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An interview with Suzanne Lacy
Art and Advocacy

Part 1 - Expansive in its sense of community

Interview by Nic Paget-Clarke
near Elkhorn City, Kentucky

The following interview with Suzanne Lacy is part of a series of interviews with some of the members of a group of 25 artists from around the U.S. and Canada who went to Kentucky and Virginia to participate in the initial stages of a multi-year, multi-site community art project sponsored by the American Festival Project. The American Festival Project is based in Whitesburg, Kentucky with Appalshop, a regional community arts center. Also see: Fred Campbell, Rodrigo Duarte Clark, Harrell Fletcher, Shannon Hummel, Stephanie Juno, John Malpede, Robbie McCauley, Nobuko Miyamoto.

Art and Advocacy

In Motion Magazine: What do you do in your community?

Suzanne Lacy: I live in Oakland, California where I do art, advocacy, and education. But I also work all over the country and in other parts of the world. In recent years I’ve worked a lot with teenagers.

In Motion Magazine: What do you do with them?

Suzanne Lacy: Art and activism projects involving the institutions and policies that influence young people's lives, including public media. In general, these large public art works have an educational component for young people, a public policy advocacy component, and a performance or installation.

In Motion Magazine: How do you select themes for projects?

Suzanne Lacy: I'll take the work in Oakland as an example. Each project suggests questions for the next. In '92 I began to volunteer at a public high school near the college where I taught, and with two high school teachers and a colleague from California College of Arts and Crafts, we developed a class on media literacy for sophomores. From that experience, the students wanted to create a small performance event that was covered by a local television station. The news coverage was good, and opened the door to the model we were inventing that paired activism and art performances by real people—in this case fifty students. The following year this small idea grew into a much larger project that was embraced by some administrators in the Oakland Unified School District. It began with a class for fifteen teachers on how to use media literacy in classrooms, and it also ended with a performance. This one featured two hundred and twenty teenagers talking in cars parked on a rooftop about various aspects of their lives in Oakland's in public school system and in the community. “The Roof is on Fire” was over a year in the making, and was covered by the same reporter as a one hour documentary that was broadcast by the local NBC affiliate.

During that event, young people identified sex and police-youth relations as the issues that most concerned them. So we took both of these issues and made subsequent works: first, working to develop a youth policy for the City of Oakland, we created a police training film and a performance as basketball game event that pitted cops against kids. Later we worked on sexuality and teen health through a project on pregnancy entitled “Expectations.” A year later we returned to work again with youth/police issues in a project entitled “Code 33.” Several youth from that performance approached us and suggested we work with them at Fremont High School to facilitate a discussion between students and teachers, so we were once again back in the schools. Each project, often led by opinions of youth we work with, takes us to the next one.

In Motion Magazine: Do the young people become involved in the making of the film, in the performance?

Suzanne Lacy: Yes, in various ways over time. Many young people who stay around, and even some who leave, stay in touch with us and often come back to work on projects.

Unique (Holland) and I worked together on "Expectations,” and during that four-month project we also worked with two other old friends and former students from “The Roof is on Fire,” now in the role of teacher rather than student.

Expectations started as a six week summer school class for pregnant and parenting teen women. It was co-sponsored by the Alameda County Office of Education, who delivered the credits. We raised extra money for child care and to pay small stipends to the 36 young women enrolled in the six week program. Thirty two graduated in a ceremony and art installation at the end, and fifteen of those continued to work with us on a large installation at the Capp Street Gallery in San Francisco two months later. Ten of these participated in a symposium in the gallery on teen pregnancy, one that included policy makers, doctors, teachers, and politicians.

In these projects we link with the county, the mayor's office, the police department, public health--depending on the issue, we identify the community organizations and the civic institutions that will have an impact on the issue or on the lives of youth regarding that issue. We always include a pedagogical experience—workshop, youth leadership team, class, etc—for young people. We seek their opinion and allow them to determine the subject matter of the projects. Their experience forms the core of the performances, and their expression is totally unscripted. Youth don’t produce all of the art imagery, however. We work with lots of adult, as well as younger, artists.

The largest project to date is one that we've just finished, “Code 33.” It was two years in the making, with forums, workshops, and media appearance which allowed young people to engage with police, sometimes in provocative ways. The result was a large performance event in October that had 100 police officers and 150 teenagers and eighty people from the community as performers. It had eight video tapes (made by youth describing one of the neighborhoods in Oakland) playing on thirty monitors on a roof top overlooking the City. The stage was, once again, 120 parked cars -- red, white, and black. Small groups of cops and youth were sitting in groups between the headlights of the cars. A police helicopter flew over head and youth dancers led the audience to another whole floor where Oakland residents sat and talked about their neighborhoods on grass covered platforms that looked a bit like front yards. We had low-riders, computers, a web site, and a twenty foot wall projection. Reporters, youth with video and still cameras, artists with walkie talkies were everywhere.

It was a three hour performance but it took us weeks, months, years to get to that point. Along the way we did workshops for over 400 teenagers. We must have produced 15 video tapes the kids did in various workshops. We had youth leadership teams that studied aspects of the justice system and advised on the project. It was a very complicated and large process work.

In Motion Magazine: What kind of work do you do when you are traveling around?

Appalachian mountains.
Appalachian mountains. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Suzanne Lacy: It ranges from something of large scale that takes a year or two to develop, to something very intimate that lasts for a week. For example, I spent a week in a cancer hospital in New York, talking with doctors, nurses, social workers, patients, janitors, administrators and the like. During one hour interviews with over thirty people, I charted and mapped their reflections on their personal value systems and their understanding of why they were working or being in that environment. The piece was a conceptual mapping that demonstrated the overlapping ethos of the individuals in that place.

Last summer I did a project with anthropologist Pilar Riaño in Columbia that took place over a couple of summers, with lots of work in between by activists in Medellin. It was a small installation with 750 objects from people's homes in Barrio Antioquia, a small community in Medellin. The objects represented a memory of loss that people wanted to share, coming together over loss in a community which was otherwise quite divided. We installed the objects in a bus that moved daily from one sector of the Barrio to another. The project built on Pilar’s and other anthropological work on loss, memory, and activism. I would consider that more of a small and intimate project, in the scheme of things.

On the other hand, the largest performances, at least two of them, have between 400-500 performers. The smallest includes just me, or one person.

A macro event

In Motion Magazine: What were you thinking you were going to bring to this week? From what you knew of what was going to go on, how were you thinking you would participate?

Suzanne Lacy: I wanted to be involved with this residency week because I think what Appalshop is doing as a “macro” event is very interesting. We are all seeking ways to understand and push the boundary of art and meaningful community development. You can use art to explore issues. You can use art to bring consensus. You can use art to push people's buttons. You can use art to make everybody feel good. There's all types of ways that art is is relevant in a community or public setting. I'm always intrigued with experiments in this area.

This Appalshop project is very much an experiment. It brings a variety of different kinds of artists from all over the country and places them, simultaneously, in small communities in the region. They are looking microscopically at single communities or issues, but they are aware that they are linked to similar investigations all going on during the same period of time. This is a prototypical artist residency but multiplied, made more complex, in what I think is a very interesting way. Appalshop’s purpose is to infuse these communities with energy, shake things up, offer new ways of thinking, pair local and national aesthetic energies within a fairly broad and geographically disparate area.

I wanted to participate in that and see what happened as a result of it.

In Motion Magazine: What have you been doing for the past few days?

Suzanne Lacy: Pretty much what I would do any time I do a site visit but with some distinct differences. Usually when I'm invited to do a project some place I spend at least a week doing an initial site visit. I think most of the other artists here work like that as well. It's not uncommon for artists like us to spend a week in a place, talk to people, listen, read, look at the place, have people represent issues to us in various ways. That's what we've been doing.

But there is an added complexity in this project. At least in my experience in a site work, I generally look for collaborators from within the community, and only rarely come in with other artists. You don't generally do a site visit with four people you don't know, each of whom works differently and has a different aesthetic vision. At least that’s my experience. It might be that there are other artists there, also working in communities, but you usually aren’t thrown in to work closely on a single project without knowing each other.

That was something that I was a little skeptical of in the beginning, when Michael first started talking about it. It's hard to get to know a community while you are getting to know potential collaborators. Successful collaborating is something that takes a bit of time to do. You are drawn to collaborate based on shared imagery, or aesthetics, or ideology, or just plain old charisma—you like the way a person thinks, talks, laughs, etc. That's what creates a collaborative process for me…its actually quite intimate, like most close relationships. In the case of our little group of girls in Elkhorn City, it was really a positive experience getting to know each other. We were lucky in that we had people who knew how to collaborate, though we didn't quite know what we were supposed to be doing while there. Were we supposed to work together and come up with a single project that we were all happy with? We spent a lot of time discussing and trying to create the beginnings of a shared work process.

In Motion Magazine: Who did you meet with?

Suzanne Lacy: Local community members. In our case there are only six hundred people in the city limits. I would say that between us we easily met a hundred of them over the past few days. It's a small enough geographic area that you run into people in the streets, and there are some local gathering spots like the Rusty Fork Café where numbers of people hang out. Also, the people working with us were extremely sophisticated about politics and community development and they put us in touch with all kinds of people. It didn't take long to get some overall understanding of the culture and the personalities. In terms of Elkhorn City, the Heritage Council had pretty clear agendas for us. They didn't have clear art ideas that they expected us to do, but they had some agendas that they wanted to see us address. And some agendas that they didn't want us to address.

I think that was because they were clear about wanting to use art as a means of community development in their area. They were extremely good at putting us in touch with a lot of people, and exposing us to the range of concerns and issues in the area, so I didn’t feel circumscribed at all. We met everyone from the local ceramicist, to a woman who works on highway construction, to the waitresses, card players, and historians.

One of the things I think Appalshop did that was very clever was to give the visiting artists the assignment of doing a radio program on their first day in the community. People just plunged right in. You didn't have a lot of time to be timid about getting to know the environment and the people in it.

In Motion Magazine: Were they highlighting, "This is the way we run our town"? Or, "These are some of the problems in the town"? What were they doing?

Suzanne Lacy: If you mean the Heritage Council, it was more like this is the way the culture operates here and this is what we want for our town.

Expansive in its sense of community

In Motion Magazine: So how does the culture operate?

Suzanne Lacy: Oh, I don't know that I could say given such a short time there. I can give you a couple of observations though. Elkhorn City is small enough that people tend to know how to find each other. If they don't drop by their houses they drop by the Rusty Fork. Or they drop by the local this or that. The timing of things is not, "It's nine o'clock and you have to plan to be there at nine." Rather, one tends to know the whereabouts and the habits of one’s friends and acquaintances, so time is more about where you know someone will be when.

We got into a very easy rhythm of getting up when we felt like it and working together in various ways in our small house, and staying up late. People would drop by. We would go over to one place or the other. Somebody would prepare dinner for us. We’d all spend the afternoon in the river on inner tubes, and in the process spend time talking to the guy who has lived there all his life and loves the land and rents the inner tubes. I'm not convinced we really met everybody, or even every type of person in that town, but we met a broad range from school teachers to teenagers to lawyers to retired military people.

From my experience, I would say that the culture is an open one. Extremely friendly. Very curious. Very generous. Expansive in its sense of community. Maybe that was just because we were included and invited, riding on the good will and hard work and relationships of the people in the Heritage Council. We had a brain storming session with members of the community four nights after we arrived. The people were amazing. Thirty people showed up. We had a big map of the city and asked, "Where would you like to put art?" And "What sort of art would you like to put up?" People replied, "Well we need some art over there by the grave yard." And, "We'll do this play over here" and “Wouldn’t it be great to have a mural on that underpass as you enter the city?” Things they were either already doing or wanted to do. They were pretty engaged.

There was a great guy, Elmer Keesee, who took us to show us the strip mining hidden away on a nearby mountain. By the next morning, he had gone back and done a video tape about strip mining—a sort of personal narrative as he drove his big truck on a tour of the mine. It was really a great piece!

There are people there I could definitely collaborate with. I just love it when I work in different communities with different kinds of people. It doesn't really matter if they are artists or not. After a brief time it becomes apparent whether you share a certain kind of aesthetic. An ability to tolerate open-endedness. A love of finding new ways to frame things. An instinctive ability to create shape out of relationship or communication. I found several people there with whom it would be quite interesting to collaborate on a project.

In Motion Magazine: What kind of work were they doing?

Suzanne Lacy: One of them is a construction worker. One of them is retired, he does woodworking -- the man who did the video. The retired ceramic artist also had a very interesting take on things. The leaders of the Heritage Council would be great to work with…we share a sense of political organizing.

Published in In Motion Magazine October 31, 2000.