– Summer 2011

Mapping the Terrain, Again

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

  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 http://creativetime.org/programs/archive/2010/summit/WP/ (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 http://openengagement.info/conference-information (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 http://www.midwestradicalculturecorridor.net/ (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.