Important Art by Suzanne Lacy
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."
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.
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."