Suzanne Lacy: The Oakland projects – a brief overview

Seminar 3: Quality and Imperfection

Suzanne Lacy:

As we have been doing, we decided that at each evening I will give you a brief overview of the Oakland Projects just so that you know what we are talking about. Then the speaker will be doing whatever it is he or she does, and then in the morning we will try to bring these practice and theory pieces back together.

I wanted to say that, because of my education and the era I came out of which is the activist ’60s, I began art late and through that art, and through studying with Judy Chicago (a feminist activist) and Allan Kaprow (a performance and happenings artist), I had launched on a project that was, in a way, as complete as I could get it, through the Oakland Projects.

My work in this era began in the mid ’70s with something I called Three weeks in May and ended around 2001 with the last of ten years of projects in Oakland. I would say that this body of work looks at the intersection between politics, performance and publics. It is a search to understand – Can you make art that is life-like, or can you make life that is like art? Where do you fail in that endeavour? and What are the possible successes in that endeavour? I have taken this time to reflect on the Oakland Projects because they are the most solid and in depth example that can inform this investigation.

I want to thank On the Edge, Carole Gray, and my thesis advisers, Anne and Grant Kester for helping me, and all of you who are part of the seminar series, for your questions and your stringent challenges because that, too, is helping in this unique form of participatory research. How could we do it in any other way, for those of us who make this kind of art?

The second part of this research is an interview process I am doing now in Oakland with between 40 and 50 people that I have worked with during those ten years. They range from kids that were 15 when I began working with them to people who were majors at the time I began working with them.

Looking back on this trajectory, this ten years of work was a collective research project into some key issues around youth. It had a political analysis that was developed over time with people in the community and with the artists I worked with. It was not so much about doing good, as investigating what I would now call ‘deep strategies’ of art practice. How are they part of an aesthetic practice and how are they part of community activism?

The other notion besides ‘deep strategies’ that is interesting to me now is, ’embeddedness’ or ’embedding change’ in ongoing institutions. We do understand that we embed change in the lives of people we work with, but that that issue of changing the police department, the school system and so on is an infinitely more complex process.

Let me say three things about these projects.

First the City of Oakland, I have discovered, is probably a city unlike any that you have here in Scotland. It is the most diverse of a series of diverse cities in California. The reason it is the most diverse is that there are 108 languages spoken in the school system. Oakland has about 350,000 people. Compared with Los Angeles, this is a place where diversity is fore-grounded in people’s consciousness. It is a place where power is distributed cross-race – which is very unusual. Classes of people are also represented in all the major ethnic groups. These are Asian, Asian Pacific, Latin, Latin American and African American. In fact, through the Black Panthers, the activist’ strikes, the Railroad Unions and so on, there is a very strong history of African American political organising, in particular, in this region. Oakland is a town that is made up of 95% people of colour in its public schools, and 95% white in its private schools. It is a town that has one quarter youth under the age of 25 and it lives in a State where they said, ‘Where California goes, there goes the nation’.

A series of important political trajectories took place throughout these ten years. These could be understood through the context of work that began to analyse and interpret these political trajectories. There was a constant feedback process in which groups of people were trying to understand the situation in which we lived. We worked around the theme of youth. We worked within four systems: the schools, the criminal justice system, health care, and public policy. The seven or eight major works that we developed throughout those ten years addressed various aspects of the system.

As we moved along, one piece created the next piece. The team that worked with us from artists to young people grew up and became leaders from one project to another – from politicians to school board principals. People left one office and took another. People in media would do a documentary and then come back to report on another documentary, or report on another event. They travelled with us so that that network of producers got to be very large by the time the projects were over.

There were eight major performances. There were installations as far away as Japan. There were museum events, but for the most part, everything took place in the public sector without being sponsored by a particular museum. Instead, the strategy was to get everybody to buy in to the sponsorship – from the mayor’s office on. The museum was one step along a very complex way. It involved most of the NGOs in the community, of which there are many.

I just want to finish by saying that there are three themes I would think that are very important to this work.

One is that it was an artistic practice. This research was always framed as art, thought of as art by a few key artists. Other people thought of it as either art of a different stripe or they weren’t really concerned with that question. But that did not matter.

For those of us embarking upon this very intensive research into the nature of public art, visual things took a priority. The negotiations and the quality of the negotiations had a performative quality. The fact that we were deconstructing media imagery was an art process, but we were looking at mass media instead of a painting. The fact that it was an artistic practice was very important.

Second, we had a deep obligation to youth development so that every project that was made became, perhaps, infinitely more burdensome but also much more intriguing because we needed to build in support systems for the great numbers of young people that participated. In the last project, ‘Code 33’, there were 350 young people just attending workshops and 1,000 over the ten years.

Finally, the idea of youth was not just young people as in education. It was youth as in a political metaphor. It was the way youth operated at that time, in 1990, as the notion of youth culture and the way in which race is so much a part of this discourse. That was basically the way in which we were exploring it. We were not just doing a project for youth, we were looking at the social condition of young people. We were looking at youth development and we were looking at youth as a political metaphor.

I am very honoured to have Simon Sheikh here tonight, and Tom Trevor and Grant Kester to support me in this research and to be here to share their thinking with you as Scotland moves forward in, I think, a very interesting way. This is one of the most collective national processes to look at where you are going to go in terms of public art. Thank you very much.

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