Of all the art talks I have attended, never once has the artist begun by having people in the audience introduce themselves to each other, instead of the other way around. Suzanne Lacy, a performance and social practice artist based in LA, did. This gesture of inclusion epitomizes her 40+ years of work.
In late February, Lacy spoke at the University of Houston for Against All Suns, an interdisciplinary seminar facilitated by Abinadi Meza presented by the Katherine G. McGovern College of Arts and The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts. The focus of her lecture was social engagement through performance. During it, she discussed projects that took place in bullrings and abandoned cotton mills; projects that tackled domestic violence and racial tolerance; and conversations created for police forces and at-risk youth. With the intent to bring diverse groups of people together to tackle mutually important issues, Lacy’s body of work blurs the distinction between social activism and the arts by choreographing community participatory events with an output of aesthetic poignancy.
Lacy’s career as a performance artist started in the 1970s. A pre-med student at the time, Lacy began investigating the body as material in performance but soon found that she was more interested in how the body exists as a subject in a political world. Since that time, Lacy has developed projects all over the world with participants and audiences ranging from the hundreds to thousands. She has collaborated with artists, institutions, municipalities, and social activists. Her artwork has taken the form of organized events, resulted infilms, and generated a body of compelling event documentation.
One of the works she discussed at the lecture was “Tattooed Skeleton” (2010). This four-month long project focused on domestic violence in Spain. It included performances, civic interventions, a film, an exhibition at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (Madrid), and a protest at the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The iconic image for the work was a simple, white paper mache mask.
In her lecture, Lacy pointed out that, despite her passion for activism, she is a visual artist, looking to make an impact both socially and aesthetically, by creating “beautiful images.” The mask of “Tattooed Skeleton” speaks to this. It served a number of purposes throughout the life of the project: an object for diverse stakeholders to create collaboratively, a place where victims of domestic violence could write their stories, a prop by which the audience could use while watching the final film, and an arresting visual icon to unite the components into a complete work of art.
Pervasive in Lacy’s social practice is tension between her as facilitator and outsider/intervener. In most instances, she comes to a project as an outside organizer looking to facilitate community-specific, political dialogues. As a female - English speaking – American, many argue that Lacy brings a specific point of view that might clash with the culture and perspectives of the project’s environment. Lacy is very aware of her ‘position.’ She believes that by focusing on active listening and facilitating engagement rather than creating solutions, her point of view simply becomes one of the many that unite in a common project. This orientation is especially critical to works like “De tu Puno y Letra” that took place in Ecuador. Because she is not a native Spanish speaker, Lacy relied on translators and community members to not only assist with the language but to help her understand the nuance that Lacy would miss as an “outsider.”
Despite the work she has done to unite communities around the world, she does not see herself as a social worker or political activist. Successful projects are not gauged by what political changes follow or what conversations are sustained after her project is completed. Her concern lies with how the incorporation of multiple participatory, visual, and civic elements catalyze and unite a community at that moment. This temporal aspect differentiates Lacy’s work from that of a social activist and identifies it with performance. Lacy’s projects succeed for her if they happen “at the right time and the right place.” When they do people and communities are changed, if only for a few moments.