- Revisiting Suzanne Lacy’s Oakland Projects
Walking into the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco last summer, I encountered a video, transmitted onto a dozen flat projection screens, of Oakland in 1994. The screens showed hundreds of teenagers sitting in cars, doors open and windows down, on a rooftop garage at the downtown City Center complex. The teens, mostly students at Oakland Technical High School, have lively conversations about a range of topics: race, representation, sexuality, and gender. Hanging around them are countless spectators, government officials, and project volunteers. One teenager tells the camera, “we are people who can think, who are human beings too, who are very intellectual and articulate, and who can tell you about problems beyond negative stereotypes.”
This site-specific live event, The Roof Is on Fire, was the most immediately relevant section of the museum’s retrospective on California-based activist, documentarian, performance artist, and educator Suzanne Lacy (a joint venture with SFMoMA). The Roof Is on Fire was one of several of what Lacy called “political performances for mass audience involvement.” These participatory public engagements comprise the Oakland Projects, produced between 1991 and 2001 in collaboration with artists Unique Holland, Annice Jacoby, Chris Johnson, and Julio César Morales. Other events included No Blood/No Foul (1996), a basketball game between teens and police officers, which prompted Oakland City Council to pledge $180,000 toward a youth culture fellowship program, and Code 33 (1999), in which young people were invited to converse with police officers in unscripted conversations. There were also a number of workshops collectively called Expectations (1997) on teen pregnancy, which culminated in an art show at Capp Street Project in San Francisco and series of facilitated exchanges, Eye 2 Eye [End Page 76] (2000), at Freemont High School. Lacy described this series as a as a “weave of projects” which traversed various social environments in Oakland.
At the museum, the screens were arranged to confront viewers, imitating the arenas of discussion and collaboration which Lacy had created in Oakland. The work conjured an idea of the city as a garrulous space of sharing and performance, a site for what the curators referred to as “distributed authorship.”1 Despite the immersive quality of the museum’s exhibition, however, the videos lent a familiar structure of representation to their subject matter, putting black life on display for audiences to ponder. This realization compelled me to reflect with ambivalence on the legacy of the Oakland Projects themselves. Lacy had certainly succeeded in generating poignant social encounters, not only between the teenagers, but among artists, spectators, volunteers, even the police. Her efforts had aimed to repair the fragmented public sphere which lay about the city, contesting especially popular representations of young black people in local media. Her use of the events to create educational TV programs offered a corrective to such exposure: the work allowed black teenagers the chance to “take back” the optic which was so often turned against them. On the other hand, the work’s format framed these activities for a liberal public made up of art-goers, politicians, social service agents, and academics. Thus, while the participants may have experienced the Oakland Projects as pleasurable exercises in collaboration, the works’ spectators saw the projects as performance, as data, as value.
Lacy had mounted the Oakland Projects based on a conviction to (in her own words) “leave art,” by asking “whether it was possible for artists to exert a substantive impact on communities.”2 Ironically, the work showed that such an impact was more than possible, but that it would not always proceed in ways that the artist herself could control or predict. In the two decades since Lacy’s work in Oakland, the recruitment of socially engaged artists has become a convention of city governance across the world. A hallmark of this practice (often referred to as “creative urbanism” but continuous with neoliberal policies more generally) is the creation of public-private partnerships, which usually involve...