When Suzanne Lacy pioneered a radical kind of performance that compounded art and activism in the mid-1970s, political organizing began with phone books — with searching for and cold-calling people and agencies, and talking. Conversation remains Lacy’s primary medium. And her mode remains largely transitive: It is more about making connections than providing content. Laying the groundwork is now of course done digitally, but Lacy’s art is still realized in the act of bringing people together, physically. At this wavering moment in the COVID pandemic, which saw the dizzying mashup of extended isolation and bursts of live protest against — and in turn met by — police brutality, her work seems more important than ever.
Dizzying, too, is the range of temporal registers Lacy’s work brings into play, beginning with conceptualization, research, and logistical efforts that are no less important than the resulting convocations, which are its second register; a third is the presentation, in an art context, of the events’ documentation. Often, moreover, projects are re-presented in a new time and place. What gets publicly shown, then, is a residue of a project with fluid boundaries. This is exemplified, for instance, in Freeze Frame: Living Room (1982), on view in Lacy’s 40-year survey at the Queens Museum, organized by adjunct curator Sophia Marisa Lucas. There, Freeze Frame takes the form of a montage of black-and-white photographs picturing a range of women gathered in various settings. Cryptic mementos of their discussions — playing cards, yarn and a crochet hook, pills and a syringe, a corsage, cigarettes — are pressed onto and beneath plexiglass panes mounted atop the photos. Metaphorically, museum-goers press their noses against the glass, too: The sense of having missed out on the conversation is central to Lacy’s work. If it gives rise to perplexity, it might also be seen as a powerful spur to action.
Lest the viewer get the idea that process is Lacy’s primary concern, the exhibition is titled The Medium Is Not the Only Message. The bedrock of all her work is feminism; one of the two themes featured in the retrospective is women’s aging, which she has addressed repeatedly, as in Crystal Quilt. This project is represented here by two videos, a boldly patterned quilt, and lively, messy notes written in different hands about how the event would play out: On Mother’s Day in 1987, 430 women were to gather in Minneapolis and speak; one recorded snippet questions the relationship between art and social policy. Also documented is 2013’s Silver Action, at the Tate Modern in London, where 100 women engaged in a wide variety of intimate conversations recorded by typists and videographers. Subjects included labor rights and social justice, the active role of daughters in feminist advocacy efforts and the much scantier involvement of sons — and, strikingly, the sense of sadness that younger women still have to fight battles waged decades ago. But as usual with Lacy’s projects, self-pity was firmly discouraged. “This is actually not a project about aging, and not a sentimental project about older women,” she said sternly on this occasion, “This is a project about discrimination and inequality.” And about being there.
Born in 1945 in Wasco, California, Lacy was barely 40 when Crystal Quilt got underway. Today, she continues to maintain a bruising schedule, which still includes global travel. In late March of this year, she led a project about aging and intersectionality in Manchester, England. If age is now a personal issue for the artist, she mostly keeps herself out of the frame. But, as she has long since accepted, the media and institutional attention crucial to activist art requires a nameable figure at its helm. Optimally, it is someone with Lacy’s rare command of visual form, spoken language, and theatrical dynamics. Early on, she was very much in the picture, and she has always been firmly planted in the art world. One framing element for Crystal Quilt is the Pattern and Decoration movement and its ties to feminist leaders like Miriam Schapiro, cited in plans for the event; another is the art-adjacent AIDS quilt project honoring the disease’s victims, which was initiated in 1985. Some of Lacy’s earliest work was done in collaboration with Judy Chicago; Lacy’s International Dinner Party project (1979), represented in Queens by a big map of the sites on every continent where “convenings” were staged, was an around-the-world celebration of the completion of Chicago’s feminist monument.
One of the earliest works in the show is its most autobiographical: In Cinderella in a Dragster (1976/22), a staged monologue here presented as an audio recording, Lacy talks about being constantly on the move, says the process is more important than the image (a claim she later challenged, for instance in this show’s title), and compares performance to fairy tales, inasmuch as everything relates, and has meaning. But an introductory wall text, laid out as a scrambled flowchart, ends with an excerpt from Cinderella that warns, “Don’t ever forget: what is a carriage today might be a pumpkin tomorrow.” It behooves an activist artist to know herself, what she’s up against, and when to hand over the mic.
She was already working out this balance in Prostitution Notes (1974–75), which introduces the exhibition’s other focus: women at risk. Notes on brown butcher paper written across sketchy street maps provide snippets of interviews with friends, colleagues, and sex workers about the balance between choice and coercion in “the life.” The testimony, also given in a video, is sometimes enraging, as when one subject discusses sting operations during which cops solicit women and then press charges when they accept. But the prostitutes also talk unapologetically about their fully voluntary decisions to sell sex. Lacy, 30 at the time, admits an uneasy mix of feelings, describing herself choosing to look “hard and ho-like,” and noting that men drive by “thinking I’m hooking.” Reflecting on her conflicted feelings, she says, “I should cop to any hint of manipulation . . . but in the life, strategies are the name of the game. There is no guilt.”
In later projects about abuse of women, Lacy moves off screen, and draws clearer ethical lines. Two major projects address domestic violence, which firmly shifts the conversation about sexual assault away from the casting rooms and college dorms that initially headlined the “Me Too” movement. The harrowing De tu puño y letra (By your own hand), originally a four-act event staged in Quito, Ecuador, in 2015, following a year-long process of research and discussion, is represented in Queens by an unforgettable 30-minute, five-channel video from 2018. Projected on tall, narrow screens arranged in a circle, echoing the bull ring of the original event, are men of every age — and some boys — who appear one by one and solemnly read aloud letters written by women about their experiences of intimate violence. The testimony is often brutal and always heartbreaking, although the final readings focus on women who have successfully left their abusive partners. The last text, read twice, includes the phrases, “The memory is flesh it is in my body. It is what I am” and “It doesn’t matter who receives this letter, it is necessary to share the pain with others.” These readings are followed by a choral recitation and a candlelit procession. Light shines.
There is a measure of uplift, too, in Auto on the Edge of Time (1993), a body of work that includes a video (directed by Virginia Cotts) and a big photomural featuring women, most Black and Latina, some sheltered, others incarcerated, who are seen in discussions and workshops, and then joyfully presenting cars they’ve customized to serve as vehicles — pun fully intended — for expressing their anger, anguish, and resilience.
Domestic violence has escalated dramatically during COVID, as have race-based inequalities of healthcare for both physical and emotional illness. The Queens Museum has been a leader in programming that provides a forum for addressing such injustices, and for engaging communities — including its own, famously diverse — in which these injustices are especially evident. Lacy shares those commitments. In the museum’s large atrium, arrangements of upholstered seating and coffee tables containing printed material about her work set the stage for the kind of conversation she favors. Questions are lettered on the back wall, including, “Was there a time when your survival was at stake? What do you have to say about survival to women who are different from you?” During my visit, the scattered visitors who took advantage of the furnishings seemed mostly to be looking silently at their phones. Conversation is arguably discouraged by trigger warnings that stand sentinel outside the galleries presenting videos about abuse. On the other hand, a young staffer volunteered to me that she’d been triggered by the work; her tone wasn’t aggrieved or frightened but instead a little triumphant, even defiant.
Some writers — Johanna Fateman, Maggie Nelson — have recently written eloquently in support of art that provokes rather than protects, even when the subject is sexual harm. This survey of Lacy’s work offers a rich spectrum of ways to face these unyielding problems and irresolvable questions. For her work to succeed, some assembly is required — if not of people actually coming together in dialogue or action, then at least, and not trivially, by piecing together the documents her projects leave behind, and reckoning with all that remains unspoken and unseen.
Suzanne Lacy: The Medium Is Not the Only Message continues at the Queens Museum (New York City Building, Flushing Meadows, Corona Park, Queens) through August 14. The exhibition was organized by Sophia Marisa Lucas, adjunct curator; programs and public activations were organized together with Kimaada Le Gendre, director of education, Adrianne Koteen, curator of public programs, and Gianina Enriquez, community organizer.