by Shannon Bell
Autonomedia, New York, 2010
N/A. Paper, US $15.95
Leaving Art: Writings on Performance, Politics and Publics, 1974-2007
by Suzanne Lacy
Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2010
424 pp., illus. 74 b/w, 2 figs. Trade, $99.95; paper, $27.95
ISBN: 978-0-8223-4552-7; ISBN: 978-0-8223-4569-5.
Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University, Michigan 48710
One would expect, in 2011, that all persons would reflexively call themselves feminist as one might say small-d democrat or an anti-racist. Yet I suspect some of my own art students, female or male, wouldn't immediately designate themselves that way. Behold new books by two avowed feminists in the realm of art, one whose sensibility was shaped by the Punk rock and Gay Lib 1970s and 1980s subcultures, and the other formed amidst 1960s and 1970s political activism. Their works show two very different manifestations of the personal as political, and the private rendered public.
Shannon Bell, "pornographic sage" and Ph.D., is the Toronto-based promoter of Fast Feminism, drawing upon Paul Virilio's designation of speed as characteristic of our time and its politics, plus Queer Theory and a spice rack of other contemporary intellectual currents. Her provisional manifesto calls us to critique the world quickly, upset usual contexts and scholarship, mix up art and theory and base it upon the experienced human body. Her sexual excursions take her to drag balls, endorphin-triggering torture with scalpels and hypodermic needles at women's bath house sex events, to perform a ritual embrace of lingam statuary on the banks of the Ganges among burnt corpses, and - dusted off - into a tissue engineering lab to grow cells that construct from scratch a "female penis" and sexy toe. Our adventuress slathers and rubs a tube or two of poststructuralist and queer theory into her good-natured travelogue. She defends the concept of the female phallus against the avoidance and omissions of Freud, Lacan, even Deleuze and Guattari. She straps on theory to "bugger Levinas with Bataille".
You know she'll deliver a good story when she begins "As part of the Masturbation Cabaret, I walk onto the stage accompanied by Drag King Sean Con . . . . " Dr. Bell is also a performance artist whose specialty-generally performed for audiences in private sex clubs yet illustrated in full color and black and white here-is onstage self-stimulation that ultimately produces an exuberant stream of female ejaculate. She contextualizes this rather vaudevillian act of pleasure in opposition to the history of male denial, denigration of, or dissembling about the female orgasm. Marvel at her ecstatic geyser. Watch out where you stand!
Bell's libertarian defense of all sexual flavors or transgression extends to her involvement in the child pornography trial of John Robin Sharpe. One assumes Canadian - and previous - laws against pornographic texts are predicated on the Roman Catholic equation of sin "in thought, word or deed", for Sharpe's offense was purely textual, and didn't involve real boys in person, physically or photographically. Another academic called as defense witness, James Miller of University of Western Ontario, situated Sharpe's writing in a tradition of grisly descriptions of human suffering that dates back to Dante's hellacious Inferno. In the end Sharpe was found guilty, yet received a sentence considerably less harsh than he would in the US. The Canadian pornography law applies to sexual descriptions of anyone under 18 years of age, which feels excessive, so therefore worthy of Bell's public defense . . . and later her succoring and vivid carnal solace of the defendant. By the time the reader reaches the book's afterglow-like coda, a warm remembrance of Shannon Bell's mother Mildred Alice Edwards, one would be rude to inquire: So what did Mom think of your work?
Three decades ago the painter and San Francisco State University Professor Cherie Raciti suggested to this reviewer that I investigate the community arts work of Suzanne Lacy, but I was too entrenched in the painting of post-Diego Rivera wall murals to pay much attention. My loss, but at least there is now this book to document the substantial body of work by the California artist. Following Moira Roth's helpful overview of the issues that Lacy has engaged-many related to violence against women, or their exploitation––three decades' worth of the artist's own writings follow. Her 1974 project "Prostitution Notes" consisted of meticulous notes taken in research into the lives of prostitutes on the streets of Los Angeles, later read aloud by Lacy and collaborator Leslie Labowitz to an audience. The two methodically interrogated the women, then their pimps who seemingly treated their interrogators with curious respect. Lacy's "Falling Apart" collages, exhibited 1976, are arresting photographs of the artist, nude, leaping into the air, yet torn at her midsection and photographs of animal entrails appearing in the chasm. In other projects, she created a parody of a cooking show, appeared with a racing car as "Cinderella in a Dragster", and dressed-up as an aged, homeless "bag lady" to roam the streets and provoke reactions.
"The Life and Time of Donaldina Cameron" was performed in 1977 on the Angel Island ferry, on the way to immigration station from China and the Pacific. Lacy impersonated the 19th century reformer Cameron, while Kathleen Chang played a fictitious woman whom Cameron saw "saved" from prostitution for a life of sweatshop-like labor sewing. In solidarity with organized activists, Lacy created "Record Companies Drag Their Feet" in 1977 about violent imagery used to sell rock music albums sporting titles like "Black and Blue" and "In Cold Blood". "She Who Would Fly" made use of diary entries recounting rape experiences, read in performance at Garage Gallery, Los Angeles, 1977. Lacy became aware of increased feminist concern in California performance art in the 1980s that broadened its definition. In this wider context, Jo Hanson merely sweeping the streets of her San Francisco neighborhood outside her residence became consciously politicized.
Lacy began to organize performances and public interventions that involved a large group of women, whose very number was a powerful statement of solidarity. A project in 1981 brought 50 white women and 50 black women, aged 13 to 86, together to share food and conversation. She organized 17 groups of women who talked about survival in a furniture showroom during the 1982 San Francisco International Sculpture Exhibition (notes on whose Space Art panel was this reviewer's first contribution for Leonardo, while missing Lacy's project). In a dialogue with Lucy Lippard, Lacy posited political performance as a contemporary form of pageantry. In the 1980s she increasingly questioned whether works that were less issue-specific were necessarily less activist, for organizations of "cultural workers" like SPARC, NAPNOC, and PAD/D gave a new political context to adventurous, even ambiguous, works. Lacy's "The Dark Madonna" was a performance at Murphy Sculpture Garden at UCLA, which strove to illuminate self-critical, psychological aspects of motionlessness versus activity.
Lacy's 1990s were spent developing her model of engagement that she saw on a continuum of non-fixed roles for artists, private to public. One might be an experiencer, an empathetic reporter of information, or an analyst, providing an activist critique and program. She interrogated artists' intentionality, questioning what produced both the good and the effective. She re-examined the 1970s democratic movements (and the impact of her teacher, the late Allan Kaprow) in the 1990s and beyond, yet continually affirmed how personal experience has political implications. She was active in the attempt at institutionalizing community arts in the CSU Monterey Bay Visual and Public Art Program, and examined youth, their increasing criminalization and impoverishment in California and the United States.
Suzanne Lacy worked with a community of cancer patients, survivors and their families to produce "Stories of Work and Survival" at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2007. This work further affirms the centrality of women's health, safety, needs and concerns in any discussion of health care and a healthy society. I would very much like to see Suzanne Lacy on a public panel offering insights as to the role of the arts in health policy. And yes, let's hear from Shannon Bell, too.