Open Score

Suzanne Lacy, Julio César Morales, and Unique Holland: Code 33: Emergency, Clear the Air!, 1997–99, performance at City Center West Parking Garage, Oakland, from Lacy’s series of events “The Oakland Projects,” 1991–2001. Photo Kelli Yon.

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IN 1976 SUZANNE LACY donned a yellow mechanic’s jumpsuit and drove a black dragster onto the campus of Cal State Dominguez Hills, stopping near the entrance of the library. She perched on top of the driver’s seat backrest and recited a text about cars, speed, stress, and fairy tales. She concluded: “It’s a time-honored quotation in performance art, which goes, ‘what is a carriage today might be a pumpkin tomorrow.’” As she climbed back into the driver’s seat and sped away, she threw a glass slipper out of the dragster. In 1978 one of Susan Mogul’s photographs of the performance, titled Cinderella in a Dragster, appeared on the cover of the debut issue of High Performance, the first magazine to document California’s emerging performance scene, in which Lacy was a pioneering figure. Her early solo piece features some of the central elements that would define Lacy’s art over the decades: feminist thinking, a savvy understanding of the power of photography, a penchant for theatrical flourishes, a deep appreciation of California’s car culture, and the capacity to address an audience outside traditional art venues.

Brilliantly curated by Rudolf Frieling, Lucía Sanromán, and Dominic Willsdon, “Suzanne Lacy: We Are Here,” the artist’s current retrospective, illuminates and clarifies the underlying preoccupations of her work, which often defies easy categorization. Featuring work made between 1972 and 2019, the exhibition is one show displayed in two distinct spaces, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the neighboring Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The traditional scholarly aims of a multi-decade retrospective—establishing a chronology, solidifying authorship and provenance, and chronicling studies, drafts, and other preparatory material relevant to the final work—are complicated by Lacy’s collaborative artistic practice. Some of Lacy’s projects have unfolded over long periods of time during which she has returned to pieces, readjusting them and creating multiple versions of a text, performance, installation, or video. Despite these challenges, the curatorial team has brought into focus Lacy’s sprawling, ethically probing, and prescient social practice.

While Lacy’s work has held a central place in the histories of feminist and performance art the United States, “We Are Here” expands the critical frame, detailing how she has extended her feminist analyses to political issues of labor, climate change, religious difference, and global capitalism. Though much of the work responds to the social and political context of California, Lacy has also realized projects in Latin America and Europe. Remarkably, in today’s international art world where it is common for peripatetic artists to create work with only a veneer of site specificity, Lacy’s art springs from her capacity to establish real bonds with a community. She often maintains contact with her collaborators for years after they have worked on a project together. The longevity of her relationships reflects an ethical regard for the lives of people often ignored in mainstream art history and practice.

Taking the feminist axiom that “the personal is political” as a departure point, Lacy’s early work incorporates the lessons she learned from Judy Chicago and other artists associated with the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts, where she studied beginning in 1971. Lacy was also influenced by Chicago’s colleague at CalArts, Allan Kaprow. His experimental approach to eroding the borders between life and art inspired her to create performances “with” people, rather than “for” or “about” them. (Most of Lacy’s collaborators did not consider themselves artists before their encounter with her.) Lacy’s 1977 collaboration with Leslie Labowitz, In Mourning and in Rage, for example, was a collective performance piece designed with the protocols of the evening news firmly in mind. The piece responded to a double horror: the brutal crimes of a serial killer known as the Hillside Strangler, and the sensationalized media coverage of the raped and murdered women who were his victims. Lacy and Labowitz arranged for a sixty-car motorcade led by a hearse to snake through Los Angeles before arriving at City Hall, where invited journalists were waiting. The reporters and their camera crews watched as nine very tall women clad in black robes from head to toe (each representing one of the victims killed in Los Angeles by the Hillside Strangler), and a tenth, dressed entirely in red (representing the power of self-defense), chanted grim statistics in the manner of a tone poem, giving the performance a ritual structure. Each woman repeated: “I am here . . . ” followed by a list of crime statistics against women. (“I am here for the 4,033 women who have been raped in LA last year . . .”) Concluding with a performance of Holly Near’s rousing song of empowerment, “Fight Back,” the event was widely covered by local and statewide news, and brought much-needed attention to the ways in which the media used crimes against women to sell newspapers and broadcasts.

Disturbed that such media treatment contributed to what we now call “rape culture,” Lacy and Labowitz organized Ariadne, a collective of artists and activists interested in addressing violence against women from a feminist perspective. Among the collective’s projects is Three Weeks in May (1977), which centered on a map of Los Angeles stamped with the word rape in red ink to mark locations where rapes had occurred. Ariadne members posted the map in the shopping mall below City Hall and updated it over the course of three weeks, highlighting the terrifying prevalence of sexual violence. Some of the actual crime scenes themselves were marked with the details of the attack spray-painted in red on the sidewalk.

Mapping is one of Lacy’s recurrent strategies, which she has used for both acts of direct civic engagement and more personal, intimate work focused on the subjective experiences of women, including herself. “Prostitution Notes” (1974–75) is a record of her observations of sex workers in LA. The project comprises notes, diagrams, matchbook covers from cafés and bars in which she met her subjects, and maps of her encounters (and missed encounters) with them—all set on large pieces of brown paper. Lacy employed the methods of ethnography—conducting interviews and documenting encounters with her subjects—but her aim was to understand how their experiences echoed her own. Seeking to avoid exploiting the people she met, Lacy anchored her work in self-reflection, underscoring the physical and psychological situations that she shared with women in the sex industry. (“My involvement in prostitution is expressed by my fear of taking money from men.”) Mapping her encounters in shared time and space with these women was a way to establish a connection between her life and theirs. Lacy narrated some of these initial encounters in a 1996 performance, and she later included updated versions of the stories of the women she met in 1973 in her 2010 book Leaving Art: Writings on Performance, Politics, and Publics, 1974-2007. As is characteristic of Lacy’s art, these initial encounters, recorded in notes on butcher paper, launched a multi-decade project that took many forms while always remaining grounded in Lacy’s attachment to the people she met.

 

THIS KIND OF long-term commitment also shapes The Roof Is on Fire (1993–94), one of Lacy’s most profound performances, which emerged from her decade-long piece “The Oakland Projects” (1991–2001). One evening in Oakland, 220 public high school students sat in one hundred cars parked on the rooftop of a garage and talked with parents, teachers, police officers, and representatives of various civic organizations. The piece was part of a multiyear collaboration with youth living in Oakland, which featured workshops focused on how they could gain control of a media narrative that depicted many of them, especially the young black men, as “super predators.” Audience members moved from one car to another. The teens stayed in the driver’s seat and controlled the conversation.

For “We Are Here,” Lacy and some of her original collaborators, especially Chris Johnson and Unique Holland, created a large video installation that weaves together footage from the 1994 performance with new video interviews of some of the participants conducted in the past year. The parallels between the 1994 conversations and the current ones, especially in relation to police violence, are hard to miss. Beautifully installed on the first-floor gallery of YBCA, documentation of “The Oakland Projects” also depicts collaborations with the Oakland Public Schools, the Mayor’s office, the Oakland Police Department, various health care institutions, and media outlets. Additionally, YBCA invited current members of various local youth organizations—including some that Lacy originally worked with, such as Youth Speaks, YR Media, and the Center for Media Justice—to create work that will be featured in the exhibition.

One of the most daring and moving pieces in the show also foregrounds the creativity of collaborators who are not professional artists. De tu puño y letra (By Your Own Hand), 2014–15/2019, documents a live performance of Lacy’s response to the Cartas de Mujeres project, ten thousand letters Ecuadorian women wrote in 2011 about their harrowing experiences of violence, often stories of appalling sexual and domestic assault. The women initially drafted the letters as part of a United Nations campaign to bring attention to violence against women, and Lacy saw an opportunity to activate the immense archive. Performed live in a bullring in Quito’s Plaza Belmonte in 2015, the piece began with a narrative recitation drawn from the letters delivered by 350 men from all walks of life. The men spoke as they made a procession into the bullring, steadily filling the entire arena. After a moment of silence, the voice of an elderly woman concluded the recitation by asking “Why do you call this love?” The men then formed small groups in which they re-read the letters aloud and discussed them. In 2017, Lacy returned to Ecuador to film sixty men from the original live performance for a video installation that concludes the SFMOMA section of the exhibition.

The tall, narrow video screens are arranged in a circle, evoking the architecture of a bullring. Rather than merely documenting the 2015 performance, however, the 2019 video installation transforms the event, revealing subtleties that could not have been seen in the vast arena. The video close-ups, for example, make visible the men’s awkward body language—the involuntary gestures and facial expressions—that the participants make as they read the heart-wrenching accounts. It is a complex performance of acceptance and rejection. The men, who are not professional actors, clearly struggle with the task, taking the stories into their own bodies and expelling them into our ears (and the ears of the writers). Witnessing the men face the challenge of reading the letters—offering the points of view of women who are likely akin to their wives, sisters, and daughters—is not enough to repair the wounds of sexual violence. The work, in fact, reveals a chasm between the authority accorded to men’s voices and the doubt that women testifying about their lives and pain routinely face. But this process of absorbing women’s words, of bearing witness, seems like an important step in an arduous path forward. 

 

IN A STATEMENT published in the excellent catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, Lacy confesses that “the idea of independent and isolated originality has never been attractive to me.”1 “We Are Here” goes to enormous lengths to share authorship. Both the catalogue and the wall texts in the exhibition cascade with the names of Lacy’s collaborators. More important, perhaps, the documentation of older works included in the show effectively offers a score for new kinds of creative engagement, such as the work contributed by recent participants in Oakland youth groups. Put in a slightly different way, the exhibition fully earns the capacious “we” of its title.

Nonetheless, the exhibition also exposes the inadequacy of critical frameworks available to illuminate Lacy’s art. At different historical moments the paradigms of feminist art, site-specific work, relational aesthetics, multimedia, ethnographic art, and social practice have all been applied to her project, in part because each framework has both captured and missed something essential about it. The elements missed may well be beyond the category of art conceptually. And perhaps the gap between Lacy’s art and our critical vocabulary illuminates the double aims of her work.

In a conversation at SFMOMA with Willsdon and writer Lucy Lippard on April 20, Lacy said, “I don’t care as much about art as I care about human trafficking.” I was slightly taken aback by this comment. On the one hand, how refreshing and humbling to say on the occasion of a major retrospective, “Let’s not get too inflated here. There are more important things than art.” But on the other hand, sitting in the plush seats of the Wattis Theatre at SFMOMA, I also thought, “‘We’ are all gathered here to think about your art because many people decided to fund it, participate in its creation, and display it with enormous care—and you are saying ‘go think about human trafficking?’”

Perhaps Lacy’s comment functions best as a provocative reminder of the difficult task “we” face as we live through the positive and negative consequences of decades of eroding the distinction between art and life. In an era in which many US citizens believed that the performance of Donald Trump on a reality television show qualified him to be president, eroding the border between art and life might not seem like an unmitigated good. Perhaps Lacy’s comment was an effort to re-establish a wall between the achievements of art and the perils of life.

“We Are Here” arrives at a vexed moment for museums. While various artists and activist groups have targeted museums in the past for their less-than-progressive decisions about collections and funding—perhaps most notably Hans Haacke in the ’70s and the Guerrilla Girls in the ’80s—it is only recently that the ethics, finances, and political stances of major museums and their boards have been subject to broad public scrutiny. For example, members of the activist group Decolonize This Place have demanded that the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York remove Warren Kanders from his position as board vice chair due to his connection to a manufacturer of teargas used against migrants on the southern border of the US. Members of Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN), have protested at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim because both New York institutions have accepted funds from the Sackler family, which owns the company that produces the highly addictive opioid Oxycontin.

“We Are Here” highlights alternative ways of operating within the art world. Lacy’s commissions have come from city governments, community groups, schools, and private foundations. She has been invited to create work that has sidestepped the common model of success that imagines an artist sweating away in a studio, hoping to create work that can be sold for display to a private collector or public institution. Working collaboratively, honing her capacity to listen to others, and insisting on the cultural value of the lives, hopes, and dreams of the unrepresented, Lacy succeeds even as she appears to run counter to the economic logic that underpins the art world. The future of that logic is currently unknown. “We Are Here” may either be the culmination of a feminist progressive political art that has managed to remain vital without the support of major museums that is now ending, or a suggestive illustration of a vibrant museological practice still to come.