PRINT May 2019


Suzanne Lacy, Maps, 1973. Performance view, CalArts, Valencia, CA, 1973. Photo: Suzanne Lacy.

IN 1973, while still in graduate school, Suzanne Lacy organized an elaborate happening. Titled Maps, the piece instructed fellow students to travel to points across Los Angeles’s Southland—from campus to a mental-health hospital to a meatpacking factory—carrying butcher-paper-wrapped lamb’s organs, and to reassemble the entrails into approximate anatomical order at the final stop. The performance was quietly provocative, otherworldly. The following year, she partnered with a lawyer to prepare another, similarly visceral work. That piece, titled Body Contract, 1974, took the form of a fourteen-page legal document that outlines the terms of sale of body parts and organs between the artist, as seller, and an unnamed potential buyer, in accordance with California’s organ-donation laws; it included a lengthy addendum speculating on the tax implications for applying property concepts to human anatomy. Expressions of the young artist’s nascent concerns, Maps and Body Contract make explicit the unspoken social contracts we—and all living beings—enter into simply by virtue of existing. In each, Lacy proposes a deconstructed physical self to interrogate the arbitrary structures that determine a subject’s value or utility.

Suzanne Lacy, Maps, 1973. Performance view, Vernon, CA, 1973.  Photo: Suzanne Lacy.

Maps and Body Contract offer coordinates for Lacy’s future concerns: the value of a body (specifically, a female body) and its constituent parts; the value of art (market or otherwise); collaboration with a coauthor (the lawyer) and an audience; and the negotiation of institutional systems (the meat industry, pedagogy, medicine, California law, property, profit, taxation). As with so much of Lacy’s early work—and so much West Coast Conceptual art—humor commingles with horror, and an imprecise violence gets coded by the absurd. Yet there is a redemptive force propelling the work, an attempt to reconstitute or at least reframe a fractured social system. These elements have informed nearly five decades of Lacy’s artistic production and shaped the development of what can now be characterized as social practice or socially engaged art, a field that Lacy has helped shape and define.

Judy Chicago, Suzanne Lacy, Sandra Orgel, and Aviva Rahmani, Ablutions, 1972. Performance view, Venice, CA, 1972. Foreground: Shawnee Wollenman and Jan Oxenberg. Background: Jan Lester Martin, Sandra Orgel, and Suzanne Lacy.

A NATIVE OF CENTRAL CALIFORNIA, Lacy studied premedical science, zoology, and chemistry as an undergraduate. In 1969, she enrolled at Fresno State College (now California State University, Fresno) to pursue graduate studies in psychology. She soon met Judy Chicago, who had founded the Feminist Art Program at the school in 1970. Lacy began studying art under Chicago, and, a year later, followed her to Valencia after the Feminist Art Program relocated to CalArts. There, alongside fellow students such as Susan Mogul, David Salle, James Welling, and Faith Wilding, Lacy studied design with Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and performance with Chicago and Allan Kaprow. At CalArts, Lacy absorbed the feminist pedagogy of consciousness-raising, historical reassessment, and project development—principles that remain key to her work.

Judy Chicago, Suzanne Lacy, Sandra Orgel, and Aviva Rahmani, Ablutions, 1972. Performance view, Venice, CA, 1972. Shawnee Wollenman and Jan Oxenberg.

Among her early performances is Ablutions, 1972, made in collaboration with Chicago, Sandra Orgel, and Aviva Rahmani. In that piece, a group of women bathed in tubs filled respectively with eggs, blood, and clay, among other actions, while an audio recording of women relating their experiences of rape played. The corporeal at times abject nature of this work was characteristic of the Southern California performance scene of the time. Along with many of her contemporaries—such as ASCO, Nancy Buchanan, Chris Burden, John Duncan, Paul McCarthy, and Barbara T. Smith—Lacy used animal parts and her own body in visceral investigations of transgression, taboo, and psychological states. But Lacy’s foundational training in feminist ideology flavored her performance with pointedly gendered content.

One can identify the influence of Kaprow—who became Lacy’s mentor—in works such as Prostitution Notes, 1974–75, a research-based piece that attempted to chart the sites and organization of prostitution in LA. Over several months, Lacy met various subjects—pimps, johns, sex workers from all walks of life (including a sociology grad student), and sex-worker advocates from the group COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics). Seeking to understand their lives in relation to her own, Lacy obsessively documented her encounters, recording what she ate during the meetings, the topics discussed, and the movements they made during the course of the day. The resulting drawings—sketchy maps annotated with lengthy first-person musings, lists of purchases and their costs, and collages composed of matchbooks she’d collected at various stops—reveal the intersection of Lacy’s daily reality with that of the prostitutes. As the annotation to one drawing reads, “Is this part of the life? It’s certainly part of my life.”

Suzanne Lacy, The Crystal Quilt, 1987. Performance view, IDS Center, Minneapolis, 1987.

With its multiple voices and abandonment of the confrontational abjection that marked Lacy’s earlier work, Prostitution Notes anticipates the large-scale, context-specific public projects that Lacy orchestrated in the 1980s and ’90s. Whisper Minnesota, 1985–87, for example, was made with more than two dozen other artists and numerous volunteers over two years, and explored the experiences and visibility of aging women through lectures, classes, events, and a media campaign. The project culminated in a sound work created by Susan Stone and an accompanying performance, The Crystal Quilt, 1987, featuring 430 women over the age of sixty seated at a grid of tables, positioning their hands and arms to resemble the patterns of a quilt. (Lacy would later recuperate aspects of this work for Silver Action, 2013, for which she gathered four hundred elderly British women at the Tanks at Tate Modern in London for a five-hour performance revolving around the women’s early experiences with activism.) Lacy would further develop the emphasis on visibility, leadership, and personal narrative in series such as “The Oakland Projects,” 1991–2001.

There is a redemptive force propelling the work, an attempt to reconstitute or at least reframe a fractured social system.

Ambitious in scope, “The Oakland Projects” is peak social practice, boldly weaving together art, public policy, and community outreach. The ten-year initiative comprised eight major performances as well as installation and media intervention, though it also encompassed numerous workshops and events touching on literacy, truancy, teen pregnancy, police relations, overcrowded schools, and the representation of young people of color. One of the first of these projects, The Roof Is on Fire, 1993–94—the fruits of a collaboration with Annice Jacoby and Chris Johnson—brought 220 public-school students to the roof of a parking garage, where they sat in one hundred parked cars. Over the course of an evening, Lacy invited a local audience to listen in on the teens’ frank, unscripted conversations about family, sexuality, drugs, culture, and education. As part of the project, the students received training in media literacy and video production, and documentation of their performance aired on national news broadcasts and circulated in print media, lectures, and classroom materials. The other projects led to new government policies, grant programs, direct services, high-school-credit programs, and the growth and development of local youth.

Organizers preparing Suzanne Lacy’s The Crystal Quilt, 1987.

AS SUCH PROJECTS MAKE CLEAR, Lacy brings people into her work through discourse-driven processes—largely outside of the art market and at least partially outside of traditional exhibition spaces. Her works can include multiple authors and encounters with public agencies, and can sometimes develop over the course of years. They might use media such as photography, video, performance, and drawing, and procedures such as writing, public discourse, community organizing, sociological research, mapping, and media intervention. Such projects hope to resonate in the social sphere—either on an intimate scale or across large populations—and to produce shifts in the way we think or act, creating an awareness of commonalities or urgent issues. At the same time, Lacy’s work, like so much social practice, creates an intrinsic crisis with respect to its own status as art and the economies of its circulation. In its deprivileging of objectness—and in its entanglement with activism—it raises several questions. What, some (conservative) viewers might ask, distinguishes a piece such as The Roof Is on Fire from professional social work? And how can such a sprawling participatory undertaking fit into the art world’s institutional structures?

Just over a minute into the video, Lacy’s voice asks, “What is the form here? What is the form?”

Diagram for Suzanne Lacy, Annice Jacoby, and Chris Johnson’s The Roof Is on Fire, 1993–94. From the series “The Oakland Projects,” 1991–2001.

In 2006, Claire Bishop argued in Artforum that the “best examples” of socially engaged art were not part of an “activist lineage” but instead stemmed from “avant-garde theater, performance, or architectural theory.” Such pieces, Bishop said, “attempt to think the aesthetic and the social/political together, rather than subsuming both within the ethical.” Lacy’s work, which developed out of feminist performance and Conceptual art, embodies the intertwining of ethics and aesthetics. In 2010, she revisited Prostitution Notes for a presentation at the Serpentine Gallery in London, performing a reading of her original inscriptions and drawings alongside a related video. The video, made in collaboration with Peter Kirby, who has worked with generations of West Coast media artists since the mid-’80s, features Lacy’s voice-over in a near-compulsive listing of names, dates, and locations; the images cut between ’70s-era photos of LA streets, close-ups of her original drawings, and footage of a woman—a stand-in for Lacy?—tracing the projected lines of the artist’s original maps. Just over a minute into the video, Lacy’s voice asks, “What is the form here? What is the form? Is it a performance, a set of photographs, an installation?” It’s a jarring, self-reflexive break in the otherwise historical and narrative content of the work, and it is revealing. The form that social practice can or should take is an open question—and for Lacy, even the work itself is an open structure, able to be revisited, rethought, and represented again and again.

Some writers, such as the critic and curator Elizabeth Grady, have argued that socially engaged art is intrinsically immaterial: Its “form” is “identical with its process,” Grady has said, and any material by-products, such as objects, texts, or images, are inherently “secondary.” Yet Lacy’s multifaceted work betrays this claim; certainly, her engrossing storytelling on the prostitution beat is as rich and vibrant as her footage of 430 elderly women in synchronized movement. Scale is important to Lacy: “I’m interested in formal design for performances that otherwise operate within the chaotic unpredictability of ‘real life,’” she explains. “I am concerned with scale, which has to do with the presence of the work in public life. It is harder, in general, to get large numbers of people to work together on polarizing issues than it is to reach large numbers with a ‘unifying’ issue. So I tend to work on issues in ways that are aspirational . . . rather than confrontational.” The challenge faced by the three curators of Lacy’s retrospective “Suzanne Lacy: We Are Here”—which opened this past month at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts—was therefore twofold: They had to give equal weight to the material and performative qualities of the artist’s work, while simultaneously bodying forth its continued significance to and engagement with present-day audiences.

Nine stills from Suzanne Lacy’s Prostitution Notes, 2010, HD video, color, sound, 19 minutes 24 seconds.

LACEY HERSELF CONCEDES the obstacles inherent in presenting her work in a museum setting: the smallness of the art world relative to larger social concerns; the need to grapple with institutional formats that restrict the possibilities for interactivity, decentralized authorship, and performance. “I don’t really see the museum as super effective when it comes to supporting activism writ large,” she has explained. “Its ability to produce actions is, in general, limited, although perhaps one could argue it has a role in shaping cultural attitudes and expectations. Where we are making progress is in the art exhibition site as a space to create community.” Lacy views her retrospective as an experiment of sorts, and in a spirit unique to her approach, she is willing to embrace the potential failures of the institutional project. What matters most is presenting the dual sites of production—the performative action and its material evidence—with a common integrity and significance.

In the past several years, Lacy’s work has offered a blueprint for how to achieve this balance. Take Across and In-Between, 2018, which was produced in Belfast. Seeking to highlight the roughly three hundred miles of the Northern Irish border, Lacy invited more than three hundred local participants to wear yellow, fly yellow kites, paddle in yellow kayaks, and race horses along a yellow track: Footage of the event later became The Yellow Line, 2018, a three-channel video. Lacy credits the work as a “creative collaboration between Suzanne Lacy and Cian Smythwith, Helen Sharp and communities in Pettigo, Tullyhommon, Cuilcagh Mountain, Castlesaunderson, Magheraveely, Newtownbutler and surroundings.” In the context of Brexit, and in light of stateside fights over the US–Mexico border wall, the participatory work—which was not included in Lacy’s retrospective—avoided explicit political debate, instead engaging with the everyday experiences of people living on and navigating a geopolitical border. This past October, Lacy projected the work onto the exterior of Belfast’s Ulster Museum, so that audiences must view it as part of an indeterminate and mutable collective. They are, by extension, implicitly welcomed as participants in the event they are watching. 

Projection of Suzanne Lacy’s The Yellow Line, 2018 on the front of the Ulster Museum, Belfast, October 2018. Photo: Brian Morrison.

The Yellow Line exists less as a political ethic and more as a dreamy disruption of the everyday. Underlying the work’s beautiful, surreal imagery—horses’ hooves pounding through pigmented dirt; a living line seen from above; vibrant color migrating uncontrollably against earth tones—is a forensic desire to anatomize human experience. Such strange, empathetic art, executed on an operatic scale, retains the visceral impact of Lacy’s early body-based performances. It’s a confrontation with complicated contexts and an embrace of the multifarious forms that art can engender.

“Suzanne Lacy: We Are Here,” organized by Rudolf Frieling, Lucía Sanromán, and Dominic Willsdon, is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts through August 4.

Catherine Taft is a writer and curator based in Los Angeles.