Performing Resistance to Sexual Violence: Suzanne Lacy’s The Violence Series
This post is part of the Theatre’s Rape Culture series.
In my first women’s studies class in college, my professor told the class about a performance artist who used a map of LA and a red stamp to show how often sexual assault happened in the area; these two simple tools were all she needed to effect change on the local level. Later that year, I re-discovered this artist, Suzanne Lacy, and her performances in resistance of sexual violence.
Lacy is an American performance artist whose performance art work has often dealt with community outreach and group performances rather than solo work. She views these collaborative performances as overtly political, and considers that her pieces “function as public hearing to advance policy”. Although her focus has now turned to youth advocacy and empowerment, several of her pieces from the 1970s and 1980s concentrated on the experience of women, particular women who had survived sexual violence. Her pieces Three Weeks in May and In Mourning and in Rage both addressed the issue of violence against women by publicly staging rape and sexual violence. Although these performances may not have happened in a traditional theatrical setting, they are nevertheless theatre.
Click here to view a clip of Suzanne Lacy’s work.
In Mourning and in Rage was implemented in 1977 in response to Los Angeles’s “Hillside Strangler,” a serial killer who murdered 10 women. Upset at the media’s coverage of the stories, Lacy joined several activist groups, feminist community members, and the family of the victims “to offer an alternative interpretation of the case that included a feminist analysis of violence”. During the performance at City Hall in Los Angeles, 10 women, draped in black, gave speeches about violence against women and finished with a woman draped in red coming forward “to represent fighting back against all forms of violence”. This performance is a perfect example of women taking anger and turning it into activism. The black draping represents both grief and the erasure of the real lives of the women who were murdered and, instead of being respected, were turned into hot media items. However, the women raised their voices and spoke out, and came together in a vow to stand up for one another.
Staging the performance at City Hall adds the component of speaking truth to power. Although this performance was not explicitly about just rape, the performance spoke out against violence against women in all of its forms in a powerful and effective way. Furthermore, although Lacy and the other performers were petitioning City Hall for greater action to end violence against women, they modeled sisterhood as a way to combat such violence, illustrating that turning to the corrupt justice system isn’t the only option.
Three Weeks in May, performed in 1977, was developed as a reaction to the high rates of sexual violence in the Los Angeles area; the editor of Frontiers describes it as “a graphic statement of women’s victimization through rape”. Although the three-week long performance included many events of both more ‘traditional’ performance and also workshops and other programs sponsored by service organizations, the most well-known parts of the piece are a map and an event entitled “She Who Would Fly.” During the three weeks, Lacy set up a large map near City Hall and each day, using reports from the police department, stamped a red “rape” stamp over each location where rape had occurred. By the end of the three weeks, the map was entirely red. This piece brought greater attention to the sheer prevalence of sexual assault in Los Angeles, and the frequency and widespread nature of such violence. “She Who Would Fly” was created after Lacy spent time with survivors of sexual violence.
Lacy, along with four survivors, created a piece in which the survivors wrote descriptions of their experiences of rape and pinned them to gallery walls; Lacy also hung a lamb carcass in the middle of the gallery. The women then sat, nude and covered in red grease paint, above the door as people entered to read the stories; spectators eventually noticed that they were being watched, themselves, by the four women, like “Valkeries [sic], metaphors for a woman’s consciousness that often splits from her body as it is being raped…the bird-women reminded visitors they were voyeurs to the pain of very real experiences”. This piece accomplishes a complex web of subversion and reclamation.
Any line between spectator and performer is blurred and turned upside down; the people entering the gallery are at first an audience for the written stories of rape, but are unknowingly also the show themselves, as they are watched by four women, who in turn are part of the piece and therefore look at visitors with the returned gaze of the once-object. The four women were able to reclaim agency through this performance; they chose to share their experiences, and turn their pain into a moment of learning and growth for the community.
Overall, Three Weeks of May is a great model for using performance as activism, and combining performance with more hard-line advocacy and community outreach to effect social change. It helps to educate the public about rape culture and allows women who have experienced rape to reinterpret their experiences proclaim that what happened to them was not their fault.
Lacy’s work inspires me, as an antirape advocate, to find ways to creatively present the realities of rape to the public and to use performance to allow survivors to take back their voice and speak out against what happened to them. Performance, with its public nature and its embodiment of vocal resistance, can allow antirape activists and survivors to speak out about rape and challenge patriarchy in both form and content. Find out more about Suzanne Lacy’s work here.
Amy is a recent graduate from Hamilton College and an advocate of theatre and performance as methods of resistance to injustice and as means to social change.