Suzanne Lacy, 2013

The Ironic Absence of Suzanne Lacy in Nato Thompson’s Contractions of Time: On Social Practice from a Temporal Perspective

 © 2013 by Lili Bernard

In his essay, Contractions of Time: On Social Practice from a Temporal Perspective, published in e-flux in November 2010, Nato Thompson, Chief Curator of Creative Time in New York City, discusses the emergence of visual artists engaging in “civic infrastructural projects that unfold over an extended period of time.”  The essay was assigned as a reading in my thesis class in the Public Practice MFA program at Otis College of Art & Design in Los Angeles.

We discussed the essay in class while our department head, Suzanne Lacy, was in New York City, preparing for a public engagement performance, sponsored by Creative Time and Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. The piece, Lacy’s first public project in New York, was entitled Between the Door and the Street. In Lacy’s trademark style, the performance was dialogical.  Hundreds of women of varying backgrounds, ethnicities and ages, and a sprinkling of men, congregated in groups of three to seven on brownstone stoops in Brooklyn’s Park Place, engaging in unscripted dialogue on issues related to gender equality.  Over a thousand spectators mingled about, eavesdropping.

The unique beauty of Lacy’s work is the orchestration of hundreds of people, simultaneously discussing critical issues, for an extended length of time, in a space that is aesthetically transformed into a work of art. In Between the Door and the Street, the color of the sun is the thread which visually unites the fractions of conversation. All the participants don yellow scarves around their neck and heart chakras. Ample pots, full of marigolds, brighten every stoop. Stripes of yellow tape, like sunrays, accent each opposite curb.  In the middle of the street, long tables covered in yellow cloth hold amber-colored cider and sweets to be consumed.

The performance on the stoops lasted for about 100 minutes, beginning at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 19, 2013. Participants thereafter descended into the blocked-off street, where they enjoyed unstructured dialogue in the form of a block party.  One could easily argue that the performance lasted more than just an evening. For months prior, Suzanne visited New York periodically, meeting with various community leaders in a recruitment and organizational process that required extensive orchestration and persuasion.

In his Contractions of Time essay, Nato Thompson highlights social practice projects of varying durations, including Rick Lowe’s long-term Project Row Houses, an arts community-building project in Houston which has now spanned two decades.  He also alludes to the beginnings of artist Tania Bruguera’s shift from performance art to a long-term political project called, Immigrant Movement International, which Creative Time launched in 2011. Ironically, Nato Thompson neglects to mention the work of Suzanne Lacy which is temporal on many levels, unfolding over extended periods of relative time.

Suzanne Lacy’s repertoire provides a wonderful teaching example for me, with regard to an ongoing long-term dialogical art project, on which I have been working, entitled BAILA-Black Artists in Los Angeles. BAILA is an educational, professional networking movement I began in December 2011.  The purpose of BAILA is to illuminate the work and advance the careers of Black visual artists in the L.A. area.  Its ultimate goal is to serve as a catalyst in the erasure of the gross marginalization of Black visual artists across the nation.

One of the many work efforts involved in BAILA is my organizing and facilitating roundtable discussions between BAILA and mainstream art organizations. I have been giving thought to morphing one of these roundtables into a public engagement performances piece. I look to Suzanne’s work as inspiration and as a model of excellence.