American Performance Artist
Summary of Suzanne Lacy
According to feminist artist Suzanne Lacy, no matter what we do as human beings in our individual lives, we are all activists. For her, this meant using the vehicles of public practice, installation, performance-based art, and writing to affect real impactful change in the world. Emerging during an era of American social and political transformation, her "new genre public art" would distill its spotlight onto issues such as equal rights, racial discrimination, violence, rape, ageism, sexism, and more. But she remains more than mere mouthpiece or waver of the banner for the misfortunate; her work infiltrates the psyches of staid institutions, helps topple stale belief systems, and creates awareness surrounding the important issues of our time. As she has stated, "I have an ethical obligation as a person to make the world more equitable."
- Coming of age during an important cross section of feminism and art in the late '60s and early '70s informed Lacy's pivotal work with Judy Chicago and the seminal Woman's Building in Los Angeles. Although this time established her first and foremost as a feminist, her altruistic passions would spread their tendrils into an artistic oeuvre that focused on helping all marginalized peoples.
- A pioneer in Identity Art and Identity Politics, Lacy's work has helped spotlight the circumstances and experiences of groups of people who, for whatever reason, are in need of political alliances separate from traditional broad-based party lines in order to gain exposure toward their concerns and issues.
- With a career that resonates with the witch or shaman archetype, Lacy represents those women of our society who dwell purposefully, without regard to fame or fortune, orchestrating healing and positive evolution by holding up a mirror to humanity that expresses its communal shadows, and that which might otherwise go unspoken.
- Lacy's key techniques as an artist are similar to those used by seasoned journalists, psychologists (she has an educational background), and social anthropologists. Her creative tools consist of data collection, research, observation, assimilation, and reporting methodologies.
- The success of Lacy's career cannot be measured in physical artworks, concrete documentation, or a resume dotted with gallery exhibitions but rather, by the important shifts in social climate her work has contributed to manifesting. This encompasses the education of police departments about the realities of rape and her current position as teacher at the University of Southern California's Roski School of Art & Design.
Progression of Art
With Prostitution Notes, Lacy sought to examine sex work not as stand-alone subject, but rather to locate the experience of prostitutes within her own life, "looking for echoes of their lives in mine." To accomplish this, she spent four months in Los Angeles interviewing friends, contacts, and sex workers at various restaurants and cafes about their opinions and experiences in regards to prostitution. She meticulously wrote down what she was told, took photos of the location of the interviews, and recorded what everyone ate, collecting matchbooks, stickers, and other mementoes.
The work was a combination of performance, subjectivity, and research that acted as a record of her emotional response to what she learned. By the end of the project, ten large diagrams emerged depicting the psychosocial spaces Lacy uncovered, recording the language and power dynamics of the relationships involved. The work also highlighted our communal denial of aspects of society that exist alongside us in our everyday life. Lacy wrote, "The street corners, restaurants and bars of Los Angeles took on a new appearance... Sunset at Highland is a very hot spot for hooking. I'm amazed, since I've passed it hundreds of times."
She added, that "Most of what we knew at that time came from literature and films that greatly glamorized the life. I didn't want to flirt with their reality as a performance, or to relate their stories as an anthropologist might. Rather, I would locate the work inside my own experiences and record the process of my research. 'The Life' as it was called wasn't far from mine."
In 2010, Lacy reinvented Prostitution Notes as a performed reading of her original drawings for the Serpentine Gallery's Map Marathon in London. The work illustrates the strong ethics that have underpinned her entire career, social impact often more important than the endurance of its artistic value. As she explained in 2019, "I don't care as much about art as I care about human trafficking."
Performance - Los Angeles, USA
Three Weeks in May
Three Weeks in May was a mixed media performance piece that sought to examine sexual violence and end societal silence surrounding rape. Lacy's original intentions were to broadcast locations of said violence while expressing women's feelings, and/or personal experiences with rape. For three weeks, Lacy collected reports from the police and printed the word RAPE in red capital letters on a map to coincide with the incident locations. She then would repeat the word in faded printing nearby to represent all the acts of sexual violence that went unreported. A second map illustrated where women could go to get help. Lacy also went to various physical locations where rape had occurred and documented this on the street in red letters, such as "Two women were raped near here. May 9, May 21." Although she initially planned to display the maps in a gallery, she was inspired by Allan Kaprow's "Happenings" and realized that if she put them in a public space they would have a greater impact.
The work was produced at a time when Los Angeles was considered the "Rape Capital" of the United States; in fact, in California it was still legal for men to rape their wives. Rape was so taboo that Lacy stated, "Women never, ever admitted to anyone that they had been raped. To admit to rape in 1970 was to admit that there was essentially something terribly wrong with you."
The work had a powerful effect and caused real social change. As Lacy described, "I got access to City Council, the police department. I began to make relationships in convincing that this was an important area of public concern." Consequently, the LAPD set up rape reporting call lines and the City Government began to address violence against women.
The work was examined in Vivien Green Fryd's book Against Our Will: Sexual Trauma in American Art Since 1970 as a source of incredible power in its combination of activism, education, and theory, marking the beginning of "new genre public art." Fryd explained, "As a political activist committed to fighting oppression, Lacy learned ways to affect cultural attitudes, the criminal justice system and the media through her visceral performance that forced discussion about the formerly silent subject of rape. She wielded her strategic agency through this performance to challenge gender norms...and contribute to the anti-rape movement in the United States."
Participating artists included Barbara Cohen, Melissa Hoffman, Leslie Labowitz, and Jill Soderholm. In 2012 Lacy recreated Three Weeks in May for the Getty Pacific Standard Time Performance Festival with her piece Storytelling Rape.
Performance - Los Angeles, USA
The Life and Times of Donaldina Cameron
Marginalized people and populations are a common subject throughout Lacy's work. This work, produced in collaboration with activist, writer, and artist Kathleen Chang, examined the immigrant experience. The performance took place for an audience on a ferry to Angel Island, the historical point of entry for Asian immigrants to the San Francisco Bay area. The audience was made up of art supporters and unsuspecting tourists, who each received a piece of paper written with stories of Asian Pacific women, trafficked into the country, legal immigrants, and Japanese war brides. When the ferry arrived at the island, artists dressed in period costumes, walked up the hill to meet it. Lacy portrayed Donaldina Cameron, a social reformer, while Chang played a relative who had come to the new world. On her website, Lacy stated, "Taken together, the narratives offered indictment, challenge, and historical understanding to the complicated cross-racial organizing process, commenting on how the very missionaries who transformed and subverted Chinese culture in their subjects were often the only hope for women's education and health."
Since the 1960s, artists had been exploring identity politics as a way to understand issues of agency and power. Yet Lacy was radical in her impetus to explore and understand social cross-sections by assimilating into, with, or alongside their unique experiences. Explaining this piece, she described, "I do not become black or Chinese, but I integrate myself as closely as possible into that experience to understand the correlations of our shared experience, to expand my identity and become the other." As art historian Sharon Irish said, "Lacy chose to use her body and to collaborate with other bodies to animate her concerns and questions during a time when identity politics both defined groups and wrenched them apart."
Understandably, while she examined racial difference in pieces such as this, Lacy attracted controversy. Marvin Carlson said in Performance, A Critical Introduction, "Lacy encountered much resistance from Chinese artists, who felt that a white feminist with her own agenda could neither understand nor represent their concerns, and saw this attempt to speak 'for' them little different from male dramatists speaking for women."
Performance - San Francisco Bay, USA
In Crystal Quilt (and later in 2013's Silver Action) Lacy wanted to produce "a very complex social strategy" around two themes: our societal erasure of a woman's visibility as she ages and the leadership capacity of older women. To do so, she brought together 430 women over 60 years old on Mother's Day in 1987 to a shopping center in Minnesota. They sat together at a grid of tables bedecked with black tablecloths, which were unfolded to show either red or yellow. The women would then have what Lacy termed "sculpted conversations" around key questions that involved the present and future, but purposefully not the past. Because, as Lacy said, "It was important that we didn't see older women as reservoirs of memory but as potential activists within public sphere." Every 10 minutes the participants would move their hands so that from above, where the performance was viewed and filmed, it would appear as if stitches on a quilt were changing. 3,000 people came to watch the performance and at the end were invited to flood the stage bearing hand-painted scarves, transforming the austere choreography of the living quilt design into a chaotic patchwork of color.
Lacy collaborated with Phyllis Jane Rose, Miriam Schapiro, Nancy Dennis, and Susan Stone on the project. The performance was not political in the way that much of her other work was, but still aimed to effect societal change. In an interview following her 2013 reprisal Silver Action, she explained, "An artwork is not as effective as a treaty or a law or a budget change. I don't think a single artwork transforms society. But what an artwork does is create a cultural milieu within which things will be understood differently. That is what we're hoping to achieve."
The work was considered one of Lacy's most successful and achieved substantial scholarly attention. It helped her further define her signature brand of "new genre public art" as "visual art that uses both traditional and nontraditional media to communicate and interact with a broad and diversified audience about issues directly relevant to their lives."
Performance - Minnesota, USA
Alterations, was a collaboration between Suzanne Lacy, Susanne Cockrell, and Britta Kathmeyer, performed at San Francisco's Capp Street Gallery. The installation consisted of three enormous piles of textiles; one red, one white, and one blue to symbolize the American flag. Every day a small group of different women would sit in a circle near the piles and hand stitch garments out of the fabric while talking to each other. The hearkening to a traditional sewing circle was tinged political through the use of women from different races such as Asian and African American, as well as the location of the gallery, which was in the middle of the garment district. Viewers could walk around, watching and listening, but the women's conversations competed greatly with the sound of a sewing machine chattering in their center.
The work raised issues about the role of race and class in the production of clothes in the United States, addressing the cost of women's labor, immigration, patriotism, and capitalism. As art historian Bridget Quinn said, "Women hand-stitch fabric from towering piles...that are replenished every evening, creating an endless stream of work that calls attention to San Francisco's own garment district, where mostly female immigrant labor sews to feed America's consumer maw, and to feed their families. Sewing is a double bind for women in art, signifying both virtuous women's work and sex (the old in and out)."
In this, as in all her work, collaboration was an important factor in attaining agency and power. Lacy said, "I don't know if I'll see a woman elected president my lifetime, and that's a long time waiting. But in that long haul of social justice work, it's very critical that you value those people who have come before you and on whose shoulders you stand. Collaboration is a way to mobilize people who have shared values. It places you in a long trajectory, of those who came before you and those younger folks who will continue this movement towards social justice."
Performance - San Francisco, USA
Between the Door and the Street
This was Lacy's first work to take place on the streets of New York and was born out of a series of conversations that took place over a five-month period between the artist and a group of activists in the city. The piece would culminate for one day in Park Place, Brooklyn on a closed off street where 400 women and a few men converged to partake. The steps of the Brooklyn Museum, which sponsored the event, were painted yellow with questions to represent various issues, and concerns that had resulted from her conversations. The aesthetics of the work were also important. While participants could wear what they chose, they were unified by yellow scarves, which tied together the curb markings and yellow potted plants.
The location was also relevant because Lacy wanted to attract a public audience with her message that was meant for everyone on the street. She described, "I think, in general, museums don't attract the diversity of audiences I'm interested in. For that, I think you have to go where people are, where they live." Her participants came from a variety of socio-economic, religious, and racial backgrounds and she told them before the event, "The most important thing about this project is how many of you have come together to construct it. Can you see what this looks like and feels like? This is amazing. We have so much going on in the world, there are so many voices mobilized against women, people of color and poor people. This is a symbolic gesture. Whatever you want to say - that is completely up to you." 2,500 people came to watch and listen the dialogue surrounding domestic violence, sexual politics, gender identity, race, and inequality.
The work was radical for its time as it provided an arena for underrepresented voices to be heard in a mass way. Unlike today's proliferation of political discourse through widely accessible means such as social media, Lacy's distribution relied on congregation, physical interaction, and use of a highly-populated public space. Art historian Bridget Quinn said that Lacy "confronts issues of gender, violence, race, aging, and capitalism, among other pressing sociopolitical concerns, through a striking visual language that is at once alarming, witty, moving, eye-opening, and, often, beautiful."
Performance - New York
Biography of Suzanne Lacy
Suzanne Lacy was the first of three children born to Larry and Betty Little Lacy in Wasco, California in 1945. She described her father's heritage as "a very poor Tennessee hillbilly environment," while her mother was white Canadian Scottish. Larry had a military background and flew bombing raids over Germany during the World War II before becoming an insurance salesman. Betty worked as a clerk in a gas company. Suzanne's brother Philip was born in 1947 and sister Jean in 1962.
From a very young age, Lacy had a heightened conscience, stating "I was interested in social issues as a child. At first, it was homeless and hungry cats, but after five I began to understand, in some primitive way, injustice." She read magazines and was interested in the Salem Witch trials. She would come to learn that women were not seen as equals to men and that Jewish people and the black community were badly treated.
In 1963, Lacy became the first in her family to seek further education when she enrolled at Bakersfield Community College. She excelled, winning a scholarship to the University of California in Santa Barbara in 1965. There, she obtained a degree in zoology while also studying art and modern dance. Her initial intent was to train as a medical doctor, specializing in psychiatry, and she went on to study psychology as a postgraduate.
In 1968, she joined Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) where she started to become politically engaged. She found great inspiration in the Civil Rights Movement dealing with class inequality. She recalls, "We were concerned with how working-class boys were sent to Vietnam and how farmworkers in the Central Valley were being mistreated."
Lacy's experience as a female growing up amongst the Californian counterculture of the time shaped her beliefs. She would continue on to Fresno State College to further her studies in psychology and while there gained a reputation as "that angry woman." According to her, "I suspect I was quite formulated by that moment in ways that have lasted: my relationship to my body and to physicality, my commitment to social change, equity, my lifelong interest in cross-cultural friendships, understanding difference, my general resistance to tradition. I can't say that I've come to reject much of that at all."
It was at Fresno that she met artist Faith Wilding with whom she felt an instant connection. Lacy says, "She was probably the only other person at Fresno that knew anything about feminism. We proceeded one day to stick up signs all over campus saying, 'Feminist meeting tonight.' There must have been over thirty or forty women who showed up. Faith and I sat there dumbfounded and looked at each other and said, 'What do we do now?' We did what has become, I think, a kind of strategy. We began talking about sex." Together the pair started organizing groups to discuss women's liberation.
In 1970, the artist Judy Chicago arrived at the school to teach art and sculpture and began to build the seminal Feminist Art Program. But when Lacy tried to join she was rejected because of her lack of artistic background. Lacy recalled, "[Chicago] said, 'You are on the career track for psychology, and I'm only interested in working with women who will become professional artists.' I didn't know what on earth she was talking about, but I did know I really wanted to be in that program. So Faith and I proceeded for the next several months to strategize how to get me into the program, which we eventually succeeded in doing...I love to tease Judy now, because I'm probably one of the most successful of the artists from that time, along with Faith. We've always teased her about what bad judgment of character she has."
When the Feminist Art Program transitioned to the California Institute for the Arts in 1971, Lacy followed. She worked as a teaching assistant to artist Sheila de Bretteville and studied with Performance artist Allan Kaprow. Inspired, she began producing her own unique brand of what she called "new genre public art," utilizing a mixed media smorgasbord of visual art, film, performance, installation, public practice, and writing. As biographer and art historian Sharon Irish said, "This variety indicates her ceaseless experimentation and challenges her critics and audiences both in labeling her art and in knowing what to expect with each new work."
Yet regardless of medium, Lacy's intentions toward affecting real social change would sit forefront in all of her burgeoning art and activist endeavors. For one early effort, which was inspired by the late '70s Hillside Strangler murders and other acts of violence against women, Lacy and Leslie Labowitz set up the woman's network Ariadne, a group that brought together women in the arts, media, and government to promote feminist issues and act as a voice for the underrepresented.
Achieving recognition as a female artist in the 1970s was no simple feat. Lacy met with all the usual gender discrimination, saying, "People don't always recognize what it was like then, particularly given that there are so many women in the art world now. While there's still a lot of discrimination (men's art prices are higher, they are better recognized, etc.), at that time there were very few women at all recognized or exhibited." Much of Lacy's work was produced in collaboration with other female artists, at times attracting aggression. On one occasion, as she performed with Chicago and Wilding, she uttered something so provocative to one of the men in the audience that he jumped up on stage and tried to strangle her.
This devout feminism enhanced by perpetual curiosity, and a mission to exhaustively research, analyze, and present the results of her never-ending lust for aiding activism and social justice efforts within our society dominates Lacy's public persona. Not much is known, or written about, her social or personal life as she has continued to travel widely for her work, both inside the United States and internationally to places as varied as Vancouver, Canada to the United Kingdom to Quito, Equador. She says, "I just go where I am invited, and where I will learn something. I like traveling and working in a place different to the one I grew up in. I am quite curious about new environments and people."
Because the nature of her work is typically performance-based, Lacy's pieces cannot be archived in the traditional sense. This has resulted in a lack of solid documentation representing her oeuvre. But the connections she has fostered and relationships she has built are timeless. Through these associations, she has sought to leave a legacy for Feminist artists such as the work she did in her early role as 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 Chicago, Arlene Raven and Levrant de Bretteville. For her 1979 work International Dinner Party, a tribute to Chicago's legendary The Dinner Party (1979), Lacy organized more than 200 women to host dinners worldwide, including artists Mary Beth Edelson, Ana Mendieta, and Louise Bourgeois.
Although Lacy has found critical international recognition for her work, it has not been a lucrative career. As Sharon Irish said, "Lacy made substantial sacrifices in terms of opportunities, income and fame." Her works - often expensive and complicated to organize - have been largely funded through foundations and corporations, leaving her without a straight-forward commodity to sell to a collector or gallery per se. As such, she has consistently supplemented her income through teaching, arts administration, and critical theoretical writings on her art, her process, and art's place in social change.
Lacy's artistic practice continues to thrive and influence the next generation. A recent project titled "School for Revolutionary Girls" orchestrated at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin saw Lacy working with twenty teenage girls over a ten-day period. The "workshop" had the young women explore their own relationship to the 1916 rising of the Irish Revolution and its connection to their own lives growing up as females in contemporary times. After the consciousness-raising process, the girls presented their own "manifesto," for some the first endeavor at practicing, and experiencing the power, of their own "public" voices.
The Legacy of Suzanne Lacy
In 2019, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts simultaneously presented the first full retrospective of the artist's 50-year career. Titled Suzanne Lacy: We Are Here, the exhibition was, in her own words, "reactivated" for a contemporary audience. The curators explained, "Her work resonates very much with our current times - given her focus on issues such as the rights of women, the role of media in criminalizing youth of color, the importance of dialogue across divides of gender, age, race and class - these are of central importance everywhere today, including in museums, and we expect it will continue to resonate for the foreseeable future." As art historian Bridget Quinn pointed out, it is a "somewhat depressing commentary on social progress" that Lacy's work is still so relevant today.
After visiting the retrospective, Quinn described, "Maybe it's coincidence, but the further into the exhibition I went - passing pieces on animal cruelty, aging, plastic surgery, rape, and other forms of violence against women - the fewer people were with me. By the time I reached the back wall, only two other women were still looking. One said, 'Let's change, Joyce. This is dealing with some very heavy subjects,' and they went back the way we came."
The power of Lacy's work has undoubtedly been in its ability to effect real social change. For example, her works focused on sexual violence in the 1970s helped end societal silence toward acknowledging rape and improve police response. The feminist art historian Moira Roth has discussed Lacy's impact in terms of her status as both "witch" - the messenger who highlights taboo subjects which otherwise would not be spoken - and "shaman" - a figure standing at the center of society, observing in order to hold benign healing space.
Lacy's reach can be seen in the work of a new generation of politically engaged artists such as activist artist Eric Millican, performance artist Cindy Rehm, and painter and sculptor Mabel Moore.