Suzanne Lacy (Q&A)

Who speaks for whom, where?

Suzanne Lacy

Suzanne Lacy: I have two thoughts about that.  One is in terms of the people I work with. To presume that it would be possible for one artist to manipulate 400 people or so (unless they are under the age of maybe eight) seems to take their power away from them.

The second question is – Who speaks for whom, where?  Are we talking about speaking in front of the City Council? That requires a particular kind of voice. Speaking in a museum? That’s another kind of voice; on radio is another kind of voice. I think each one of those forms of presentation suggests different needs, including authenticity, communication styles, and so on. In a collaboration, many different kinds of people represent the same ideas in different places and in different ways, and speak from the vantage of differing authority. It is important, in these forms of criticism, that the complexity of the issue is investigated. By the way, they have those problems outside of the arts as well, in radical politics for instance where groups are always talking about who the spokesperson is, about who got on the radio and who became the public figure? Who can get through to the mayor?

Recently I was speaking at the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles with Judy Chicago.  I’ve known her for 30 years and it’s interesting to watch the kind of evolution she’s made into a kind of an unabashed public figure. She represents, and is willing to represent to a broad range of people, important perspectives on feminism and art. Most people in this kind of practice are not as interested in being public figures. They don’t necessarily put themselves out front when other participants in the project can represent the issues in different, perhaps better ways.

Grant Kester: They tend to be quite reluctant, as you say.

Suzanne Lacy: There’s a community organising strategy that was developed in the 70’s by Saul Alinsky that many people seem to follow. Basically, these were strategies of developing grass roots leadership, empowering other people. In our case we had youth leadership teams and taught some students how to write letters to the editors, press releases, and speak on television. For example, the artist might speak in the art world, but not in front of City Council.  You don’t tend to find the artist speaking everywhere in the community.  It is not the nature of this type of work.  For one thing, people figure it out really quickly if you are there for self aggrandizement and they stop coming along for the ride.

Grant Kester: This is a great question; it is just not an easy one to answer. I’m trying to study group processes in the civil rights movement, because that is an important precedent, especially in the U.S.  There’s a great book calledFreedom is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements by Francesca Polletta, an historian at Columbia University.  She interviewed a lot of the early civil rights movement participants and paid close attention to their protocols and decision-making processes, and questions of representation and delegation. There were significant schisms within the movement around this issue between Quakers, pacifists, the SNCC, etc. She studied some of the tensions that existed between the demand to be pragmatically effective and the need to preserve a kind of cultural model of self-organization and non-hierarchical decision-making. It’s a fascinating thing to try to work through.

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