All artists like to think of themselves as pushing boundaries, but few have done it on as grand, public or literal a scale as performance artist Suzanne Lacy.
A 43-year-old native of Wasco, Calif., Lacy has been admiringly referred to as a "social reformer and witch" by art historian Moria Roth. When word of her newest project leaks out, however, the phrase "artful politician" may well be added to that title.
Since early June, Lacy has been working with New York director Arthur Strimling, Finnish organizer Tulla Linsio and a cadre of fellow action-oriented artists--including San Diego's artist and theorist Allan Kaprow and performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena--on plans for a five-day, global performance art event to be held in Joensuu, Finland.
The event is a key part of next year's international Meeting of the Worlds Festival, a music and art gathering on the theme of world peace organized by PAND International (Performers and Artists for Nuclear Disarmament, founded by Harry Belafonte in 1983). Masterminded by Lacy and Strimling, it asks the simple but probing question: If artists can talk together, why can't nations?
From June 19-23, one tiny border town in eastern Finland 55 miles from the Soviet border will try to answer. Joensuu will be inundated with both private and flamboyantly public examples of many of the more provocative genres of 20th-Century art.
While the town itself (population: 47,099) will be illuminated almost around the clock with its white nights, Lacy and Strimling are putting together a series of events, all around the theme of borders, to keep participants' senses reeling at least as long as the midnight sun shines.
"We public artists are becoming increasingly mobile," Lacy says, "and it's a real challenge to be able to create art forms that can operate within that shrinking world. At the same time, because of the distances, we're also forced to relinquish a certain amount of control.
"Doing a public art work in Joensuu, Finland is an opportunity to explore the political theme of war and peace, something I've wanted to be able to address artistically for a long time. But it's also a chance to continue an exploration of the theme of borders which has always interested me, from the borders that divide countries to the borders that divide parts of oneself from oneself."
Co-founder of the Woman's Building and a noted member of the feminist performance-art movement in Los Angeles in the 1970s, Lacy has championed art that forges a link between artists' ethics, audience involvement and social responsibility.
In an interview in her Oakland Hills home, Lacy greeted this reporter with a toast "to our collaboration." This notion of everyone who comes into contact with one of Lacy's projects being a collaborator is reality not rhetoric. Everything that goes into making a performance happen, from advance articles to follow-up discussions, are for her an integral part of the event, and every reader is a participant of sorts.
The art events Lacy and Strimling have slated in Joensuu, under the project title of "The Road of Poems and Borders," range from an international blitz of postcard art descending on the Joensuu post office to the hourly reading by artists of hundreds of people's ruminations on the meanings of borders--and Lacy and Kaprow's chalk outlining of the bodies of reclining townspeople in the town marketplace.
Also included will be a satellite conversation between three aged women--one in Finland, one in Russia, one in the heartland of the United States--and, finally, a brisk channel swim by the city's teen-agers from one side of the town port to the other.
In a grand gesture of glasnost, the Russians will open the usually impenetrable Soviet border to allow a special trainload of 1,600 artists and Joensuu citizens to attend a concert in a small Russian village 55 miles away.
(Others who have been invited as part of the festival include Warren Beatty in the film competition, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Finnish composer and music director-designate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, folk singer Holly Near and muralist Judy Baca, who will premiere her "World Wall.")
Trained in the radical feminist circles of Judy Chicago, Lacy has kept step with the times as she has matured as an artist: In recent years she has amplified her subjects from rape and racism to more general concerns with women's histories and communities. At the same time Lacy has expanded her forum from the steps of Los Angeles City Hall and the UCLA Sculpture Garden to a beachfront in La Jolla and a massive public lobby in Minneapolis.
Lacy has, in a sense, been preparing for Joensuu since she left Cal State Fresno as a graduate student in psychology in the early 1970s to attend a more activist Feminist Art program at CalArts.
One of Lacy's earliest large-scale performance works linking public morality with topical issues was her 1977 collaboration with Leslie Labowitz, "In Mourning and in Rage." A public pageant about rape, "In Mourning" featured 10 women costumed in black and red, and made to appear seven feet tall, and a crowd of black-garbed women--all of whom appeared on the steps of L.A. City Hall.
In 1987, Lacy took her work to its largest scale yet in the "Crystal Quilt," a massive gathering of more than 400 older black-clothed women in the enormous atrium of the Philip Johnson-designed IDS Building in Minneapolis.
Purists might call it provocation but for Lacy this kind of work is unequivocally art, the only kind that really matters. "I tried drawings and sculpture, but it would have taken a long time for me to learn how to draw well enough to put forth the sophistication of ideas accumulated after 26 years of living," she says.
Since 1988, when Lacy left L.A. to join Oakland's College of Arts and Crafts in the newly created position of dean of fine arts, she has also functioned as an administrative activist, a skill her work in the Joensuu project will clearly demand.
Last year, Lacy curated "City Sites," an Oakland-wide series of events by performance artists in locations ranging from a retirement center to a garbage collection site and a center for the homeless.
Already there are signs of the impact of these events: Several organizations in Oakland have volunteered as sites for a follow-up project using local artists in places such as public schools and shelters for the homeless, and city officials have scheduled consultations about redevelopment projects using artists.
These are precisely the kinds of outcome Lacy and her colleagues hope will be generated on the topic of world peace from Joensuu. "This whole period I'm in right now is one of aesthetic regrouping," Lacy says. Most people get quiet when they regroup, Lacy gets global.