Saturday, August 21, 2010

Book Excerpt - Suzanne Lacy: Spaces Between, Sharon Irish

“Suzanne Lacy: Spaces Between” by Sharon Irish (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010)

The Community Arts Network is honored to present an excerpt from “Suzanne Lacy: Spaces Between,” a new book by Sharon Irish and the first in-depth look at the work of an artist who has been doing important community-engaged art since the 1970s. Lacy’s artwork has been radically political, urgently demanding and intensely compassionate. As a teacher, she has laid down landmark theories for viewing and evaluating public art, particularly those involving community participation. Lacy’s own book “Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art” is a staple in the curricula of the many new degree programs in community cultural development. In our own history, Lacy was the cover girl in 1978 for Issue #1 of High Performance magazine, the forerunner of CAN, and her new work continues to draw the attention of our readers.

In her introduction to this book, Irish notes that Lacy’s art has been labeled “body art, conceptual art, performance art, feminist art, political art and new genre public art,” and it continually crosses borders laid down by art history and criticism. It’s challenging enough, she says, writing about a painting on the wall, but “when the art involves hundreds of people over months or years … and the subject matter is current and controversial, the mental diagram can become a jumble of ideas bumping crazily against each other and ricocheting off at different angles.”

In order to investigate Lacy’s work, Irish has discovered a “network of nodes” that she calls “the three P’s: positionality, performance and participation.” This network forms the structure of the book. Irish’s introduction of these terms focuses a new lens on the engaged art of today, for which Suzanne Lacy’s work has led the way. We join the introduction halfway through Irish’s approach to “performance,” glancing at the importance of “place” and “coalition building” in Lacy’s new genre public art, and then her approach to “participation.” —Linda Frye Burnham


Another way that Schneider’s “historical weight” of privilege and disprivilege may have bearing is in the spaces in which we act and interact. Geographer Edward Soja noted that “life stories [are] as intrinsically and revealingly spatial as they are temporal and social.” Thus, in addition to gender and racialization, my discussion includes the particular sites of Lacy’s art making. Anne Enke’s 2007 book Finding the Movement: Sexuality, Contested Space, and Feminist Activism is exceptionally valuable in that her

analysis focuses on the ways in which women intervened in public landscapes and social geographies already structured around gender, race, class, and sexual exclusions and on the ways that these processes in turn shaped feminism. A focus on contested space, as opposed to a focus on feminist identity, helps explain how feminism replicated exclusions even as feminists developed powerful critiques of social hierarchy.

Examining the actual spaces involved in Lacy’s art making offers insights into how her projects critiqued everyday urban areas, or not. Geographic aspects often join with our behaviors to normalize hierarchies that remain unquestioned by many of us. Thus, when a performance occurs in public, connecting, say, oppression, visual form, and urban site, the impact increases through linkages of these nodes in an imaginary network.

Coalition Building: Traveling Between

Coalition building is hard because it requires finding some common ground on which to come together, creating enough trust to hold that space open, while recognizing simultaneously that substantial differences exist. For Lacy, the subjugated status of women in this patriarchal society provided that common ground. Affirming that personal experiences among women vary widely, Lacy nevertheless has maintained that women can and should join together to address oppressions that affect us all. These joint efforts then are carried out as allies, although “sisterhood” still echoes through her work.

What Lacy has called “[t]he ‘expanding self’ became a metaphor for the process of moving the boundaries of one’s identity outward to encompass other women, groups of women and eventually all people.” Lacy’s curiosity, generosity, and outrage compelled her to explore what life was like beyond her individual body for those different from her in race, ethnicity, age, and life experiences. In a 1993 article, critic Lucy Lippard described Lacy:

An inveterate border-crosser, she has long been almost indecently curious about everyone else’s experiences, charging into new areas where angels fear to tread—a vicarious chameleon, or perhaps a beneficent cultural cannibal, cultivating multiple selves as a way of understanding injustice and survival.

Lacy’s “indecent curiosity” fueled her indefatigable coalition building, a node that links to participation, positionality, and public performance art.

To the extent possible, Lacy placed herself within different human configurations, physically, mentally, spatially, and historically.68 Her art forced her to shift realities, to “travel.” Although, of course, she could never fully reproduce the worlds of others, she “traveled between” these contrasting worlds, exploring a liminal space that philosopher María Lugones defined as “the place where one becomes most fully aware of one’s multiplicity.” Lugones used the term traveling to describe a person’s movements among different social groups or “worlds,” which themselves are no more stable than an individual’s identity.

To make art in coalition, moving beyond unexamined or unified identities, promises an art that forges flexible connections, allowing ongoing dialogue. But without an insistent and continual analysis of power relations, especially one’s own, the art may well serve to reinforce the status quo and trendy, “decorative” multiculturalism. Lacy’s friendship with artist Judy Baca, among other relationships, challenged her to think more deeply about the complexity of race and racist attitudes in the United States. In order to “cross over” into another’s existence, she began to collaborate with others from whom she could learn.


While Lacy herself usually was the catalyst in a process that culminated in an art project, she often collaborated with others. Lacy thus shared agency for a work of art with participants who joined her in its creation. Curator Lars Bang Larsen wrote in 1999 about the ways in which “social and aesthetic understanding are integrated into each other” as “social aesthetics.” This sort of “osmotic exchange” in Lacy’s work sometimes produced an integrated result but also presented the possibility for unresolved or multiple endings. Just as the creation of her art existed along a continuum, so too did the reception of it, what I call “participatory reception.” In 1995, she wrote, “Of interest is not simply the makeup or identity of the audience but to what degree audience participation forms and informs the work—how it functions as integral to the work’s structure.”

Lacy’s art challenges assessment of it because participants helped create representations of the ideas at the same time they observed those representations. The meanings they perceived during the collaborative process at times altered the imagery, and the meanings evolved. Lacy has written that “[m]any of the forms we have come to assume as part of community-engaged art—its multivocality, for example, its pluralism of styles of presentation and its postscript-like conversations—are aesthetic evolutions developed through confrontation and resolution of confl ict during the making.”

While certainly the imagery in any one of Lacy’s projects has its own merits, intrinsic worth, and interest and can indeed be evaluated aesthetically, “traditional” formal evaluation is not sufficient for new genre public art. The compelling aspect of Lacy’s approach is the degree to which she pushes art into the public so that questions of aesthetics, ethics, audience, reception, and creation are amplified. Once amplified, these issues and people’s responses to them provide feedback into the art process itself, contributing to that reception loop.

Lacy has long worked between theory and practice—writing, teaching, directing, making. Her writings formulated theory for new artistic configurations. She has diagrammed artistic positions on an axis moving from private actions of the artist as experiencer, then reporter and analyst toward public activism. She herself then has been an indispensable participant in meaning making, contributing to public discussions about oppression, privilege, and liberation. Her contribution, in theory and in practice, has been to close the distance between production and reception.

Further, she suggested a model for analyzing the audience “as a series of concentric circles with permeable membranes that allow continual movement back and forth.” The genesis of a work—a circle at the center of this diagram—is encircled by rings of collaborators, volunteers, and performers, those watching the event (“immediate audience”), and the media audience. Lacy labeled the final ring the “audience of myth and memory” (Figure 2). Lacy’s “target” diagram helps distinguish among the various layers of audience; the center—“the creative impetus”—is labeled “origination and responsibility.” While I appreciate that Lacy takes responsibility for her art as well as includes herself in the credit for its genesis and that she states that the circles are “permeable,” I find my nodes-in-networks model more useful. The artist is an essential node, but including her in the network of collaborators, performers, and audience stresses the reciprocal nature of Lacy’s approach to public art. Rebecca Schneider asked, “What can reciprocity look like? How can we do it? … Reciprocity suggests a two-way street but it does not necessarily reconstitute the delimiting binaries which feminists and postcolonial theorists have been fighting to undermine.” Reciprocity and “how to do it” have been fundamental to nearly all of Lacy’s projects.

“The public” in the sense I am using it here includes person-to-person encounters, group dynamics, institutional responses, and social networks. These interactions shift and infl uence the art process on many levels. Artistic practice such as Lacy’s embodied art lends itself to an exploration of the terms of engagement—art arises from an individual artist, is shaped by that artist’s identities and concerns, but also by those who cocreate the piece. Cocreators may include an arts commissioner, a mayor, or people in the art production, for example. Art functions as a tool for reflection: there is a reciprocity between the practice of art making and the theory that informs that practice.

Strategies to communicate effectively with people not ordinarily attentive to the arts have long occupied Lacy. This challenge underlies her involvement in media literacy, press conferences, performances outside of galleries and museums, and collaborations with communities outside of art circles. In 1995, she commented:

[T]here’s also an appropriate contradiction between, on one hand, the way in which artists are trained to express self and to make meaning by drawing on interior sensibilities, and, on the other, the demands of a new public arena for dialogic and collaborative modes. I personally find it a very exciting confl ict because it is essentially the metaphor of self and other.… Consequently, what we have to resolve, spiritually, is the sense of no-self or an encompassing all-self, and, in art, we have to do at least some negotiating between our reality and other realities.

Naming Participation

Grant Kester’s 2004 book Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art discussed what he called “dialogical art,” an “inclination” in art that foregrounds interchange and process. Lacy’s work with teens in the 1990s in Oakland, California, is featured prominently in his book. He labeled Lacy’s work as transitional, meaning, I believe, that her art drew upon both community arts and “the post-Greenbergian diaspora of arts practices,” such as Happenings. She also retained control of the visual image to a degree that some of the younger practitioners he discussed do not.

Kester usefully formulated a philosophical background for dialogical art, discussing discourse ethics and feminist interpretations of specific contexts for interactions. He stressed that this approach to art is “durational rather than immediate.” Conversation Pieces deepened my analysis of Lacy’s art by suggesting that we “need a way to understand how identity might change over time—not through some instantaneous thunderclap of insight but through a more subtle, and no doubt imperfect, process of collectively generated and cumulatively experienced transformation.…” The book enumerated three aspects of a dialogical aesthetic: first, art functions as “a more or less open space within contemporary culture”; second, it involves “a form of spatial rather than temporal imagination”; and third, it aims to achieve “these durational and spatial insights through dialogical and collaborative encounters with others.” The spatial imagination, what Kester described as “the ability to comprehend and represent complex social and environmental systems,” and the creation of artistic structures to facilitate encounters are particularly salient in Lacy’s work and help to link the social dynamics of participation to the place and form of Lacy’s projects. In keeping with my nodal scheme, I will examine both interactions over the longterm and the immediate embodied responses related to Lacy’s art projects.

Kester named other terms similar to dialogical art: Ian Hunter and Celia Larner used the label “littoral art,” a geographical term describing a shoreline and thus evoking a place where two different “bodies” touch. Other critics have discussed “conversational art” (Homi Bhabha) and “dialogue-based public art” (Tom Finkelpearl). Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics focused on art of the 1990s that involved the art audience as a microcommunity; his analysis concerned art’s role as “be[ing] ways of living and models of action within the existing real, whatever the scale chosen by the artist.”

Problems of Participation

In my experience, when an artist engages with politics as Lacy has done, some advocates for social change get their hopes up during the preparatory stages—tackling a social problem—and then experience bitter disappointment when the artist moves on. Some critics claimed that while Lacy’s art challenged the status quo in political arenas locally and nationally, the artist then departed, adding another community to her résumé while leaving local folks to wonder what actions should come next. Yet Lacy’s practice has been a complicated amalgam of arrivals, departures, and returns. As early as 1982, she asked, “What is the artist’s responsibility to her collaborators, performers, and audience after the performance is over?” She then offered several examples of long-term, community-based art but also suggested a larger model, “a network of women across the country who are working together on a single project with local goals as well as a sense of belonging to a nationwide project.” Ever questing, she vowed to continue “to struggle with the problems of sustaining energy within specific communities… ; clarifying the relationship of action-oriented goals to broad-based coalition building;… and generating a sense of participation in a national vision with women in geographic locations.”

Her efforts to recreate “metaphors of community, over and over” involved substantial travel, tightly scheduled with her job and other commitments. Some projects no doubt left some participants feeling they had been given short shrift. I suggest that “in-betweenness” is both the problem and the resolution in her work; she is moving among nodes when others expect her to commit to stasis. In spring 1978, in an interview with artist Richard Newton that was published in High Performance magazine, Lacy tellingly explained her artistic process and how it contrasted with political organizing: “I am trying to represent myself to the feminist community as an artist and not as an organizer: I greedily hold on to the ability to make my own images, and make clear-cut distinctions about how much organizing I’m going to be involved with.” Lacy’s art emerged from the relationships among her, her collaborators, and audience members; in other words, these interactions were not in themselves the art, but they were crucial to her art making.

French curator Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics had a large impact in the Anglophone art world when it was initially translated into English in 2002. Bourriaud’s optimistic and sketchy book attempted to set the terms for an approach to art in the 1990s that created a community with an art audience, such as the work of Rirkrit Tiravanija. Claiming that art “tightens the space of relations” and “produces a specific sociability,” Bourriaud’s arguments have eluded me because I remain puzzled by just how the disparate artists he names—from Vanessa Beecroft to Liam Gillick, from Felix Gonzalez-Torres to Philippe Parreno—either fit into “relational aesthetics” or share aesthetic criteria. The “hands-on utopias” offering a “rich loam for social experiments” that Bourriaud described do indeed share a “coexistence criterion” that “permit [the viewer] to enter into a dialogue,” but the range of issues and options on display by the artists under consideration do not seem to me to cohere into anything but the designation “art.” Furthermore, the relationships that interest Bourriaud seem to be apolitical.

Perhaps the reason that Bourriaud’s work has been cited so widely is because there remains a need for ways to discuss relational art; for me, his contribution has been in framing some questions and generalizations. “[W]hat does a form become when it is plunged into the dimension of dialogue?” “As part of a ‘relationist’ theory of art, intersubjectivity does not only represent the social setting for the reception of art, which is its ‘environment’ its ‘field’ (Bourdieu), but also becomes the quintessence of artistic practice.” Detailing what happens to forms-in-dialogue and trying to be precise about intersubjectivities are what I try to do here in relation to Lacy’s art practice. Bourriaud’s statement—“The nineties saw the emergence of collective forms of intelligence and the ‘network’ mode in the handling of artistic work”—validates my own network schema, although I suggest that Lacy pioneered this “network mode” with others in the 1970s, for political, feminist purposes.

Bourriaud’s interest centered on evaluating the quality of the relationships that unfolded in the work of various artists, but he never fully defined what the artists he considered might mean by “community.” This criticism by Claire Bishop highlights a key problem in relational art: artists and participants coming together do not necessarily a community make, nor does being together in art inherently promote democratic processes. Bishop claimed that for Bourriaud “all relations that permit ‘dialogue’ are automatically assumed to be democratic and therefore good.” Anthony Downey further noted that “relational art practices do not necessarily mirror—although they may replicate—the conditions of the social milieu in which they exist; rather they generate and propagate those very conditions.”

The goals of Lacy’s works are not always as “convivial” as those of the artists that Bourriaud promoted. Instead of fostering a “feel-good” community, Lacy has often aimed to create structures for conversations that name and discuss difficult issues rather than resolve them, fully aware that dissent will be as much a part of those interactions as agreement. In part antagonism is inevitable given the lack of common discursive frameworks among some of the participants. Bodies coming together, however, also introduce nonverbal ways of knowing that complicate performances and life with a range of tacit behaviors.

Lacy’s works invariably involve conflict, some unpredictable and unintentional outcomes, and some heated criticism, in part because of the provocative themes involved and in part because the “spaces between” in her art allow for multiple interpretations, ambiguity, and disagreement. In her large-scale works, Lacy has insisted on providing an aesthetic and social context for many points of view. Lacy’s performances have offended some who have felt that she overstepped, seemingly speaking for those whose voices she intended to amplify. Others have objected that her focus on women as a group has minimized their differences, discounting very real challenges of race and class.

Participation in the Art World

Negotiation between realities—particularly the world of contemporary art in the West and folks usually outside of those art circles—has been at the foundation of Lacy’s artmaking process. Lacy often sought connections among her peers, arts as they are practiced in communities, and the historic avant-garde. Since contemporary experimental art is anathema to many—at best we tend to dismiss it as just weird—accessibility to her art forms has been crucial to Lacy. She noted the difficulty of bridging these two worlds, “audiences outside of the art world” and “our own concerns.” By inviting members of the public into her performances, as cocreators, participants, and observers, she linked other nodes in the network, shaping both the artistic performance and the reception of it by the general public.

The avant-garde as I use it here refers not just to experimental imagery created as an alternative to established forms and media but also to the ways in which the art was produced. Lacy’s generation experimented with avant-garde modes of production that included collective or collaborative methods of creation and presentation or exhibition outside of the usual gallery or museum settings. These approaches challenged the status quo and helped younger artists tackle the star system of authorship more directly. Yet by “avant-garde” I do not mean an unchanging response, because clearly issues both within and outside of the art world have shifted and continue to do so. By placing the emphasis on production, on the social and economic position of art, the forms and media used do not necessarily have to be in the vanguard; they can bridge between different audiences.

This interest in linking disparate groups has been generative throughout Lacy’s career. She has deliberately and consistently sought collaborators beyond the art world. In 1975, while living in Los Angeles, she developed a close working relationship with Evalina Newman, a woman in her midfifties who had been forced to leave her cleaning job due to reactions to the chemicals at work. Ms. Newman, with time on her hands, had filled her apartment with a quilting frame and organized a sewing and crafts circle for other women in the Watts housing complex, the Guy Miller Homes for the Elderly, where she lived. The Miller Homes and the community center had been built on sites that sustained major damage during the 1965 Watts uprising. While the women sewed, they shared their personal histories and their fears about actions of the neighborhood teens. They also crocheted pot holders and covers for tissue boxes, along with stitching quilts. Lacy joined this art-making circle as part of her job with the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). As a CETA artist, she “wanted to explore with a single community how performance might combine with their self interests and how it might, as well, enable that community to inter face with other communities.” Lacy created a photo-quilt series about her friendship with Ms. Newman.

Over the course of three years, Lacy and the Women of Watts did a series of installations and performances in and around the Guy Miller Homes. For example, they displayed their art in the recreation hall and invited neighbors, politicians, and Los Angeles– area artists to their exhibits in order to alert officials to their concerns about crime. Lacy asked in 1980, “What makes one person’s environment a home, another’s an artwork?” She recognized a shift by a number of her contemporaries toward engagement with extra-artistic concerns, while still drawing on past ideas in the art world. She wanted to assess conceptual art by her peers, like Linda Montano, Jo Hanson, and Martha Rosler, among others, in terms of “the success of their intentions in ‘real life’ as well as in the art milieu.”

In activities with the Women of Watts, as with her other works, Lacy was interested in creating spaces, literally and figuratively, where everyone’s creative output could be valued without placing it in a hierarchy of artistic quality. While she certainly claimed authorship of this work in the art world, she also moved into other, really much larger worlds, where her aesthetic interests coexisted alongside those of others. Lacy’s training in zoology, psychology, dance, visual art, and community organizing provided her with skills and concepts to perform in a rapidly shifting social milieu. She moved between science and art, between ideas and enacted forms, and between adaptive behavior and resisting actions. Hers is a “both/and” approach, in which she attempts to be present in several arenas simultaneously.

Lacy has shown an enduring commitment to using art in public to inform people about issues of common concern and to affect policy. I suggest that the “spaces between” in her art provide openings that might be transformative for selves that are permeable and multiple. Diana Fuss noted in 1991, “The problem, of course, with the inside/outside rhetoric, if it remains undeconstructed, is that such polemics disguise the fact that most of us are both inside and outside at the same time.” We perform, moving between art and life, built space and human flesh. This “betweenness” creates tension, at once dynamic and troubling. To enact these relationships in reality, on the ground so to speak, is especially difficult given the separation from, indeed denial of, our bodies. Lacy’s art has embraced the body, deepened into spirit, and enhanced bodily wisdom with strategic, intelligent analyses of politics. Her international career has demonstrated the power, problems, and possibilities of art between the spaces of our diverse lives, as she has attempted to create structures that might give shape to a nonsexist, multiracial democracy.

The University of Minnesota Press Web site offers a Q&A with author Sharon Irish:

Sharon Irish holds a joint appointment in the School of Architecture and the Community Informatics Initiative/Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, Urbana–Champaign. She is the author of Cass Gilbert, Architect: Modern Traditionalist.

Original CAN/API publication: April 2010

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