Suzanne Lacy: So, history. I got involved with feminism first in the late 60s I went to Washington and ran into some women from the Women’s Psychological . . .American Psychological Association and. . .you don’t want this detailed.
Lynn Hershman: Talk about Fresno and how you got into the program.
I was a psychology grad student and I met Faith Wilding at Fresno State and feminism was just starting to happen. I brought back my version of it from the east coast and Faith and I decided to organize the Fresno State campus, so we called a meeting one night, not knowing who would come, just put up signs all over campus and 50 women showed up, looking at us quite expectantly.
LH: What did the sign say?
SL: Signs just said something about—Women, come. . .you know. . .explore your rights. Something like that. Women Unite sort of poster, and we sort of looked at each other. We didn’t know what to do, and we kind of whispered and decided to talk about sex, because that’s what women always talked about. And it was a galvanizing meeting. Women loved it, and they spent 2-3 hours talking about it. And that’s basically how the feminist movement at Fresno State got started.
LH: Was that after Judy Chicago was there or before?
SL: Before. About the same time Judy was organizing. . . .can I look at Lynn?
About the time Faith and I were doing that. . . . . [interruption]
Faith Wilding and I met at Fresno State when I was in graduate school, and we decided that we were going to sort of launch the feminist movement at Fresno State, so we put up signs all over campus and invited women to come and meet with us . . .subject unknown. And we were incredibly shocked. Fifty women showed up, and there they sat looking at us expectantly and we had really not prepared for this at all. So, we quickly strategized and came up with the topic of sex, and we figured that that would interest the women, and indeed it did, and so the feminist movement at Fresno State was launched. We began organizing and holding meetings.
About this same time, Judy Chicago had come from Los Angeles and was negotiating with the art department who wanted her to teach. And she said she would as long as they would do a feminist art program. And she in mind an experimental program with women to train them to be conscious, politicized, women artists. And I’m not sure she knew what all that meant yet. She was still reading furiously. And you remember, this was the end of the 60s. So, the movement was still very new. There were, I remember, at that time two books—Born Female and Feminine Mystique, and de Beauvoir’s book. Those were the only books available anyplace. So, it was a very early time. So, Judy set up interviews and was interviewing women to let them into the program and Faith said, You like to draw even though you’re a grad student in psychology, you’re interested in art, why don’t you come do this? And I said, Great. And, so I interviewed and at the end of the interview Judy said, Well, you know, it seems to me like you’re on a professional track to psychology. And I said, Well, yeah, but I just wrote a 30-page paper on creativity and I’m interested in it and she said, Well, I don’t want you in the program because you’re not going to be a professional artist.
Which is really the joke that Judy and I continue to share about her particular judgment about character, because of all the people that she worked with, Faith and I are probably the ones that have stayed most visible as artists over the years, and as feminist artists. She finally relented after Faith worked on her for three or four months, and that Fall let me into the program. And I basically abandoned my graduate studies in psychology and threw myself into this program, still working on my degree in psychology and sociology, but basically worked Judy, Faith and a group of fifteen other women. And we started the first feminist art program. I don’t know if you want me to go into that.
LH: Maybe you could talk about what the philosophy was.
SL: I think Judy probably articulates this better than I do, but I think what she had in mind, and what evolved what to be the guiding philosophy of the feminist art program was to create a space apart, where women uncover their . . . the realities of their experience and kind of put their experience into synch with their awareness of who they were, because the idea was that women’s identity was pretty much given culturally, and that identity could be shaped. . .the true authentic identity could be shaped by pulling out experience, essentially. So, in that sense it really set the tone for the kind of deconstructionist feminist theories that came later. We said that basically a female identity is a created identity, it’s a manufactured identity. But, we believed that, but we also believed that there was a true identity and that that was to be found in experience. So, the dilemma was, How do you dig up the experience? And in sharing it and in consciousness raising groups does that reflect and mirror that experience back in the way that you begin to see who you are? And of course the project was always intensely political because, remember the personal is political. What that meant was that my experience as a woman, if I was raped, if I sat in a group and found that five others out of ten had been, there was a political implication to my private experience. So, that’s basically, I think there were other tenants that all related to that, having to do with. . . .
Having to do with reinvestigating or re-exploring women’s history. I remember the . . Nancy Yodelman came dashing into one of our round table discussions one day, with this book. It was this old book from the 1890s and she said, Look at this, there was a woman’s building in Chicago in 1893 at the worlds fair and we all just fell upon the book and devoured it. And we were really, we had. . one portion of the program was art making and one portion was consciousness raising and one portion was educating ourselves on feminist art history. And reading about all the painters of the past and so on with kind of a renewed vision. So it was it a revisionist, sort of where the notion of revisionist history from a feminist perspective also began. Not necessarily in Chicago, but within that whole. . . .not necessarily in the feminist art program in Fresno, but at that point in time across the country there were some few experiments of this nature going on. I think there was one or two in New York, of different natures, but they seemed. . .the experimenting seemed to be strongest in an educational institution.
Subsequent to that, in Los Angeles there was a protest of the Art and Technology show that Maurice Tuckman put on by women who said, of seventy five artists, one is a woman? There’s a problem here. So women protested. . . . Linda Nochlin’s exhibition came out of that, as a raft of organizing in Los Angeles about that time. That was while we were in Fresno. All of this was sort of happening simultaneously or when we first came to CalArts. Judy’s program in Fresno transferred to CalArts the second year, and then Miriam Schapiro got involved with it. In Los Angeles there was a protest, there . . . Woman’s Space gallery was opened in downtown LA and Judy was involved in that and . . . . Sheila came to Fresno, visited us there and was interested in starting a design program at CalArts, and she asked me to be her teaching assistant. That’s how Sheila got involved with the whole thing.
Anyway, a lot of organizing happening in the city of Los Angeles with women. It was a very powerful moment in time. Faith Wilding’s book By Her Own Hands really details this whole history, and then Judy’s program, which came from Fresno to CalArts the next year. . .how much detail about CalArts?
LH: What happened after. . .just the major points?
So, we went to CalArts and I was with Sheila in the design program, and I was sort of supposed to lead the feminist theory and the consciousness raising, and Sheila led the design and we were sort of co-teaching. And then there was the art program and Judy was off with Mimi doing Womanhouse. The design program was quite interesting because this took these ideas that were percolating all through CalArts and began to put them into informational context because in graphic design you’re interested in communication, so we used video, we used broadsheets, we used books, printing, and every one of our projects were focused on taking private and making public. You know, taking private information about menstruation and making it public. So, that kind of gets added to the expressive art activity. . .not that Judy wasn’t interested in communication, but Sheila and her concern about communication, and her skills and background in communication brought a whole kind of emphasis on that, which shows up later, I think, in a lot of the art.
Now, Kaprow, Allan Kaprow was an important influence at that time. A lot of us. . .those of us conceptually oriented really had two choices at CalArts. It was Kaprow or Baldessari, and Baldessari’s kind of cool objective approach . . .Baldessari’s cool, objective approach was not as conducive or attractive to feminists. We had, on the one had, Judy Chicago with this sort of hot, impassioned, politicized content, which was her real focus, and finding a form for that content. And then we had Kaprow who is a formalist, essentially. But, dealing with some critical issues, having to do with when was it art? And when was it life? That particular boundary, which gave those of us, who were at all conceptually oriented, the perfect art framework to begin to address, which Okay, when it’s life and art-like life, or life-like art. . .well, life was female experience. And life was a political reality. So that gave us the way to move into the art world essentially. And we did it through performance, and conceptional art. . .not that painters weren’t doing it as well, but I’m saying for those people like myself were interested basically in philosophy and politics, this was the art arena of choice.
And Kaprow was a very receptive mentor in that way. So, I remember. . .here’s a moment that really illustrates that clash. Kaprow was in the middle of a faculty meeting at CalArts, and he was showing one of his recent pieces, and was demonstrating how he was sweeping the floor and sweeping and sweeping, and Faith Wilding reportedly jumps up in the middle of this demonstration and says, That’s alright for you to talk about sweeping Alan Kaprow, you’re not a housewife and you don’t have to do it every day. And that’s sort of that clash between. . .but, Kaprow was really open to that and he says that feminism quite influenced his thinking. So, that’s the clash right there, but the resolution of that clash was really what has come about in the kind of work that I do and the kind of work that other feminist performance artists have done.
So, it was a very rich two years at CalArts and we all said our goodbyes when the environment got too restrictive, and I think the demands of the program grew and the women grew and Judy with Sheila and Arlene, Arlene Raven, Sheila de Brettville and Judy Chicago wanted to create the Woman’s Building and start their own school outside the auspices of what they considered still essentially, no matter how sympathetic, a male influenced or male perceived institution. So, they wanted and all female institution, and after the first year of the feminist studio workshop they asked me to join the faculty. And there were about six or seven of us at different times, teaching performance and conceptual, which I did, painting which Arlene and Ruth really addressed, not video, but print making, which print and design, and then writing, with Deena Metzger. And Helen Roth was print. So, we had a faculty that was a very emotionally bonded group. We were quite visionary together. I mean we really fed off of each other’s visions of both…about the creation of female culture was really what we were talking about.
LH: Was it happening anyplace else? What kind of response were you getting? Were you the leaders in the world, doing this?
SL: Probably . . . the Woman’s Building in its sophisticated dedication to the creation of women’s culture was not, and I don’t think to this time, has been seen in our culture. It was not happening in Europe. It’s not that there was not feminism going on. In New York, there was the feminist art workshop there, but the depth of involvement in women’s culture and the sophistication with which we addressed it, the thoroughness has not been manifested before or since. It was definitely a moment in time, and it lasted a very long time, that moment, when people. . .the creative women from all of the cultural fields came together. In my field, performance, that’s where I met you, that’s where I met Lynn Hershman, Bonnie Sherk, Linda Montano, Pauline Oliveros, Joan Jonas, Yvonne Rainer, Martha Wilson, pretty much anybody doing performance art at that period of time came to the woman’s building and was in some way part of that dialogue. In literature, feminist theory, Mary Daly, Lucy Lippard, in the whole feminist music environment Holly Near. . .those women grew up around that cultural milieu, Judy Baca, the muralist movement.
There was reaching out to women of . . . this was all, mind you, in the early 70s. There was a clear consciousness . . . a reaching out to women of different cultures, different classes, making art that communicated ideas to a broad audience. We weren’t talking about individual art construction. We thought that individual art practice or construction was a way of manifesting the self, so we worked very hard with women to. . .all kinds of women would come to this. . .at one point in time there were forty five women a year that would come to the woman’s building to study with us. They came with varying degrees of what Judy called damage, you know, psychic damage, and we understood art was a way to reclaim the self. But. . .and that was happening other places, but we also understood that those reconstructed selves, those more powerful selves would be able to express something much larger than any individual self, which was female culture. That we were training people who would be able to go out and reconstruct the world from the point of view of a female vision.
LH: Was it successful?
SL: I would tell you that it was a utopian. . .it was a utopian dream and in that way it was not successful in the way I suspect every utopian dream manifests itself and plays itself out. So, it was not. . .we didn’t recreate culture. What we did do. . .how it was successful was that it planted seeds in a whole lot of areas in contemporary art and contemporary theory that are being pursued. It was not successful in that. .it was not successful in that the. . .that the history. . .it hasn’t been lost, but that the history has been. . .that the history hasn’t been lost, but it. . .
But the history has been occluded, I would say. I would say, for example, that contemporary public art. . .in contemporary art nobody really traces some of the things happening now back to that era, and back to those ideas, and since I was there when those ideas were being formulated, I find it ironic and interesting that they are sort of coming forward now in the art world again. And it’s not simply feminism, but the kind of attraction we were for politics in general. . .I mean, feminists and Marxists were hanging out together, feminists and women in multi-cultural communities were hanging out together. You know, so there was a real rich exchange of ideas and a dialogue about. . . .we constantly talked about, I did, about why I was not a Marxist with Martha Rosler. So there was this. . .and a real deep respect for each other.
Judy Baca, who is not strictly speaking a Woman’s Building teacher was off in east Los Angeles doing her work, was nevertheless engaged in a critical dialogue with us, about why we weren’t responding appropriately to different racial issues. So, it was a very fertile moment in history and from that I can trace many things today that are happening in the art world that are unfortunately not connected to that moment. And there’s a problem with that, and it’s not simply—we should all get known. The problem is that when you disconnect a vision from its radical heritage you essentially make it non-viable as a change agent in the world. That is, Judy Baca and I had a conversation about this once, with respect to Chicano art, or Latino art, how the form was being skimmed off the top, the style and the colors and the content with exhibitions such has the one Jane Livingston did at the LA county. The reason, in fact, that Judy got involved with CARA (?)—Contemporary Art and Resistance. . .that particular exhibition in planning it, was they needed an exhibition that would express the real radical tradition of Chicano art.
So, that it wasn’t Zoot Suit styles, but that Zoot Suiters were a form of political protest that came out of a particular set of historical circumstances. Same with feminism, that you can say, Well, who cares that those ideas originated with feminist consciousness, because those ideas are being expressed—the notion of a broad audience for art is being expressed right now. The driving force for the notion of a broad audience for art is that if art is going to transform culture and communicate ideas, it must reach the broadest number of people as possible. That if art is going to have an effect, it must not be elitist. Now that’s a political idea, but if you just say, Well, gosh we all want a broad audience, then you have people kind of tinkering with the mechanics of reaching a broad audience. How do I get on TV? How do I get in the newspaper? Let’s do an artwork that causes a kind of controversy that will get me on the front page.
LH: Yet you used that strategy in designing your works in the 70s.
Well, in the 70s there were maybe three artists that I know of that were dealing with. . .that were not media artists but were dealing strictly with mass media. It was Ant Farm, Lowell Darling (?) and Leslie Labowitz and myself. And maybe Chris Burden. And Chris Burden did a piece called Through the Night Softly where he rented time for a commercial spot on television, tied his hands behind his back and in a bathing suit wriggled through glass. And it was a very disturbing image that came on late at night. I mean, there were many other artists doing it, but I’m just gonna say that ones that I know of that were real visible in mass media. Obviously Kaprow has done work that way, Andy Warhol worked that way, they did stuff in newspapers, but in the 70s Ant Farm did Media Burn, which was a piece where they crashed a Cadillac driven—powered by a…things on submarines? It was a Cadillac equipped like a submarine, and they drove it through a wall of burning videos while a mock Kennedy delivered a speech about the influence of media.
I don’t think it’s a brilliant work, and then Leslie and I did In Mourning and in Rage. We did other work in the 70s, but that piece really is a model for moving into mass media communications and transforming it as calculated way as possible to communicate a different message. By the way, we were not uninfluenced by Greenpeace, by Abby Hoffman, by the kind of calculated strategy that sophisticated political people were using at the time. So, our impetus didn’t come from reaching a broad audience, period. It came from. . .with our art., it came from using a media to transform a cultural viewing of, in this case, the hillside strangle.
LH: That was In Mourning and in Rage?
SL: In Mourning and in Rage, it was inevitable that we would use the media, and as opposed to Chris’s work. And the inevitability was that the media surround at that point in time was all fear and basically showing women how to retreat, to hide, to barricade, to defend around this kind of manipulation of information on slaughter, basically sexual slaughter of women. And we wanted to interrupt that flow in the media with another image. And we used consciously an archetypal image of ten feet. . .seven foot tall women in black that’s drawn from Catholic religion, it’s drawn from Maya Duran, it’s drawn from. . .that image is a very very common image and we used it absolutely consciously. Every element of that piece was structured to subvert the way the cameras would want to and the media people would want to treat the information.
LH: There was a tremendous amount of people who became tremendously successful in that period. Miriam, you, and Sheila and. . why? Was it the community, was it the confidence, and could you say something about why you all maintained your work, you didn’t give up, became successful and becoming more visible as time goes by in your influence, and finalize that with what advice you’d give to women.
SL: I have something else I’d like to say in between there, but I’ll start with this. I think that the people you mentioned started off with a pretty committed political consciousness, and that they have, as people with that kind of consciousness generally do, they’ve maintained that. And it’s not terribly shakable, that particular type of way of looking at the world, particularly because it’s rooted in your own personal experience. And by the way, your own personal continuing experience. So that if you see the world with that particular perspective, and in this case it’s feminist. . . .
The people that you’re talking about are, they’re really committed to a particular political vision. I think once you have that kind of perceptual frame, and particularly when that frame is rooted in your own experience and your own continuing experience, that is you’re a woman you’re always going to experience things from that vantage point, then I think that people continue to develop from the basis that we all created together at that time. I know my work has been very influenced, for example, by Sheila de Brettville, who is a designer. And Sheila’s structural, the way she structured her work was very influential to the way I began to think in terms a performance framework. She does it two-dimensionally, and now three dimensionally in terms of space and public work. But, I did it temporally. You could say the Crystal Quilt has formal elements of the pink poster that Sheila did. Do you know about that poster? So that the notion, in that case of individual experience contributing to a whole, the personal is political, is one of the formal elements that I work with.
So I think those people have gone on because. . . well, because they were going to go on no matter what. But, they’ve gone on from a shared point in time, and I think that’s what’s of interest here, in terms of this tape. That is that, I remember talking once with Leslie Labowitz, who was my collaborator in In Mourning and In Rage—we did things together. . .we did things together that we could have never done alone. And I think that it is that, when you’re a woman or a black person or an old person, or disabled person and you look around you and you see the culture reflected in these various images and you don’t see your own image, it continually diminishes what you see yourself as capable of doing. When you collaborate or when you come out of a community, then what happens is you’re constantly seeing yourself reflected in the women around you, or in your collaborator.
And Leslie’s in my case. So, we just sat down and said, Shall we do it, and she’d say, Yeah, and I’d look at her and say, Well she thinks we can do it, and she thinks Suzanne thinks we can do it, so we would do it. We would just go out and do it. And think that did give us a level of confidence about the impact that we were able to make. I think it would be a very interesting exercise to take several of the artists from that moment in time and look at their work and deconstruct it from the point of view of the ideologies that shape it and the formal elements, and how the ideology shapes the formal elements, and see if their effect isn’t some kind of shared perspective, what we all know as feminist art, feminist culture.
I wanted to say about four things that I think are kind of precepts for feminist art at that time, that are expressed today: The personal is political; that personal or private experience has a public manifestation and in fact more than public, has a political nature. And you can trace everybody from Vito Acconci’s work at that time, and Chris Burden’s. . .Vito Acconci’s is very clear the influence of feminism on his art. Vito was striking out in unknown territory that was really not able to perceived by anybody but women, and that was the territory of the experience of his body—you know biting himself, tucking away his penis and you know manipulating his body and manipulating his wife’s body in one of those pieces and playing with his sexuality and playing with his private experiences. Those were all things that women were doing and probably women were the only ones doing it at that time. Maybe one or two other male artists. There weren’t a lot of people, and I think that was Vito’s feminized self manifesting itself—you know, how is Vito Acconci’s work different from Hanna Wilke’s, different than Martha Wilson’s, . . . .You should talk to him sometime. He may well admit it if you start. . .Alan certainly does. Nobody is wanting to give up their privilege, obviously, but for certain of those men it’s easy enough to acknowledge that. So the personal is political has continued through the Chicano art movement, continues through the multicultural movement. That notion that the individual private experience is a political experience.
The second thing is something we mentioned briefly, in terms of Vito Acconci, and that is using the body as a primary site for work, a primary source of work, the physical manifestation of the body. That ran all the way from role-playing to the stuff that Cindy Sherman does now, which was done early on by feminists, which is adopting roles and distancing the self from the role. So it ran all the way from that to rape, to the impact of physical violence on the body. But the body is taken to be the underlying substrate, in the work that you did—the notion of shifting identities. All of that rests itself within the body of a woman and top of that body is the various interpretations of what happens. As you strip away the clothes, I think it was seen then, you come closer to some kind of reality. We had women performing nude in Ablutions. They dip themselves in blood and eggs and clay. It was an incredibly physical experience the whole evening, and people were viscerally affected by arriving at that level of reality of women’s experience within their body. So that’s the second I think very important thing that we see today.
The idea that art was meant to communicate. That’s radically different than the avant-garde at the time. Rather than to obscure, art should communicate and that came out of a political vision. That, if we’ve got something political to say, we better be making sure people understand it. Leading to that is the notion of the expanded audience. That’s a hot topic in the public art world now. And originates the people that are doing it and doing it with the most thoroughness and the most integrity originated during that 70s era within the context of a very broad art discussion about feminists, I might say activism, not just feminists there. And finally, from the notion of a broad audience, what I think is critically and we’re probably scratching the surface as a broad art movement now, and that’s the notion of change. Whether or not art can cause change. In the early 70s it was the political, the community based, the feminist and the Marxist artists largely working in California who thought art could transform the entire culture. It was a very large vision, and I think that vision has filtered up from a variety of voices and presents itself again right now in the art world, and we’re at this moment in time able to address it in a much broader way. And the dilemma I think is to reconnect that vision to its various radical roots, so that we don’t lose the potential real change impact of the ideas.
And what’s your final advice?
SL: Advice for women artists? I have a lot of students and they come to me, young women, and it’s ironic. They’re back in the same environment I was in and struggling with it, and they understand something’s wrong and somehow feminism in the schools has lost its position. So, that these young women are rudderless. And they must sit in groups, they must share their experience, and they must read like crazy. They have to reconnect with that time in the 70s and they make their work out of a base that continues to try to express that personal, that interior reality. Theirs is different than mine, and to continue to try to connect that, through art, to a much larger purpose than self-expression. But in order to have that larger purpose, they have to be able to analyze what’s happening. So, they should be reading books like Susan Faludi’s Backlash, they should be understanding the current situation in such a way that they can begin to make forays into changing it, basically.
[End of Interview]