In the 1970s, artist Suzanne Lacy began fusing the abstract, cerebral nature of conceptual art with the socially conscious aims of feminist art, creating large-scale public works intended to revitalize the theater of public life. She once staged a massive basketball game between the youth of Oakland and the Oakland police department, with the first half played according to NBA regulations and the second half played according to street rules: no blood? No foul. For the halftime show, the teens took questions from the media about their opinions on the police. In the late ’80s, Lacy spent three years creating a living tableau encompassing 430 elderly women sitting around tables and chatting about what it feels like to be a woman aging—and becoming increasingly invisible. When viewed from above, the tables formed an elaborate pattern of colorful geometric shapes, which shifted into a new pattern whenever the women shifted positions. In our interview, I asked her about her 2012 piece Three Weeks in January, which, like the rest of her work over the past forty years, bridges the gap between architecture and psychology, the built environment and imaginative space.
Three Weeks in Januray
THE BELIEVER: Let’s talk about Three Weeks in January. Can you tell me why you decided to ask youth to mark police reports of rape on a map of Los Angeles every day?
SUZANNE LACY: The project was part of Pacific Standard Time, a yearlong series of exhibitions at over fifty institutions looking at artworks from the ’40s through the ’80s that were performative and transient in nature. I was invited to re-create my 1977 project Three Weeks in May, which was similar to this project. One of the issues in thinking about contemporary redos is: how do you do it given that the social context has changed so dramatically? It has changed in terms of how people look at art. And in my case, it has also changed in terms of the way rape is seen in society.
BLVR: So how did you update the work to take into consideration the changes in feminism, the mass media, and the art world since the ’70s?
SL: Part of the idea with the original project was to position the artist as a revealer of hidden information, which I think is not really viable in the current context, with the internet. I don’t think that’s the privileged role of the artist at this point, but in 1977 it was a very significant role—to use art as a power for revealing hidden experience, and for urging collaboration and interdisciplinary engagement in social change.
This time we started by talking to a lot of the organizations that were founded around ’75, and isolated some goals that we thought were necessary today. There’s a whole different culture among younger people that seems to be evolving around issues of violence: there’s a lot more acquaintance rape now, and there are a lot of prohibitions against reporting acquaintance rape. Some people even call it “the silent generation” in terms of reporting. Teen dating violence is also more and more prevalent. Those became things we felt we could call attention to.
The other thing that seemed important—particularly in California—was to perform an assessment: where have we been in the last forty years, since these women’s organizations were founded, and where are we going in the next forty? Is it possible to end violence against women? Is it possible to stop rape? What is the incidence of rape today? Is it up? Is it down? Are people reporting it? So that satisfied me that political rethinking was possible, and the piece would be still be relevant.
Aesthetically, the map on the side of the police department building is a lot more beautiful and crafted than the original. It’s printed on aluminum, and every day there was a stamping of rape reports from the police department. Sometimes by me, sometimes by a group of homeless women, or a group of students, or a group of incarcerated women… About twenty conversations were convened in high schools and colleges across the nation, as well as a few premiere, public events.
The Twitter campaign was “I know someone. Do you?” It seemed to me that social media was not the place for people to come out and say, “By the way, I was raped myself— in a very difficult and still shame-filled experience.” But how many of us know someone who was raped? I don’t know any woman who doesn’t know somebody who was raped. I think men might not. That information doesn’t get to men as much. So the point of the Twitter campaign was to match the reality of the reports that reach the police department with what everybody knows is a much larger phenomenon.
BLVR: Can you talk a little more about the relationship between public art and social media?
SL: There are so many examples of social change that are enhanced by the internet, but I’m also a great believer in the haptic quality of face-to-face conversation: the kind of intimacy that’s bred of a small circle of trust, generated in a face-to-face experience. For me, this interest comes out of a really deep and long-term experience in consciousnessraising groups and therapy groups, in particular around the issue of violence, and in particular for women—because there’s so much shame that really exists in the body. The argument can be made that the internet is an easier place to talk about it, because you can be anonymous. But how do you create a private circle on the internet? How do you keep a predator from intervening or people from disguising themselves? These are all real and interesting questions that I think are going to be resolved by the next generation.
BLVR: In your book Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, you identify a shift in the traditional view of the self and the other as distinct entities, and contrast it with a view of the self as interconnected with others through social networks. Do you feel that your work is aligned with what we’re calling “the social age”?
SL: “The social age”? I have not heard that term.
BLVR: I think it’s just the idea that we’re no longer quite as autonomous as we used to be, now that we’re interconnected through these social networks.
SL: Well, that’s certainly true, but we’re also doing that connectivity in deep, physical isolation. Young artists are always saying to me, when I ask them who their audience is, “Everyone!” That’s a particular fantasy of the artist. But there’s no way to trust what comes back at you. One of the things they say about the digital age is that it’s also the age of lack of veracity of information—and lack of interest in veracity— and you can see how it really infuses our political system. It’s like, nobody cares if somebody’s campaigning and says a direct lie. I think that’s bound to impact human relationships. So is it “the social age”? My measure would be looking at some of the research on empathy. Is it really important that our lives are populated with three thousand Facebook followers? I don’t know if that’s what I’d call “social.” There are so many critical issues before us that I am kind of impatient with the sort of trivial uses of a very powerful communication device.
BLVR: Let’s go back to the issue of mapping. What is the value of redrawing the map of LA at a time when art and culture seem more and more detached from physical place?
SL: A woman is raped. Her body is assaulted. That takes place in a space. I understand and sympathize with so many other forms of violence—verbal violence, the violence of poverty, ecological violence—and I think they’re all connected. But for me, there’s a distinct and real difference between violence that occurs to a body—particularly premeditated, body-to-body violence. There’s something about that that is so intimate, visceral, and outrageous to me. It’s not a bomb that goes off and kills five hundred people. It’s what one human being, existing in their body, turns and does to another human being.
BLVR: What is it about being a woman that allows one to use the idea of violence as a site of creative potential?
SL: I’m interested in the body as a restraining device—the limitations of your body. Some artists are interested in the notion of how the body contains consciousness or spirit or capacity, and controls ability, and determines destiny. I think for me that is layered on top of this outrageous issue of somebody else trying to determine what someone else’s body is doing. You know, I have a lot of feelings about women’s right to choose. I don’t think a fetus has more priority. That may be desirable, at a certain point, for society, but never for the woman.
BLVR: What is it that connects you to the idea of a map?
SL: I don’t separate a map from other organizations of material and data. For me, I love charting, laying out territory, looking at it from different lenses. I draw diagrams constantly. It’s just the way my mind operates. So for me, it’s about mapping.
BLVR: So it’s the action?
SL: Yeah, it’s laying out a system of understanding data from a particular perspective. I think that’s what social artists do. The first map we made was particularly impactful because nobody talked about rape, then here it was, showing up every day in the middle of City Hall—and it was on a map—and it was kind of like, “Oh my god. Do I live around there? I would have thought the points would have been only in South Central. But look, they’re over here in Westwood.”
BLVR: It’s interesting that we now have this notion of the city as a target, from images we saw a lot during the Bush years. In times of war, the map becomes a way the city is viewed from above, like from the window of a plane or a bomber plane—and it’s a city that’s constantly under a threat of attack.
SL: That’s interesting. I tend to think of maps more on a local and geographic level than as bomb sites. But you’re certainly right. You could see the points on my maps as targets. They’re the targets of attack on the body politic of women.