The Body Politics of Suzanne Lacy

But is it

Art ?




The Body Politics of Suzanne Lacy

In 1976, the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles was undergoing a full- scale renovation—everything from frescoes to pillowcases. A local landmark dating from 1923, the Renaissance-style building originally contained 1,500 rooms and boasted a 1,700-seat theater, demolished by the late 1960s to make way for the construction of the Music Center nearby. In 1976, the hotel reallocated its spaces by reducing the number of its rooms and by creating Biltmore Place, an office tower and a court for retail businesses. This renovation was chroni­ cled in the local press with the metaphor of choice for the hotel being that of an old woman. Alongside photographs of the hotel exterior were front-page headlines such as “There May Be Life in the Old Girl Yet” and representations of its shape and facade as that of an aging woman’s face about to get a public make-over.

There was nothing intentionally mean-spirited about this associa­ tion of an old building with an old woman: the newspaper was merely repeating an old stereotype. Besides, for generations in private and public speech women have been associated with ships, trains, planes, and automobiles—that is, with objects of possession in a male-domi­ nated culture. For most people reading the newspaper description of the Biltmore renovation, the analogy of the building as a mythic femi­ nine presence reclaiming her youth passed before them without the slightest blink of irony.

What struck Suzanne Lacy after reading about the Biltmore renova­ tion was not only the sexist, condescending metaphors in the press, but the relative absence of any public awareness of aging women. With the sudden front-page visibility of the “old girl” of downtown hotels, it seemed older women received more public notice as architectural metaphors than as people. They had no place in public consciousness.



For generations, women have been

associated with ships, trains,

planes, and automobiles—that is, with objects of

possession in a male-dominated


The invisibility of women—or their visibility beyond the stereo­ types of femininity—had been an important theme in feminist art theory and practice since the early 1970s. Many of the exhibitions and performances of that period were expressionistic and revelatory in character, opening up to view the domesticated interior lives of women. Such household tasks as ironing and scrubbing, the biologi­

cal processes of menstruation and giving birth, family relations and gender-based roles, and the violent transgressions of spousal abuse and rape became the subjects of feminist art, sub­ jects that were often expressed in the forms of rituals, exorcistic performances, group con­ sciousness-raising sessions, and storytelling. In Ablutions, for example, a well-known per­ formance by Judy Chicago, Sandra Orgel, Aviva Rahmani, and Lacy, nude performers were bathed in washtubs filled with blood,

eggs, and wet clay while kidneys were nailed to the wall and a tape was played in which women told stories of having been raped. This was radical art making at a time when the Expressionism of the 1950s was thought to have run its course, replaced by the psychic neutrality of Andy Warhol, the ironic detachment of Jasper Johns, the cerebral indifference of Marcel Duchamp, the affectless icons of Pop, and the monolithic forms and industrial materials of Minimalism. The rela­ tively hot subjects of feminist art—drawn from the everyday experi­ ences of women—were seen by many as excuses for a retrograde, ritualized Expressionism that was cathartic at best and indulgent at worst. “But is it art?” was not an uncommon question at the time.

The first feminist art program was begun by Judy Chicago at California State University at Fresno in 1969. It was here that Lacy, a graduate student in psychology, made her transition into art. Al­ though associated with an educational institution, the program took place off campus in a private studio for women. Chicago’s purpose was to allow women to come together in a safe place—that is, outside the framework of male-dominated culture—to experience themselves more authentically as women, to raise each other’s consciousness, and then to use those experiences as a source from which to make art. In



1970, Chicago began working with Miriam Schapiro at the California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts), a new art school north of Los Angeles, and together they founded the Feminist Art Program. It was indicative of the breadth of the womens liberation movement that there were si­ multaneously women’s programs in writing, literature, sociology, and design (which Lacy studied with Sheila de Bretteville) at Cal Arts, making the atmosphere ripe for interdisciplinary collaboration among feminists. In the fall of 1971, Schapiro, Chicago, and their students established Womanhouse, a project in which they transformed a de­ serted residential building in Hollywood, creating a series of art envi­ ronments throughout the building as well as a space for performances that ran for the month of January 1972. That same year, the Feminist Studio Workshop was founded by Chicago, de Bretteville, and Arlene Raven, and soon became an educational program of the Woman’s Building, which was established in 1973 and moved to its permanent location near downtown Los Angeles two years later.

Although in the beginning this cluster of women’s art projects, programs, and spaces in and around Los Angeles was attended by both women and men, a perception of feminist separatism developed among many in the art world. While there were indeed radical sepa­ ratists among women, and while the Woman’s Building seemed to some a women-only place in the mid-1970s, separatism among feminist artists was for the most part limited to the initial “healing” phases of the movement, when it was necessary to experience one­ self—often for the first time—outside the roles and identities im­ posed upon women by masculine culture. In fact, there was always a second impulse among feminist artists, and that was to move out beyond the “safe” institutions and support groups they had formed and into the world of dangerous roles, places, and people. If feminism in the arts was to open a truly healing discourse, it had to communi­ cate its experiences and ideas about the emerging subjecthood of women beyond its own ritual circles. At the same time, women artists hoped not to lose touch with the aesthetic qualities of their art. This ambition to apply feminist social theory in general to the specific practices of the arts is perhaps the basis for the distinctive strategies of feminist art—including, to quote Lucy Lippard, “collaboration, dialogue, a constant questioning of aesthetic and social assumptions,



The creed of 1970s feminism,

after all, was that the personal is


and a new respect for audience.” At the core of these strategies was not separatism but rather an insistence upon practicing art on a social scale.

The reason for this may be that feminist art emerged in response to a social movement (women’s liberation) and not from within the arts. Schapiro and Chicago were mainstream abstract painters before they became feminists, and others were trained in fields such as social work, design, and psychology before becoming artists. Lacy had been a pre­ med student with a particular interest in psychosomatic illness before attending Fresno State. Also trained in political and community orga­ nizing, she came to Cal Arts in 1970 as a graduate student in social design. Hers was the perfect composite background for the heady inter­ disciplinary atmosphere of Cal Arts, and though her interests in medi­ cine and social design propelled her in seemingly opposite directions— toward the interior of the body and the exterior spaces of community, society, and politics—-they were, for Lacy, one and the same.

The creed of 1970s feminism, after all, was that the personal is political, and it takes little more than the synthesizing force of an individual’s experience to meld what the culture says should be sepa­ rate. Perhaps the value of art for feminists was that it provided them with a category of professional activity into which the knowledge and experience of other professions could be meaningfully absorbed and used. To be an interdisciplinary artist means more than mixing up the fine-arts genres; it also means gathering from fields of knowl­ edge and experience outside the arts, whether medicine, the social sciences, politics, religion, or education. The infusion of these into and their reinterpretation through the arts makes art relevant to some­

thing other than itself. Feminists of the early 1970s did not abandon aesthetics for activism; they activated aesthetics by drawing upon their own experiences as women, experiences that some of them—and especially Lacy-—extended as art works on a social scale in the forms of visual images, press releases, community meet­

ings, letters to police chiefs, ritual performances, self-defense classes for women, public spectacles, media events, videotapes, networking among social-service agencies, and as curricula for inner-city teenagers on how to critically evaluate the mass media. These forms of social



Suzanne Lacy, untitled performance, date unknown. Lacy in a “guts” bathing suit.

extension seldom come from art; they come instead from experiences and professions beyond the arts. The activist artist activates the points of contact between them, as well as among the audiences and con­ stituencies they represent. She networks. Networking, medicine, and social design, for Lacy, are healing processes in which the dismem­ bered members of the social corpus are rejoined. Hence, Suzanne Lacy’s activism these past twenty-five years can best be understood through the metaphor of the body. Hers are, so to speak, body politics.

Lacy was greatly influenced in this regard by Allan Kaprow, with whom she studied at Cal Arts. Famous as the late-1950s inventor of “Happenings”—forms of avant-garde performance in which commonplace actions, sounds, smells, and so forth were scripted, much like musical scores, allowing for random events and usually requiring the audience to do something—Kaprow had long trusted



the body as the arbiter of experience. By composing with actions and events as well as with materials and spaces, he learned to envelop the “viewer” in ways that invited a fuller play of the body and its senses in the experiencing of a work, whether by eating apples, moving furni­ ture, calling to a partner in the woods (and listening for a response), or pushing one’s way through a roomful of crumpled newspaper and chicken wire. Like any art form, a task can become a metaphor in the way, for instance, that trading buckets full of dirt of equal value may signify the system of currency exchange or the way prices are deter­ mined for works of art. By enacting such a trade, the participant will have “embodied” the artist’s metaphor, reinterpreting it according to his or her own experience. Kaprow calls this “participation perfor­ mance,” which results in “emergent content,” that is, meaning that arises through an experience of participation, of actually doing some­ thing. In this way Kaprow shifted the site of aesthetic meaning from the privileged expressions of the artist to the common experiences of the participants.

What Lacy learned from Kaprow was that a performance could take place outside the dramatic boundaries of theater and even avant- garde performance art, and that the body, heretofore a medium of acting, or at least of acting out, could be extended through the partici­ pation of others into a social setting without dissipating its physicality and, ultimately, its capacity for empathic connection. Indeed, that capacity could be deepened and widened. While Lacy’s “metaphors” were more loaded than Kaprow’s with moral, social, and political overtones (this loading came largely from her work with Chicago), both shared a fundamental faith in the body as the site of experience and in art making as a healing process. (It is also interesting to note that Lacy studied medicine, and Kaprow spent his first fourteen years at a ranch for sickly children in Arizona, where he learned to con­ stantly monitor his body for signs of illness and health.)

Lacy’s background as a premed student and her particular interest in psychosomatic illness predisposed her toward a view of the body in which the inside and the outside are in constant, sometimes decep­ tive, play. For her, the body exists at a juncture between one’s inner and outer lives—the place where psychological and social phenomena meet in a physiological embrace—and is an instrument that measures



the exchanges between the self and others. Even before the feminist movement, Lacy had learned to see the body as a personal site for the physical manifestation of subjective experience. By 1970, she had also come to see it as a social site for the imprinting of cultural values. Her sense of the dialectic between inner and outer realities was riven with politics and relations of power.

In A Gothic Love Story (1975), aseries of six photographs with underlying texts, Lacy paired the phrase “she gave her heart away” with a picture of a jar with a heart in it being handed from a woman to a man. In subsequent pictures, the man tosses the jar in the air (“He treated it carelessly”), it hits the ground (“One day… ”), it shatters (“he broke it”), and the heart is sutured (“She pulled herself together”), and fitted back in a smaller jar (“but she was never quite the same”). In “Falling Apart,” an article in Dreamworks from 1976, Lacy tells a story, “a tale of four bodies, or parts of bodies, or even single body pieces,” accompanied by four torn, black-and-white pho­ tographs of herself jumping naked through the air, arms and legs

Suzanne Lacy, Judy Chicago, Aviva Rahmani, Ablutions, 1972, Venice, California. Lacy nailing animal organs to the wall.



Suzanne Lacy, Lamb Construction, Woman’s Building, 1973, Los Angeles. Lacy cobbling together a “lamb,” using sheep innards and a sawhorse.

splayed in the effort, tongue out, eyes tightly focused, with color pictures of sheep guts seeming to spill out through the tear in the paper, through the artist’s body. During the 1970s, it was not uncom­ mon for Lacy to “spill her guts” or “tie her stomach in knots” during performances. (It was she who nailed the beef kidneys to the wall in Ablutions.) Underlying this ironic, funny, painful, and sometimes transgressive exploration of the inside and outside of the body— and especially the female body—is the leitmotif of making the invis­ ible visible.

Consequently, Lacy was particularly attuned to the absence of any public awareness of older women, almost as if they no longer had bodies. If feminists felt that women were socially invisible except as the objects of male sexual desire, then older women, having outlived the cliches of feminine beauty, were doubly invisible. This led Lacy to plan a performance in which older women would be invited to participate. It was called Inevitable Associations and was intended for the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel.

As an artist, Lacy insists upon the symbolic integrity of the visual images in her work. Like public emblems, they convey a generalized sense of the work’s meaning. For the performance of Inevitable Asso­ ciations, she wanted her participants—about ten older women, some of them friends, but most of whom she had come to know through the Fairfax Jewish Community Center—to wear black, thereby ex­ pressing the condition of invisibility, especially in the dimly lighted hotel lobby. Not surprisingly, one woman objected because of the



inevitable association of the color with funerals. Lacy was troubled, wondering how to reconcile her own experience of the pending spec­ tre of aging with a sensitivity to the cultural stereotype the black clothing might represent to her participants. Upset by the implica­ tions of this oversight, she proposed a second part of the performance in which three of the women, dressed as themselves, would sit in special red chairs and talk about their lives and experiences of aging among groups of younger women and men. The red chairs and the public dialogue would be declarative forms of visibility intended to counterpoint both the symbolism of the black clothing and the drama of the first part of the performance.

What followed was a midday performance inside the hotel lobby in which Lacy was given a public makeover. Instead of being made to look younger, however, she was made to look old. This process took nearly three hours, during which Cheri Gaulke, a collaborator dressed as a saleswoman, passed out literature on the hotel renovation while

Suzanne Lacy, Inevitab Associations, 1976, Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles. Lacy being ma over as an older woman



Suzanne Lacy, Inevitable Associations, 1976, Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles. Lacy with her collaborators in the Biltmore lobby.

Suzanne Lacy, Inevitable Associations, part two, 1976, Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles. Lacy with a collaborator speaking about growing old (Allan Kaprow is sitting at left).



another collaborator, a plastic surgeon’s assistant, distributed informa­ tion about cosmetic surgery. Lacy, of course, was the center of atten­ tion, especially as hotel employees and guests began noticing that she wasn’t getting any younger. Meanwhile, several older women who were dressed in black had been quietly entering the lobby throughout the performance and, as seats became available, sitting down in a row of red chairs directly opposite Lacy. They went largely unnoticed until they reached a kind of critical mass and became visible to those in the lobby. It seemed they had been there all along. When Lacy’s makeover was complete, the older women stood up in silence and surrounded her, dressing her in black clothes. She had symbolically taken away their invisibility—taken it upon herself. If an aging hotel could only be portrayed in the press as a mythic “old girl,” then Lacy’s performance had returned the hotel to its proper role as a setting in which her participants could present themselves as elder citizens— maybe even as elders. Moreover, they could do so in the framework of a performance that, with its metaphors of makeover and plastic surgery, chided the whole epidermal culture of Hollywood—showing it to be the real local myth, and skin-deep at that. When the perfor­ mance was over, Lacy—still in character—and her friends all went out for lunch.

Inevitable Associations was a pivotal work for Lacy. In the develop­ ment of her thinking as an artist, it occupied a midpoint at which an interior and exterior experience of the body converged in a public place. In earlier work, she had seen the body—her own, mostly—as a medium of performance, but her performances had generally taken place within feminist communal contexts, schools, or art spaces. Now, Lacy was working in a public space that reflected her expanding sense of the body as a metaphor for social and political spheres be­ yond the self. It also required of her a much greater degree of social organization, as in negotiating the use of the hotel lobby with the Biltmore Public Relations Department, conducting research into cosmetic surgery and special-effects makeup, and—most impor­ tant—in getting the older women to participate. These, in turn, added urgency to long-standing feminist questions about the differ­ ences between an audience and a constituency, the nature of partici­ pation, and the authorial role of the artist in a public, participatory



process. Lacy’s challenge—as her Biltmore experience made clear— would soon go beyond simply working in a public space; it would involve the invention of social processes that would be politically viable, publicly visible, and, not least, aesthetically meaningful.

One of the significant transformations in outlook that marks the onset of a postmodern consciousness in American art is that aesthetic, abstract “space” and its temporal correlative, “timelessness,” are now understood and experienced as concrete social situations. The space of art filled up with people, processes, politics, messages, memory, institutions, events, experiences, communities, and other such phe­ nomena of the everyday. This had been happening since the 1950s, but 1970s feminism took the avant-garde impulse to move beyond the gallery all the way to the steps of city hall itself. This requires the help of others. When space is no longer empty, the processes that unfold within it are no longer the artist’s alone. Participation in the socioaesthetic processes of activist art is what makes it public, not just the fact that its site is now the street and not the gallery.

The scope of Lacy’s involvement with others outside the feminist art community changed with the Biltmore piece, going beyond friendship or sisterhood. It asked people uninterested in art to be the public subjects of somebody else’s art. In crossing this threshold, Lacy began to realize that, for her, participation meant getting people to agree to do what she wanted them to do, and then finding ways to do it together. The key was to be open about your motives, to say: “Okay, here’s what I want and why.” Openness is what distinguishes participation from manipulation. This is how Lacy approached the older women for Inevitable Associations. They agreed to participate because they agreed with the artist that older women were being used in the culture as metaphors in a disrespectful way and that they, in­ deed, felt invisible as citizens. When the disagreement over the black clothing emerged, Lacy did not simply strip away at her aesthetic design but added to it by providing the red chairs from which her participants could speak out and be seen, thereby representing them­ selves. Participation, then, was an ongoing process of negotiation without a hidden agenda. The artist’s motivations, ideas, and symbolic language—as far as she understood them herself—were all out front. This does not mean, however, that participation is simply a matter of



agreeing with the artist at the outset of a project or of her agreeing with her participants. Rather, participation is a dialogical process that changes both the participant and the artist. Like the art, it is not fixed, but unfolds over time and in relation to the interests brought to bear upon it. For the artist, those interests represent perspectives and values previously unconsidered or overlooked. They add to her as she adds them to her art.

Three Weeks in May Lacy’s first full-blown public work, began as a private process performance, not unlike the “being tied to a partner for a year” or “following people around the city” pieces that artists such as Linda Montano or Vito Acconci were then doing. She intended to record specific instances of rape on a daily basis and make rape visible as a social phenomenon by posting police reports about them on the wall of a gallery. Even before Ablutions in 1972, Lacy had participated in the emerging feminist investigation of violence against women. With the publication in 1975 of Susan Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will, the many strands of violence against women had

Suzanne Lacy, Three Weeks in May, 1977, Los Angeles. Lacy stamping the map.



Suzanne Lacy. Three Weeks in May, 1977, Los Angeles. Women practicing self-defense at the City Mall.

been woven into a centralizing feminist theory that Lacy wanted to make public through her work. In time, the idea of making rape visible on a social scale took the more public form in Lacy’s mind of a large map of Los Angeles upon which the word “RAPE” would be stamped each day in red block letters at the approximate sites of rapes reported to the Los Angeles Police Department. Because she felt that a model of positive action should accompany such a graphic revelation of the problem, a second identical map would be installed next to the first, listing the names, phone numbers, and approximate locations of the various rape intervention agencies throughout the city.

In order to secure a site for her proposal, Lacy approached several shopping malls about displaying the map but none would touch the subject matter. Then, through a curator friend whose father was the director of public works in Los Angeles, Lacy was given a large wall space in the City Mall, a subterranean complex of fast-food outlets and retail businesses primarily intended to serve city and county employees who worked in the buildings above. Although initially reluctant to “place reminders of women’s vulnerability in a place where they might already feel insecure,” Lacy chose the site because the advantages of being sanctioned by city hall far outweighed the relatively lighter foot traffic and visibility of the underground mall. In fact, Lacy’s association with the city government served to further sanction the project, by then called Three Weeks in May, ulti­ mately giving it greater access to the police and fire departments,



the Department of Building and Maintenance, the City Engineering Department, members of the Los Angeles City Council, and, through them, to the local print and electronic media. Ironically, the under­ ground City Mall, with its relative lack of visibility, positioned the artist and her project in the middle of a network of people, agencies, and funding sources that contributed to a greater degree of public visibility for the project—and for its subject—than otherwise could have been imagined.

With the help of collaborators Barbara Cohen, Jill Soderholm, Melissa Hoffman, and Leslie Labowitz (with whom Lacy would con­ tinue to collaborate for several years), Lacy also designed numerous media events, performances, ceremonies, and self-defense rallies in order to “activate” public awareness of the maps and to call attention to the reality of rape as a social phenomenon. The events that took place during Three Weeks in May included: an opening press confer­ ence called at the recommendation of the city attorney and attended by the deputy mayor, Lacy, and Jim Woods of the Studio Watts Workshop (which, with the Woman’s Building, was cosponsoring the project); a business- and professional-women’s luncheon during which the project and its upcoming events were presented; a Women’s Coalition luncheon (during which one woman attacked Lacy for not doing any more than “art” on the problem of violence against women); a moment of silence held throughout area churches for the victims of rape; the installation ceremonies for the maps, during which representatives from sponsoring and participating agencies— and most prominently City Councilwoman Pat Russell—spoke to an audience of employees returning from lunch, ceremonies that were covered by a local newspaper, one television station and two radio stations; a performance and a banquet prepared and performed by Gaulke and Smith for women whose organizations—including the Los Angeles City Commission on the Status of Women, the Sheriff’s Department, the American Civil Liberties Union, Women Against Violence Against Women, and the Ocean Park Battered Women’s Shelter, among others—were working on the same problems but from different perspectives and political frameworks; a slide presenta­ tion by women of the Rape Hotline open to employees of Southern California Edison, a utility company; an informal discussion of the



aesthetic and organizational aspects of the project with art students from the Feminist Studio Workshop of the Womans Building; a three-week exhibition in the Garage Gallery in which notes, artifacts, photographs, and other documents were addressed primarily to an art and feminist audience; a private ritual performance for selected women called Breaking Silence, with the artists Anne Gaulden and Hoffman exorcising their own experiences of rape; a radio program in which women of color explored the racial implications of their rape experiences; a fifteen-minute reading by Lacy over KPFK-FM radio of the rape statistics compiled as of May 16 (halfway through the project); four public lunchtime street performances on successive days by Labowitz, including Myths of Rape, in which facts were used to contradict stereotypical notions of rape, The Rape, which was collaboratively performed by Labowitz and the Women Against Rape, Men Against Rape organization, representing the double victimiza­ tion of women who are raped and then treated suspiciously by the police and others, All Men Are Potential Rapists, created and per­ formed with several men in order to show rape as a form of violence that reinforces the cultural values of masculine aggression, and Women Fight Back, a performance covered by local television in which women symbolically helped each other resist rape; self-defense dem­ onstrations for women presented in the employees lounge of the ARCO Plaza; a rape prevention workshop at the county offices with speakers from the sheriffs department and the East Los Angeles Hotline, as well as a self-defense demonstration, which was used by Women in County Government to rally support for their organiza­ tion; an “emotionally exhausting” Rape Speakout sponsored by the Rape Hotline Alliance at the Woman’s Building in which thirty to forty women were encouraged to share their experiences of sexual violation; a self-defense demonstration for senior citizens at City Hall; the closing ceremonies, on May 26, which involved speakers, a performance, a self-defense demonstration with over one hundred women, and the presentation of the maps, by now layered in red ink, to the Los Angeles City Commission on the Status of Women—an event that was covered by three major television stations and several newspapers; a ten-step personal exorcism ritual by artist Laurel Klick; and finally, a series of guerrilla actions on May 27, after the close of



the project, in which Lacy and others outlined a womans body in chalk on sidewalks near the approximate locations of reported rapes, writing the words, “A woman was raped near here. .. .”

In addition to organizing a framework for these events, Lacy per­ formed her own three-part work, She Who Would. Fly, at the Garage Gallery on May 20 and 21. In part one she sat each afternoon for several hours listening to women talk about having been raped, sto­ ries that she then encouraged them to write on maps of the United States that covered the gallery walls. Part two was a private ritual among Lacy and four performers, all of whom had experience with sexual violence, in which they prepared the space, talked, ate food, and anointed each other’s bodies with red grease paint. The third part involved opening the gallery to three or four people at a time who, upon entering, were confronted with a large lamb carcass adorned with wings and suspended, as if in flight, between the floor and ceiling. On the walls around the lamb were the maps with their

Suzanne Lacy, She Who Would Fly, a performance for Three Weeks in May, 1977 Garage Gallery, Los Angeles, California.



stories of rape. As Lacy recalls, “After being in the space for several minutes, the viewers generally became aware that they were being watched from a perch above the door. Looking up, they were shocked to discover that their watching was being watched by four women, nude, their bodies stained bright red.” Lacy thought of these “bird- women” as “avenging angels, metaphors for a woman’s consciousness which splits from her body as it is raped.”

From the private ritual, then, to the public self-defense demonstra­ tion, from the discussions among art students to the negotiations with the police department, the events woven throughout the three weeks of this project constituted a bold new model of public activist art. Expanding Kaprow’s idea that art could take place in the context of everyday life, Lacy conceptualized a “map-in-time,” a grid of un­ folding art and political actions laid over the city and county of Los Angeles. To contest public myths about its subject—rape, in this case-—it projected proactive images and information throughout a network of sites, events, organizations, media, collaborators, and audiences that made its subject visible on a truly social scale. Its vis­ ibility, however, was neither a statistical abstraction nor simply a result of the media attention it received over a three-week period. More concrete was the result that rape became visible as a social phenomenon because the project made possible countless empathic connections among individuals, whether artists, police, hotline coun­ selors, self-defense instructors, politicians, or the women who shared their stories about rape. These connections are what heal the broken members and unhealthy organs of the body politic. Without them there is no public meaning, only publicity.

It was also with Three Weeks in May that Lacy, together with Labowitz, began to get media-savvy in a proactive way. Initially they thought the press would provide publicity by simply showing up and recording events, but such public personalities as City Attorney Burt Pines and Councilwoman Pat Russell brought with them an addi­ tional level of press attention that reflected on the project, forcing the artists to think in more sophisticated terms about how to manage the media in order to project a feminist viewpoint through its lenses. This concern with the media representation of women found its expression later that year with In Mourning and in Rage, a public “media event”



Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz, In Mourning and in Rage, 1977, on the steps of City Hall, Los Angeles.

staged specifically for the press on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall. The event was in response to the sensationalistic news coverage of the so-called Hillside Strangler murders, a case in which ten women were found raped and murdered along populated hillsides in suburban Los Angeles in 1977. What bothered Lacy and Labowitz was that in its zeal to provide dramatic coherence for the isolated facts of the case, the local media insisted upon ransacking the past histories of the victims in its search for some common behavioral flaw (at first they thought the women were all prostitutes) that might account for why these particular women had been murdered. In so doing, reporters inadvertently reinforced popular myths about sexual violence, main­ taining all the while that with more information about the details of the murders, women could better protect themselves. The effect, according to Lacy, was to feed women’s hysteria, especially since there were few if any substantive media images of women defending them­ selves. Moreover, the “search for Jack-the-Ripper”—type narratives that underscored the reporting disallowed any serious analysis of the social, political, and even mythological conditions in which this climate of violence and fear could so rivet the attention of a city— indeed, of a nation.

On the morning of December 13, 1977, a funeral motorcade of twenty-two cars filled with women followed a hearse from the Woman’s Building to City Hall, at which point nine seven-foot-tall veiled women, their veils draped around their heads in the angular shapes of coffins, emerged from the hearse and took up positions on



Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz, In Mourning and in Rage, 1977, Los Angeles. An image of the performance on the local nightly news.



the steps facing the street. Women from the motorcade filled in be­ hind them and unfurled a banner that read, “In Memory of Our Sisters, Women Fight Back.” Then, with City Hall behind them and the assembled local press in front, the first mourner walked to the microphone and said, “I am here for the ten women who have been raped and strangled between October 18 and November 29,” after which she was echoed by the chorus of mourners who chanted, “In memory of our sisters, women fight back.” In succession, each of the nine veiled women made statements that connected the Hillside Strangler murders with the larger social and political issues of violence against women, and each, in turn, was echoed by the chorus in the performance of what Lacy called “a modern tragedy.”

In Mourning and in Rage was a media event designed to project images of strong women taking positive action in defense of them­ selves. Rather than depending upon the press to report on the perfor­ mance per se, the performance was itself a kind of ritualistic press conference designed to capture and fix media attention by anticipating and appealing to its journalistic conventions, including the need for bold, simple images (larger-than-life, black-and-red-robed women), concise statements (sound bites, declarations of rage), a familiar dra­ matic narrative (a funeral), the repetition of images over and over for maximum press consumption (the mourners speaking ten times, the echoing chorus), the same images set up for every possible camera angle so that the pictures on the nightly news would all show what the artists intended (the resolute delegation of “unified woman- strength”), the “establishing” background shot (City Hall, which would confer authority upon the performance), and the postevent session with city politicians in which the themes of the performance would be stated over and over, thereby aligning “official” sentiment with a heretofore “radical” cause. This project, one of the earliest examples of performance art’s intervention into popular media, had immediate effects on the Los Angeles community: ransom money (for capture of the Hillside Strangler) was redesignated for self-defense classes for women, rape hotline numbers were listed in the Yellow Pages (after some initial resistance by the phone company), and several subsequent discussions were held between the artists and representa­ tives of the media about the media conventions being used to report



In the pragmatic tradition of much

American art, doing is knowing.

sexually violent crimes. Moreover, images and information about In Mourning and in Rage were broadcast on prime-time television across the state and appeared in national and international news accounts. While Lacy and Labowitz were not naive enough to believe that their performance would change the way the popular media covers in­ stances of violence against women, they did want to demonstrate a strategy for media intervention that artists and activists might use in their attempts to project alternative voices into the public domain.

Since the late 1970s, Lacy has continued to develop forms of public ritual performance in which participants appear, by choice, in culminating spectacles that frame them as subjects. Unlike theories of the spectacle as a disembodied form of passive consumption, Lacy’s are concrete social occasions in which the subjects are proactive par­ ticipants, not disaffected spectators. Like the rings of a tree, the “pub­ lic domain” in Lacy’s work extends out from her at the center through collaborators (those who help design and run the project); performers (usually the subjects of the performance, like the older women at the Biltmore); contacts (among the organizations and agencies involved

with the project); spectators (those who come to see the spectacles); the art audience (which hears of the projects through gossip, reviews, lectures, and other forms of documentation); and the audience at large (which sees news spots on television or reads stories in the

newspaper). Meaning, not just an aesthetic emotion, cuts across these rings from the center to the farthest edge. The artist is con­ nected with every point along the line, which is part of what makes the work public—as well as private. She can choose to emphasize different rings depending on whom she is addressing at the time, be it members of a city council, fellow artists, teenagers and their teach­ ers, or her own body. The meaning of today’s best public art is not all “out there” in the so-called public domain (wherever that is) but in the resonance with which it cuts across the grain of human experi­ ence, exposing the common fiber that connects the personal body to the body politic.

Still, it is easier to see the public dimension of public art—the outer ring, as it were—-than those that lead back to the artist’s core.



Too often the outer ring is taken to represent the whole tree. Mean­ ing, then, is seen in one-dimensional terms, as only social or political or historical or feminist or multicultural, and so forth. Its “aesthetic” layers are lost, which is fine with social activists who think that art is politically ineffective and proof for academic artists of the aesthetic poverty of so-called political art. Indeed, for some in the arts public spectacles of the kind Lacy does must surely relinquish the artist’s claims to aesthetic identity, seeming instead to give the art away to the audience, or the object to the subjects. In lieu of some objective solid (like a painting) that might otherwise give it body—and thus a framework for subjectivity—an art work that unfolds in social time and space, or across a network of people and agencies outside the arts, is regarded as merely “conceptual,” that is, as being beyond the senses.

Experience is the medium of Suzanne Lacy’s art. Though one may learn something by reading about her work in the art press, or be moved by watching a procession of older women walking down to the beach as the audience applauds, or be inspired by the videotape, it is through more concerted forms of experience that one is likely to fully “embody” the metaphor of a given project. The more you give the more you get. Like Kaprow, Lacy believes that meaningful experience is the most effective way to change consciousness. In the pragmatic tradition of much American art, doing is knowing. In order to “do” in the arts, one must either be the artist (a painter can “do”) or be willing to participate in what another artist does. Participation does not mean pretending to be an artist if you are a rape counselor; it means agreeing to become involved with an artist’s project as a rape counselor—as yourself. Art doesn’t have to be seen as art to be meaningful. It can be seen as social organizing, curriculum development, or providing op­ portunities for people to speak. Art is not the only meaningful thing. By bringing her artistic practice into alignment with the meaningful practices of others, Lacy not only extends the social effectiveness of art, but she acknowledges the meaningfulness of what others do. This is appropriate, even generous, but not naive. Artists like Lacy are not Utopians but pragmatists—they want to create social, political, and aesthetic processes that work. They will not save the world, but they will get something done. Those who participate in the processes of public activist art will experience—will embody—what they mean,



Suzanne Lacy, Whisper, the Waves, the Wind, 1984, La Jolla, California.



whether they appear in the culminating performance, attend planning meetings, make telephone calls, give presentations to local school officials, or argue with the artist about the costumes, images, or chore­ ography of a spectacle. No one, however, will experience the full range of meaning more directly than the artist.

Those who perform in Lacy’s spectacles always do so as them­ selves. There is no acting involved (and in this Lacy continues an investigation into the unaffected aspects of everyday experience that has been carried on by American artists since the nineteenth century). In Whisper, the Waves, the Wind, for example, a 1984 performance at the ocean’s edge in La Jolla, California, 154 white-clad women age sixty-five and older took part in a ritual procession. They walked from a nearby convalescent center through a waiting crowd of per­ haps 1,000, down the steps and onto the beach below. Some were assisted by younger volunteers; all were applauded as they passed. On the beach, the performers were seated in groups of four at small white tables where they talked among themselves about death, the body as an aging shell, prettiness, nursing homes, leaving a mark on life, feminism, traditional roles for women, sex, face-lifts, the kind of strength that comes with age, personal tragedies, the need to identify with younger people, and the myth that only the aged die. As their conversations unfolded, the several hundred spectators who had come to witness the performance from the cliffs above were invited onto the beach to mingle and talk with the performers. The key interac­ tion of the piece, this conflation of performers and spectators dis­ solved the differences between aesthetic artifice and social process. Whether dealing with such themes as international women’s culture (The International Dinner Party, 1978), equal rights {River Meetings: Lives ofWomen in the Delta, 1982, New Orleans), immigration and racism {Migrants and Survivors, 1984, Los Angeles, and The Dark Madonna, 1986, University of California at Los Angeles), aging {The Crystal Quilt, 1987, Minnesota), or international peace {The Road of Poems and Borders, 1992, Finland), Lacy’s works have consistently revealed a spectacle of social realism.

Of late, Lacy has completed several public installations dealing with domestic abuse; in them, members of the audience are invited to take positive action on behalf of themselves. In the summer of 1993,



Suzanne Lacy and Carol Kuwata, Underground, 1993, 3 Rivers Arts Festival, Pittsburgh. The telephone booth from which battered women could contact a network of social services.



for example, she installed a public work called Underground in which she laid several hundred feet of railroad track across the lawn of Pittsburgh’s Point State Park, a popular park overlooking the con­ fluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, where they meet to form the Ohio. Three wrecked cars were placed along the track’s length, variously labeled with statistics about domestic violence or heartrending statements of the victims (such as “He didn’t know what he was doing” or “Am I giving up too soon?”), or filled with lists of what they were able to take with them when they went “under­ ground.” Routed into the wooden railroad ties were the words and phrases of an epic poem written by the artist about a woman escaping domestic violence. In order to read the poem, one had to walk the tracks, at the end of which was a working telephone booth where one could seek advice from a coalition, formed for the project, of volun­ teers from police departments, the legal and medical professions, and survivors themselves who staffed the phone lines of a local domestic- violence shelter. In addition, callers could leave recordings of their own experiences, and listen to the voices of other women.

As the cars signified battered bodies, and as the tracks signified terrible journeys (not to mention the fact that the Point had been a nineteenth-century destination for the Underground Railroad), so the phone booth signified the body at a fateful juncture between alienation and connection. An actual point of contact between indi­ vidual members of an audience for public art (of which there were

Suzanne Lacy and Carol Kuwata, Underground, 1993, 3 Rivers Arts Festiva Pittsburgh.



The healing rituals of

communal feminism have

been extended.

perhaps 500,000) and the network of social agencies that assist the victims of family violence, it was a door to the underground, which is where women escaping their abusers are too often forced to go. At the end of the line, the artist seemed to say, “there is hope.”

This kind of public outreach to anonymous battered women (who may have been thinking of going underground) extends the range and even the meaning of participation in Lacy’s art. The audience is drawn to an art space where they can observe the spectacle or, if need be, pick up the phone. For those women who did—Lacy received hundreds of messages from her phone booth—the empathic connections were made beyond the metaphors. The healing rituals of communal femi­ nism have been extended to the scale of particular communities or to individuals most of whom the artist will never know—thereby affirm­ ing simultaneously Lacy’s desire for social contact as well as the pecu­ liar itinerancy it fosters. ‘ ,

The issues of race, sex, age, and class that fill our social spaces today can be traced to political alienation on the outside and self- alienation on the inside. Between them stands the body. For over twenty years, Suzanne Lacy’s performances have represented a pano­ ply of alienated (arguably self-alienated) subjects, including black inner-city teenagers, older women, victims of rape and spousal abuse,

female prisoners, prostitutes, the homeless, and women of different racial, cultural, and economic backgrounds. Taken together, these subjects repre­ sent the wounded body politic of American life.

Perhaps, as she moves from city to city, from prison to high school, from art critics to battered women, Lacy can be described both as an itinerant

public artist and as a postmodern country doctor. Throughout her career her prescriptions for healing the American body have been to turn the inside outside, make the invisible visible, restore its voice, exercise its organs, challenge its self-image in the mass-media mirror, and—most important—to provide opportunities for empathic con­ nection among its members.

Lacy’s public activism is predicated on empathy. It involves an experience of physiological transformation, of becoming in some sense the other—though never completely or enough. When she



was publicly made over as an old woman at the Biltmore Hotel, she wanted to know whether she would feel older if she looked older to others. This exploration of identity as an elusive interplay of internal and external perspectives may be seen by some as an appropriation of another’s experience, but only if one sentimentalizes “the other.” Lacy is never sentimental about the lives or experiences of her participants. What she hopes for is the mutual creation of some common ground, which if it happens, usually does so in the wake of much debate, struggle, and—in the final analysis—good faith. Empathy is not the appropriation of another’s experience. It is an experience of appropri­ ate connection with others. Lacy does not appropriate, but insists—- sometimes quite forcefully—on the possibility of empathic connec­ tion. These connections are the “public” domain of Lacy’s work. The body is their common juncture. Empathy is not a function of the mind over the body, but of the body as mind.

Suzanne Lacy’s fundamental interest as an artist, then, might be defined as the philosophical pursuit of meaning from inside a physical body. Her works are the social frameworks for that pursuit. Through empathic experience the personal body merges with the body politic. Perhaps because of this, we see the public level of the work more easily than the private. But it’s there, in her guts—and there, too, in its con­ nective tissue, is the “public” in public art.


  • Structure Bookmarks
    • But is itArt?
    • 8The Body Politics of Suzanne Lacy

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