Suzanne Lacy, a feminist artist, discusses the potential for activism and community involvement in the art world.


Suzanne Lacy, a feminist artist, discusses the potential for activism and community involvement in the art world.


For the most of her five-decade career, Los Angeles-based artist Suzanne Lacy has performed outside the boundaries of the art world and in the public realm. As a proponent of the feminist consciousness-raising movements of Judy Chicago and Alan Kaprow beginning in the 1970s, she created a social practice that reshaped the definition of performance art by focusing her work on extensive, sustained community projects that addressed issues such as racism, poverty, and violence against women.

The Crystal Quilt (1985–87), a project aimed at increasing the visibility of older women in society, is one of the highlights of Lacy's career that is being revisited in her current exhibition at the Queens Museum in New York, which runs until August 14. 430 women gathered for a public discussion on the experience of ageing on a highly stylized stage designed to resemble the geometric patterns of a quilt over the course of two years that she and a team of collaborators hosted for Minnesota-based women over 60. These leadership workshops and media campaigns culminated in a televised action in a Minneapolis shopping mall. The piece discussed new media creative engagement with virality, relational participation, and social choreography in addition to the feminist issues of societal neglect of elder women.

Lacy recently spoke with The Art Newspaper about the potential for both art activism and art in public service, as well as the value of virality in bringing about social change.

ART NEWSPAPER: What was the situation of what we now refer to as "social practice" when you started creating art in the 1970s, and how has that changed over time?

Sheila Lacy: It doesn't really matter to me what terminology you use—community art, community-based art, social art, political art, or the new category of public art that I invented. The specificity of the audience was one of the advances that racially or feminist-based art pioneered in the 1970s; at CalArts, people were often talking about the universal audience, but we were just starting to consider who would be seeing the piece. Since then, our understanding of audience, participation, place, topic matter, and engagement tactics has advanced. Are you mobilising people? Are you educating the public? Are you raising a fuss? Aligning yourself with organisations These are the ideas that have developed since I began.

In contrast to a lot of the ostensibly political art that is displayed in galleries, what really impresses me about your work is that it is true activism. What is activism, and can it coexist with the arts?

Change is impacted through activism. In my opinion, art serves to support and advance a broader, social, or political notion rather than doing anything profound or original on its own. But the fundamental problem with trying to be an activist only in the art world is that, for the most part, people who visit galleries already share your viewpoints—otherwise, they wouldn't be there. I've attempted to integrate feminist, anti-racist, and anti-poverty direct service practises into my conceptual art production.

As a result, you've collaborated with hundreds of people on dozens of community-based projects. How have you chosen the people you wish to collaborate with and then organised your projects with them?

The establishment of a cultural district in Allensworth, California, a historically Black city 15 miles from where I was up, is the subject of a class I'm currently teaching for University of Southern California grads. I dismantle the spheres of influence and power in each place where I work, which is typically in communities where I've been invited, in very precise ways. What steps are being taken by the police in this regard? the colleges? The public officials? You meet with people and determine where your beliefs are in agreement, where the conflicts are, and how to forge cross-conflict coalitions. This is a forgotten art in modern politics—a skill set for organising.

You were going viral before the term was even coined, thus aesthetic composition is a key factor in all of your acts, especially in terms of how it might attract media attention. What role does media coverage have in an activist's work?

Media is a tool for communication that has the power to alter popular culture. In my work, I explore how it functions, how it speaks about women, and how those things may be questioned or changed. The Crystal Quilt was an intentional repositioning of the media to increase the prominence of older women, who at the time were the underrepresented voice in American public media. For older women to return to their communities and advance their voices in the public domain, we collaborated with a communications volunteer to create press kits and workshops. The performance would always look fantastic and leave a lasting visual impression; it would never just be a bunch of people sitting about in various coloured seats.

You functioned virtually exclusively in the public domain for many years as opposed to in museums and galleries. What impact has that had on your interactions with the art world, and particularly the art market?

I think of myself as an artist. It may be more beneficial to run for government to bring about social change, but I decided a long time ago to function as an artist and to think artistically and visually. In the art world, you can present artwork visually and engage in complex theorising in ways that are not possible in everyday life. The museum setting serves as a great archive for the concepts and methods I've used over the years. Of course, you can also alter the possibilities of creating art or the nature of the art itself. The art industry has given me a platform from which to exert my influence and suggest that it's acceptable for students to use art to affect social change, making this practice commonplace. But operating in the art market is a tough business. Hank Willis Thomas, Andrea Bowers, and, in a more abstract sense, Rodney McMillan and Charles Gaines, are some folks I believe are doing it successfully. I teach for a living, but I believe having a trust fund is the greatest way to make it as an artist.

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