Public Art, New York Style
Los Angeles-based artist Suzanne Lacy talks with editor Jane Carr about Between the Door and the Street, her New York City debut, which took place on October 19 in Prospect Heights (and was held in collaboration with the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum and Creative Time).
A veteran maker of socially engaged and public art, Lacy is best known for her large-scale projects, including Three Weeks in May (Los Angeles, 1977), The Crystal Quilt (Minneapolis, 1987), and Silver Action (Tate Modern, 2013). Between the Door and the Street brought around 400 women and a few men—selected to represent a cross-section of perspectives and backgrounds—to the stoops of Park Place between Vanderbilt and Underhill Avenues. The residents of this block opened their stoops as a conversation space for the participants to have unscripted conversations about a variety of issues related to gender politics today. Members of the public came out to wander and observe, listen to what was being said, and form their own opinions.
TBQ: Your work has engaged a variety of media, platforms and networks in order to challenge the boundaries between art and activism. Listening to recordings of your remarks at some of the recent Creative Time Summits, a few words and ideas stuck out to me: “unscripted,” “multivocal,” “sculpted,” fusion of rehearsals with community training and organizing, “New forms of activist performance art.” In previous interviews, you’ve firmly identified as an artist, rather than an activist. Even so, can you describe how and why performance and activism animate your work as an artist so deeply?
SL: I am an artist because …well, why do people become artists? It’s not as though there aren’t many creative people who don’t become professionals. Part of it is opportunity, to transform your creativity into a profession, and for me that was just chance. While I was always artistic as a young person, coming from a working class background I didn’t really see it as a viable career option. I thought that artists couldn’t make a living, and actually that wasn’t entirely wrong. On the way to becoming a medical doctor, I just happened to land in graduate school at the college where Judy Chicago was starting her Feminist Art Program. The artist Faith Wilding told me about the program. After a year in it, I was ready to jump from pre-med to California Institute of the Arts, where Judy was taking her program. There the exposure to avant-garde art, at the beginning of conceptual and performance art developments, practically guaranteed that I would be interested in temporal and conceptual forms. As for activism, I guess that too has been part of my thinking since childhood, when I first encountered racism. At first I thought prejudice was a result of wrong thinking, then as I got older, I began to understand how social and political systems perpetuate oppression. I’m an activist because I think about inequity and how it is expressed in so many forms around the world.
TBQ: How did you come to partner with the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum?
SL: I was invited by Creative Time Chief Curator Nato Thompson to do a project. As I worked with the project manager, Jean Cooney, the idea of exploring new connections forged between feminism and activism through the work of younger women emerged in early planning sessions, and the Sackler Center was a natural and perfect partner. They have provided a critical voice for women artists, and I am impressed with their curatorial breadth—the current exhibition by Wangechi Mutu is breathtaking. Catherine Morris, the Sackler Center curator, and Anne Pasternak, Creative Time’s president and artistic director, are long-time feminists and their vision was very much a part of the project design. The questions on the steps of the museum, for example, came from an idea of Anne’s and the effort to install was led by Catherine and her team. I particularly like the awards and public programming [at the Sackler Center] where women from all professions are featured, including activists. Many of the names we began with, as we developed our advisory group, were from their past programming. As you probably know, Elizabeth Sackler herself is an important voice for feminism.
TBQ: How did you identify the street space in Brooklyn you wanted to use and select Prospect Heights as the particular neighborhood where Between the Door and the Street was held?
SL: We were directed toward the Prospect Heights neighborhood by Radiah Harper, the Vice Director, Education and Program Development, at Brooklyn Museum. It was proximate to the Museum but also still fairly integrated. The Creative Time staff rode around on bikes identifying different areas of the neighborhood: ones that were residential, on quiet streets with even tree coverage, and so on. We picked the block on Park Place purely on visual characteristics, but we got lucky. It has a great block organization, a lot of long-time residents, and many artists and activists living there. It was really great working on Park Place and getting to know the residents, many of whom participated significantly in the project – like Shaun Fillion, an architectural lighting designer, who helped design the stage setting, and David Whitlock, owner of the Brooklyn Brownstone B and B, who literally turned his house into a production site for us. People opened their homes to us in every way, hosting information sessions and serving as sites for staging performers and photographers. Ora Wise, our community liaison, and Leila Tamari, Creative Time programming assistant, were the women who organized the residents’ participation, and they miraculously secured our use of the stoops of almost every house on the street.
TBQ: Between the Door and the Street grew out of a series of conversations you had with groups of activist women, held over the course of six months. Can you talk about the experience of this preparation for the project?
SL: Once we decided to explore the contemporary state of “feminist” and “activist” work, and how people were currently thinking about, and re-evaluating these themes, we began researching prominent women working in areas like anti-racism, poverty and workers rights, immigration and violence, women who were articulate spokespersons for the current state of things. Jean and I spent a few months going from one small meeting to another, talking to women. From this set of meetings we invited participation in an advisory board of about 20 people (with one man), assembled for the project, who could advise us on ideas, political concepts, and people they felt should be involved in this research. The advisory group included busy, important, and impressive women who each contributed time, as they were able to, to the design and production of the performance. They identified more than 100 organizations and these formed the first platform for organizing.
TBQ: Once you started the discussion, how did you approach the process?
SL: This is pretty much classic community organizing (in the Alinsky model), where leadership is identified to frame the ideas in the work and to direct action. Of course the difficulty in the greater New York region is how to define “community,” which, in terms of gender justice is pretty vast. But that was part of the research—to determine what new concepts linked activism, to support the work of, in particular, younger activist women, and to query where the intersections between groups were productive, and where prejudices and misconceptions prevented alliances and coalitions. I know that critical interrogation and labeling inadequacies is an effective political tool but this project exemplified another important political strategy: that of seeking convergences, common areas of concern, and strengthening a recognition of the value of each other’s work. It was a metaphoric “coalition,” meant to bring attention to a breadth of issues that might be considered as activist in terms of how gender justice is currently defined by those people. Jennifer Hsu, an artist, teacher, and producer, was hired by Creative Time to organize participation in the project. We wanted to support and recognize the work of activist organizations through the project and to highlight the lived realities that their work was based upon. In addition, we did an analysis of the demographics of the greater New York region and Brooklyn in particular, and created a set of standards by which to measure the effectiveness of our organizing in including a broad range of women. Other issues—like ensuring that we represented transgendered, disabled, and ex-incarcerated people—were brought up by the “gang of 8,” a group of young women Creative Time hired to organize participation. These young women were trained in organizing and worked with Jennifer from initial organizational contact until the performance itself, where they worked with the groups of participants.
TBQ: When you were talking with the participants, were you an interviewer, a collaborator, a fellow activist?
SL: One of the most important aspects of organizing is to engage people at a deeper level than simply calling them together to speak, and to protect them in their speaking out. Our support mechanisms for participants started with how they were organized. In each organization a single person—our stoop leader—was identified to organize his/her own group. We worked exclusively through these people, holding meetings, phone and email conversations to support them in putting together a group. Some of our advisors assembled groups too. This was meant to provide a frame for on-going support for participants, before, during and after the performance, through already established friendship or organizational structures. We offered stoop leaders facilitation techniques, although most were already quite experienced by the nature of their work. We asked that each group come up with their own questions they’d like to address during the performance, a way of self-directing the conversations. We took all these questions and passed them by advisors to find general themes, which we gave back to stoop leaders to use as possible guides. In this way there were major themes identified for the overall work, coming from the participants themselves. However, as Jenn clearly emphasized in all her communications with stoop leaders, the ultimate trajectory of the group conversation was up to that group.
At the performance itself we had a variety of mechanisms in place to support the groups. Volunteers we called “stoop guardians” were stationed at every conversation, and their role was to intervene as needed to keep audience from interfering with the conversations and to monitor whether groups were getting tired, cold, or members needed anything. The information concerning each group was carefully communicated to a series of directors and the “gang of 8” who ensured that any problems— lost children, participant needing a bathroom, audience member becoming provocative, etc.— were promptly dealt with. Some of our participants were particularly worried about repercussions for their expressed attitudes or identities, and stoop guardians were part of a built-in protection against this. We could also contact our professional medical and counseling volunteers in this way, but fortunately none were needed that night. Finally, we had a lot of stage manager types monitoring the amount of audience so that the numbers didn’t overwhelm the participants.
TBQ: Are there moments in the performance that have especially stuck with you?
SL: I suppose getting up on stage with participants before the event was the most moving, and when the women entered onto the street in lines to take their places on stoops. I had to work not to burst into tears in front of everyone, they were so beautiful.
TBQ: As an artist and creative figure long focused on making public performance an occasion for examining cultural perception and offering protest, how have technology, new media and social media shaped your creative process and your approach to organizing?
SL: I wouldn’t say they really have, except as an organizing support. In a sense technology has made organizing easier to reach large numbers, but it also allows us to disembody participants and opponents alike. I am a great believer in the value of face-to-face communication, in negotiation of differences, and in listening to others’ experiences as a way of enlarging my own understandings. I’ve explored social media as a tool to organize in different projects—for example in Three Weeks in January (Los Angeles, 2012) and in Silver Action (London 2013)—but the organizing of participation in this project was straightforward place-based, person-to-person contact.
TBQ: This next question is about Between the Door and the Street but I would be interested to hear whether you have thoughts that span over your career and previous works as well. For you, what is the relationship between art and social engagement?
SL: In this, and many but not all my projects, there is what I would call a strong pedagogical component that in a sense mirrors how I learn. It starts with curiosity and a suspicion that there is something to be gained in a deeper knowledge of both the experiences and the various analyses behind specific social situations. Many artists, motivated by what they don’t know, establish research processes that, in the case of de-materialized art, becomes part of the work itself. I’ve had some training in community organizing and have learned much from the people with whom I’ve worked over the years, so those processes become part of the work itself, a combination of public performance where both participant and audience are part of the performance. In the case of this project, audience performed listening, and then in the second part of the event they performed in conversation with the groups who sat on the stoops and the residents in the neighborhood. That was something everyone might not have understood—the gathering in the street and serving of food was as much part of the performance as was the sound piece at the entry, composed by Los Angeles composer Bruno Louchouarn.
It must be said, however, that art is often, although not always, more metaphoric than activist. In a sense the same could be said about the Occupy Movement, that its strength was in metaphor. While you can take action through an art project, or an art project might move one to take action as a result—and this should always be a part of one’s thinking—I prefer to position myself within the critical pedagogy discourse. How are narratives and counter-narratives formed in our culture? What kinds of constructions take us to a different place? In this project clearly the political metaphor was of finding connections between differences and posing questions about the possibilities of coalition. As potentially fraught as that idea is, and in today’s political climate it is certainly easier to find difference than common cause, I still think it is an aspirational political tool and a necessity for continuing activism over the course of a lifetime.
TBQ: Your bio is filled with instances of social engagement and public creativity channeled through a variety of institutions – artistic, community, educational, municipal, political. How do these institutional roles inform one another in your work? Do you seem them as linked conduits in the pursuit of social change?
SL: In terms of education, I’d say my views are most shaped by my own experiences and my approach to learning. I was fortunate to enter college under the California Master Plan for Higher Education, a piece of legislation that provided a system of junior colleges, state colleges and universities and guaranteed the state’s residents the right to attend. As a working class person, I grew up in an era when my attendance in higher education was not limited by my family income, as it is today, and I spent a lot of years taking advantage of all the state systems. Education was transformative for me, shaping my values and expanding my worldview. I have seen how family members and friends never really escaped their small town rural upbringing and the attitudes of their parents by not being well-educated. So I am a great believer in higher education, and have worked there most of my adult life. These views, on the relationship of education to class, are perhaps most formative in my work at Otis College of Art and Design. The graduate program is based on the development of personal values and social and political analyses as proper subjects for art.
Because my students come from all walks of life and even different countries, they are often interested in educational institutions as a subject for their art. They struggle with college debt, with economics of future employment, and with their desire to learn. They work very hard to express their idealism through their work, and several of them challenge current education politics within their work. If you are interested in social change, eventually you have to begin dealing with institutions of one kind or another. Individual insight and change, while important, only goes so far, and most of my colleagues who have been working in this form of political art for a while begin to consider institutions— whether that be art institutions or civic ones. This leads to questions for artists in terms of scale, media, communication and so on, but I won’t address those here as each kind of institution deserves its own discussion.
TBQ: Your book, Leaving Art, divides your career writings chronologically into sections by decade: “Learning to Look,” “Political Performance Art,” “Debated Terrority,” and “Leaving Art.” What section heading might you use to describe where you are now?
SL: Hmmmmm, that’s a good one. There would definitely be a new heading, a new section, but I suspect I won’t know until it is done. In terms of life trajectories, I operate fairly intuitively, heading in directions that are dictated by a series of questions, as they appear in my work. Looking back, I see what I’ve become.
TBQ: Jillian Steinhauer, an art critic with a piece in our first issue on art and social entrepreneurship, was there on October 19. Among her impressions, the following quotations struck me and I wondered if you have a response to either one:
“You had to lean in, sit on a railing, accept that you might miss things here and there. It was an inconvenience, but one that seemed to suggest a deeper meaning: participating in these types of conversations requires effort. Sustained effort. It’s trying, often, to talk about gender politics, to be a woman and be forced to prove your case to men over and over and over.”
“Choices like the fourth wall and lack of microphones bring up an inevitable question: who was ‘Between the Door and the Street’ for?”
SL: Although many think the stoop conversation participants were the performers in the project, the audience was under as much scrutiny although that might not have been apparent in the beginning. We are so used to the conventions of theater, where there are the “lookers” and the “looked at.” The subversion of this convention is framing the entire street —its residents, it architecture, audience and conversationalists—as the work. Jillian Steinhauer is correct in both assertions from my point of view: performing the act of listening is itself metaphoric, and straining to hear, selecting from the somewhat overwhelming numbers of people to whom one might want to listen (dilemmas of choice), consciousness of oneself as eavesdropper (an outsider), identification, and choosing whether to continue or extend a conversation with one’s own opinions during and after the performance are all actions that could be seen as part of life outside of art.
In terms of who is the project for, I’d say its audiences are concentric, beginning with participants themselves. If they don’t have a satisfying experience that evening and as a result of their efforts, then it isn’t successful. I don’t necessarily mean politically, although I do think that expressing personal experience, educating people, and making yourself and your concerns publicly visible— like passing out leaflets— is part of political action. But it is important to me that the people in this project feel energized and proud of their participation. The second audience group are those who organized and produced the project, and including the Brooklyn Museum and Creative Time staff, organizers, advisors, stoop leaders, volunteers, residents, artists and so on; there were over 200 people who put time and energy into the project. The third were those who attended, thinking they were audience but who in our mind were part of the whole. And of course there is the audience of those who learn about the performance through media, such as this article. In some more remote sense the work operates for younger artists, like my students, who understand that work of this scale and with these politics is possible in art today, however they will take these issues forward for themselves. Jane:
TBQ: What’s next? Are you working on any new projects?
SL: Yes, several of them, in writing, video and performance. I will be working at the Drawing Center next March with Andrea Bowers on a durational performance; she is going to try to teach me how to draw. In Bristol, England, I am continuing to work with the Knowle West Media Centre and the Arnolfini in a long-term project called The University of Local Knowledge. My collaborator Penny Evans has collected and produced over 1,000 video short pieces from local residents who share their knowledge about various things and we are populating an online university with these bits of knowledge, to accompany the long term organizing strategies of the Media Centre. And of course there is writing: I am starting a book on The Oakland Projects, a ten-year series of performances and installations on and with youth in Oakland, California.
Jane Greenway Carr is a writer and editor born and raised in Memphis and currently based in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Publishers Weekly and other magazines and academic journals. She is a graduate of Princeton University, with an MFA from Columbia University and a PhD from New York University, where she is a lecturer in English. She is editor of The Brooklyn Quarterly.