A Conversation with Suzanne Lacy and the Curators Behind Her Retrospective

by , April 2019

Suzanne Lacy and Sharon Allen, Whisper, the Waves, the Wind, 1983–84; performance, May 19, 1984, La Jolla; © Suzanne Lacy; photo: Edith Kodmur

At SFMOMA, an exhibition often takes years to plan and prepare. When presenting the work of a living artist, this includes many onsite visits and in-person discussions about how the exhibition will be curated and discussed across platforms throughout the museum. Suzanne Lacy: We Are Here (April 20–August 4, 2019) has been a particularly adventurous undertaking, building upon SFMOMA’s recent history of co-presenting exhibitions with other Bay Area institutions, including Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA).

Last summer, Lacy, a Los Angeles–based artist with many connections to the Bay Area, joined the exhibition curators for a conversation about her work and the genesis of this show. Suzanne Lacy: We Are Here is jointly curated by Rudolf Frieling, curator of media arts at SFMOMA, Dominic Willsdon, director of the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University and former Leanne and George Roberts Curator of Education and Public Practice at SFMOMA, and Lucía Sanromán, curator at large, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and director, Laboratorio de Arte Alameda, Mexico City.

SFMOMA: Before we dive right into the exhibition, I thought each of the curators could talk about the first time you encountered Suzanne’s work.

Lucía: I encountered Suzanne’s work quite by accident. I was doing an exhibition of photography at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, in 2006, and I was very attracted to her series Whisper, the Waves, the Wind (1983–4) wherein she worked with a group of Southern California women over age 65 to produce a performance and series of media actions that culminated in an ocean-front production. The museum is in La Jolla Cove, and the series was taken right there. I contacted her through a mutual friend and Suzanne immediately jumped into action, and we ended up doing a small installation that was very compelling to me.

Dominic: I was in my late twenties and living in Ireland. My girlfriend at the time was a politicized artist, writer, and teacher in an art school there, and it was clear that Suzanne’s work was a powerful influence for her and her community in Ireland, and had been for some time.

Rudolf: I came to the U.S. in 2006, and joined SFMOMA as a curator of media arts. One of the first things you do when you join a new institution is dive into the history of this place — not only the museum but also the Bay Area. An outstanding feature of our history here at SFMOMA is the legacy of The Dinner Party (1979) by Judy Chicago, so I learned about Suzanne’s amazing 24-hour performance the International Dinner Party, which took place during SFMOMA’s opening event for the Chicago installation, and was able to include it in a book and an exhibition catalog for The Art of Participation in 2008. Ever since, that encounter with the International Dinner Party has been on my mind as a powerful way of networking before social media ― a legacy of our museum rarely covered in exhibition catalogs. The interest is really in unearthing, rediscovering, and re-evaluating a legacy at SFMOMA that is not so well known.

Suzanne Lacy and Linda Preuss, International Dinner Party, 1979; Suzanne Lacy during the performance, March 14, 1979, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art © Suzanne Lacy; photo: courtesy Suzanne Lacy

SFMOMA: How was this show conceived? Did you envision a collaboration between the SFMOMA and YBCA from the beginning? If so, was that a direct nod to Suzanne’s collaborative approach to her own work?

DW: Lucía and I knew each other before she worked at YBCA. A few years ago, she asked me if I could imagine revisiting The Oakland Projects (1991–2001), which is a big part of Suzanne’s work that took place here in the Bay Area. As we began to talk with Suzanne about this, we started to realize, well, there should be a retrospective of Suzanne’s work and that perhaps we should be the ones to do it.

LS: And then I got the job at YBCA as director of visual arts, and as a civically minded institution, they wanted to do the exhibition too. We thought, let’s just do them at the same time but focus on different aspects of Suzanne’s work. So SFMOMA’s presentation has early-to-recent works that center on feminism and other issues, and at YBCA we are showing The Oakland Projects and La piel de la memoria/Skin of Memory (1999), long-term art projects that focus on civic change and encompass youth, youth organizations, and artists who work with youth today.

SFMOMA: Suzanne, could you talk about what it’s been like to return to these two institutions, with whom you’ve had a longstanding relationship?

Suzanne: Yes, longer with SFMOMA. I’ve shown here a few times, beginning with Global Space Invasion that Lynn Hershman (now Hershman Leeson) curated, the Mapping the Terrain performance, and the International Dinner Party performance. In the ‘60s and early ‘70s, performance art was just beginning to have a name for itself, not as an adjunct to a practice but as the center of a practice, and there was not much difference geographically between San Francisco and L.A. The performance and conceptual artists moved back and forth quite fluidly. I taught here in San Francisco, in L.A., and in San Diego, sometimes during the same week. San Francisco feels like a very natural part of my beginning in performance art. It’s been great to come back and I’m incredibly honored to have a retrospective across these two institutions. What I love is that we have developed this exhibition very collaboratively and we each bring very different skillsets to the table. I trust these curators and appreciate the experimental nature of the project.

SFMOMA: An exhibition is often years in the making, but each exhibition opens in a specific political and social context. How have shifting political climates and social movements, such as Time’s Up, #metoo, or Black Lives Matter, impacted how this exhibition will ultimately be presented?

RF: That was one of the key motivators in convincing the institution that this is a practice that a) has never been collected properly with a few exceptions and b) is always composed and constructed from many different and diverse materials. There was not one thing that we could just select, so we had to really rethink and discuss what it means to represent these specific projects that took place outside the walls of any museum. To bring that into a museum context is a daunting task because nothing is a given, literally. This idea that we would create different formats of engaging with the work, visually but maybe also physically, was one of the first prompts leading us to say, “We’re interested in that.” It’s a challenge for us and that’s why we’re doing this.

DW: Last year, I was on a panel reviewing grant applications for a foundation that gives awards to emerging social practice artists. Seeing the issues being explored, whether it was immigration, race and policing, white working-class culture, or gender, it was really striking how these were issues that Suzanne has been working on over decades and that are still very front of mind for new generations of artists working today.

LS: The exhibition at YBCA has actually taken a shift in response to the current political situation in the United States, particularly around the absolute need to recover the memory of work. For example, The Oakland Projects was specifically focused on youth policy, education, policing, and health, in relation to communities of color. In a moment when policies that have been in place since the ‘60s are being set back, it’s very important to remember not only what happened but also the legacy of organizing. This is what we want to recover, specifically in relation to leadership and youth.

SFMOMA: Suzanne, you have said in previous interviews that your work has evolved out of feminism. Do you feel that your idea of feminism has changed over time? How is that reflected in your work?

SL: I don’t know to what degree it’s changed, but I think different political movements highlight, clarify, and better define certain kinds of issues. I consider myself a feminist but I might have a broader definition of that than many. For me, a feminist is also deeply involved with social justice issues like class and race. I’ve certainly been as involved with those issues as often as being concerned specifically with women. In this retrospective, I am interested in the question of what feminism is and how it changes and evolves over time and how it is linked to activism. Those are all questions that have been challenged through the years and my work reflects my continuing engagement with them. In Between the Door and the Street, I was interested in how young people — particularly young activists, transgender activists, ecologists, and so on — did or did not frame their work in terms of a feminist perspective on power. I wanted to challenge stereotypes of ‘70s feminism. My ideas are made clearer over time by nuances that come more and more into focus.

Suzanne Lacy, Between the Door and the Street, 2010; performance, October 13, 2013, Brooklyn, New York; © Suzanne Lacy; photo: Jonathan Dorado

SFMOMA: Suzanne, your projects are often presented as stand-alone pieces. How do you hope the work will be understood in the context of this retrospective? What are the larger stories or threads that you see emerging?

SL: That’s exactly what all of us have been thinking about.

LS: One of the first things we are challenged by is that the work is performance based in terms of social organizing, community organizing, etc., and then always has a moment of visibility that can be choreographed. In the context of the retrospective, I understand Suzanne’s relationship to body performance and feminist practices of the ‘70s much better. I understand how it leads to an approach to creating that is collective, still within a network of feminism, and then shifts in an unexpected way towards a more social approach to the idea of performance.

RF: I would add that a common preconception of social practice is that stuff happens within a group or community, and it’s somewhat organized but it doesn’t really have an artistic form. Suzanne’s work, however, is highly choreographed and formalized in many ways. This is where a museum comes in and where we find anchors so we can relate the work to other stories, artists, and narratives. The degree to which she’s constantly thinking about form is quite mind boggling because you don’t really expect that.

DW: And form can mean the form of an image, as it does with many artists, or an arrangement of materials. It can also be the form of a set of relationships between people and of those relationships over time. Suzanne’s focus on form pervades everything.

SL: I was extremely influenced by people who were really strong formalists who were managing time or sound. Particularly with the work of Allan Kaprow [a pioneer in establishing the concepts of performance art], form was something used to frame relational engagements. I was also quite influenced by the critique of media and television that arose in the late ‘60s. I think about what kind of communication is taking place in the public sphere and how it relates to the work and its issues.

SFMOMA: Suzanne, how has the experience of looking back on your career throughout the development of the catalog and exhibition been? Were there works that were particularly challenging or surprising to revisit, or others that may have taken on new meaning now?

SL: We talked a lot about trying to communicate the connections between artworks that appear to be completely different. Flying through space with your guts hanging out looks very different from organizing 430 older women, which looks very different from still another kind of work. What underlies all of that for me is thinking through how art, creative expression, and communication operate together within particular public spaces. The museum is an environment just as television is an environment for communication. They are all systems artists can operate within. What’s been great for me is being with three brilliant people who have the capacity to engage with these issues.

DW: The exhibition will show some of the ways in which, particularly since around 2000, Suzanne has made projects that look back at past projects. This idea of rethinking things, either for aesthetic reasons or for political reasons, has become part of your practice in the last couple decades.

RF: And the way that there’s not just one work that you exhibit, but there’s also always a process that is an integral component.

SFMOMA: Suzanne, much of your work is performance based, and much of the material included in the exhibition is documentation of past exhibitions. However, you’ve chosen to restage Cleaning Conditions in the context of this exhibition. Why did you choose this piece?

SL: I think the curators chose it.

DW: Well, it’s rare that in its first incarnation, this work was created for a museum ― the Manchester Art Gallery in England. Since Suzanne’s work is always specific to a certain context, it gives us the opportunity to think of a new version for our time and place, again a museum, and explore how those concerns might be different for this city at this time.

SFMOMA: What does it mean to re-perform a work?

SL: When considering re-performing a work, I think about whether the issue still has meaning, and the new insights that inform this place and time. Is it worth making this work again and how would I change it? Cleaning Conditions operated in the middle of a national and local conversation in Manchester, England that was very politicized around unions and a movement for a living wage. The cleaners in The Manchester Art Gallery had just been placed under a new contractor, so they would no longer work for the museum itself. The piece was a series of conversations linking the Living Wage Movement, immigration, and women’s labor, but was also a slightly ironic reflection on Allan Kaprow’s piece Chores. It was a comment on his set of instructions about sweeping a room and picking up litter that I translated into political literature and then redistributed. I infused it with a level of contemporary politics that he backed away from, and which was part of an ongoing conversation he and I had when I was his student.

Suzanne Lacy with Meg Parnell, Cleaning Conditions, 2013, performances, Manchester Art Gallery as part of do it 2013, Manchester International Festival 2013 at Manchester Art Gallery; © Suzanne Lacy; photo: Alan Seabright

SFMOMA: All of your projects have a collaborative component. Why is this so central to your practice? How does an initial idea start? And given that you work with so many other people to bring an idea to fruition, how different or surprising is a project’s end product compared to where it began?

SL: I don’t tend to go to a community with an idea. At this point in my career, people often invite me with an idea they think would be relevant to their context. The ideas arise out of an articulation and synthesis between my interests and vision and theirs. Because most artists don’t work like this, it’s hard to figure out how to crowd-source creative participation and come up with a complex but unified vision without losing sight of your own vision. How do you engage people and figure out what you are really interested in and what they’re interested in, and then determine where those things intersect? I’ve thought about this a lot, and it’s a subject of conflict at times in my work. How does an artist keep aesthetic control? For me, it’s about allowing people to speak and represent their truth. I don’t have any control over that, nor do I really want to control that, but I provide a platform. Where I come in as the artist is the ability to create multiple, resonant meanings through these aesthetic platforms.

In Auto:Body, a prison piece in ‘94, there was a conversation that I embedded in the documentation of the work about the difference between people’s experience and their aesthetics. How do you navigate a self/other conversation? Where does your self meet my self? Where can we agree that we want to produce this? I haven’t been in prison so I don’t have that experience, but I have a more highly developed sense of image-making. How do we bring experience together with form?

SFMOMA: Your early career started in the study of psycho-therapy and medicine. Has that influenced the way in which you approach things?

SL: Mm-hmm (affirmative). In medicine, there’s a comparison to performance art. When you’re a performance artist, particularly when you’re the performer, there’s this kind of disembodiment. You are the subject of your own work. While you’re very immersed in your body, you’re also watching your body and that’s very much a medical perspective. There are stories about doctors listening to their heart with a stethoscope while they have a heart attack.

I think the connection to psychology is obvious, but the piece that I think Lucía left out of her articulation was relationship. There’s embodiment and relationship, and then how does that relationship operate in the public and political sphere? I think about relationship a lot. There’s this dilemma about how you exert your own will and vision ― your own way of seeing things ― when you know damn well that this other person here has a very different vision and way of seeing things.

LS: But it’s not the case that you would do the same piece in relationship to a different cohort. There is a back and forth. It’s not like you’re only coming and having a dialogue and then extracting the jewels from that.

SL: No, what I’m trying to say is that it’s where you meet in the middle. In The Oakland Projects there was a place where a group of people in the room thought, “Well, we could do the performance in a bus.” And I thought and thought. I tried out the idea of a bus and then concluded: “You know, I can’t go there, but good luck. You’re welcome to go there. I just can’t spend a year of my life on this image.” Where I draw my line is an ethical issue that’s fundamental to my work. At what point do I get to express my desire for an image, which is what artists do, right? They do things the way they want to do them ― in their studios. At what point does my desire misrepresent or infringe on the rights or the dignity of other people?

Suzanne Lacy, Julio César Morales, and Unique Holland, Code 33: Emergency, Clear the Air!, 1997–9, from The Oakland Projects, 1991–2001; performance, October 7, 1999, City Center West Parking Garage, Oakland; © Suzanne Lacy; photo: Kelli Yon

RF: Fundamentally you need to engage with people if you want to come to some different form of social communication, social process, and not just point to that with an artistic gesture. If you reject the premise that you’re the one who makes the decision alone, but rather find comfort, desire, or excitement in others, other voices, and other forms of collaboration, then what is the right process for that?

SL: There’s also an illusion in the art world that idea is everything. I think execution is everything.

DW: You did call yourself a conceptual artist at some point.

SL: I think I am. But there are artists who will be very precious about whose idea it was. That’s something that we hold on to as a stamp of our expression ― that if you don’t have expertise in a medium, you have to hold on to the idea that “I thought of that idea.” And I don’t believe that. I think ideas come out of a collective ether. I don’t feel precious about whose idea it is. But that part of my work ― the evolution of collaborative imagery ― is not always evident to others. Manipulation is one of the fears projected on my work. I think that happens when you work with people as subjects. It’s pretty funny that people think I can manipulate four hundred adults to come to a place and be in a performance, to their own detriment. If you don’t have people’s agreement, you simply don’t have a performance, unless you hire them.

SFMOMA: Rudolf, you already touched on why it’s important to show work like this in a museum context and what it means to mount a museum retrospective of an artist like Suzanne, whose work wasn’t necessarily created to ever be shown in a museum context. Is there anything else you would like to say about that?

RF: Definitely. Apart from this interest in challenging us as a museum to display work that is not meant or wasn’t meant to be necessarily shown in a museum, there are two key factors that really align us well with Suzanne’s practice. One is we’re deeply committed to California artists, to the legacy and histories of artists working here. And, secondly, we feel it is important to not just be a solitary figure as a museum, but rather to be a partner in a process specifically in the Bay Area and possibly elsewhere. The idea, while we were closed for our expansion, was that we would be “SFMOMA on the go” and would build partnerships that would not be over by the time we reopened. This has been on everybody’s mind and this is the first major project where we re-engaged with this idea.

SFMOMA: Lucía, could you talk about why YBCA chose to focus your part of the exhibition on The Oakland Projects specifically?

LS: YBCA under current leadership has restructured itself around the idea of the art center as a civic center. The way that it’s been exercised is looking at urban renewal and urban planning, but also the notion of citizenship. YBCA thinks of itself as an activist institution. The Oakland Projects is not only very locally based, which YBCA is as well, but one of the mandates of the organization is to address, represent, and exhibit the work of not only Bay Area artists, but cultural practitioners more broadly understood. It’s a very good venue for that, but it also has an institutional mandate parallel to the very core of The Oakland Projects, which had to do with policy, education, pedagogy, health, etc. It seemed a very appropriate way of really going into greater depth into this particular project, at ten years, the longest project in her career. SFMOMA presents a lot of Suzanne’s projects in this exhibition, but at YBCA we have the opportunity to go in-depth and jump into that project in detail.

Also, we are engaging with young people and youth arts organizations across the Bay Area who will be additional artists or participants in the show. It’s not solely a Suzanne Lacy performance or a re-performance of The Oakland Projects. They are actually presenting their own work with youth today. It’s an update with a more curatorial approach to the idea of the update. We want to keep talking throughout the exhibition that the “we” that is here at YBCA is youth. YBCA historically had a youth program. We no longer have a youth program but we have a focus on youth. It’s very important that the organizations and individuals who actually are working with youth be engaged and contribute to the core of this show.

RF: In some ways YBCA is more aligned around community engagement than ever. For our part at the museum, there’s an increasing commitment to working in partnership with other organizations around the City. We’ve had a quite deep and broad partnership with the San Francisco Public Library for four or five years now. I think these collaborations, that initiative, and then the decision to do this retrospective with Suzanne are all emblematic of a deepening commitment to the kinds of concerns that Suzanne has in her work. It’s very timely that we’re doing this show given that the vision for this museum is to engage more deeply with our communities moving forward.

SFMOMA: What do you hope that visitors will gain, not just from this exhibition but from the fact that it’s between two institutions?

DW: Picking up on some things that were said already, the different organizations that represent the cultural ecology of any city need to think of themselves as playing complementary roles within that ecology so that many things can get done and the different organizations can do what they do best at their scale and for their respective missions. More than ever, I think we’re all keen to see organizations in the Bay Area collaborate to ensure that there continues to be a vital and exciting artistic culture in this place.

SL: It’s exciting for me because it brings together two different museum modes. It brings in the dispersed engagement goals of YBCA and SFMOMA’s ability to create a contextual frame around my work. That’s important to me as a community-based activist artist. But in order to have your work continue to influence other forms of work and other practices, you also have to have museums take on the work in some way. I’ve worked in museums off and on, in and out, most of my career and it’s a complex undertaking what these guys are doing. I think it’s really great to be doing an experimental retrospective of experimentally based work. I consider myself quite lucky, frankly, to have these three curators.

LS: Dominic’s suggestion to move from this specific project to the retrospective, Rudolf coming into the picture adding his incredible expertise, and then my getting the job at YBCA, really was an ideal situation. There is a moving of bodies across the two organizations that promotes engaging with the city. You imagine a permeability that is really a wonderful image, but the other permeability is to the history of art. That’s not something that an art center can do alone. That can only be done by the frame of a museum. It’s not just because of the institutional gravitas, it’s because of the teams that make up a museum. There is expertise there.

DW: It comes back to this question of art that was not made for the museum. Throughout history, most art was not made for museums, right? Unless museums change how they work and find ways of representing all the other kinds of art practice, we’re just going to end up showing only “made-for-museums” art. The ongoing task of museums is to stretch and transform themselves in order to accommodate other kinds of practice.

RF: One last thought. Through my position as curator of media arts, I represent a practice in art that is collaborative and often times does not have a given form but always needs to be reconfigured. So, I’m very open and familiar with this idea that you always need to talk through and rethink what the work is going to do and going to look like in space. There’s not just one authority, in this case the museum, that can decide how to do this, but rather it has to be a conversation among different people and institutions that pushes us and our public, hopefully, to a point where they realize there are many different ways of collaborating and doing things. It is not just about the frame and placing it on a wall. It goes along with a huge interest in making this kind of work accessible to a lot of people and, also, emotionally tangible, viable, and with a presence in space. We can find all of those touch points in Suzanne’s work. It’s not always in one work only, but over the arch of more than forty years, you see all of those components constantly being addressed.

SL: And the interesting thing about California art is that it is characterized by a great deal of experimentation. It’s great to be doing an experimental retrospective of experimentally-based work. It’s continuing the conversation and it’s in keeping with your interest in California artists.

Clara Sankey

Clara Sankey

Clara Sankey is the former assistant managing editor at SFMOMA.