Art jargon is a weed that starves and kills meaning. In catalog essays and wall texts, words such as “signifier,” “hypertrophic,” and “relationality” wither language into a brittle, barren wasteland. Sadly, novel art forms, even those interested in wide viewership, provoke unreadable prose more often than familiar modes, such as painting and sculpture. Take “social practice” art, which addresses the public not only as audience but also as co-participant. Born from the 1970s idealism of the New Left, the genre blurs the line between art and political organizing. It celebrates working with others in order to produce projects on a large scale, whether that means public housing, as in Houston painter Rick Lowe’s collaborative work Project Row Houses (1993), or a long-running performance group anchored by the homeless, such as John Malpede’s Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD). These pieces live in the tension between lofty concepts, knotty methodologies, and practical political applications, yet social practice has more recently preoccupied the museum world, which, at its best, wants to address local communities and shed elitism’s scrim. So why describe art with words that few understand?
The Queens Museum is the most successful major art institution in New York City in following through on social practice’s promise. For one thing, entry is free. Constructed for the 1939 World’s Fair and briefly home to the U.N. General Assembly, the museum stays carefully relevant to Flushing and Corona residents, hosting programs that treat attendees themselves as performers—in 2015, mixed media artist Zhang Hongtu held a ping pong tournament using an anti-Mao-themed installation as the table. On weekends, the building can feel like a public commons. People sit, chat, push strollers, and marvel at the scaled panorama of New York City, its five boroughs lit by many multicolored lights, which, like the Met’s Temple of Dendur, has transcended the art world’s self-involvement and become truly connective: an installation that launches a thousand imaginations.
Such a setting is ideal for The Medium Is Not the Only Message, the rare East Coast retrospective of California-based artist Suzanne Lacy. A soulful political thinker who wants to foster conversation between and about women, the 76-year-old draws our attention to how time and context change artwork. At the core of her sprawling practice are performances, many of them decades old. Freeze Frame: Room for Living Room (1982), a collaboration with Julia London, brings together groups of women in a Roche Bobois furniture showroom to discuss their own survival. For De tu Puño y Letra (By Your Own Hand) (2014–15), 300 Ecuadorian men, accompanied by Quito’s city band, read reflections on sexual violence to a bull-fighting ring packed with spectators. Both before and years after her performances, Lacy documents her process with videos, immersive multi-channel screen installations, letters between collaborators, and monologues she presents as either written word, thought-map, or dramatic reading, as though she wants to teach us about both planning a performance and how different media change her work. The show’s Marshall McLuhan–referencing title is apt—as a child of the 1960s, Lacy knows that the medium cannot be ignored, and neither can the social context that informs its content.
Wisely, the retrospective views her not through modern genre designations or a wide historical lens but instead as one node in a tight-knit web of women invested in feminism and art. She conceptualizes these connections as maps—one record of her project International Dinner Party (1979), in which she corrals women across the globe to hold simultaneous dinner parties, echoing Judy Chicago, captures the locations of the various get-togethers as pins on masonite paneling. For her ethnographical research project on L.A. sex workers, Prostitution Notes (1974), Lacy writes colorful anecdotes about her subjects on large pieces of paper, coupled with street-by-street illustrations of their worlds: where their johns live, where they pick up men. The pieces evoke the evidence-strewn wall of a movie detective, part of how Lacy acknowledges her distance from her subjects. Elsewhere, she creates context by recognizing the passage of time: For a 2010 video, shot and edited by Peter Kirby, she addends the original text of Prostitution Notes with a new ending about a friend who died, years after her initial research, of AIDS.
Lacy reimagines the Queens Museum’s atrium as a new version of Freeze Frame. Couches surround vintage cathode-ray televisions, featuring videos of feminists. Coffee tables double as ephemera-crammed vitrines. Placards reveal an inherent tension between the museum’s desire to be a public space and its charge to preserve and protect art: “Please do not place any objects on this surface.” Still, visitors use the area to rest, talk, and take a break from their masks: They reshape Lacy’s work naturally, choosing how the installation functions in their own museum.
Location is important to Lacy, whether it’s the Philip Johnson–designed shopping mall that hosted her performance on aging, The Crystal Quilt (1987), or her choices of borough and institution. Like its horizontal scale and open floor plan, the Queens Museum’s philosophy feels very West Coast, a region that has always embraced social practice—as Malpede once said, the notion that social organization and art should be separate is “an East Coast way of looking at life,” conflicting with social practice’s earnestness. On a wall by the museum’s entrance, Lacy revisits her 1976 performance Cinderella in a Dragster: Then 30, she drove across the campus of California State University, Dominguez Hills, in a souped-up car, stopped in front of the library, and read a monologue while slowly revealing a glass slipper on her foot. Nothing says “freedom in California” louder than a speeding vehicle, and the educational environs indicate a desire to activate the young politically. Lacy’s 2022 recontextualization is a thought-map of her original narration, her words linked to photographs of the stunt with a maze of lines. The header, “How to Be a Performance Artist,” refreshes the car’s metaphor for the shaky transit of a woman through the world of performance. We see this trajectory from the vantage of an artist who has arrived yet keeps reframing the potential perils of her path; for the installation Auto on the Edge of Time (1993–94), cars were wrecked. Working with sculptor Carol Kumata, Lacy filled the vehicles with house keys as a commentary on domestic violence. Logging the project is a video overlaid with voicemail messages from attendees, exclaiming how the project shook them.
Lacy suggests that her performances are unable to be completed—not by her, at least. And why would she end the conversations she began? Her questions haven’t been answered, even as other artists have pondered them. Continuing this work is our job: viewers, museum professionals, critics, and theorists. Lacy asks, How do we recreate her work, in our own lives and careers? By reminding people, à la the Queens Museum, that art spaces are public? By writing in a way that intends to be understood? Lacy offers an incomplete map. Now we do the thoughtful labor of drawing our own lines. ❖
Daniel Felsenthal is a regular contributor to the Voice, writes frequent criticism for Pitchfork, and publishes fiction, essays, and poems in other publications. In 2019, his novella Sex With Andre appeared in The Puritan.
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