Suzanne Lacy is hardly shy about her activism in identity, poverty and politics. In 1977, her groundbreaking performance art collaboration took the issue of sexual violence straight to the media and Los Angeles City Hall. “Three Weeks in January” prompted police and L.A. leaders to confront rape more openly. Throughout the ’90s she staged “The Oakland Projects,” spurring conversation about race and social injustice, while her 2013 “Between the Door and the Street” took over Brooklyn stoops with 360 participants discussing gender issues. Her work has appeared at the Tate Modern, the Whitney Museum and beyond. The prominent artist recently joined the faculty of the USC Roski School of Art and Design and talked with writer Lisa Butterworth about the ideologies and aspirations behind her work.
How do you decide on the themes for your projects?
I work very differently than what I would call a more studio-based artist. I don’t sit in my studio and develop an idea and then come into a community and implement it. Normally it’s a longer process of generating ideas both by myself and also often in concert with other people. Once I get to a community, as I talk to people and listen to their experiences and try to understand some of the deeper problems that they’re facing, they, as well as I, come up with ideas. So it’s a very collective process. I work at the intersection of community development and visual art.
We’re in a time ripe with social activism. Do you see a rise in activist art as well?
You’re absolutely right; this is a time of increased activism and that does show up in the art world. In fact, when I first started in the ’70s, this kind of work was called community-based work and it wasn’t very recognized. Now, not only are there many artists who only do what I would call social practice, and are quite recognized for it, but such work is also collected by museums. There’s a whole field of cultural production that links to serious social issues with engagement practices.
You’ve said that Los Angeles was a really great place to be an artist in the early ’70s—experimental and nurturing. What is L.A.’s art world like now?
I think it’s still a really good environment. There’s something about the art schools, Roski being one of them, with so many artists producing at very high levels who are also teaching. They’re taking that responsibility seriously and they’re graduating students who come back and teach. There’s this notion of legacy that’s very specific to L.A. When you graduate you can expect support.
What do you hope your students learn?
I think learning how to have confidence in yourself and move out into the world, to not feel like you have to hold up the whole ball game yourself. … There are many, many ways to practice art and many ways to see your life as valuable in a creative way.