Activism or Art, a Street Performance Prompts Discussion

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Saturday afternoon found me at Suzanne Lacy’s performance art piece, “Between the Door and the Street,” organized in conjunction with Creative Time and with support from the Brooklyn Museum. I’ve been following the development of this project for a few months and it was not without controversy as it went along–but of course, anything related to activist art, particularly feminist art, will have internal disagreements. The goal of this performance was to have live, unscripted conversations about gender and politics, breaking the divide between the public and the private. The event took place on Park Place between Underhill and Vanderbilt, and the entire block was devoted to the performance. Visitors saw groups of mostly women–and one or two of men or mixed genders–sitting in circles on chairs or stoops, wearing black with yellow scarves, talking about various topics related to gender. Sometimes it was difficult to hear, and the performers maintained a “fourth wall” so that interaction was impossible.

The performers had been culled by liaisoning with activist groups and gender-focused organizations in NYC. One group called Dreamers consisted of teenaged girls. Their conversation covered territory such as consensual sex versus rape; dealing with parents as role models, support systems, and disciplinarians; feeling shame for exploring sexuality; and the classic problem of peer pressure–“if we say ‘no’ we’re automatically a bitch.” Beside them, an older group was talking about issues of self-care. One woman knitting listened to another, saying: “. . . taking care of myself was, in its own way, political, too.” They discussed eating disorders, stress, and beauty. Nearby another group of women in their twenties talked about gentrification and cultural heritage. All of the conversations were honest and flowed freely.

But some of the performers were disgruntled about being asked to participate without any monetary compensation or childcare subsidy. Apparently Lacy didn’t want children to come and asked performers not to bring theirs, but did not offer any help toward childcare. One woman had her baby with her and was holding her to her chest while in conversation. A few people issued a letter to Creative Time complaining about this injustice, and the organization replied publicly in a statement, and offered a $25 childcare subsidy to some people. I saw one of the main authors of this complaint letter, and she said, “How are we supposed to participate in a conversation about gender and labor, when women’s work as mothers is being overlooked and we’re unpaid?”

I understood the frustration. It seems that often activism is regarded as something you do because you’re so passionate about changing the world, rather than actual work that one should be compensated for. It’s almost assumed that activists want to be poor, and don’t care about having a nice home or good clothes. But there’s also a question here of was this activism or was it art? Were these people doing actual activist work or were they more like extras in a film? They had conversations that were meaningful and powerful, but they did it for Suzanne Lacy rather than for their own needs. In a sense, I found myself wondering who this performance was actually for. As a viewer, I couldn’t participate, only listen, and the performers were discussing topics determined by Suzanne Lacy through a research process; in these ways our “work” was somewhat limited by the parameters of the performance.

My mother is a life-long feminist activist–here she is now in a Washington Post article about the upcoming election as it pertains to women and reproductive rights–and although she had a full-time job in women’s advocacy, she also volunteered her time extensively as an organizer and election activist on political campaigns and marches. But she did this because she could–because her paid work provided food and a roof over our heads. New York City can be especially challenging for a working mother, as cost of living is incredibly high and things like childcare are unusually expensive. But it’s not even just mothers who struggle here–as the group of women having a gentrification conversation pointed out, people who grew up in New York City can’t even afford to live in their own neighborhoods; only the richest are able to live well here. Everyone can use as much financial support as possible, which is why it’s understandable that some performers were disgruntled.

Hopefully the women who participated in “Between the Door and the Street” have formed relationships with each other than they will carry beyond this project, and it’s definitely true that the performance stimulated conversations amongst visitors that might not otherwise have happened. Art is never perfect or free of internal critique; the best thing it can do is stimulate thought and reflection, and Lacy’s performance this weekend definitely achieved that end.

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