PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 23.3 (2001) 47-62
[Access article in PDF]
Making & Performing Code 33
A Public Art Project with Suzanne Lacy, Julio Morales, and Unique Holland
Code 33 was a two-year public art project (1998-1999) with hundreds of youth, police officers, and community residents in Oakland, California; the culminating public performance took place on October 7, 1999. The project included youth art workshops and video productions, facilitated and confrontational workshops with youth and police, press reports, community discussions, and a performance staged on a downtown garage rooftop on October 7, 1999. It was meant to stimulate public debate (on youth interaction with police, including police brutality; the need for youth mentorships and safe entertainment; the criminalization of youth; and the role of youth in community life) and promote changes in the way individual police and the Oakland Police Department relate to young people.
Suzanne Lacy is a pioneer in the practice and theory of public art. 1 Since the early 1970s, her art projects have created extensive public discourse on inequities of class, race, gender, and age. In 1991 Lacy, with Chris Johnson and Annice Jacoby, created T.E.A.M. (Teens + Education + Art + Media), a project-based, presenting organization which focused on Oakland youth and the public agenda. Code 33--T.E.A.M.'s ninth in a series of performances and installations (for the most part in Oakland, but one in Tokyo)--was a collaboration with over a dozen artists, including Julio Morales and Unique Holland. The performance was complicated, massively painstaking, and subtle in its interactions with public institutions, political figures, schools, diverse communities, and Oakland activists.
Part 1: Making Code 33, August 18-October 6, 1999
Evening, August 18, 1999, We The People Auditorium, 200 Harrison Street, Oakland
TV folk with cameras and mikes are crouched amidst the two circles of police and teenagers. This evening--in the hall of a downtown Oakland loft--is the initial news media introduction to Code 33's performance preparations and a screening of youth-made videotape portraits of eight different Oakland neighborhoods. There is a highly tentative, speculative sense of trust in the room that could be withdrawn on either side at any moment. [End Page 47] [Begin Page 49]
"It all comes down to a matter of style," a man comments assertively to a teenager. "It's style on our part, but it's style on your part, too. It's a two-way street." The man, a powerful-looking black Oakland policeman in off-duty casual clothes (other police in the event are wearing uniforms, complete with guns, cellular phones, and walkie-talkies around their waists), is describing an imaginary encounter taking place late at night on an Oakland street between police and teenagers. He is addressing the equally tough-looking black Oakland teenager, wearing a headband and dressed in baggy pants, who sits opposite him. "Why are you guys out there? What would you do if you were a cop and someone . . ." In the small circle of police and teenagers there is momentary silence. Eye contact. Tension. Who will speak next? The teenager stands up to demonstrate with a slightly ironic air--taking his hands out of his pockets--that he is not carrying a gun. From their different vantage points, the teenagers and police depart and return to this imaginary encounter, modeled on painfully real ones. They cover many issues, often narrated fiercely, in the troubled history of the city's relationships between cops and teenagers, from fears on both sides, to accusations of racism, to the possibility of change . . .
Unique Holland, one of the three main collaborators (who has worked with Lacy since she was a sophomore in high school, now a senior at Mills College), tells the audience of media, police, teenagers, and teenagers' families: "You've just witnessed a snapshot of October 7th." And she explains that the title of Code 33 refers to a term used by police on their two-way radios to denote an emergency, signaling that...