Suzanne Lacy: We Are Here
A manila folder covered in barely legible red scrawl labelled “civic youth strategy ACTIVE”; sheets of thin, yellow note paper detailing carefully mapped project strategies and timelines; an annotated survey of a rooftop car park and a color-coded performance production and communications diagram. These rapidly scribbled yet meticulously conceptualized notes and plans provide an invaluable archival record of The Oakland Projects, a long-term youth engagement project conceived and coordinated by artist Suzanne Lacy between 1991 and 2001. Documents such as these, along with interview transcripts, correspondence, maps, press cuttings, film stills, and photographs fill the pages of Suzanne Lacy: We Are Here, published in the spring of 2019 to coincide with the opening of the major retrospective of the same name at SFMOMA and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA).
Edited by the exhibition’s curators Rudolf Frieling, Lucía Sanromán, and Dominic Willsdon, the richly illustrated volume spans four decades of Lacy’s practice as a socially engaged artist, and is pitched not just as an accompaniment to the exhibition, but as a curatorial and archival resource in its own right. It appeals to readers who, like myself, have a long-standing interest in the artist’s work but were unable to travel to visit the exhibition, as well as to new and future “audiences of myth and memory” (in Lacy’s own words) who may be experiencing these ephemeral works through the catalogue’s pages for the very first time, long after they have ceased to exist.
The Oakland Projects is characteristic of Lacy’s long-term, community-based approach to social practice. It explored questions of self-representation among Oakland teenagers through a series of films, workshops, media training sessions, career development programs, and policy interventions, before culminating in a series of public performances. Other prominent works included in the exhibition and catalogue are Three Weeks in May (1977), in which Lacy documented and mapped every reported rape in Los Angeles over a three-week period; and Whisper Minnesota (1985-1987) which consisted of classes, film screenings, and a mass-media campaign to highlight women’s experiences of aging. The project concluded with The Crystal Quilt (1985-1987), a large-scale performance in which 430 women over the age of 60 participated in choreographed conversations in the formation of a ‘quilt’ at a mall in downtown Minneapolis.
Key to the exhibition was how time and context-specific works like these might be re-presented and “re-thought” within the institutional frame. Surveying Lacy’s expansive body of work, which has so often centered on relationships, communication, and shared experience and thus rarely resulted in fixed objects or imagery, requires “making art history,”—not just recording it. The curators’ approach is one of simultaneous historicization and dehistoricization. Because the issues of violence against women; immigration; race, youth and the state; and work and class addressed in Lacy’s projects remain ever-present and pervasive, the exhibition and its catalogue remind the reader that although the work was “of its time,” produced within a specific socio-political context, it persists in the current moment. In the curators’ words “We can’t be there, but we are here.”
The book “makes history” in this way by renouncing chronology in favor of a thematic organization which highlights the recurring strategies and techniques of Lacy’s collaborative approach to both art and social policy since the 1970s. Media activism, consciousness raising, and large-scale participatory public performance are surveyed through photographs and archival materials, accompanied by short yet informative texts. In their essays, the editors raise two particular issues involved in presenting such a body of work: the difficulty of restaging long-term socially engaged projects and the often overlooked formal qualities of Lacy’s work.
It’s impossible, Sanromán argues, to endlessly reperform a work such as The Oakland Projects or The Crystal Quilt. Instead, she suggests that the works might be reconceptualized as “scores” or “scripts,” or guidelines to be reinterpreted by the artist or indeed others in the future. Lacy herself conceived the work Silver Action, a six-hour public conversation between 400 women on the subject of politics, activism and social justice advocacy, as a means of rethinking The Crystal Quilt at Tate Modern in 2013. The exhibition at SFMOMA and the YBCA sought to do the same for The Oakland Projects by revisiting themes of youth culture and media representation in a contemporary context in collaboration with Oakland-based activist and community organizations such as YR Media and Youth Speaks. The detailed coverage of the original work in the catalogue, meanwhile, provides the “score” for these new projects.
Concerning form, Frieling explores Lacy’s complex and layered use of text, language and conversation, which has been a recurring theme in the artist’s work since she produced her first artists book Rape Is (1972) in the early 1970s. In a series of recorded conversations between Lacy and her mentor Allan Kaprow between 1977 and 1987, she described her collaborative and participatory approach in formal and conceptual terms as a “grid or network.” Drawing on this, Willsdon’s essay works to unravel the relationship between geometric form and politics in works such as The Crystal Quilt. The prevalence of the grid formation in this and other works is catalogued in the book through reproductions of preparatory sketches and choreography notes along with photographic documentation of the performance. These documents reveal not only Lacy’s investment in form, but also the meticulous planning and choreography that went into her large-scale, participatory performances.
Suzanne Lacy: We Are Here provides a rich introduction to Lacy’s practice and raises a number of critical questions over authorship, display, language and form within Lacy’s work specifically and social practice more broadly. It is a welcome pairing to Lacy’s own collection of writings: Leaving Art: Writings on Performance, Politics, and Publics 1974-2007 (2010), as well as Sharon Irish’s 2010 monograph Suzanne Lacy: Spaces Between. It cements her position as a key protagonist of feminist, performance, and social practice art of recent decades, but also insists on the continuing relevance of her collaborative methodology, performative tactics, and carefully orchestrated socio-political and aesthetic strategies.