Three Weeks in May

Radio as a Part of Artistic-Activist Practice of Suzanne Lacy1

by Franziska Rauh

This presentation focuses on the 1977 radio piece Three Weeks in May by Suzanne Lacy, an American artist who is known as one of the representatives of the so-called feminist art movement that arose mainly during the 1970s.2 Her performance Three Weeks in May, a collaboration with artist Leslie Labowitz, was a three-week, multilayered event that aimed to raise awareness for sexual violence against women. It is considered to be a canonical work in feminist art history. Still, reviews and analyses to date have never mentioned one part of this work that seems critical for Lacy’s activist approach as a whole: a ten-minute radio piece, performed live for the artist-run radio program Close Radio at KPFK in Los Angeles on May 16, 1977. In the piece, Lacy reads out police blotter entries on sexual violence against women in Los Angeles that had happened in the week leading up to her reading.3

My presentation will examine the aesthetic strategies employed by Lacy in the radio piece Three Weeks in May, (re-)producing narratives of gender and (public) space. Furthermore, I will emphasize how radio sound is embedded in Lacy’s artistic practice and what the use of this specific medium offers to her activist approach. Therefore, a precise look at Close Radio (organized by Paul McCarthy, John Duncan, Nancy Buchanan, and Linda Frye Burnham) as the production context is necessary. I will assert that Lacy’s radio piece is a form of (counter-)public in terms of staging an act of dissent, presenting counter-images of space and gender, and engaging women in alternative media practice. The outcome of this historical analysis functions as a basis for negotiating correlations with feminist radio art practice and its activist potential today.

My research is embedded in a three-year project involving the Centre for Artists’ Publications in Bremen, the University of Bremen, and the University of Cologne on the origins and development of radio art.4 My special interest concerns radio pieces situated between artistic production and (media) activism. Suzanne Lacy’s radio piece corresponds to such a form of media-oriented (counter-)public, which I take as an example in my PhD project. I comprehend (counter-)public as a production of alternative spaces of thought and agency. The previous analysis of the radio piece Three Weeks in May, along with its production and distribution contexts, has shown that the categories of space and gender play a relevant role on various levels and are to be placed in relationship to each other.

Categories of Gender and (Public) Space in Three Weeks in May

Accordingly, I will first show the where and how of space and gender in the radio piece Three Weeks in May.5 With a single exception, the piece consists of thirty-two uniformly structured sequences. Employing the same pattern each time, a female voice recites the following pieces of information: date, time, location defined by the mention of two street names, one to three sentences in which the course of the crime’s events are described, and age of the woman who is being assaulted. This information varies in terms of content from sequence to sequence. The sequence is interrupted after fourteen such repetitions. The female voice calls on the listeners to turn to a hotline to report their own experiences of sexualized violence. The further eighteen sequences follow according to the same pattern as the first fourteen.

In so doing, the narrator stretches an imaginary network of road by naming the crime scenes. By citing two streets, she lays the coordinates as if with the assistance of crosshairs onto which she zooms in even closer.

One should take into consideration that because of the radio frequency, the piece could only be heard in the Los Angeles area at the time of its broadcast. The cited streets are for the most part largely major ones in LA, which surely every listener was familiar with. By doing so, Lacy provided an opportunity for self-referencing and personal concern.

The listeners are taken to the crime scenes in their imagination, which take shape there depending on their own experiences. The artwork space becomes a 'real' space.

But the locations also undergo further particularization as a result of the brief descriptions of the respective crimes. As a listener, I experience whether it concerns interior or exterior, private or a public spaces and what intermediate spaces exist. The accumulation of mobile spaces, the “vehicles,” is conspicuous. Unless buses are specifically mentioned, it can be assumed that private automobiles are meant. The particular spatial form along with its special characteristics, which are largely neglected in spatio-theoretical approaches, is a relevant reference point both for the city of Los Angeles itself, whose inhabitants spend a great deal of time in their cars, and for radio (art) insofar as radio is mostly listened to while driving in automotive vehicles.6

A gender-related attribution within the sequences is only consequently undertaken in the case of the so-called victims. At the end of each sequence it is stated that “she is,” and then the respective age is given. In the case of the so-called suspects—the blotters talk about victims but not perpetrators—an implicit gender-related attribution is only made on occasion in the description of the events, and it always concerns a male.

So much for a brief overview of the most obvious space-gender constellations that come about on the narrative level of the radio piece. A further spatial structure whose existence the listener is less aware of is the radio space—beginning with the concrete studio situation with the narrator and the other attendant persons, as well as the existing technical equipment and furnishings, the building from which KPFK broadcast, and even the radio space that is spanned to and between the listeners. This particularly suggests questions about the role played by women in radio, female voices over the airwaves, reports on feminist issues, and the gender ration of the listening audience.

Dissent, Counter-Images of Space and Gender

Based on these initial observations, let us now consider which narrations and images of sexualized violence are produced and reproduced within and by these space-gender constellations? How effective is Lacy’s strategy if she is concerned with breaking with public silence and the stigmatization of women as victims?

The piece’s existence alone, the recitation of confidential police reports on the radio, and consequently the commonplaceness of sexualized violence demonstrated in this way represent a break with the usual coverage thus a strong instance of (counter-)public. Information that is otherwise inaccessible is made audible for everyone here. Lacy’s work, however, does not intervene solely on the level of a lack of media attention. The overall project Three Weeks in May that she realized in collaboration with Leslie Labowitz also deals with socially established “knowledge” about sexualized violence. Particularly Labowitz’s performance Myths of Rape (1977) occupies itself with which myths exist about rape and must be questioned. This allusion to 'everyday knowledge' is likewise an important reference point for the radio piece. What knowledge does it question? Or not?

The break as regards the role of victimhood is especially evident. In nine of the thirty-two cases, the women were able to prevent the rape, sometimes against armed perpetrators. The term 'victim' is nevertheless continuously used. This can be read as an implicit criticism of the bureaucratic language, which likewise exercises a form of violence and partakes in the stigmatization of victims. The victims continue to remain anonymous. In the sense of the loss of an individual personality—the victim is given the status of an object and becomes a statistic—this can be read as denigrating. On the other hand, however, anonymization also contains the aspect of universal validity, the truthful impression of which is confirmed by the serious official character of such accounts.

The question is whether the critique of the language of the accounts and the system for which they stand only becomes as clear through the translation of the accounts into another context—here into the art context.

The Radio Piece in the Context of the Overall Project: Media Intervention

But the radio piece Three Weeks in May is only one part of the three-week project Three Weeks in May. Over thirty art and non-art events (performances and installations, readings, round-table discussions, etc.) took place in collaboration with other women artists, activists, and governmental authorities.7 In the process, Lacy and Labowitz focused in particular on dealings with the mass media. Based on an exacting analysis, they developed a comprehensive program for a successful “media action” in which they likewise explained diverse approaches to media interventions that they would realize in future projects. They furthermore called on others to make use of these concrete instructions for their own projects. Like other contemporary feminist artists and activists, Lacy and Labowitz were not only concerned with attracting media attention, but also with having an influence on the coverage itself. The artistic works were in part explicitly geared to media-friendly formats. A press kit with already prepared material was provided to media representatives in order to increase the chance that the information and images they wanted would be used.8 Three Weeks in May attracted much attention in the public at large, and although the artists considered their effort with the media as a part of the piece, I am unaware of any extensive study that was made of it or of the actual media coverage, which indeed would provide information about the success of Lacy’s and Labowitz’s media strategies. In order to be able to evaluate the relevance of the radio piece within the project as a whole, it is important to place this in relation to Lacy’s understanding of the media.

Role of Close Radio as Context

In order to evaluate the activist potential of the radio piece Three Weeks in May, it is also necessary to consider its production and distribution context, the Close Radio broadcast. Concepts of (counter-)public do not only reference the dissemination of alternative information, but also the construction of other structure and practices.

KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles, which broadcast Close Radio, is a part of the so-called Pacifica Network. It was founded after World War II as an alternative to American mainstream radio, and its stations are still regarded as among the most progressive in the radio landscape of the United States. Especially in the 1970s, the station’s political interests were linked to a willingness to include art and culture in the radio space.9 Close Radio, a weekly program organized by artists for artists, is an example of this. The artistic contributions, however, frequently pushed this openness to its limits, leading to conflicts within the station and ultimately to the discontinuation of Close Radio. Based on the history of Close Radio, it is possible to read what radio could be at that time and what it could not be.

In terms of content, Close Radio represents a cross-section of the Los Angeles performance art and experimental music scenes. Exponents of feminist art likewise contributed broadcasts and were active as co-organizers (Nancy Buchanan, Cheri Gaulke, Laurel Klick, Carolee Schneemann, Barbara T. Smith, among others). As such, this context also offers approaches to questions concerning radio space and gender. What roles did women play at Close Radio, and which didn’t they play? How did feminist artists deal with the medium of radio? What did their content and artistic practice in this media look like?

Present-Day Relevance: Feminist Radio Art Practice / Activist Potential Today

In conclusion, I would like to discuss the question concerning the potential of such a historical work for present-day feminist-activist endeavors, for which the radio piece Three Weeks in May is virtually predetermined to serve as an example.

In conjunction with the extensive initiative Pacific Standard Time by the Getty Foundation and the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles dealing with the history of postwar art production in California, a re-staging of Three Weeks in May was undertaken. Suzanne Lacy modified parts of the original overall project, presenting it under the title Three Weeks in January for a public anno 2012. Numerous artistic and activist performances and non-art events again took place.10

I would like to argue that the relevancy of such a project—to raise awareness and to end rape—remains unbroken. As such, the feminist demands made in 1977 in the context of Three Weeks in May are not outdated per se, but they do require reflection and reformulation in some respects—as does its artistic realization as well.

For example, the gender-related victim-perpetrator dichotomy is subject to negotiation, and not only within police reports. How does one deal with the fact that women also commit violent acts? How generally should one deal with the categories of “woman” and “man” and the associated notions of a homogeneous group in the framework of such a work? What about gender concepts beyond female and male? It would also be informative to analyze the relationship of the re-staging of the piece in view of today’s myths on sexualized violence. In order to do so, one must first ascertain if and how this has changed since the 1970s. Lacy has in any case taken the altered media landscape into account. For the 2012 project, she took advantage of the organizational potential of social media such as Twitter and Facebook. How has she adjusted the media strategies developed in the 1970s? The media have also altered the perception of the public. What consequences do reality police/crime series have for the reception of an artwork that continues to be based on police reports? And what is the impact of spatial localization against the backdrop of electronic maps and navigation systems?

Indeed, we can only speculate about how a current reworking of the 1977 radio piece would “look” in the face of such changes and considerations. As opposed to the cooperation partners from the spheres of art and activism, as well as the Los Angeles Police Department, there was no radio piece realized within Three Weeks in January. This poses the question of the character of the present-day radio landscape and what possibilities it does in fact offer for feminist media practice and artistic-activist approaches.

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Notes

1 This slightly revised presentation was held at the conference Sound::Gender::Feminism::Activism at the London College of Communication, University of Arts London, October 16–17, 2014.

2 The feminist art movement is a international phenomenon that built up by the end of 1960s and flourished throughout the 1970s. Suzanne Lacy is one of the exponents of the Californian feminist artists in this context. Judy Chicago’s Feminist Art Program (founded in Fresno in 1970) significantly influenced this development in California, as did the activities related to the Woman’s Building (founded in 1972 in Los Angeles). See Helena Reckitt, ed., Kunst und Feminismus (Berlin: Phaidon, 2005), especially the overview by Peggy Phelan, pp. 20ff.

3 To listen to this radio piece and other shows from Close Radio, visit the following website: http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/evidence_movement/close_radio.html (this link and all others cited here were accessed in February 2015).

4 See “Radiokunst: Zur Entwicklung eines Mediums zwischen Ästhetik und sozio-kultureller Wirkungsgeschichte”, Centre for Artists’ Publications, Weserburg, http://www.weserburg.de/index.php?id=508.

5 The following thoughts regard only the original distribution and reception setting in 1977. The extended analysis in my PhD will also take into consideration new settings, such as the the Getty website or exhibition spaces where you can listen to the radio piece Three Weeks in May today.

6 Examples of radio art projects addressing the relations between cars, radio, and (urban) space: Das große Autoderby (n.d.) by Willem de Ridder, http://kunstradio.at/1989B/3_8_89.html; AUDIOMOBILE (2005) by Matt Smith and Sarah Winter, http://www.kunstradio.at/SPECIAL/audiomobile/; and Saout Radio by Younes Baba-Ali and Anna Raimondo at the 5th Marrakech Biennale in 2014.

7 For detailed information about activities and cooperative projects, see Suzanne Lacy, “‘Three Weeks in May’: Speaking Out on Rape, a Political Piece,” A Journal of Women Studies 2, no. 1 (1977), pp. 64–70. See also Vivien Green Fryd, “Suzanne Lacy’s Three Weeks in May: Feminist Activist Performance Art as ‘Expanded Public Pedagogy,’” NWSA Journal 19, no. 1 (2007), pp. 23–38.

8 See Suzanne Lacy with Leslie Labowitz, “Feminist Artists: Developing a Media Strategy for the Movement,” in Suzanne Lacy, Leaving Art: Writings on Performance, Politics, and Publics, 1974–2007 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), pp. 83–91.

9 For more information about the Pacifica Network, see Matthew Lasar, Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000).

10 For more information about Three Weeks in January, visit the websites: http://www.threeweeksinjanuary.org and http://www.facebook.com/ThreeWeeksInJanuary. Also see Harriet Curtis, “Restaging Feminism in Los Angeles: ‘Three Weeks in January’ (2012): ‘Three Weeks in May’ (1977),” n.paradoxa, international feminist art journal 34, Lessons from History (2014), pp. 77–85.