In December 1977, a hearse led a motorcade of some 70 women in 22 cars to the grand steps of Los Angeles City Hall. There 10 women clad in black dresses and tall masks got out and formed an imposing line.
“I am here for the 10 women who were raped and strangled,” the first one said as she stepped up to a microphone in Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz’s “In Mourning and In Rage,” a ritual protest against a series of 10 murders of women then attributed to the “Hillside Strangler.” The performance, and that fierce line of mourning women, are now remembered as one of the iconic early examples of feminist art. (Watch video of it here.)
“I am here for the 388 women who have been raped in Los Angeles between Oct. 18 and Nov. 29,” another performer said. “I am here for the 4,033 women who have been raped in L.A. last year,” another said into the mic. “I am here to speak for the thousands of women who have been raped and beaten and have not yet found their voices,” another said.
After each woman spoke, a chorus of other women shouted: “In memory of our sisters, we fight back”—a slogan also stenciled onto large banners held behind the performers.
It was one of the projects that established Lacy—who gives a free talk about her career at Lesley University’s Marran Theater, 34 Mellen St., Cambridge at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 4—as an artist and activist to be reckoned with. She is one of the founding mothers of feminist art and a pioneer of a sort of public performance sometimes called social practice art that blurs the lines between spectacle and activism. (She also edited a 1995 book on the subject, “Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art.”) She’s used her art to address violence—from sexual assault to policing strategies—and to promote gender and racial equality.
Lacy was one of the first students to study in the first-in-the-nation Feminst Art Program founded by artist Judy Chicago at Fresno State University in California in 1970. Lacy’s early performances were visceral experiences. In “Ablutions,” at an artist’s studio in Venice, California, in 1972, naked women bathed in metal tubs filled with clay, eggs and animal blood. Recordings played of women recounting being raped. Lacy nailed beef kidneys to the walls. A naked woman was bound to a chair with gauze. It was a ritual howl at and cleansing of rape, marked in blood.
A turning point in Lacy’s career came in 1977 as she moved from indoor performances like “Ablutions” to outdoor events like “In Mourning and In Rage” and “Three Weeks in May.” In the latter, Labowitz and Lacy organized three weeks of performances protesting sexual assault in Los Angeles, from public rallies to self-defense workshops to victims recounting the attacks or trying to exorcise the memories. Each day during a month that spring, Lacy collected rape reports from the Los Angeles Police and stenciled “rape” at their spots on a giant map publicly displayed in the Los Angeles City Hall mall. At the actual locations of reported rapes, information about the crimes was chalked onto sidewalks.
“I’ve never been raped as that is defined now,” Lacy tells me. “But I, like every woman I know, has experienced an attempted assault. … Obviously there are social constraints and moral constraints to what I do, but I don’t think there ought to be constraints based on the fact that I’m female. … The threat of me not being able to drive down the street at night on a lonely avenue or walk down the street is a circumscription of my freedom.”
As Lacy with Labowitz moved into the public realm with “In Mourning and In Rage” and “Three Weeks in May,” the projects became more aimed at the news media, more aimed at widely spreading the word. In subsequent projects, a central tactic for Lacy became staging public conversations.
In 1982’s “Freeze Frame,” she helped bring together 120 women—elderly Jewish women, pregnant women, elderly black women, sex workers, teenagers, Filipinas, women in wheelchairs—in an upscale San Francisco furniture showroom to talk in small groups about their lives. “It morphed from individual small groups,” Lacy recalls, “into one large group where first they addressed each other and then they shifted and directly addressed the audience.”
“I think talking is a form of performing,” Lacy says. “Just like moving your body. In early performance, we didn’t too much use things like music, although some people did, and we didn’t too much use things like acting, although some people did. We were experimenting with all kinds of forms of communication and it’s pretty natural that taking would be one of them.”
Lacy’s focus on violence as a subject and conversation as a performance strategy also arose from her experiences in group discussions in the women’s movement. “Violence, that was one of the very, very shocking things that came up out of consciousness raising groups,” she says. “Information about rape, about experiences of violence, about incest, it was stuff we had no idea existed. It basically was not something people talked about when I grew up—at all. It was sort of darkly hinted at, but it wasn’t talked about. And then you’re sitting in a group with 10 people or eight people, three of them have experienced violence and they’re sitting there crying and telling you about it for the first time ever. It’s a very powerful experience. And if it’s powerful for me, it’s likely to be powerful for other people.”
Often these staged, public conversations were composed of many small group conversations that the audience was often invited to eavesdrop on, but not participate in. “The trick of conversation as performance is to make it authentic,” Lacy notes. With careful conversational prompts, Lacy seemed to take private conversations within individual parts of communities and make them accessible to all.
“Politically, I’ve adopted the position of giving voice to people who didn’t have much purchase on social voice, on political voice,” she says. “That’s a political agenda, but aesthetically I’m real interested in scale, the visual of scale, the experience of scale.”
After Lacy moved to Oakland in 1987 to become dean of fine arts at California College of Arts and Crafts, she organized a series of community conversations there with local teens. For “The Roof Is On Fire” in 1994, she and Chris Johnson recruited 220 high school students to sit in cars and trucks parked atop the City Center West Garage and, following topic prompts, speak their minds about family, sex, violence, drugs, school and the future. Subsequent Oakland projects had police officers play basketball with local teens or break into small groups for—what turned out to be—tense discussions with teens on that same parking garage roof about “ways to reduce police hostility toward youth.”
“That was not about finding common ground between cops and kids,” Lacy says of these projects. “It was about educating the police to young people, pure and simple. Educating them to the realities of young people’s lives and why they do what they do, and kind of humanizing that relationship. But it was an educational platform of the police and it was done in full view of the public because the police need public reinforcement and witnessing of this really complicated situation.”
More recently, in 2010, she traveled to Anyang, South Korea, to organize public conversations by women there about changing neighborhoods, household economic stability, and the growing public roles of women. In her 2013 project “Between the Door and the Street,” she prompted public conversations among nearly 400 women on Brooklyn stoops about gender, race, ethnicity and class today.
“A lot of what I’m doing is also creating within the work a sense of community,” Lacy says. “There’s something that holds us together, which is concerns around the issue of gender equity, and there are many, many things that pull us apart. But in this work, and in fact in most of my work, I’m a lot more interested in what demonstrates—even if idealistically and momentarily—what demonstrates a sense of commonality and common cause. Frankly I think the forces mobilized against us particularly in this moment in it’s own unique ways are pretty bloody powerful. It doesn’t serve people who are progressive and are aligned around some key values, or only in certain areas are aligned around key values, it doesn’t serve us to find out how different we are.”
Lacy’s style of new genre public art short circuits traditional critique. It feels incomplete to just contemplate its aesthetics or the feelings evoked by a single event. But is it asking too much to consider it in terms of activism, in terms of what social change it has accomplished?
“I hold myself in a sense to a much higher standard than a lot of artists will,” Lacy herself says. “I was trained as a scientist, so I don’t use anecdotal evidence to judge my success—like isn’t it great this kid stayed out of jail. I don’t think that’s a mark of anything. I’ve explored a lot the limits of what art can and can’t contribute. I tend to be skeptical of our resources as artists to create real long-term change. Over the course of 40 years of work, I think there’s probably been some personal transformation—I get lots of emails from people—just like there might be if people did something else meaningful and important to them. And certainly I can tell you over the course of my lifetime I have contributed to the knowledge of violence against women. But so have, in much broader ways, people like Gloria Steinem.”
Lacy goes on, “Those people tend to have a broader purchase on public change. But it doesn’t mean that I can’t contribute.”