Art

An Artist Takes Feminism to the Stoops

Suzanne Lacy, "Between the Door and the Street" (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Suzanne Lacy, “Between the Door and the Street” (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

“It’s a utopian vision of Brooklyn, isn’t it?” A friend asked this as we stood in the middle of her Prospect Heights block, watching people swirl around us, and I agreed. There appeared to be representatives of so many different races, ethnicities, genders, and economic classes, all packed into that one block, Park Place between Underhill and Vanderbilt Avenues. It felt like the New York diversity that I swear by but only really glimpse on the subway had been let above ground for air.

Many of us had come to Park Place, and others no doubt stumbled upon it, to witness Suzanne Lacy’s “Between the Door and the Street,” her first major work in New York. Lacy is an artist whose feminist roots run deep: she studied with Judy Chicago and throughout her career has taken up women’s issues in politically charged, often public, often collaborative performances (which often revolve around dialogue: for “The Roof Is on Fire,” she assembled 220 public high school students from Oakland to have conversations in cars on the roof of a parking garage). For the New York piece, which was organized by the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art and nonprofit Creative Time, Lacy gathered nearly 400 women activists — and a few men — to discuss issues related to gender politics today. And that “discuss” was quite literal: the participants sat on stoops in small groups of three or four or five, all of them wearing yellow pashminas, and they talked about capital-I Issues. Viewers and passersby listened.

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Or at least, we tried to listen. Acoustics were a problem I hadn’t anticipated, but since these conversations were happening among handfuls of individuals on stoops set off from the sidewalk — not to mention competing with heightened street chatter and other official conversations barely five feet away — it was often difficult to hear them. You had to lean in, sit on a railing, accept that you might miss things here and there.

It was an inconvenience, but one that seemed to suggest a deeper meaning: participating in these types of conversations requires effort. Sustained effort. It’s trying, often, to talk about gender politics, to be a woman and be forced to prove your case to men over and over and over.

Then again, audience participation in Lacy’s piece was limited. The women and men on the stoops didn’t speak to us; they spoke to each other. They told one another stories about domestic abuse (I heard three), pondered the quandary of gender equality, touched on religion, sex work, and everything in between, among themselves. We wormed our way up the steps to catch their words, but for most of the event, they maintained a fourth wall. It was only at 5:30 pm, after an hour had gone by, that they suddenly turned to face us and asked if we had anything to share. The project was nearly over by then — live music started soon after, and cider and donuts began showing up on the long tables in the middle of the street.

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Choices like the fourth wall and lack of microphones bring up an inevitable question: who was “Between the Door and the Street” for? My original assumption had been that by staging it so publicly, Lacy intended for random people on the street to become involved and engaged, hopefully leaving with new thoughts or stories or ideas. But the project ended up feeling at times more like a block party or a festival than a critically engaged public artwork. People walked their dogs, pushed strollers, gathered to say ‘hi’ in the street. There’s value in that very essential sense of community, no doubt, but I’m not sure it required the resources and efforts of two major nonprofit institutions and a talented artist to achieve it.

Maybe, then, the work was meant primarily for its participants, the activists who sat in the fairly chilly fall weather for an hour and a half and spoke incredibly openly on a public stage. I talked with Nato Thompson, Creative Time’s chief curator, who explained that “we thought of this project as building on the work they’re doing. The project is meant in solidarity with the work for gender justice.” Because it was so cross-organizational (more than 80 groups were represented), cross-class, and cross-racial, it offered a chance for many of these women to meet each other, make connections, be inspired — a chance for solidarity. Plus, Lacy brought the voices of a hugely diverse range of women into the realm of sanctioned, mainstream feminism, where they often don’t feel welcome; that accomplishment matters.

But as became clear last week, not all the participants were happy. Three days before the event, artist and activist Leina Bocar, plus two other participants who wished to remain anonymous, wrote and published an open letter to Lacy, Thompson, and all the organizers. In it, they expressed their dismay that performers in the “Between the Door and the Street” were not being paid for their time and that childcare was not being offered. “As feminists, we believe not paying the 350 women participants perpetuates labor inequality, devalues women’s time and assumes that all women in this piece are financially able to volunteer time, energy, emotional and political content for free,” they wrote. Farther down comes one of the strongest passages:

Most of the women participating are non-profit professionals, or women attached to high-visibility non-profits discussing the prompt questions of: “who will take care of the nannies children?” but can the “nanny” bring her own children to this event and participate in an equitable manner, given that she will not be paid, and there will be no childcare? We think not.

The letter exploded into a discussion on Thompson’s Facebook page (public within the site, and I encourage you to read it if you can) and articles in various media outlets. Admirably, Creative Time published the letter on the website for the project and released a statement, rather than ignoring and wishing the whole thing away. A decision was also made to offer participants $25 stipends for childcare for the afternoon.

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In my conversations with Bocar, she made it clear that while she appreciates Lacy’s work enough to have participated, she feels that the issue of payment is critical. “The majority of the 350 performers were women or LGBT, trans identified,” she told me. “Why would a piece so directly examining feminism, gender, and labor inequality not pay their performers? There’s a certain cruelty in that; by not paying us or offering us compensation they dismiss our time, energy, talent, and economic realities. Art is labor.” She added that she had felt pressured by certain members of Creative Time “to remain silent.”

Thompson, on the other hand, said that while he understands the crucial issue of artists’ payment in general, “we didn’t think this was violating the ethic at all.” The time commitment was low, and the organizers thought of the project as a kind of volunteer activism in itself. He also said they were “really transparent that no one was getting paid,” and lamented that the letter has now come to dominate the conversation surrounding the work. “I do think it did a disservice to Suzanne,” he told me.

In an ideal world labels wouldn’t hold so much power, but in reality they do, and how one views the issue of payment here seems to depend on how one views “Between the Door and the Street” itself — as artwork or activism. Were the 390 women and handful of men performers or participants? Bocar says the former: “I’ve been involved with housing justice struggles, rent strikes, art workers’ solidarity issues, feminist struggles, and anti-capitalist groups for years with Occupy Wall Street and before; this was an art piece, not an unpaid activist event, rally, or general assembly.”

Or, as art critic Martha Schwendener said so acutely, “It’s authorship and non-payment under the aegis of activism and a faux-egalitarian feminism.”

After having experienced the work — its aesthetic details (Lacy used yellow as a unifying color) and its directed conversations (each group was given specific discussion questions) — I agree.

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Some have argued that it’s unrealistic to ask for substantial payment for nearly 400 people participating in an hour-and-a-half-long social practice artwork. Of course (sadly) it is. But considering this is an artwork with the stated aim of challenging the status quo, perhaps “unrealistic” is — or should be — the point. I don’t really see how Lacy could have created the piece at the same scale with payment, and that scale was part of its wonderfully all-encompassing, utopian effect. But if the conversation that’s sprung from the open letter has, as Thompson said, upstaged the artwork itself, there’s a reason: we’re debating and arguing our way toward some kind of better democracy, rather than basking in the glow of an artificial utopia.

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