PRINT November 1980

Visions and Re-Visions: A Conversation with Suzanne Lacy

Moira Roth: How would you describe the evolution of performance art and where do you place yourself in it?

Suzanne Lacy: I am most familiar with California art, in which one of the major trends is the narrative movement. Artists began creating characters, and the boundaries between the artist’s life and the life of the character were often indistinct—as in the case of Bonnie Sherk, who became a waitress in a doughnut shop but called her employment there a performance. This kind of blurring of boundaries pushed people into exploring their own real-life activities as artists. The narrative art movement—Eleanor Antin is a major figure in it—has combined with feminism to support the expression in art of “life material”: the story of one’s life and other people’s lives, the lives of other classes and other races. I think this important trend predicates much of my work.

Then there is the so-called “art/life dialogue,” which started in the ’60s as people began to think of ranging outside the art world. I don’t think they were successful in moving outside that world with respect to a large audience (as far as I can tell they pretty consistently addressed an art audience), but they did bring life material into the art framework. At first they picked up this material, largely junk objects, and brought it back into their art works, and then they began to move into activities, i.e. what you do with those objects. Allan Kaprow was an early spokesperson for this concept of the artist as a structure-creator of activities for an audience. At first people manipulated real-life activities in a carefully defined control/laboratory setting—the art world. But in the last eight years California has seen a real expansion of these ideas, from “How can you co-opt activity in life and take it back to the art world?” to “How can you bring art esthetics and forms into real life?” This is a simplified version of the logical development of the art/life dialogue of happenings that was spurred on by a parallel development in the feminist art movement. I think the contribution of feminist theory to avant-garde art in California has been underrated; when it is investigated more closely, we will find that the two have been mutually supportive and influential.

M.R.: I am struck by the fact that you don’t mention European performance precedents, or indeed New York performance figures, except Eleanor Antin and Allan Kaprow, who both are originally from the East. Do you have a sense of affinity with any art outside California?

S.L.: There are some affinities—for instance, Mierle Laderman Ukeles in New York and Nil Yalter in Paris; but I don’t think these artists are coming from a developed ideology (i.e., function as part of a larger movement) in the way that artists in California are. An extremely rich fertilization has taken place here: much of it began at the Los Angeles Woman’s Building in 1974–75, and occurred among women brought together by that institution. Since then, people have sought each other out in very interesting ways, moving up and down the coast. Lynn Hershman, Bonnie Sherk, Martha Rosler and others. . . . all of us have fed off each other’s ideas. We are working out of a set of ideas which not only uses materials of the real world and communicates to a larger audience in the real world, but which has potential meaning for the real world.

M.R.: Political meaning?

S.L.: Yes, but by political I don’t mean simply, “Let’s have visual artists duplicate the ideas of particular political theories,” but rather, “How can visual art reflect in a profound way the politics of the artist?” This has opened up performance (or whatever one wants to call this genre of art) to an infusion of sociological, anthropological and visionary material. It provides a framework for creating visions of how society can operate, and at the base of it all is an update of the question, “What are the artists’ possible roles?”

M.R.: Why is it possible now to straddle art and politics more easily in California?

S.L.: I think feminism has a lot to do with it. First, in the late ’60s and early ’70s there was an information explosion in feminism, based on the personal experience of women’s lives. Women got together in consciousness-raising groups and told one another all. There was a profound validation of the worth of the individual’s life experience. Simultaneously, women in performance art (and it was mostly women) began developing the use of character. Now that, in feminist terms, has a very interesting aspect to it. Characters became the way to publicly expose this personal life material. The second thing that happened in the feminist movement was the re-creation of history—looking at history from a women-centered point of view. And, in art, Eleanor Antin started to work with that notion early on, as Judy Chicago did later, in a totally different manner, with The Dinner Party. I think that any artist who develops a character and explores her personal history is participating in this re-creation of history.

M.R.: Do Antin’s 18th-century ballerina, your representation of the 19th-century missionary figure Donaldina Cameron, and the pre-history images of Mary Beth Edelson all represent the feminist reworking of history?

S.L.: Yes. I think what we are doing collectively is creating a whole frame of reference—past, present and future.

M.R.: So autobiographical and “history” performance are complementary ways of providing this framework.

S.L.: Right. The next thing that happened was that feminist artists undertook very seriously—and again this was aligned with what was going on generally in feminism—a kind of egalitarianism, an equal valuing of each one’s life. In California this was part of the feminist art programs, which were searching for ways to develop the creativity of young women, questioning what female art was. All these discussions were centered around the issue of who is an artist. This questioning led many women to the decision that the role of the artist had been too restricted, and there was an exploration of what I call the “democratization of art,” the idea that everyone, artist and non-artist, has the potential for creative expression.

M.R.: In early feminist performance do you see this stress on personal experience and the democratization of art as the expression of feminist politics, or do feminist politics mean something in addition to that?

S.L.: Well, there are three points in feminist theory which strongly affected feminist performance, and they have to do with first, the value of personal experience; second, the democratization of processes; and, third, the personal as political. When women got together in consciousness-raising groups, they began to notice how many of them had been raped and that nobody had talked about it before. They began to make connections and say “This looks to me like a political issue as opposed to a straight personal issue.” Another area in which feminist theory has led the art vanguard is in the notion of audience. Today everybody talks about the audience, and so did everybody in the feminist movement in ’69. However, artists weren’t talking about it then. At first feminist performance artists brashly, even antagonistically, put the stuff out and the audience reacted in kind. After that there was a retreat into a cooler analysis: Now, what do we really want from these audiences?

M.R.: Aren’t we talking about two different audiences for these early feminist performance artists? The first was the intimate, supportive audience which they encountered when they were working together—often on a daily basis and in a feminist art education circle. The second was the one they found when they made forays into what was usually a hostile world.

S.L.: Right. In the feminist art programs, there was a lot of talk and study about how to transform public opinion. As political people, feminist performance artists were interested in social change outside this feminist circle; they became more subtle in the way they communicated to an audience. Simultaneously, their vision of who the audience could be grew larger.

M.R.: So far we’ve been talking of the impact of feminist ideology on feminist performance art. That was certainly a major source for your own work. Are you drawn to other models, perhaps to a more private sense of being an artist?

S.L.: The conflict that I think is always present in my work, and I am sure a lot of other artists must feel it too, is the need to make a very private gesture or symbol manifest in the world. I think we all probably have a set of philosophies that we are working out in life, and they aren’t all going to fit a political mold. Personal creation to me is something that comes out of one’s own unconscious and is freed from all intellectual constraints during the act of creation. I think my problem has to do with when and how you communicate personal vision, and to whom you communicate it. But you shouldn’t censor the visions as they emerge. I know that for me the image comes first; the idea originates in the shower, on the freeway, floats in the air. And then there is the honing of it, which is a combination of esthetic and political processes. But the image comes first.

I would say that one of my primary concerns from the beginning (in fact from my earlier work as a premed and psychology student) is the preoccupation with living inside of a physical body—the body as a time bomb. How does one learn to trust it, given our mortality?

M.R.: You have often said that your “Old Lady” work relates to that preoccupation, although there is a tendency for most people to read the character only in sociological or political terms.

S.L.: People often think I am making a statement about how terrible it is to be an old lady in this society, but that’s not a source of the work for me. The source of the work has to do with being inside a body which changes and grows infirm; and I think the precedents for that are found in several artists, for example Lucas Samaras and Bruce Connor. In my “Old Lady” pieces, I frequently carry around a lamb carcass mummified in gauze. It is a metaphor for a consciousness that has to carry a body around.

Another crucial element in my work— in The Life and Times of Donaldina Cameron, the “Watts” and “Prostitution Notes” pieces, the “Bag Lady” and even the “Old Lady” work— has to do with loosening the physical boundaries of the flesh, hence of the identity. In the pieces I consciously moved into the realm of another experience, another social setting, and became one with that. That obviously does not mean that I become black or Chinese, but that I integrate myself as closely as possible into that experience to understand the correlations of our shared experience, to expand my identity and to become the other. It is a self-educating process.

M.R.: Several of your pieces, even the Donaldina Cameron piece, present information about sexual violence. You have said that women are oppressed through their bodies and through their sexuality. How is your more overtly political work related to your experiences of the physical?

S.L.: My work on violence is a clear instance of the transition from the personal to the political. Rape, the individual oppression of women through their bodies, was revealed through consciousness-raising processes in the feminist movement as a profoundly political act. There are several reasons for my using this issue in art. One, I had been personally involved in the subject of rape since my rape book in 1971 and my collaboration with Judy Chicago and two other women in Ablutions. Two, the threat of violence is a current condition of every woman’s life. It is a galvanizing issue, and any political organizer uses the conditions which can bring different people together. Three, there are my own personal feelings about violence against the integrity of the body, and about sexuality being at the core of the attack on what is seen as the female or vulnerable aspects of our natures. There is no question but that rape is the essence of trying to snuff out female aliveness. So though I have never been raped, my anger at that phenomenon far exceeds my feeling about any other form of violence or any other form of oppression of women. I know that rape is the most extreme expression of hatred of women. I am enraged by that and it motivates me to do this kind of work.

M.R.: Would you talk about your Three Weeks in May—with its focus on the exposure and critique of the incidence of rape in Los Angeles—as that work seems to pull together so many of your concerns?

S.L.: I did Three Weeks in May in 1977. It evolved out of a long struggle with issues of how to reach a larger audience about feminist concerns, and how to combine the hard-core political realities of being a woman with strongly expressionist visions. What I ended up with was essentially a large-scale performance piece, one taking off from Kaprow’s statement that performance should take place with materials of life in any space but the art world, and over a considerable length of time. I called it a “performance structure.” The creation of Three Weeks in May began months before in negotiations with the different systems I wanted to interact with—political, feminist and artists’ groups. The piece itself took three weeks and was centered around what, in a gallery situation, would nowadays undoubtedly be called a performance activity, since it involved the daily recording, on a large map, of real life evidence (the daily rape reports from the Los Angeles Police Department). And around that revolved another kind of activity—one which you could call performance activity in the context of the structure—press appearances, city politicians’ events, lectures and activities presented by participating organizations, and so on.

Three Weeks in May came out of earlier forms and concerns of mine, but through it I discovered how you work with mass media and why. I bombarded the media with news of and interviews with women activists talking about their rape prevention groups. I wanted to raise the issue in the public consciousness, and the media enabled me to reach a mass audience. The audiences were the people sitting at home, the people walking by the map and the people who attended any of the 30 events at City Hall and all around the city.

M.R.: The media became more exclusively a focus—or, perhaps, differently put, a target—when you and Leslie Labowitz created In Mourning and In Rage later that year. How did the two of you collaborate and why?

S.L.: I met Leslie Labowitz during Three Weeks in May. I had invited several women artists to do performances on violence during those three weeks. Leslie not only supported me in the development of the piece as a whole but she herself did a series of street-theater events for it. She had studied at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles and then went to Germany to work with Joseph Beuys for six years. In ’77, she had just come back to the States. There was a natural convergence of the politics and performance that we each had developed separately. Leslie did a piece called Record Companies Drag Their Feet in August of ’77, and I arrived home from Europe just in time to see the piece. She used a model she had developed earlier in Germany—which was to work intensely with one political organization. Leslie picked an organization called Women Against Violence Against Women, and worked with them in developing the piece, which was about violence in record company advertising. Its ramifications for me were profound. She developed the performance specifically for a media news production, and she did it in a calculated and strategic way. I was very impressed with Record Companies Drag Their Feet. Following that, three months later, Leslie and I put together in two weeks, the Hillside Strangler piece, In Mourning and In Rage. That piece came out of a passionate rage at what was happening to women in Los Angeles, and for Leslie more immediately from how the media was presenting what was happening to women.

M.R.: How did the images and attitudes of the piece—the giant, female mourning figures and the text of protest—evolve in terms of collaboration?

S.L.: Interestingly, the image of the mourning women emerged from both our histories, but independently and from different sources. I think it is a common image, one that resonates in our collective mythology. It was refined over the course of a lot of angry consultations with the feminist art community at the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles. At first they were enraged that we were dealing with rape in the fashion of mourning. They wanted that mourning transformed into rage. They felt that the figures didn’t adequately portray the important empowerment, that both Leslie and I had been working toward intuitively. Several women from the community worked with us to develop a piece that eventually reflected not only the repressed rage, which Leslie and I had in mind, but also an outward, overt rage.

We created In Mourning and In Rage essentially for two reasons. One was to make a radical feminist critique of how the media was presenting the murders to its Los Angeles audience. The Hillside Strangler case was one of many instances of such violence and yet it was singled out to become a sensationalist and sometimes exploitative media event.

M.R.: And cases of rape and murder of women unconnected with the Hillside Strangler got virtually no coverage?

S.L.: Right. The creation of an “event” in the media is a function of our news systems, which trivialize and distort information in the attempt to address their audiences at a sixth-grade level. In adhering to the myth of objectivity, the news presented no political perspective. In the case of the Hillside Strangler, these incidents were particularized as if they were unexplainable—just an unfortunate Act of God—or explainable only in the most simplistic psychoanalytic terms. The media never said, “Here is yet another instance of violence against women. How is the Hillside Strangler case connected to other mutilation murders, connected to the rape of 400 women (the number of women who reported being raped in Los Angeles during this period) and connected to all the sexual violence against women?” To answer such questions is to enter the realm of political theory.

M.R.: Hence the strategy of the giant mourning figures which rose one after another to present statistics and facts about violence against women, ranging from the subject of the Hillside Strangler case to images of violence in the media. What was the second reason for creating the piece?

S.L.: To create a ritual, an expression of the outrage and the fear that we felt existed among women in the city. In the news, the case was hyped up with reports of women’s fear and their frequently inadequate self-protective measures. Feminist artists had done these empowerment and expressive rituals in private for years; now was the time to go public. In Mourning and In Rage was a very powerful ritual for something performed in a public space. We reclaimed before a television audience a function that women have possessed in more primitive cultures—the function of mourning. And we introduced rage as a legitimate reaction to violent crimes against women.

M.R.: What is the relationship between such works as Three Weeks in May and In Mourning and In Rage, both of which focused on protest and anger, and your more recent works, International Dinner Party and River Meetings: Lives of Women in the Delta, which are concerned with celebrations among women and the image of a women’s network?

S.L.: I think they are intimately connected. First, you can deal with violence for only so long. You have to move in and out of it because of the emotional strain of creating art from such material. But, more important, the structures of participation, self-expression and collaboration which comprise works like Three Weeks in May are fundamentally an affirmation of life and connections among people, the same as in the later works. (That’s what actually makes working with the violence bearable: the forms of the work, indeed the very act of creating, are directly opposed to the death-oriented content of violent issues.) Susan Griffin explained it very beautifully in her recent book, Rape: The Power of Consciousness, where she discusses this paradox—how by naming the crimes against ourselves we uncovered the spirituality this violence was meant to destroy, and how that new sense of being in the world connects us to each other in a profound recognition of feminist community. I think the potential for women artists to contribute to this international feminist community through their own unique forms has not yet been fully appreciated by either artists or theoreticians.

In the International Dinner Party, I sent invitations to women around the world suggesting we have a simultaneous global celebration of women. Over 200 groups, ranging in size from two to 200 women, sent telegrams documenting their events from as far away as Africa, Asia and South America. The performance was a celebration, a “gift performance,” for Judy Chicago on the opening of her The Dinner Party.

In New Orleans this past January I worked once again with women across an entire city, and this time, too, the theme was not violence but women’s connections to each other. I worked with the national Women’s Caucus for Art. We decided to uphold an ERA boycott in a very unorthodox manner—to do a community-organizing performance piece, complete with media coverage, while staying in local women’s homes and not spending money in the city. I was most involved, with my collaborator Jeanne Nathan and a group of other New Orleans women, in putting together a growing chain of dinners in private homes that ended with a magnificent potluck and an evening of events for 500 women. What was so inspiring about the whole process, which we called River Meetings: Lives of Women in the Delta, was watching an embryonic women’s community emerge from a vastly disparate group. We had young and old, rich and poor, black and white, all sitting together and feeling enormous pride and joy in their collective history and current achievements. You’ve got to understand, some of these were women who, when we began the dinner party process, wouldn’t have been caught dead in an all-women event! It was an experience second only to what it would have been like to have had all those “International Dinner Party” celebrations from around the world in one place. Wouldn’t that have been amazing?

Moira Roth is a critic and art historian who teaches at the University of California, San Diego.