American Performance Artist
Summary of Suzanne Lacy
According to feminist artist Suzanne Lacy, no matter what we do as human beings in our individual lives, we are all activists. For her, this meant using the vehicles of public practice, installation, performance-based art, and writing to affect real impactful change in the world. Emerging during an era of American social and political transformation, her "new genre public art" would distill its spotlight onto issues such as equal rights, racial discrimination, violence, rape, ageism, sexism, and more. But she remains more than mere mouthpiece or waver of the banner for the misfortunate; her work infiltrates the psyches of staid institutions, helps topple stale belief systems, and creates awareness surrounding the important issues of our time. As she has stated, "I have an ethical obligation as a person to make the world more equitable."
- Coming of age during an important cross section of feminism and art in the late '60s and early '70s informed Lacy's pivotal work with Judy Chicago and the seminal Woman's Building in Los Angeles. Although this time established her first and foremost as a feminist, her altruistic passions would spread their tendrils into an artistic oeuvre that focused on helping all marginalized peoples.
- A pioneer in using Identity Politics as medium, Lacy's work has helped spotlight the circumstances and experiences of groups of people who, for whatever reason, are in need of political alliances separate from traditional broad-based party lines in order to gain exposure toward their concerns and issues.
- With a career that resonates with the witch or shaman archetype, Lacy represents those women of our society who dwell purposefully, without regard to fame or fortune, orchestrating healing and positive evolution by holding up a mirror to humanity that expresses its communal shadows, and that which might otherwise go unspoken.
- Lacy's key techniques as an artist are similar to those used by seasoned journalists, psychologists (she has an educational background), and social anthropologists. Her creative tools consist of data collection, research, observation, assimilation, and reporting methodologies.
- The success of Lacy's career cannot be measured in physical artworks, concrete documentation, or a resume dotted with gallery exhibitions but rather, by the important shifts in social climate her work has contributed to manifesting. This encompasses the education of police departments about the realities of rape and her current position as teacher at the University of Southern California's Roski School of Art & Design.
Biography of Suzanne Lacy
Suzanne Lacy was the first of three children born to Larry and Betty Little Lacy in Wasco, California in 1945. She described her father's heritage as "a very poor Tennessee hillbilly environment," while her mother was white Canadian Scottish. Larry had a military background and flew bombing raids over Germany during the World War II before becoming an insurance salesman. Betty worked as a clerk in a gas company. Suzanne's brother Philip was born in 1947 and sister Jean in 1962.
Important Art by Suzanne Lacy
With Prostitution Notes, Lacy sought to examine sex work not as stand-alone subject, but rather to locate the experience of prostitutes within her own life, "looking for echoes of their lives in mine." To accomplish this, she spent four months in Los Angeles interviewing friends, contacts, and sex workers at various restaurants and cafes about their opinions and experiences in regards to prostitution. She meticulously wrote down what she was told, took photos of the location of the interviews, and recorded what everyone ate, collecting matchbooks, stickers, and other mementoes.
The work was a combination of performance, subjectivity, and research that acted as a record of her emotional response to what she learned. By the end of the project, ten large diagrams emerged depicting the psychosocial spaces Lacy uncovered, recording the language and power dynamics of the relationships involved. The work also highlighted our communal denial of aspects of society that exist alongside us in our everyday life. Lacy wrote, "The street corners, restaurants and bars of Los Angeles took on a new appearance... Sunset at Highland is a very hot spot for hooking. I'm amazed, since I've passed it hundreds of times."
She added, that "Most of what we knew at that time came from literature and films that greatly glamorized the life. I didn't want to flirt with their reality as a performance, or to relate their stories as an anthropologist might. Rather, I would locate the work inside my own experiences and record the process of my research. 'The Life' as it was called wasn't far from mine."
In 2010, Lacy reinvented Prostitution Notes as a performed reading of her original drawings for the Serpentine Gallery's Map Marathon in London. The work illustrates the strong ethics that have underpinned her entire career, social impact often more important than the endurance of its artistic value. As she explained in 2019, "I don't care as much about art as I care about human trafficking."
Three Weeks in May was a mixed media performance piece that sought to examine sexual violence and end societal silence surrounding rape. Lacy's original intentions were to broadcast locations of said violence while expressing women's feelings, and/or personal experiences with rape. For three weeks, Lacy collected reports from the police and printed the word RAPE in red capital letters on a map to coincide with the incident locations. She then would repeat the word in faded printing nearby to represent all the acts of sexual violence that went unreported. A second map illustrated where women could go to get help. Lacy also went to various physical locations where rape had occurred and documented this on the street in red letters, such as "Two women were raped near here. May 9, May 21." Although she initially planned to display the maps in a gallery, she was inspired by Allan Kaprow's "Happenings" and realized that if she put them in a public space they would have a greater impact.
The work was produced at a time when Los Angeles was considered the "Rape Capital" of the United States; in fact, in California it was still legal for men to rape their wives. Rape was so taboo that Lacy stated, "Women never, ever admitted to anyone that they had been raped. To admit to rape in 1970 was to admit that there was essentially something terribly wrong with you."
The work had a powerful effect and caused real social change. As Lacy described, "I got access to City Council, the police department. I began to make relationships in convincing that this was an important area of public concern." Consequently, the LAPD set up rape reporting call lines and the City Government began to address violence against women.
The work was examined in Vivien Green Fryd's book Against Our Will: Sexual Trauma in American Art Since 1970 as a source of incredible power in its combination of activism, education, and theory, marking the beginning of "new genre public art." Fryd explained, "As a political activist committed to fighting oppression, Lacy learned ways to affect cultural attitudes, the criminal justice system and the media through her visceral performance that forced discussion about the formerly silent subject of rape. She wielded her strategic agency through this performance to challenge gender norms...and contribute to the anti-rape movement in the United States."
Participating artists included Barbara Cohen, Melissa Hoffman, Leslie Labowitz, and Jill Soderholm. In 2012 Lacy recreated Three Weeks in May for the Getty Pacific Standard Time Performance Festival with her piece Storytelling Rape.
Marginalized people and populations are a common subject throughout Lacy's work. This work, produced in collaboration with activist, writer, and artist Kathleen Chang, examined the immigrant experience. The performance took place for an audience on a ferry to Angel Island, the historical point of entry for Asian immigrants to the San Francisco Bay area. The audience was made up of art supporters and unsuspecting tourists, who each received a piece of paper written with stories of Asian Pacific women, trafficked into the country, legal immigrants, and Japanese war brides. When the ferry arrived at the island, artists dressed in period costumes, walked up the hill to meet it. Lacy portrayed Donaldina Cameron, a social reformer, while Chang played a relative who had come to the new world. On her website, Lacy stated, "Taken together, the narratives offered indictment, challenge, and historical understanding to the complicated cross-racial organizing process, commenting on how the very missionaries who transformed and subverted Chinese culture in their subjects were often the only hope for women's education and health."
Since the 1960s, artists had been exploring identity politics as a way to understand issues of agency and power. Yet Lacy was radical in her impetus to explore and understand social cross-sections by assimilating into, with, or alongside their unique experiences. Explaining this piece, she described, "I do not become black or Chinese, but I integrate myself as closely as possible into that experience to understand the correlations of our shared experience, to expand my identity and become the other." As art historian Sharon Irish said, "Lacy chose to use her body and to collaborate with other bodies to animate her concerns and questions during a time when identity politics both defined groups and wrenched them apart."
Understandably, while she examined racial difference in pieces such as this, Lacy attracted controversy. Marvin Carlson said in Performance, A Critical Introduction, "Lacy encountered much resistance from Chinese artists, who felt that a white feminist with her own agenda could neither understand nor represent their concerns, and saw this attempt to speak 'for' them little different from male dramatists speaking for women."
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Suzanne Lacy
- Leaving Art: Writings on Performance, Politics, and Publics, 1974-2007By Suzanne Lacy
- Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public ArtBy Suzanne Lacy
- Suzanne Lacy - Gender AgendasBy Suzanne Lacy
- Suzanne Lacy - Spaces BetweenOur PickBy Sharon Irish
- Suzanne Lacy: We Are HereBy Rudolf Frieling
- Artists Who Have Addressed Sexual Trauma Since the 1970sBy Jennifer Remenchik / Hyperallergic / September 3, 2019
- Becoming a Witness and Suzanne Lacy's Between the Door and the Street.By Salamishar Tillet / The Nation / October 23, 2013
- Tate Modern's women's liberation armyBy Laura Barnett / The Guardian / 29 January, 2013
- Suzanne Lacy on making feminist art and why everyone should be an activistOur PickBy Sara Radin / i-D Magazine / 29 May, 2019
- Suzanne Lacy: Social Reformer and WitchOur PickBy Moira Roth / The Dramatic Review / Spring 1988
- Suzanne Lacy's moving public tableauxBy AC / The Economist / April 26, 2019
- Suzanne Lacy's Powerful Legacy of Feminist CollaborationOur PickBy Bridget Quinn / Hyperallergic / July 24, 2019
- Who Gets To Be The Artist? An Interview With Suzanne LacyBy Barnaby Smith / The Quietus / May 25, 2019
- Suzanne Lacy's Three Weeks in May: Feminist Activated Performance Art as "Expanded Public Pedagogy"By Vivien Green-Fryd / NWSA Journal
- Between the Door and the Street: A Performance Initiated by Suzanne Lacy
- Documenting Three Weeks in May by Suzanne Lacy
- Suzanne Lacy discusses her life as an artist/activist since the 1970s
- Suzanne Lacy discusses the origins of feminist performance art in the 1970s
- Suzanne Lacy: The Crystal Quilt
- Suzanne Lacy: Silver Action
- Suzanne Lacy's Trade Talk
- Suzanne Lacy: Questions & Answers