field, that I’m interested in form. I make decisions that are not the decisions an activist would make. I’ll spend $7,000 to ship 400 chairs in from Tennessee-if I were an activist, I would have a lot of people screaming at me about better ways I could use the $7,000. If I come in and say, “Hi, I’d like you to spend all of your volunteer time for the next four months working on something that’s not going to make a bit of difference to anybody,” not so many people would want to do that. To me, being politically responsible is my obligation to the people I work with. I also have an obligation not to trivialize serious issues, but I am making art.
YOUNG Could you talk about your re-creation of the 1977 piece Three Weeks in May as Three Weeks in January for PST?
LACY My question was always, “What is the social/political context that exists around the issue of rape, and can I make a contribution?” But now I had a new problem: “What is of interest to me, conceptually, in the rethinking of this work?” I wanted to reclaim this work from that era, to look at it again, but I had to create the arena to investigate both of those questions. Such contextual work is dependent upon the spirit of the time in which it was created. Yet in 1977 some people didn’t even consider Three Weeks in May to be art. Performance artists might think it was art, but a lot of people thought I was doing an anti-rape campaign. That piece got shaped out of avant-garde art ideas that happened to align with political ideas.
YOUNG How did you go about assessing the impact of Three Weeks in May, and did that influence the re-creation of the piece?
LACY I finally gave up assessing impact as a question that could be answered by an artist. I’ve tried several strategies. I asked social scientists to look at my work and assess it. I went back 10 years later to interview people in the Oakland Projects to see what happened to them. But in the end, I’m not interested in proving something. Artists don’t use hard-core research methodology. With what parameters do you want me to measure impact, with what criteria? Do you want me to say my piece is helping to end rape? If so, I can say, unqualifiedly, “No.”
Artists are likely to say, “My piece just had the biggest impact. It changed the world.” But if you really want to talk about social change, you’ve got to measure it in some way. I’m not sure it is the business of the artist to do that.
I just went back to Medellín, Colombia, with Pilar Riaño, the anthropologist I worked with in 1999 [on The Skin of Memory]. Several hundred people were originally involved, and about 80 of them showed up again, including the mayor, who was then a reporter. They were part of a performative speak-out about where Medellín was a dozen years later. We interviewed people about their memories of the project-which was itself about memory, and about ongoing violence. A work has to operate on multiple levels for multiple people. You have to parse this kind of work to see where the performance lies. This kind of performance—it’s not framed nicely for you. It can appear on the street, or in the Occupy movement, or even in the middle of an art show.
YOUNG In Three Weeks in January you revisited a work from 35 years ago. Do you have any thoughts about the idea of re-performance?
LACY I know some artists have formulated opinions. I think anything goes, for art. Artists just have to justify why they’re doing it. Allan [Kaprow] thought a lot about how to re-present his work. He did exhibitions in which the works were very deliberately reframed so as not to simply repeat them as they were before. I think that’s an interesting approach. The performances will read differently, of course, because the context has changed. The artists themselves can rework the pieces if they’re interested enough, or other people can re-create them.
YOUNG Do you perceive the different political context today as part of the re-performance issue?
LACY The first thing I had to look at in Three Weeks in January was what is needed today—what the context is now. The point in 1977 was to reveal something—rape—that was not spoken about publicly, and blast it to the front page. That context doesn’t exist today—not even within the police department, or city hall. Both have greatly evolved. The general public is different in its awareness, too. In the ’70s there weren’t social media and the internet; journalism wasn’t so ubiquitous. An artist who wants to work with rape today is not digging in the unknown. In fact, one of the people in my  performance, a screenwriter, said, “I can’t just put a rape story on television. There’s got to be a twist.”
YOUNG Could you describe your 1987 performance The Crystal Quilt, which addressed the issue of aging?
LACY Elements of that piece have been acquired by the Tate Modern and they are installing them this summer at the opening of their new Tanks space. The Crystal Quilt took three years to produce and involved multiple activities and many people. The final performance involved several artists, including Miriam Schapiro, who designed a Shaker pattern quilt in red, black and yellow. We created an 82-square-foot rug and table design in this pattern, and placed them in the middle of Crystal Court, in a Phillip Johnson-designed building in downtown Minneapolis [the IDS Center]. If you looked at the performance from above, it looked like a Busby Berkeley production when the performers moved their hands. The Tate has a handmade replica of the quilt, photos, a time-lapse film and a sound track from 72 women all over the state, composed by Susan Stone.
The challenge was to convince 430 old women that they should show up on Mother’s Day, dressed in black. How was I to do that, unless I could convince them that it was relevant? It’s a matter of aligning the vision and the values. That’s probably what creates change. Me, and everybody who does this work, and organizations doing their thing, people protesting, and writers taking on the issues-all of that moves the boulder forward.
Suzanne Lacy’s Three Weeks in January: End Rape in L.A., organized by Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), took place at various venues in Los Angeles last winter (Jan. 12-Feb. 1,
2012). Her work was also included in “Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A. (Oct. 1, 2011-Feb. 13, 2012), and “State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970,” at the Orange County Museum of Art (Oct. 9, 2011-Jan. 22, 2012). All were part of the “Pacific Standard Time” initiative.
Coming Soon “Lis Rhodes: Light Music and Suzanne Lacy: The Crystal Quilt,” Transformer Galleries, The Tanks at Tate Modern, London, July 18–Oct. 28.
Paul David Young is a New York-based playwright and performance critic. See Contributors page.