Summer 2011

– Summer 2011

Contextual Essays


Events, Works, Exhibitions

Mapping the Terrain, Again

Stephanie Smith

Image from Suzanne Lacy, ‘Mapping the Terrain' public conference, November 1991, Napa, CA, showing Patricia Phillips. Courtesy the artist

Image from Suzanne Lacy, ‘Mapping the Terrain' public conference, November 1991, Napa, CA, showing Patricia Phillips. Courtesy the artist

A group of artists and writers, curators and administrators, activists and assorted citizens assemble on a November evening, packing a large room inside a museum in the US. Some wear name tags. They sit in tight orderly rows, chairs arranged in two groups so that they face each other across a narrow aisle. There is no stage, no focal point, no obvious delinea­tion between expert and audience. Instead, when the event begins, one individual stands up amidst the crowd and talks for three minutes. As he sits, another stands across the room, also talking for three minutes. Heads twist and bodies turn to focus on her remarks. A third rises. It goes on, as thirty speakers — some analytical, some passionate, some engaging — use their allotted time to comment on the intersections of art, activism, politics and publics. This beginning is choreographed — the physical arrangement, the placement and ordering of speakers, the scope of aesthetic territory addressed, the intentional blurring of all kinds of lines — and then the event relaxes into a more informal discussion.

This structure probably sounds familiar. The event might have been a discursive extension of an exhibition, or part of a progressive museum education programme. Perhaps it was a session within the latest Creative Time summit on public practice, a gathering instigated by the artists and writers of the Midwest Radical Culture Corridor or a manifestation of West Coast social practice like the Open Engagement conference held last summer in Oregon.1 In other words, because of its format and subject matter, the event could fit easily within recent North American iterations of a global conversation about the social functions; ethical and aesthetic intentions; and public responsibilities of art, creative workers and cultural institutions. But in fact it took place twenty years ago, in November 1991, as one link in a chain of activities instigated by artist, writer and educator Suzanne Lacy, and orchestrated in collaboration with others — a chain that eventually yielded, in 1995, the landmark book Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art.2

Twenty years after that gathering and sixteen years after the book’s publication, Mapping the Terrain remains essential to a critical consideration of what truly public art might be.3 The ‘new genre’ moniker that the subtitle of the book proposed failed to gain wide usage, but the book nonetheless propelled awareness of and discussion about several loosely affiliated strands of art-making, mostly in the US, that took place largely outside institutional sites and were intentionally situated at the intersection of ethics and aesthetics. The works usually presupposed an activist potential for art, addressed social and political issues — directly or obliquely — and took up process-based forms that were collectively produced within specific places and communities. While these modes of making drew on longer strands of creative production that extend at least back into the 1960s, they coalesced and became clearly visible in the US in the late 1980s and early 90s, as a vibrant if slippery-edged zone of activity. Mapping the Terrain helped define and disseminate these practices, and proposed some important early framings of why and how they might matter.

All well enough. But it is worth looking at Mapping the Terrain again, right now, not only to understand its impact in its time and subsequently, but also because it contains tools that might usefully inform our thinking about things happening in our time, especially in relation to the rampant current interest in defining, critiquing, promoting and/or theorising overlapping categories of critical art, public art practice, collective work and social practice. I will return to this, but first want to test out a different frame: Mapping the Terrain might also be positioned as an extension of Suzanne Lacy’s art — as a book about new genre public art that is, itself, a manifestation of the practice. Please take what follows as a thought experiment rather than a strong claim, for such a reading has obvious limitations, but I hope it might open productive lines of thought about the book’s specific contributions, its particular blind spots and its ongoing relevance. Poster for Suzanne Lacy, ‘City Sites: Artists and Urban Strategies' lecture series, 1989, Oakland, CA. Design by Michael Manwaring. Courtesy the artist

Born in 1945, Suzanne Lacy grew up in a working-class family in California, studied psychology and worked briefly as a community organiser during the late 1960s. She shifted her focus to art in the early 1970s, studying first with Judy Chicago at Fresno State College and then with both Chicago and Allan Kaprow at the newly founded California Institute of the Arts. Lacy played a catalytic role within a group of creative women in Los Angeles who built a community centred on the Feminist Studio Workshop and the Women’s Building, the now-legendary studio-collective-school-gallery founded in 1973 by Chicago, Sheila de Bretteville and Arlene Raven. By the late 1970s, Lacy had begun to formulate what became a trademark approach: multilayered collaborative projects that addressed specific social issues and particular communities through combinations of performance, display, community organising, public outreach and media intervention. Most famously, two projects from 1977 brought visibility to violence against women in Los Angeles — Three Weeks in May and In Mourning and in Rage, the latter in collaboration with artist Leslie Labowitz. Labowitz and Lacy folded these and several later projects into an initiative they called Ariadne: A Social Art Network. This framework encompassed their own projects but was also meant to foment actions by others — for instance they co-wrote a kind of pragmatic and conceptual toolkit targeted at others who might ‘join us in the growing movement of feminist culture workers and media interventionists’.4

Incredibly for a project taking place before the advent of the internet, Lacy’s work directly engaged about 2,000 women through 200 dinners that took place across Africa, Asia, Europe and North and South America during a 24-hour period.

A lesser-known project from this period, The International Dinner Party (1979), reinforces this point while bringing a key new element — conviviality — into the mix. Convivial gatherings are, of course, crucial glue within any community, and in Los Angeles in the 1970s — as in feminist circles around the world — meals were also intentionally used as occasions to bring women together, strengthen personal bonds and hone political aims. Lacy extended this sensibility in this artwork, for which she used her organisational skills and connections within global feminist-activist circles to invite thousands of women from around the world to stage dinners, each as a tribute to a particular woman. The project was in part a tribute to Lacy’s mentor Judy Chicago, and was initiated on the occasion of the West Coast debut of Chicago’s now-iconic installation The Dinner Party (1974—79) at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Incredibly for a project taking place before the advent of the internet, Lacy’s work directly engaged about 2,000 women through 200 dinners that took place across Africa, Asia, Europe and North and South America during a 24-hour period. Participants sent telegrams to SFMOMA, and Lacy created a combination of performance and display in which she marked the dinner locations on a giant wall-map and placed the telegrams in binders. Later, many participants sent photographs, letters and other material documenting their meals, some of which Lacy culled, edited and arranged into new two-dimensional pieces — sometimes, for instance, by handwriting descriptive text across their imagery. Four aspects of the project are important to flag in relation to Mapping the Terrain: Lacy’s role as a convener; the project’s ambitious scope; the establishment of parameters that intentionally combine experience and discourse; and the creation of a framework to ‘report out’, so that a wider public might have access to ideas generated in a private context (here, notably, through what one might see as an editorial process of gathering, culling and arranging materials to later disseminate the results).

A decade later, Lacy began to formulate a kind of meta-project, centred on bringing together colleagues who shared her interest in socially-engaged, community-and process-based forms of public art (which she referred to as ‘social art’ in a continuation of the Ariadne language). With this new project, she focused on an art world community rather than a specifically feminist network, and began a multi-tiered collaborative process of assembling peers who cared about these then-new forms of public art. The objective was to collectively develop analytical tools and frameworks that could help shape a wider conversation about the relevance and potential impact of this type of work.

The series of lectures ‘City Sites: Artists and Urban Strategies’, held in 1989, was the first manifestation of this idea. Making strategic use of her new position as Dean of Fine Arts at the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC) in Oakland, California, Lacy secured college support to launch ‘City Sites’ as an experimental series of site-specific lectures that brought together ten artists whose practices she felt fit this rubric.5 In a 1990 interview Lacy noted that she had been motivated

to encourage critics to look at this kind of work to see if we can develop a language for describing it that goes beyond performance, Conceptual art, painting or murals. People are becoming more and more interested in social art. It’s my belief that there is now a group of artists who have been working for ten-plus years, and who have — out of the political necessity of their work — created a fairly sophisticated structural language and set of strategies.6

Each artist presented a talk about his or her work at a site connected in some way to his or her topic, for audiences that Lacy described as ‘mixed’ through their blending of art world and other kinds of communities. John Malpede of the activist art and theatre group Los Angeles Poverty Department, for instance, spoke at a homeless shelter, while Adrian Piper spoke about racial stereotypes at a nightclub. Analysis of the lectures’ intentions, outcomes and implications is beyond the scope of this essay, but note again Lacy’s role as a convener; the combination of shared experience and discourse; and the creation of a framework through which to shape a larger conversation.

The meta-project continued two years later when Lacy orchestrated ‘Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art’, a two-part affair that combined public performance and closed discussion — a format now familiar from biennial platforms and aesthetic caucuses but uncommon at the time.7 It began with the choreographed public event described at the beginning of this essay, which simultaneously generated an aesthetic experience and initiated a process of analysis. Those thirty speakers performed for each other, as well as the audience mixed in with them, by using their allotted minutes to mark the outlines of the terrain each cared most about — that is, the place from which they spoke. It seems to have been a fairly efficient means to begin to build a shared understanding of the range of practices and stances under discussion, a way of marking the outside edges of the topic and glossing the state of the practice while also clarifying specific territories of interest. The participants and a few other artists, administrators and writers then moved into a closed-session multi-day retreat in Napa Valley, where they built on those initial performative mini-speeches. Over several days they moved between small-group discussions, larger sessions and convivial experiences, with the aim of coming to terms with these new forms of public art.8

The list of artists reveals the shifting terms of conversation about public practice. Some of the artists featured in Mapping the Terrain would probably not be framed as ‘public’ or ‘ socially engaged’ artists today.

The book that grew out of these activities, Mapping the Terrain, includes three types of writing: Lacy’s introduction, which touches on this backstory and is liberally peppered with quotes from both the public and private parts of the gathering; essays that provide critical frameworks produced by participants (with the addition of Guillermo Gómez-Peña); and an illustrated compendium of artists and projects that provides concrete examples of the practices discussed in the essays.9 In the end, the extended process that generated these texts wasn’t so different from that deployed in Ariadne or The International Dinner Party: frameworks were created in which people could generate experience and discourses around a topic, and then disseminate results that might inspire changes across a wider field. That linkage was apparent to Lacy at the time: in 1990 she described Ariadne as

a context out of which we would generate our works, we would support and advise other people in doing works and we would write articles on what we were doing. It’s similar to what I’m doing with ‘City Sites’. It’s a way to create a context which generates theory and practice.10

Suzanne Lacy, Three Weeks in May, 1977, guerilla performance, Los Angeles. Photograph: the artist. Courtesy the artist So, what of the book itself? The texts are uneven, and some have aged more gracefully than others. Jeff Kelley’s discussion of ‘place’ versus ‘site’ in architecturally-based projects still feels useful, for instance. But those parts of the book that don’t hold up as well still offer helpful insights into where things were then and how they have changed. The compendium is invaluable in this regard, for the list of artists reveals the shifting of the terms of conversation about public practice. Some of the artists featured in the compendium (including some ‘City Sites’ and conference participants) would probably not be framed as ‘public’ or ‘socially engaged’ artists today — Ann Hamilton comes to mind, for instance. Some texts feel antiquated because wider conversations have changed. At the time, new genre public art was perhaps identifiable less by what it was than by what it was not — no ‘plop art’ plaza sculptures, no cannons in parks. But the need to define new forms in opposition to traditional modes of sculpture is no longer urgent and therefore no longer part of today’s discourse — which indicates the degree to which these practices have become naturalised. Finally, the group of participants, with its emphasis on the US, feels quite constrained now. One couldn’t imagine in 1991 the current extent and pervasiveness of globalisation nor any of the other myriad and endlessly arguable factors that have since come into play — the existence of the internet, shifts in government funding, changes in institutional practice and pedagogical strategy,11 the spread of biennials, new generational temperaments and many others. Any or all of these may have propelled the current global proliferation of aesthetic practices, factions, splinters and new entities that grew out of the terrain mapped by Lacy and her cohorts twenty years ago.

Which brings me back to the question of Mapping the Terrain’s relevance to recent criticism. Despite the decades that separate now from then — with attendant shifts in aesthetics, politics and practice — some parts of Mapping remain bracingly relevant.12 Lacy’s own essay, for instance, offers cool analysis that might cut through some of the rhetoric that has swirled around recent debates about ‘the social turn’ in 1990s and 2000s art. Take, for instance, a famously heated exchange between critics Claire Bishop and Grant Kester that played out on the pages of Artforum a few years back.13 Bishop argues that champions of socially-based work often sidestep any assessment of a particular project’s aesthetic potency or conceptual nuance, privileging instead its activist intentions and degree of collaborative co-creation — which she describes as an ‘ethics of authorial renunciation’. Kester then takes Bishop to task for a range of issues including conflating social and socially-based ways of working, and for drawing too hard a line between aesthetics and activism. Lacy’s primary essay in Mapping explores adjacent territory.

In it, she advocates for more subtle and complex criticism and offers analytic tools and frames to that end, including a diagram that I still find enormously helpful. This visual model succinctly delineates a wider range than the usual dyad of ‘artist’ and ‘audience’. Based on varied points of connection to a work’s production and reception, these circles begin with the person most responsible for the work — the artist — at the centre, and then move out through collaborators and eventually on to ‘the audience of myth and memory’. These categories are fluid: individuals might move through each of the circles, which, Lacy argues, offer complementary sites for critical analysis beyond the traditional moment of aesthetic interaction in which a person encounters a ‘finished’ product (be it a painting, a sculpture or a performance). If we think of Mapping the Terrain as an artwork, for instance, we might consider that first circle of origination and responsibility as a rather tight one defined by Lacy’s creative vision for this project, based in her particular aesthetic and intellectual approaches and strongly influenced by her feminist organisational methods. Then we might consider how the project was presented for and experienced by those who intersected with early manifestations of Mapping the Terrain, either as collaborators and co-creators or as audience members. We might further consider the latter as involving two overlapping groups: those who experienced the public performative elements of ‘City Sites’ and the conference, and those who encountered the book in the mid-1990s soon after it was published. We might look at the media audience —press coverage of the individual parts and early reviews — and also the book’s longer arc of resonance (or dissonance) within current conversations. Such analytic tools can be useful prompts in assessing current work, and might aid in dissecting varied facets of activist and aesthetic projects with precision.

Lacy’s polemical call for a new criticism is even more to the point. To quote at length:

The introduction of multiple contexts for visual art presents a legitimate dilemma for critics: what forms of evaluation are appropriate when the sites of reception for the work, and the premise of ‘audience’, have virtually exploded? […] In the instances throughout this century when art has moved outside the confines of traditional exhibition venues, or even remained within them and challenged the nature and social meaning of art, analysis has been a contested and politicised terrain. Until a critical approach is realised, this work will remain relegated to outsider status in the art world, and its ability to transform our understanding of art and artists’ roles will be safely neutralised. Misconceptions and confused thinking abound. What is needed at this point is a more subtle and challenging criticism in which assumptions — both those of the critic and those of the artists — are examined and grounded within the worlds of both art and social discourse. Notions of interaction, audience, artists’ intentions and effectiveness are too freely used, often without sufficient interrogation and almost never within comprehensive conceptual schemes that differentiate and shed meaning on the practice of new genre public art.14

In relation to current practices it might do us good to look back even further, to the work of artists like Allan Kaprow, Lacy’s teacher and someone she encouraged to participate in ‘City Sites’ and Mapping the Terrain because she saw connections between his work and those of younger colleagues. Consideration of shared elements and disjunctures seem useful for all of us as we keep assessing and exploring — not with any hagiographic intent but rather so that we might strengthen current practice and theory. Although it might mark me as overly romantic — far more so than Lacy — it seems fitting to close by returning to that moment twenty years ago, when Mierle Laderman Ukeles stood amidst that gathering and began her three-minute speech by saying, ‘Thank you, Suzanne. I like being in your artwork right now. It’s a beautiful thing for all of us.’

  1. In 2009, the New York-based Creative Time extended its work as a commissioner of public projects and events by instigating an annual programme, the ‘Creative Time Summit: Revolutions in Public Practice’. This event, curated by Nato Thompson, gathers practitioners and theorists from around the world. See (last accessed on 21 March 2011). In 2010, the Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University, led by artist Harrell Fletcher, launched an annual gathering, ‘Open Engagement’, a larger and looser multi-day event. See (last accessed on 21 March 2011). The Midwest Radical Culture Corridor is a rubric used since 2007 by a group of writers and artists based across the central US to organise field trips, discussions and collaborative projects. See (last accessed
    on 21 March 2011).

  2. See Suzanne Lacy (ed.), Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, Seattle: Bay Press, 1995. The event is mentioned in the preface; this description is extrapolated from video documentation of the event from Lacy’s archive and from conversations between the author and Lacy on 19 January and 2 February 2011. The author would like to thank Lacy for her generosity in sharing ideas and information over many years of conversation, and for access to her archive in spring 2010.

  3. Mapping the Terrain forms part of a constellation of books and projects about public art published in
    the US around that time, including an anthology edited by Nina Felshin called But Is It Art?: The Spirit
    of Art as Activism (Seattle: Bay Press, 1995) and the catalogue for Mary Jane Jacob’s massive public art
    exhibition ‘Culture in Action’ (Seattle: Bay Press, 1995), two years after the exhibition took place
    in Chicago.

  4. S. Lacy and Leslie Labowitz, ‘Feminist Artists: Developing a Media Strategy for the Movement’, in S. Lacy, Leaving Art: Writings on Performance, Politics, and Publics, 1974—2007, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010, p.85.

  5. Participants included Judy Baca, Helen and Newton Harrison, Lynn Hershman, Marie Johnson-Calloway, Allan Kaprow, Suzanne Lacy, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, John Malpede and Adrian Piper. See the preface to S. Lacy (ed.), Mapping the Terrain, op. cit., pp.11—13. See also local newspaper coverage that situates ‘City Sites’ within the larger context of civic and cultural development strategies in Oakland: Jean Field, ‘Art for Oakland’s Sake’, San Francisco Bay Guardian, 22 February 1989, pp.17 and 20; and Janice Ross, ‘Adventures in Oakland: Public Art Tackles Some Public Issues’, The Tribune Calendar, 26 February 1989, pp.5 and 24.

  6. Moira Roth, ‘Oral History Interview with Suzanne Lacy, March 16, 24, and September 27, 1990’, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

  7. The event was directed by Lacy, co-sponsored by CCAC and the Headlands Center for the Arts and held at SFMOMA, where it was arranged through the education department (which remains a fairly common channel through which socially engaged practices enter museums). It was funded by the museum, CCAC, various foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts. See S. Lacy (ed.), Mapping the Terrain, op. cit., p.14.

  8. Speakers included Juana Alicia, Judy Baca, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Mel Chin, Estella Conwill Májozo, Houston Conwill, Jennifer Dowley, Patricia Fuller, Suzi Gablik, Anna Halprin, Ann Hamilton, Jo Hansen, Helen Harrison, Lynn Hershman, Walter Hood, Mary Jane Jacob, Chris Johnson, Allan Kaprow, Suzanne Lacy, Hung Liu, Alf Löhr, Yolanda Lopez, Lucy Lippard, Leopoldo Mahler, Jill Manton, David Mendoza, Richard Misrach, Peter Pennekamp, Patricia Phillips, Lynn Sowder, Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Carlos Villa. Others joined the closed portion of the session. The book essays were authored by a smaller group: Baca, Conwill Májozo, Gablik, Jacob, Jeff Kelley, Kaprow, Lacy, Lippard and Phillips — and Guillermo Gómez-Peña, the only essayist who did not attend the gathering. Susan Leibovitz Steinman produced the compendium.

  9. The parameters for inclusion were established through group discussion. See Lacy’s introduction in S. Lacy (ed.), Mapping the Terrain, op. cit., pp.189—92.

  10. M. Roth, ‘Oral History Interview with Suzanne Lacy’, op. cit.

  11. Young artists can now receive formal training in arenas that would have been labeled ‘new genre’ twenty years ago — for instance an MFA in Public Practice from OTIS College of Art and Design in Los Angeles — a programme chaired by Lacy — or an MFA in Art and Social Practice from Portland State University.

  12. See S. Lacy, ‘Debated Territory: Toward a Critical Language for Public Art’, in S. Lacy (ed.), Mapping the Terrain, pp.171—85.

  13. See Claire Bishop, ‘The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents’, Artforum, vol.44, no.6, February 2006, pp.178—83; and Grant Kester’s response letter and Bishop’s response to his response (Artforum, vol.44, no.9, May 2006, p.22).

  14. S. Lacy (ed.), Mapping the Terrain, op. cit., pp.172—73.