"Oh gag me"
An inclusive conversation with Suzanne Lacy
Alison Stirling & Anne Elliot
Artists working within Arts in a Social Context have in the recent past
been written off as the art scene's social workers and viewed as
poor cousins to the gallery artist. Yet it now appears to be having a
reassessment in Scotland, influenced by the work of artists such as Suzanne
Within new community art in Scotland, Social Inclusion has become part
of the vocabulary of funding criteria for arts programmes. Having that
vocabulary is necessary, but without the practical skills, or time to
build up an understanding of the communities in which these arts processes
will take place, the ideas are arrived at despite the community
and not in collaboration with it.
With a lack of any real definition of its meaning in terms of practical
responses, Social Inclusion is open to re-interpretation on many levels,
encouraging a formulaic and often meaningless response to a multitude
of social and artistic issues. After all, if you don't have the funding,
competent organisation, understanding and a strong support structure,
not forgetting a welcoming community, you don't have social inclusion.
Artlink Edinburgh has, for the past 15 years been working outwith
the mainstream, building on the experience of artists working within social
work and healthcare environments. It has over the years improved its methods
of working, learning from past mistakes and more accurately targeting
its responses in order that they are more relevant to the individual and
wider needs of the people we work with.
The core of its work is the belief that the participant is placed at the
centre of the arts process. Its aim throughout project design is to build
up a working relationship with the individual or group and then establish
the exact direction of the artworks in relation to the individual interests
Many of the issues we, as artists working within Artlink, face are in
response to problems faced by individuals who are 'socially excluded'
from the mainstream, as a result of long term illness, institutionalisation,
lack of available opportunity, lack of money, public ignorance, and lack
of support. The artist's role is to find the appropriate ways of
working in collaboration with the individual, using the arts process to
form ideas, investigate ways of working and achieve a series of responses
which reflect the effectiveness of the partnerships formed.
The individual's circumstances can often seem overwhelming, overshadowing
and testing the relevance of any arts process. Therefore the demands on
the artist are more wide-ranging, extending their expertise and skills
within programmes that seek to merge the artistic with the social.
It is a big mistake, however, to say art within this context achieves
real social change. At best it gives a voice, draws attention to an issue,
and always, always uncovers another set of barriers to respond to. This
challenges the role of the artist as collaborator, exploring the nature
of the relationship, its strengths and weaknesses, placing more importance
on the process than on the product itself.
There is a lack of knowledge about what art in this context can achieve
and how it can progress, and with no definitive texts available within
Scotland, one has to look overseas to the US to find essays on ways of
working which further progress the work of artists in this field.
Mapping The Terrain with its essays on public art has been used
for Artlink as a guide in its programme development. The book itself does
not offer an insight into work in the field of disability but it does
offer a variety of responses to art outwith the gallery context, creating
arguments for work which is more responsive to its audiences.
The book's editor and essayist is the artist Suzanne Lacy. She has
worked collaboratively since the early 1970s. Her experience includes
collaborations with other artists and more broadly conceived 'collaborations'
with people in various communities and occupations. In the 1970s, for
example, she collaborated with Evalina Newman, an older African American
woman in Watts (Los Angeles), engaging others in her housing complex in
exhibitions on crime. She also collaborated with Kathleen Chang, an actress
in San Francisco, in a performance on Chinese immigration and women. In
a series of large urban installations on violence against women, she broadened
the collaborative process to include police, politicians, hotline activists
and reporters, creating together multi-sited works that address social
Examples of her work include The Roof is on Fire, an installation
of parked cars on a rooftop garage with the participation of more than
200 teens; and Youth, Cops, and Videotape, a video of a workshop
that continues to be used in police training. In 1997, she produced No
Blood/No Foul, an installation of murals, television interviews
and a live basketball game between youth and police that was widely covered
on television news. This artwork, created with the co-operation of the
Oakland Police Department, was not only meant to increase awareness of
youth issues, but tolerance of each group for the other.
We were offered the opportunity to interview Suzanne Lacy in her hotel
room. Armed with a tape recorder and a series of questions based on the
Artlink interpretation of Mapping The Terrain, we sat down ready to begin
our interview. The tape recorder didn't work. We managed to get another.
The first question was so vague it was met with "tell me some more
about the question?" Our response, garbled both on tape and in reality,
ended with a "you don't get this question?" Her response,
"I get the area that you are talking about, but I don't get
what it is you want to know specifically about it." A dysfunctional
tape recorder and inappropriate questions set the tone.
Anne Elliot (shifting anxiously in her seat): What do you think makes
the most change, the process involved in the making of the artwork or
the end product?
Suzanne Lacy: Well what kind of change do you mean?
AE (looks agitated): Social change?
SL: Located where?
Alison Stirling (leans forward, perplexed): Eh, within the audience, if
the people who take part in your projects represent the audience.
SL: Let me take your work as an example. You have a person who has a learning
disability and you have an artist who interacts with them, and then you
have the social system that the person operates within, such as the social
service or medical system, and the artist's own set of systems, often
less prescriptive, and the culture that these intersecting systems exist
within. On top of that you have various forms of cultural contexts, including
the art world. They all mix together in various ways. Where do you think
AS: The change takes place mostly within the person you work in collaboration
with, then with support staff; then with the audiences that may see that
person's work. Sometimes the change is more personal, in the artist
and participant, based on gaining a mutual understanding of each other,
therefore gaining a greater understanding of the issues the individuals
SL: What might happen as a result of that change?
AS (getting worried that the interviewers have rapidly become the interviewees):
People will be more accepted but it takes a long time.
SL: How might that happen?
AS: The more people are visible the more they're accepted, the more
positive that visibility the greater the likelihood that they will become
more valued members of the community. I suppose I'm being a bit idealistic,
but that can lead to greater social change.
SL: When you ask me about change, change where and to what end, is what
I would say. And I think you have the answers from your own practice.
AS: How do you measure change?
SL: I think it's clearly demonstrable that one can change individual
behaviour. Change isn't the right word, exactly; rather, you can
impact an individual's experience and that experience might cause
change. The question is, how do you measure change beyond the individual?
In your instance, how would you measure changing the system that deals
with people that have learning disabilities?
AS: Most art projects work with people over relatively short periods of
time. What we've managed to do is over four years or six years. Over
longer time periods you can measure change more accurately, as you start
to see both physically and emotionally the differences in people, perhaps
this is because for the first time in some of these people's lives
there is someone working beside them around what interests them.
SL: Is that as a result of relationships or is that as a result of art?
AS: The art's in the relationship.
SL: Would it be the same without the art?
AS: No, because it's about starting to find out about that person,
using the art to do this. For example, one man working with Anne Elliot,
started off by making a book, then as a result, decided he needed to make
a bookcase for it and as a result of that he got into making sculpture
and ended up making work in the Sculpture Studios. So it's about
his relationship with the art and how we used the art to form a positive
working relationship with him.
SL: So the art is the relationship, and the manifestation of the relationship
is the object?
AS: Not always.
SL: There is something in making that's very positive, and the more
concrete the making the more positive the benefit might be for certain
AS: Sometimes for people who have higher support needs, who have profound
learning difficulties, the making means nothing so it's the individual's
involvement in the process and how the art works to support the individual
within that, that makes the difference. Now that might not be art, but
it might be. For example most people have care plans written about them,
they are clinical reports on their medical needs. What we have done is
bring in a writer to write about the person, their interests, their reactions,
describe them in ways in which they become more of a person rather than
a list of conditions. I don't know whether that's art or not
but we do use artists.
SL: Do you know what I'd say: In this case the art is in the construction
of the entirety of the concept. Setting up the situation. As well, perhaps,
as the actual writing itself. What intrigues me is less, in this case,
the writing, although the skilful expression of craft can lift the mundane
to great and admirable heights. But I'm not presented with the writing,
so I can't comment on that - I can say that I find the design
a brilliant and intriguing piece of conceptual art.
AE: When you are young you are more idealistic, expecting and wanting
change to happen. With age do you think that your idealism is the same
or changed in what way?
SL: I think it has. As I've gotten older it hasn't destroyed
my fervour for change but I've become (particularly in the arts)
a little more sceptical of what we can and cannot do. It doesn't
mean you do anything different nor with any less intensity or passion,
it just means that you might assess change a little more critically. I
think the work looks harder to me than it used to; more to do to actually
AS: I remember talking a few years ago to a woman who was much older than
me who'd been working in arts and communities for a long time. I
said that I felt that there seemed to be a constant re-inventing of the
wheel within arts and a social context and that I felt frustrated by this
lack of change but she told me that change does take place it just takes
a long time.
SL: Look at Artist Placement Group in the 70s, artists John Latham and
Barbara Straveni whose goal it was to place artists in industry. And there
were a few examples of it but it was more of an idea. A great idea, by
the way, and one that characterised a type of artistic inquiry in other
parts of the world as well. 30 years later you, for example, are actually
placing artists in significant ways in industry. So I'd say that's
significant progress. Being younger causes two things, one is frustration
and the other is a kind of hyper belief in the effectiveness of what you
do, maybe even an artificial belief.
I've been an activist at one point, and later an activist artist.
As an activist I think there's a kind of hard edge of cynicism you
develop when you're constantly faced with seemingly unyielding social
dilemmas. But when you have an art practice you can say something beautiful
was made even if great social change did not happen. There's an internal
reward built into being an artist activist. To have a practice and to
locate my own reward system within the practice is something that I find
AE: At what point do other artists or specialists come in when you're
constructing a project and do they fit in with your ideas or do they reinterpret
SL: I tend to work very collaboratively which means there's other
kinds of professions and concerns represented in my projects from the
One of the issues around collaboration is to what degree will you compromise
your vision? I don't think compromise is bad, by the way. One chooses
where and how one will compromise. The general rule of thumb for my work
is if there is a subject matter issue, the authority resides in the people
who are representing that experience and I tend not to conflict with that.
So if a young person says to me this is my reality I don't say "Oh
no, I don't like that, let's do it differently."
But if it's a question of the aesthetics, then I tend not to negotiate
as much. I will always ask others with whom I work for their ideas, and
we have much discussion about what works aesthetically and what doesn't.
But the final decision on how a project looks, its imagery, is mine (along
with the other artists with whom I work). It's like being a theatre
director. Theatre is very collaborative and negotiated, but there is a
final authority and responsibility, and that rests with the director.
I'm aware of the politics of representation, and that the shape can
effect the meaning. So it's not a perfect world in my artworks. Imagery
I like is shaped by my culture and background. But I also have a great
deal of experience in art, and I do retain the decisions as to where I
will put my energy and creative passion. So the negotiations around aesthetics
are what I'd call 'transparent' in my work - lots of
people express lots of ideas, and challenge each other's presumptions,
and discuss the meaning of our making together. At a certain point, however,
and hopefully after a full and fair hearing, I make decisions about the
'look' of a work.
Now, there is some fear expressed by other artists that this can lead
to abuse of power - the manipulation of people to do your images against
their interest. I think this is definitely a possibility, and in the situations
you are describing decidedly so. This is why it can be dangerous working
with children. There are certain times and places where it is easier to
persuade people about something that is not in their best interest, like
when you work with people with learning disabilities.
AS: I think it is very easy to do that and it is important always to be
aware of what can be an unequal power balance. If a collaboration is to
be effective then it takes time to form a relationship that works successfully.
In the making of any collaborative artwork the individual's interests
and/or skills must be the main focal point: It is extremely important
that the individual is not lost and is not patronised within the making
of the work.
SL: In general, however, I work with such a scale that there is a built-in
check. With 500 people in a performance, it's pretty hard for me
to persuade all of them to participate in something that they instinctively
feel is not in their own best interests. Also, the processes are long
and public and open continually to questioning, so that's my self-correcting
I listen and interpret and then negotiate quite a bit compared to most
artists, but there can come a point within that negotiation where I say
"Oh gag me, I can't do that image, it won't work to get
news coverage, it isn't aesthetically sound." With full knowledge
of the complexities of that statement, the inherent contradictions and
possibilities for power abuse, I still find myself at certain times saying,
that won't work. What's interesting about that moment is that
that's the point where art and life intersect. It's a point
of ethical concern, social debate, and a place where you can engage in
the meaning of art, life, politics, whatever, around that issue.
AS: I want to end the interview with a hypothetical situation. Respond
to it off the top of your head, with what you would do in the situation,
what sort of project would you come up with. There's a group of elderly
SL: They live together in a home?
AS: Yes, homes that are like small institutions.
AE: They were in institutions and they knew of each other, but they're
now brought together in one house, which is their home.
AS: Some of them have mental health problems on top of their learning
disabilities, exacerbated by the fact that they are limited in what they
can do, partly financially and partly by the fact they live in a rural
community and transport is problematic. So could you think of a project
that would some way respond to this?
SL: And what do they want?
AS: They want to make friends basically. They want to be out of the house
and they want to be with friends and to make new friends.
SL: And they can't go with their friends?
AS: Well you need to engineer a way of making sure they meet up. Staffing
and transport is a real issue.
SL: Have you tried negotiating with the organisation that provides their
AS: Sometimes, yes.
SL: What happens?
AS: They are overworked.
SL: I think it's a very rich situation. I guess one of the things
you would have to look at is where your initial impetus is? Is it with
these particular women or is it to demonstrate the situation of women
AS: You may need to point out the quality of life that they have, but
in doing that you must try to create a better quality of life for them.
SL: I could suggest a whole bunch of ideas. I'd much rather talk
about this than have an interview. I'd have to qualify any ideas
by saying I don't know the women, I don't really know their
level of ability and I don't know the politics of what might happen
to them by activating this situation in their lives. I don't know
whether you're looking for a sustained way out for them or a short
term way out. There is a whole lot of ethical and political issues that
I don't understand.
So having said that, the images that come to my mind are images of extravagant
tea parties in public places, maybe performative, maybe photographed.
Of looking at the systems that leverage their ability to get out and manipulating
those systems in the ways that you've done in other instances. Like
making an artwork around public transit. Or convening any social service
vehicles that must be called to get them from point "a" to point
"b" and using these as part of a work. Or projecting on the
front of their buildings the passes they need.
Given what you said you wanted to do, which is change their direct lives,
obviously, I can't think of an actual image for that as I don't
know the circumstances that control their lives. If you were interested
in changing the circumstances of people's lives with them as participants,
then you have to address their level of political awareness. Is their
political awareness such that they're aware that they have a right
to do more in life?
SL: And they are concerned not only for their own isolation but of other
women like them? If that is the case then you enter that other territory
which is about changing the system and changing public opinion. You see
the distinction I'm making? Then it depends on how activist you want
to be. I understand your caution, you'd have to move very carefully,
because they're fragile people and in overwhelming social circumstances.
You could honour and empower them, in other words give them training as
'artists' and you can define that in any way you want and then
you can employ them to visit people in their homes, thereby accomplishing
them getting out more.
We agree that the interview has come to an end. Outside on the street
Alison lights up a cigarette. The next day at Suzanne Lacy's Glasgow
School of Art public talk, Anne Elliot finally managed to learn what it
was that Suzanne Lacy actually did. Later on at a student organised discussion,
Suzanne Lacy gained a greater understanding of Artlink.