One Museum is Not Enough for Suzanne Lacy’s Art of Radical Conversations

Suzanne Lacy, Annice Jacoby, and Chris Johnson, 'The Roof Is on Fire,' 1993–94, from 'The Oakland Projects,' 1991–2001; performance, June 4, 1994, City Center West Garage, Oakland. (© Suzanne Lacy; Photo: Nathan Bennett)

Measured in walking distance, the space between Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is physically small (about two minutes if you hit the lights right). But there are other distinct forms of measurement to consider: square footage, operating budget, public goodwill, relationships to local artists, clarity of mission, the presence of a permanent collection, staff numbers, ticket sales and attendance counts.

Measured by any of those terms, the space between YBCA and SFMOMA is vast—they operate under different operating principles, toward different goals and, to a certain extent, for different audiences. So to walk between the institutions to experience Los Angeles-based artist Suzanne Lacy’s retrospective We Are Here, with one part mounted at SFMOMA and one part at YBCA, is a study in curatorial approaches.

These contrasts—at times jarring—are ultimately useful to understanding the work on view: four decades’ worth of intensely collaborative work that bridges art and activism. (Most often, Lacy’s art takes the form of large-scale events that stage candid conversations between ordinary people.) And just as Lacy’s practice is inextricable from either camp, so can there be no one “correct” presentation of her work, which is by its very nature unwieldy, expansive and constantly under review by the artist herself.

Suzanne Lacy, Annice Jacoby, and Chris Johnson, 'The Roof Is on Fire,' 1993–94, from 'The Oakland Projects,' 1991–2001; performance, June 4, 1994, City Center West Garage, Oakland.
Suzanne Lacy, Annice Jacoby, and Chris Johnson, 'The Roof Is on Fire,' 1993–94, from 'The Oakland Projects,' 1991–2001; performance, June 4, 1994, City Center West Garage, Oakland. (© Suzanne Lacy; Photo: Gary Nakamoto )

If this sounds like a difficult curatorial task, I’m fairly certain it was. In keeping with recent trends, two of the three curators of We Are Here now work elsewhere. They are: Rudolf Frieling, SFMOMA’s curator of media arts; Lucía Sanromán (formerly of YBCA, now director of Laboratorio Arte Alameda in Mexico City); and Dominic Willsdon (formerly of SFMOMA and now director of the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University).

If the Bay Area’s general public is at all familiar with Lacy’s output, which has existed mostly outside of formal exhibition contexts, it’s because of her Oakland Projects (1991–2001). This decade-long series of performances was organized with a crew of collaborators while Lacy was dean of the school of fine arts at California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts).

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It’s YBCA that hosts this era of work, which stemmed from Lacy’s desire to challenge mass media’s negative depictions of youth of color—and to equip those same youth with the tools to effect policy change. While the public performance of a project like The Roof is on Fire (a night of conversations between 220 public high school students in 100 cars on a rooftop parking garage) seems like the ultimate outcome of the piece, YBCA’s presentation also charts the lead-up to that July 1994 night. For months, Oakland public high school teachers participated in a certification program, bringing students to weekly planning sessions in order to craft the performance.

Unique Holland and Suzanne Lacy, 'Revisiting the Roof: Voices from The Oakland Projects,' 2019, part of 'Suzanne Lacy: We Are Here,' co-organized by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Unique Holland and Suzanne Lacy, 'Revisiting the Roof: Voices from The Oakland Projects,' 2019, part of 'Suzanne Lacy: We Are Here,' co-organized by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. (Photo by John Foster Cartwright)

The aftermath of the performance is equally important: a one-hour documentary, coverage in local and national news, and a police training video about how to listen to youth. The long tail of influence even spreads into the present day. At the center of YBCA’s main gallery, a 31-channel video piece called Revisiting the Roof: Voices from The Oakland Projects takes previously unused footage from performances and new interviews to create a constellation of past and present conversations.

In YBCA’s opinion, Lacy’s Oakland-based work is still happening, and the seeds of her approach to engaging youth and civic processes can be seen in present-day organizations and projects. This is a stance most clearly embodied by the exhibition’s opening displays: new artworks created for We Are Here by young people involved in local media literacy and art programs.

Sometimes messy, sometimes simply too much, YBCA’s presentation does succeed in capturing a bit of the chaos one imagines is inherent to organizing hundreds of teenagers in the ’90s. Less of an aesthetic presentation than a democratic one, YBCA adheres to the spirit of Lacy’s work where SFMOMA engages with its more formal and art historical concerns.

Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz, 'In Mourning and in Rage,' 1977; performance, December 13, 1977, Los Angeles City Hall.
Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz, 'In Mourning and in Rage,' 1977; performance, December 13, 1977, Los Angeles City Hall. (© Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz; Photo: Maria Karras)

SFMOMA’s half of We Are Here is more like two-thirds of We Are Here, encompassing Lacy’s full history of performances since the 1970s on the museum’s seventh floor. What emerges over the course of this presentation is Lacy’s skillful use of media coverage to signal boost her own work’s anti-violence and feminist messages. In these moments, aesthetic decisions and urgent activism meld into one powerful, lasting statements. Color, form and theater create visual frameworks for the content of a performance, or a conversation.

Dialogue is at the root of most of Lacy’s work, a simple premise that becomes radical in its expression: painfully raw conversations about violence, sex, racial profiling, ageism and religion. Lacy is not present in all of these conversations, and yet she creates the conditions for them, breaking down hierarchies between artist and volunteer, audience and performer, speaker and listener. We should all, Lacy’s work argues, take the time to “shut up and listen.”

'Suzanne Lacy: We Are Here' is on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through Aug. 4, 2019. Visitors can exchange a ticket from one organization for $5 off an admission ticket at the other.

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