Suzanne Lacy: We Are Here

“I still believe in the power of words to change culture.” That’s Lin Farley, a writer and former reporter, who coined the term sexual harassment in 1975. Farley was teaching at Cornell University at the time and, after conducting feminist consciousness-raising sessions with students, discovered that every young woman in the group had been fired or forced out of a job after rejecting the sexual advances of a male boss. Eleanor Holmes Norton, then the head of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, invited Farley to a hearing on women in the workplace. Farley used the phrase, the New York Times printed it, “and thus a concept was born,” as she recently wrote in an op-ed. In 1986, the Supreme Court made sexual harassment illegal as a form of discrimination. As we know, the term (and the laws) never quite changed the culture. Nevertheless, she persisted.

Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz, In Mourning and in Rage, 1977. Performance view, City Hall, Los Angeles, December 13, 1977.

Around the same time as Farley’s testimony, the art of social engagement—what’s now called “social practice”—was emerging. One of its leading lights, the California-based artist Suzanne Lacy, developed her own style of persistence: an art in which people would be the subjects and ephemeral conversation the medium. (She eventually called it “new genre public art.”) Along with a rotating team of collaborators, Lacy began to incorporate the inclusive process of collective consciousness-raising directly into events, long before it became commonplace to do so. For one early work, Lacy and co. asked people to talk about their experiences of rape and other kinds of torture; for another, the conversation was all about survival. Lacy hasn’t stopped since.

Putting together a retrospective of the artist’s abundant output is a daunting task, as the remnants from her numerous pieces—images, text, her own critical writing—often fail to capture the breadth and depth of what transpired. The sweeping catalogue accompanying the two-part show at SFMoMA and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is a complement to that difficult labor. Edited by the curators, it also features their essays and nearly two hundred pages of an illustrated survey with some four hundred archival images from eighty-four works, all broken down into seven categories (Bodies, Personas, Violence Against Women, Networks, Image and Dialogue, Youth, and Work and Class). But my favorite part comes near the end, with a long list of Lacy’s consciousness-raising “collaborators, participants, and associates.” They too believe in the power of words, and images, to change culture.