A Conversation with Suzanne Lacy

The longtime artist, writer, and social activist creates socially engaged art that stimulates dialogue about race, inequality, and social justice

This spring, the Oakland Museum of California hosts Open Engagement, an annual three-day, artist-led conference dedicated to socially engaged art. This year’s event, which takes place April 29–May 1, addresses the theme of power. Los Angeles-based artist, writer, and educator Suzanne Lacy will be one of the keynote speakers, along with political activist and scholar Angela Davis. Lacy is a pioneer in the field of socially engaged art—also called social practice—having created video, performance, and installation works that address issues of race, class, and gender inequality since the 1970s. She served in former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown’s education cabinet and as the dean of fine arts at the California College of the Arts. Here, Lacy discusses social practice with Senior Curator of Art René de Guzman.

Social practice is deeply associated with your generation of avant-garde artists. What were some of your influences?

I grew up in a relatively poor area. I was fortunate to be given an almost free college education by California’s Higher Education Act. At the time I went to college—along with other working-class people, people of color, women—there was an influx of artists like Judy Chicago and Allan Kaprow. They set the stage for a more radical art in California and had a big impact on me.

How do you describe social practice?

I relate it to the history of performance art, when art became dematerialized and artists began looking at different sources for their ideas. They started to look intensely at issues that really concern people and incorporated them into their work. Social practice emerged in the ’60s and ’70s, and sprang, in a way, out of the political and cultural movements of those times. Another way to explain it is that there is the art object and the art maker, and then there’s the space in between. What social practice does is focus on all three. The artist is no longer the mythologized crazy guy who whacked his ear off; he is moving into a form of engaged citizenship.

Much of your work seems to be about the coalitions you build and the people who are transformed by participating in them. Is the process more your focus than the final work?

Yes. I was doing community organizing even before I was an artist. And most social practice people are engaging, to some extent, in a form of community organizing, even if it’s for a small group of ten students. Those are skill sets that need to be brought back into the arts arena through education. That’s why Open Engagement is important, because it includes so many people in the arts and in education.

What are some of the challenges you face in your large-scale social practice works?

They can be difficult because they are sited in public and often deal with controversial subjects. Performance can be high risk, imperfect, and improvisational. Here is an example: Last fall, I did a project in Quito, Ecuador, called De tu puño y letra, diálogos en el ruedo [trans: Your handwriting, dialogues in the ring], which involved hundreds of men reading letters written by women about domestic violence. We held it in a bullring on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. And if you saw all these men reading those letters, you might think, “Wow, big outcome in the political arena! Wow, social impact!” But you don’t really know if that’s true. You have to know how your work fits in with ongoing societal practices and how engaged people are with these issues. You can know how many people sign up, but you can’t know if your work has changed people’s thinking.

There are a few panels at this year’s Open Engagement conference about institutional involvement in socially engaged art. Are you concerned that this attention might be at odds with social practice, which many see as an insurgent activity?

I’ve been through at least three major waves of funding for my practice. In the ’90s, the funding institutions were all hopping on board, and now they’re doing it again. So if you look at this over the long haul, no, I’m not worried that it will kill our creativity. And now that museums like OMCA are getting involved, I am convinced that social practice will continue to thrive.

To learn more about the Open Engagement conference and to register for Suzanne Lacy’s keynote address on Saturday, April 29, at 7:30pm, visit openengagement.info.

There are limited POWER PASSES available to attend keynote sessions.

This article originally features in Inside Out a publication produced by Oakland Museum of California.