Alissa Walker Reports on Suzanne Lacy’s Three Weeks in January
In the last few years, unprecedented access to data has transformed the way we think about our safety. It is not difficult for us to look on the Los Angeles Times’ Crime L.A. app to see where the most recent violent crimes occurred in the city. I can see that a car was stolen a few blocks from my house last weekend. That an aggravated assault occurred near a spot on the L.A. River where I like to run. What we know about what happens our neighborhood can change our personal behavior—we might be more vigilant about locking our doors or walking alone at night. But when does having this data motivate us to take action?
On Sunday evening I met artist Suzanne Lacy outside LAPD headquarters as she waited for some very important data: the number of rapes reported in Los Angeles the previous day.
In 2011, 683 rapes were reported to the LAPD, Chief Charlie Beck said at a recent press conference. And that’s just the incidents they know about. It’s estimated that only one out of every three rapes are actually reported to police. That number is likely even lower when you consider the unreported rapes that occur on college campuses, or in jails, or—sadly—in marriages. It’s easily one of the city’s most underreported crimes, yet it is a crime that has likely touched the lives of almost everyone in the city.
That data—more specifically the data that is not reported—is what motivates Lacy’s Three Weeks in January: End Rape in Los Angeles, a re-staging of her famous public performance artwork. In 1977 Lacy created Three Weeks in May, where she installed a map of Los Angeles at a property across the street from City Hall. Each day, she received a report from LAPD with the number and location of reported rapes from the day before, and her students placed a red stencil of the word RAPE on the map. At the end of the three weeks, 90 rapes were marked on the map—including a rape that occurred on the same block.
“The act of marking personalizes it by locating it in a place and time, but it is also very political in that it doesn’t allow you to get wrapped up in the personal experience—those statistics are very dry,” she says. But what the map does do, that’s very important, is give the viewer a sense of scope and scale. “It’s about the fact that rape occurs everywhere, and it’s not geographically specific,” says Lacy. “There’s no place that’s safe.”
Of course, much has changed in the 34 years separating Lacy’s two projects. In the ’70s rape wasn’t spoken about publicly. Victims were afraid to go to the police, fearing retaliation from their attackers. Women who reported being sexually assaulted were subjected to character defamation. In fact, one of the biggest changes in rape awareness occurred a few weeks ago, when the FBI changed its definition of rape (the old one was from the 1920s!) to include a wider range of assaults and expand it beyond just women. A story in this week’s New York Times about involving men in the anti-rape movement echoes how Three Weeks in January was conscientious about including men’s voices as well.
In the same way rape has become a more visible issue, Lacy’s 2012 work is much more prominent. The map is installed across the front windows of LAPD’s headquarters, opposite City Hall and on a high-traffic street. A few yards away, speakers in a custom-designed bench plays a sound installation by Bruno Louchouarn featuring statements from victims. But the project is larger than just this physical space. Across the city, programming around the project is happening every day, with events ranging from a community dialogue hosted by Councilmember Jan Perry to performances like The Myths of Rape, a 1977 piece on feminist street demonstrations and activism which was re-staged at the LA Art Show last weekend. This Friday evening, the three weeks will culminate with a Candlelight Vigil at the map, where Lacy is planning a riveting multimedia performance to bring the project to a close.
Watching Lacy in action is like watching a combination between a theater director and community organizer. And she admits there’s that certain element of spectacle in her work—growing up in the 1960s, when Southern California artists started moving towards a more public practice, her education consisted of happenings and avant garde performance. So while the map itself is a visceral experience, Lacy’s piece also offers another very different level of engagement. For the dozens of people who have participated in the conversations or public performances, they get to experience firsthand the very real discomfort around rape awareness that’s still prevalent in our society. “You start to understand a tiny piece of the level of resistance that this topic has,” says Lacy. “Imagine what some woman in Pakistan is going through right now? You can get killed for that level of backlash.”
Detective Monica Quijano, a domestic violence coordinator and 23-year veteran of the LAPD, is responsible for passing the reports to Lacy and program coordinator, Geneva Skeen. Quijano says in her mind, the project is a success for creating this kind of unprecedented public forum. “I think the reason that rape still has such a stronghold on our city is that people are afraid to talk about it,” she says. “This is showing people that there’s nothing to be afraid of—they can come forward.”
As Detective Quijano, Lacy, and others are waiting at LAPD headquarters to mark the map, a woman in a puffy down coat pushes through the door. “Are one of you the artist?” When Lacy identifies herself, the woman’s eyes grow glossy with tears. “Oh my god, it’s so empowering, it’s so amazing,” she says, emotionally overwhelmed. “It’s just so incredible. Just to think that number—and there could be more.”
“There are more,” says Lacy. “It’s the most underreported crime. 63% unreported.”
Carol Stakenas, director of Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, which is exhibiting Three Weeks in January as part of the Pacific Standard Time Performance and Public Art Festival, wanted to work with Lacy due to her great legacy of feminist practice but also because it took the art into this very public place, outside of the gallery walls. “The one thing I feel Three Weeks in January does really well, and that Three Weeks in May also did to this extent, is it was conceived as people being involved in the work and the experience,” she says. “How, as an artist, Suzanne invites their participation, and in essence creates a certain type of a collaboration, is really distinct.”
As it grows dark, Lacy and Stakenas move inside to the auditorium to discuss Friday’s programming. And Detective Quijano receives the report from the previous day: No rapes reported.
At the moment, that zero felt like a triumph, a figure representing 30 years of hard work by advocates and law enforcement officials to help bring change to Los Angeles. But when I got home and began researching this piece, I was confronted with different, staggering statistics that changed the way I felt about that zero. One out of five American women is raped at some time in her life. And if you look outside of the U.S., it’s even more frightening. The UN Secretary General says one in three women are victims of rape globally. One billion women are estimated to have been raped worldwide.
And that’s the number that I walked away from Lacy’s piece with: one billion. It’s a number so staggering, so vast, so frustrating, so enraging. Three Weeks in January will end its tally this weekend, but in my mind the number of reported rapes—forever stamped in my memory in that bright red paint—will keep accumulating around the globe. And that’s where the piece excels. It presents these horrific statistics in a public way that’s visually and emotionally provocative, but it’s not just about numbers. It’s also using that data as a way to bring together people in real life, every day, all over the city, to work together to do something about it.
Friday’s Candlelight Vigil is from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at LAPD Headquarters, 100 W. 1st Street. The map from Lacy’s 1977 project, Three Weeks in May, is on view at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary as part of the Under the Big Black Sun show, which closes February 13. It’s only a few blocks from the Three Weeks in January map.
Three Weeks in May, Suzanne Lacy, 1977; photo: Suzanne Lacy