Megan Hoetger Responds to Suzanne Lacy’s Storying Violence: A Cross-Disciplinary Conversation at the Top of City Hall
A little over a week ago I was invited to participate in Storying Violence: A Cross-Disciplinary Conversation at the Top of City Hall as a member of the social media (I live-tweeted the event and I am blogging about it now). Always pushing myself to confront uncomfortable personal and social issues, I accepted.
One of the closing events in Suzanne Lacy’s Three Weeks in January project, Storying Violence brought together nine prominent civic and community leaders, including Gail Aberbanel (Director of the Rape Treatment Center), Aileen Adams (Los Angeles Deputy Mayor), Chief Charles Beck (Chief of the LAPD), Jodie Evans (co-founder of CODEPINK), Julie Hébert (writer and director), Dr. Jackson Katz, Professor Rose Monteiro, and Dr. Francesca Poletta. The event took place on the 27th floor of City Hall—the top floor of a building which only a short time ago was the site of Occupy LA.
Moving from the ground floor outside to the top floor inside was a shift I never imagined would be possible for me to make. The Tom Bradley Room, as the 27th floor is referred to, was ornate with all the pomp and circumstance one would imagine of such a central civic building—gold molding everywhere, a large domed ceiling, marble tiled floors, and velvet covered windows. At the center of this massive space was a low stage where the nine guest speakers were seated. Surrounding them were four massive stage lights, which not only physically but perceptually put them in a space separate from the rest of us.
I was struck by how similar the setting felt to that of the spectacular The Artist is Present performance by Marina Abramović in 2010 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. There the artist had invited museum visitors to sit across from her in silence and exchange gazes. Offering sitters (and even those standing on the sidelines) the transformative effects of being in the artist’s quite literal “presence,” Abramović’s performance placed the emotional impact of the piece in the body of the artist—although, as Amelia Jones observed in her review of the exhibition for TDR, the reliance on social media to spread word of her presence pointed to the many contradictions in the current frenzy for live art.
Here in Los Angeles in 2012, the space of the lit stage could not have functioned more differently. Taking it out of the institutional space of the art museum and putting it into another kind of institutional space, City Hall, changed the discussion to be had in significant ways. It put issues around the relation between art and politics center stage along with nine individuals whose work enacts various forms of civic and community activism. At City Hall the space of the stage was for anything but silence and, in fact, it was a space specifically organized to facilitate the breaking of a silence.
The event was also organized with the social media in mind, placing members of the blogging and tweeting communities in the room in order to, as Lacy described it in her introductory remarks, transmit knowledge from one generation’s form of communication to another’s. In the process, information is/will be interpreted, arranged, distilled, and possibly distorted. Moreover, Lacy (the artist) stood at the sidelines, and the emotional impact of the piece came from the gravity of the topic and the passion of the invited speakers, their experience and their thoughts.
There is a strong sense of relationality embedded in this project, with Lacy organizing/facilitating a space for interaction and exchange. As Isabelle Graw has persuasively argued, however, “this kind of relationality…has nothing in common with Nicolas Bourriaud’s much-discussed concept of ‘relational aesthetics.’ Instead of idealistically imagining art as a ‘state of encounter’ that facilitates interaction and generates collectivity, it is a matter of abandoning the idea of art as a fixed variable” (Graw, High Price, 90). Relationality, she continues, re-conceives of artistic practice as a system of social, political and economic relations that the artist negotiates within, rather than imagining them as separate from the practice.
This is the way I tend to think of practices such as Lacy’s, but even this notion of relationality seems not to suffice in developing a vocabulary to talk about her projects. They are indeed relational, but in Storying Violence and other projects there is very specific social and public address. This is not simply exchange for the sake of exchange, but exchange with an eye to a specific public issue. It is community-oriented and yet not “community art”; at the same time that it is about personal experiences, it is also about the political and ideological structures that shape the world we live in and the ways in which we come to understand our experiences. The privileged space of the artistic gesture is given over to a specific and focused dialogue around a real social pandemic with very real stakes.
While such practices have existed in art for quite some time, it typically takes a spectacular staging, such as Abramović’s, within the validated space of the museum (or art institution) for a larger public to accept such a format as Art. As moderator journalist Ana Garcia expressed when opening up the conversation last Friday afternoon, she was confused as to how this cross-disciplinary conversation was part of an art project. What she enacted in her statement was a widespread inability to see how the metaphorical dots in the large picture may connect, overlooking the reality that when we are talking about how rape circulates in social discourse we are at the same time posing questions around politics of representation. The politics of how sexual violence is represented necessarily carries aesthetic dimensions—consider the stage, the roundtable format of the discussion, or, to extend this beyond Storying Violence and into the larger Three Weeks in January project, how statistics are visualized (the rape map outside the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters) and how narratives are performed (the Facebook and Twitter campaigns that have accompanied the project).
That being said, the implications of these aesthetic dimensions extend far beyond just a conversation in art discourse. The social dimensions of art production operate on highly contested ground, and heated dialogues rage around the role of art in the realm of the political. Suzanne Lacy’s expansive project reminds us that these debates are not simply about abstract ideas. So often we talk in the academic world about asserting, or at the very least acknowledging, our own subjective positions and our ultimate inability to be distant from that which we analyze, examine, and critique. During the conversation, Hébert said that there is a cultural cost to publicly standing up and sharing one’s story. Prof. Monteiro responded that wrapped up in Hébert’s comment is a lingering sense of self-blame and internalization of responsibility. Drifting in and out of critical listening by this point, I found my thoughts wandering to my own situation, my own story of violence, which I have only ever shared with two people.
As a woman, a survivor, and a human being I am very much NOT distant. When I was 14 years old I was raped. I was at a house party. I was drunk. I was invited into a bedroom to get high with someone I thought was my friend. He pushed me down on the bed and forced himself inside of me. It took me eight years to even say this aloud. In one of the many long conversations I had with my mom before her passing she asked me if something “like that” had happened as she remembered a definite shift in my behavior shortly after I started high school, and there was. I was pissed off at men specifically and what I saw as (although I would not have articulated it like this then) racism, sexism, and a mistaken sense of superiority masked by the rebellious rhetoric of various punk, hardcore, and metal ideologies. I started getting into fights with these guys, refusing to back down just because they were bigger. I realized in this conversation with my mom that I had made it a point since that night to speak out, often to my own physical and/or social detriment, against misogynist and racist narratives as they have circulated in various forms around me. I didn’t choose to walk away from that scene, but, instead to dig my heels in and stand up for myself in a way I could not that night.
More plainly, I made a decision that I was going to be stronger (intellectually anyway) and expose them for the idiots they were/are. I can’t articulate why I made this decision; I can’t even remember if it was a conscious one. What I can say with certainty is that I am still driven by my own personal desire to surface injustice and confront it as a reality within which we must all negotiate our identities. That being said, this sense of strength has also been a means for me to cover over the sense of shame and embarrassment that I still feel when I talk about it.
The line between vulnerability and powerlessness is a murky one that I continue to negotiate. I realize now, nearly 14 years later, that perhaps to be stronger I need to also allow myself to be vulnerable and let the personal emotions that surround this topic to surface in my critical discussion, or, rather, reveal themselves as always already there. This integration of emotional vulnerability with intellectual conversation is something for which the Three Weeks in January project stands as a model. Storying Violence in particular reminded me that my personal trauma, while forever separated from others as an embodied experience, is part of a collective trauma, and the more voices that speak up the more we can all understand the magnitude of the situation at hand.
Dr. Katz, perhaps one of the most radical voices in the City Hall rooftop conversation, passionately argued that in order to end the cycle of violence, a paradigm shift is needed in order to replace cultural norms around sexuality, gender identity, and (I would add) the prevalence of the traditional familial unit. His sweeping statement was echoed by many other voices in the room, such as Dr. Polletta who re-asserted throughout the conversation the need to replace familiar narratives of rape in order to show the wider spectrum of circumstances under which such violence occurs.
While I agree with Dr. Polletta, I would take this one step further, as Dr. Katz did, to suggest that what is needed is a shift in the language with which these stories are told. Sitting in on a workshop on teen violence co-organized by Lacy and Peace Over Violence a few days before the City Hall meeting, what I immediately noticed was the ways the kids had internalized a hetero-normative ideology wherein deeply hierarchical thinking persisted. Deeply moved by the courage of these young people to share their stories, I was also deeply troubled by the reliance on problematic narratives to give their stories form.
This is precisely where the aesthetic dimensions of representation, and art specifically, have the potential to effect change. In the case of Storying Violence, what Lacy did was to facilitate a space in which dialogue can occur, more nuanced narratives can be created, and new terms for our language around sexual violence and its foundations can be established. In other words, if what is needed is a massive overhaul of how we conceive of our own identities and the ways in which we internally make sense of the world around us, as Dr. Katz suggested, this is certainly a place to start.
What I question, though, is the gap between the rooftop conversation and the one had in the workshop with teens. I wonder when the kinds of complex conversations like that had at the Storying Violence event will be allowed to happen with the younger generation where, I would argue, it counts the most. The more this gap can be closed, the closer it seems we can get to the paradigm shift that Dr. Katz proposed. While I am not sure that I will see this change happen in my lifetime, I cannot imagine devoting myself to anything else.
I want to end by expressing my profound gratitude for the work that each of the individuals present at Storying Violence (and the many others around the world who go unnamed here) have done and continue to do to fight social injustice and sexual violence in our communities. Words cannot truly articulate the deep respect I have for their strength in continuing to battle seemingly insurmountable barriers. Their work is a source of inspiration for us all.