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Of the People, by the People . . .

Suzanne Lacy's performance art is helping to forge a role for artists in the public policy arena. Her passion is to help Oakland's teenagers.

June 09, 1996|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Whatever else "Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago's 'Dinner Party' in Feminist Art History" is--including an occasion for assessing feminism's legacy and reuniting Chicago's collaborators--the exhibition at the UCLA/Hammer Museum is also an opportunity to catch up with feminist artists who emerged in the socially conscious 1970s but faded from view in the profligate 1980s.

Among the most intriguing of these "long-lost" figures is Suzanne Lacy, who is represented in the show by photographs of "In Mourning and in Rage," a 1977 performance about rape she did in Los Angeles with Leslie Laborwitz. At the time, Lacy--who had earned a degree in psychology at Cal State Fresno and studied at CalArts with Chicago and conceptualist Allan Kaprow--was a prominent L.A. activist who successfully placed her work in a public forum.

What happened to her? Well, she didn't drop out; she moved to the Bay Area about a decade ago and continued working. As dean of fine arts at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, she contends with administrative duties and teaches courses in performance and community-related art, but she hasn't vanished into academia. Among recent items on her resume is an ambitious public performance honoring women in Chicago. She is also editor of "Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art," a book of essays by various authors that evolved from a CCAC program, "City Sites: Artists and Urban Strategies."

But at the moment, Lacy's heart, soul and prodigious energy are rooted in Oakland and her art is in the service of teenagers. "No Blood/No Foul," her latest effort, scheduled for last Wednesday night, was billed as a basketball game performance with kids and cops. Staged for an audience interested in solving problems between Oakland's youth and police, the public event initiated the city of Oakland's proposed youth policy, to be presented at a City Council meeting June 18.

The performance was conceived as "a basketball game with a difference," Lacy said during a recent trip to Los Angeles. A real game, at City Center's Club One in downtown Oakland, was accompanied by a special soundtrack, murals by graffiti artists and video interviews of the players. Referees changed each quarter, with players themselves calling fouls during the third quarter and the audience voting on the referees' calls during the fourth quarter. At the end of the game, the audience was invited to listen to the players talk about real-life relationships between youth and officers.

"The performances in Oakland are very exciting to me," Lacy said, referring both to "No Blood/No Foul" and a 1994 work, "The Roof Is on Fire," in which the public eavesdropped on issue-oriented conversations among 220 youths seated in cars on a rooftop parking lot. Attracting an audience of 1,000, the piece got lots of local television coverage and was preserved in a one-hour documentary.

"I've worked for over 20 years in this field, but I only involve the media in projects dealing with topics that seem as if they ought to be brought before a mass audience," she said. "Working with teenagers has been a real focus for me since 1992, when I started wondering about the mostly African American young people who walked by the California College of Arts and Crafts on their way to high school. I realized that I knew very little about them except through the media, so I volunteered with my colleague, Chris Johnson--a photographer who teaches at CCAC and has a strong history of activism--to teach a class with high school teachers using media as a way to involve students in a discussion of their own value system.

"We did that because we knew that media was a very influential part of their lives, almost like an absentee parent. They have a very ambiguous relationship to media because their culture is co-opted for commercial purposes, to sell products, which brings them into the mainstream culture, but media also projects an image of teenagers as gangsters," she said.

"It becomes very complicated, so we thought we would give them some tools to think about media and how it affects who they are. At the end, we did a performance, which was very successful. The next year, 15 teachers from public high schools came to a series of seminars that Chris and I put together with another colleague, Annice Jacoby," Lacy said. That program led to "The Roof Is on Fire," which raised the issue of conflict with the police, the subject of "No Blood/No Foul."

In the process of organizing their latest performance, Lacy and her partners have worked with police to develop sensitivity training programs pertaining to youth. One result is "Cops, Teens and Videotape," a videotape used for officers' training in "youth-focused community policing," said Capt. Sharon Jones of the Oakland Police Department.

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