Suzanne Lacy at AD&A Museum (UCSB). Photo by impactmania.
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
Suzanne Lacy is among the first generation of social practice artists who explores gender, race, and class equities. Her career includes performances, multimedia installation, critical writing and public practices in communities. She is best known as one of the Los Angeles performance artists who became active in the Seventies and shaped and emergent art of social engagement.For Skin of Memory (1999-2017) she worked with anthropologist Pilar Riaño-Alcalá, community workers, and residents of a barrio in Medellín, Colombia. This project was part of a regional initiative to break the cycle of violence.
In an earlier interview you raised the question whether art can create social change. Can it?
Yes, but conditionally. Different kinds of art operate differently; a song operates differently than a painting. Different cultures have a different relationship to art, so a mural in Mexico City might mean something different than a mural in Chicago.
It might have different social impacts. I came to think about how art joins with other social activities, other political actions, other organizations, and cultural themes pushing towards the same goal. I feel that is critical to work with or in alignment in some way. That’s a bit of a conundrum that an artist has to deal with.
Give me an example of impact, in your work.
Well, I’m hesitant to do that, because I don’t make those kinds of claims for it. You never know for sure about a one-to-one relationship between an art act and a social change. A change can take place because there was an artwork here, a social movement here, and an educational program there. They all converged at a certain moment. I’ve had training as a social scientist, so I do look a lot at the actual identifiable impacts of some of my projects.
For example, as a result of an art project called In Mourning and In Rage (1977) that I did with Leslie Labowitz, Rape Hotlines were listed in the phone books; money that was first going to be a reward for finding the “Hillside Strangler” [two American serial killers who terrorized Los Angeles in the late 1970s.] became dedicated toward self-defense classes across the city.
I’ve seen specific changes in the social sphere. I’ve also seen changes in people’s lives, but retrospectively, the people I worked with have changed my life. When you enter a set of relational ties that is what a project is for me, you’ll impact each other. They are reciprocal learning environments and relational networks that get established. Those inevitably cause change. I would say my work aims toward causing social change.
You mentioned building towards change by collaborating with others across sectors, what would some of the other ingredients be?
There needs to be an alignment of vision. That vision has to be, however ill defined the notion of what we’re moving toward, what kind of social project, what do we hope for as an outcome? In the case of violence against women, we hope that we can stop violence against women. That’s a very utopian idea, but social changes are driven by some utopian notion of equity.
How do you start tackling an issue that concerns you?
I start with an observation; often it’s an observation about inequity. I try to enter into and engage with conversations that will teach me. While I’m learning I also act as conduit and share information with other people. Slowly over time, we align our agendas.
Aligning one’s vision and interest, then the way an artist fits into that is to find some creative way of either magnifying, expressing, or connecting those points of views to a larger public. There are many goals for art, but that’s one of them.
I would say that the ingredients of successful social change include aligning people’s agendas, listening deeply to understand the differences in where they come from, and trying to figure out, collectively, ways to accommodate the different viewpoints. This keeps us thinking about where we want to go and what we want to say.
Give me an example of a project that established lasting social impact?
In the 1970s when the issue of violence against women was beginning to surface in the mainstream media, women got together and started rape hotlines. Then the Sheriff’s Department decided they needed a sex violent investigation unit to handle cases that they didn’t quite understand.
In the ‘70s a friend with the national organization for women put together a program to re-educate judges. Women would get raped, show up in court, and the judge would say things like, “Well, you shouldn’t have been wearing that short skirt.” At that point in time there was no platform to even understand why that was a problem.
People began to realize that this was a position of authority that needed to be transformed. You could protest outside the judge’s office, which probably wouldn’t be all that effective. One of the arising actions was to create a program to re-train judges. In order to do that, my friend had to have a certain access to power, to understand how systems operated, and to understand how the issue of violence against women needed correction in jurisprudence.
You have staged many large art projects that involved public discussion — what have you learned that was surprising?
Remember, I have been doing this for over 40 years. [Laughs.] I would not say surprising, but I have learned a lot about different social conditions and people’s different experiences. That’s what I get out of an art project. I get to understand a community. For example, in Oakland when I was working with teenagers, it started with a question that my colleague Chris Johnson and I had. We began to notice, that there were some kids beginning to have appearances in the media. Why were images like these emerging?
It wasn’t just race bound, it was also about class and age. Chris Johnson is African American, he and I understood the position of the African American youth in different ways. The issue that we began to notice was in the early 1990s, the kids that we would see on the streets waiting for buses after school, were showing up on the media in certain ways — often in handcuffs.
In the case of The Crystal Quilt (1987) I wondered why there weren’t images of older women in the media appearing?
The question can be about absence or presence, but it comes out of questioning the disjuncture between what I optimistically believe is true about human nature, and the way I see them being portrayed and treated.
I have a question I’m wrestling with in my current project. I’ve worked a lot in Appalachia. I come from a white working class family, in fact I would probably say, everybody in my family’s either born again or somebody that is a Trump voter.
I’m really puzzled over how we got Trump and how my family sees the world compared to how I see the world and we’re very close. It’s not like we’re not emotionally connected to each other. I’m wondering about the people I worked with in Appalachia and the so-called white working class. I wonder about the supposed Trump voters’ way of seeing the world. I’m trying to understand how one could ever link the view I have which, I believe, is probably a lot more supportive to my family’s wellbeing in the long run, with what they’re hearing and seeing on Fox News.
How do I cross that gap? At night, I look at MSNBC, CNN and Fox, and I bounce back and forth to try to understand the programs and the way people communicate. What’s not said, what’s said. The way the same event is framed and is delivered. The combative communicative style that you see a lot on Fox News. It is quite aggressive, and you see it popping up more in public life — I see it.
With all the conversations you have had with different communities in our society, is there a common thread that ties all of these groups?
Well, since I tend not to work with highly privileged people, the common thread is some form of oppression, or some lack in their life that I feel is a burden to all of us, not just to them. I believe very strongly in the shared social responsibility, which is found in most religions actually.
For me, it’s a form of spiritual practice to serve and connect people. I selfishly do it as an artist, because art gives me pleasure. There’s other ways you can serve without being an artist.
There are many women who would want to be more involved. Unfortunately, many don’t know how. There have been call-to-actions such as, “Run for office if you want to make a difference.” That’s not for everybody. What would be an effective way for a woman to express her voice?
You’re right. First off, you need to think about fear, because often fear is what causes people not to reach beyond. It could be fear that they’ll make a mistake. It could be fear that they’ll get into a situation in terms of interracial work. White people are often afraid that they’ll be put down as racist. Women sitting at home might think they have nothing to offer. There are all kinds of psychological fears that keep people from extending themselves. You have to be conscious of fear.
Second, you have to be conscious of acknowledging and validating your impulse to reach out. If you are walking down the street and a homeless person comes up to you, there can be fear. It takes an effort when confronted by a homeless person to try to understand who they are. Now they probably want money, not to be understood. But I do talk a lot to homeless people if they’re where I am. I saw a mom and her kids sitting on the street corner. My first reaction was, what’s happening here? Then my second impulse might be fear. “Is she a drug addict? Why is she in this situation?” It might be fear I could be like that. There might be judgment or even a sense of self-preservation, “I don’t want to get too involved.”
But if you have that impulse, I would not say that you need to do something at that moment, but you need to look seriously at that impulse. If I was a person who had my normal life and I kept seeing homeless people and noticing women, I’d want to find out what that was about. Why are women on the street now? Where are they living? How did they get here? I might want to volunteer. I might want to seek out a group at my church that delivered meals to people in need on Thanksgiving. I might want to read statistics or I might pick up Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich.
There are all kinds of ways to learn. I would say if you find yourself noticing something, pay attention to that. That means something about you and that often indicates something that you need to need to know about the situation.
I have to make a living! I deeply believe in education. My artworks are educational also. They’re almost like classes taken place within the artwork. You can look at it as art, you can look at it as politics, and you can also look at it as pedagogy.
I believe deeply in teaching and learning, and reciprocity in teaching and learning. When I say the biggest beneficiary of my work is me, it is because when in Oakland, I’m looking at these kids and wondering, “what’s going on? How come they’re showing up in the newspapers as criminals? They don’t scare me. What’s happening here?” I began to learn from them. I always begin my projects learning from reading, and my direct observations. Throughout those ten years, on The Oakland Projects, I was the beneficiary of a huge learning process about the way politics affects children’s lives and about the way race is deeply intertwined with issues of class. I also learned how California in particular has been a platform for really regressive attitudes towards children and youth. This is most obvious in the radicalized attitudes and class-based attitudes. It is especially obvious in the policies that have been put in place that will affect young children their entire lives.
I learned a lot and am very grateful to the people who take it upon themselves to teach me. I have friends that teach me a lot about racism and how it operates in their lives.
Tell me a little bit about your education.
I’m a working class kid who would not have gone to college except that California at that time had passed the Higher Education Act in 1960 which gave all of us the ability to go to college. If you were smart, you went to college, period. There was a big state system including this school, which I went to.
All of the schooling I received, which is years and years and years, most of it was either free or low cost at that time. It was always assumed in my family that I would go to school ‘cause that’s what you did if you were the kid of an electrician and a clerk.
School profoundly transformed my life. I’m a big advocate for people to go to school, I’m also a big advocate that it’s free, which it isn’t. I think that you can’t go wrong going to more and more school.
Tell me about teaching, what is challenging to teach — that students have difficulties grasping?
Well, it depends, for artists it’s challenging to teach students how to think more pragmatically. It’s hard to get them to think systemically about social change ‘cause that’s not the way their education has worked. Often, the brains don’t even work that way — you have to be interested in systems and analysis.
That’s the science part of my background. There are a lot of artists who are highly educated and thinking about social systems. But in general, with my students, that’s not the way they think and so again, for me, it’s learning, how do they think?
I’m particularly interested in how learning-disabled kids think because a lot of artists have different kinds of learning disabilities. I’m quite intrigued by how dyslexics see the world.
Is there a particular skill or methodology that you try to impart on them?
No, I’m interested in people connecting their spiritual and ethical self with their psychological and creative self. I tend to be pretty psychological in my teaching.
We always ask our interviewees who’s left an impact on their professional DNA.
I would say the two in terms of me being an artist are Allan Kaprow and Judy Chicago. Judy Chicago got me into the business and Allan Kaprow is a Buddhist and a conceptual artist, he deeply influenced the way I thought about what was possible in art.
Give me something that they said to you that still stays with you.
Judy said, “Suzanne, focus!” [Laughs.] Pretty much. It was also something that Judy did that stuck with me. I was once crying in her studio. She said, “What’s going on?” I said, “I have no money at all.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a $20 bill, which is probably like a $100 bill today. She said, “I don’t have a lot but you can have it.” With Allan, I would say he introduced me to Buddhism. We had many conversations about it, which was very influential.