As the anniversary of 9/11 approaches I’ve been pondering why we feel the need to participate in public acts of remembrance. I thought I didn’t want to remember. Having just spent the morning reading the NYT articles on the subject obviously I was wrong.
The impulse to history is about putting our lives into a larger context. Sometimes certain events allow us all, no matter how seemingly insignificant our lives are, to share in the bigger picture. When people recall how they heard about the planes hitting the World Trade Center, or recount connections, no matter how tenuous to someone more directly impacted by the events, or contemplate the what ifs that make up our own life histories, they are stretching for that historical context as a way of understanding the imponderable. Although I was living in Northern New Jersey at the time and could see the smoke rising from NYC from atop the building in which I worked, I always felt distant from the events that occurred in NYC. I’ve never participated in a commemoration, put off by the jingoistic patriotism, I suppose, and uncomfortable with the ensuing foreign policy decisions.
As interventions into public history and memory are a major part of The Politics of Women’s Culture, I’ve also been thinking a lot about how activists I write about viewed public acts in relationship to women’s culture. At first glance it might seem as though the relationship is only oppositional, as the historians’ understanding of women’s culture rests largely on the idea of the divide between the public and the private. However that is not at all how activists viewed women’s culture, which they believed had the power to change history by engaging the public, by exposing them to feminism, and by educating them about women’s issues. In order for that to occur, women’s culture had to occur in public, as the descriptor of one organization, a public center for women’s culture proclaimed.
Almost thirty-five years ago, these activists created a public memorial of their own to commemorate victims of violence against women.
Photo credit, Susan Mogul
For a period of four months in late 1977 to 1978, the women of Los Angeles lived in a state of heightened awareness and fear as a modern day Jack the Ripper, the epithet the Hillside Strangler bestowed by a frenzied media, kidnapped, tortured, assaulted and killed ten girls and women.
As if the horror of these crimes wasn’t enough, the press coverage of the events sensationalized the sexual nature of the crimes. For feminist activists in Los Angeles involved in the movement to end violence against women, this analysis was unacceptable. Artists Suzanee Lacy and Leslie Labowitz (article I wrote about them here) decided that they needed to “offer an alternative interpretation of the case that included a feminist analysis of violence.” They worked with various activist groups to create In Mourning and In Rage on December 13, 1977 in front of Los Angeles City Hall. (Video of the event is available via the Getty).
Labowitz and Lacy turned the figure of the woman mourner, a traditionally passive, female stereotype of the woman in black, into an angry crusader for women’s empowerment. The women mourners wore headdresses to make them appear seven feet tall. The exaggerated height of the women served to enhance their visual impact and made them appear more menacing. During discussions with various participating groups, Labowitz and Lacy discovered that some women still objected to the idea of woman as mourner, , so they created a tenth figure, dressed completely in red, to symbolize women’s rage.
Standing on the steps of City Hall, the women read statements about various aspects of violence against women, ranging from critiques of the media to indictments of the connections they saw between violence in the media and acts of violence against women. After each statement a large chorus of women chanted “In Memory of Our Sisters, We Fight Back.
The memorial used the feminist media strategy developed by Labowitz and Lacy in their prior work, creating a message that the media could not distort. The banner had to be included in all images of the protest so that “in memory of our sisters, women fight back” proclaimed women’s solidarity as it refused female victimhood.
In Mourning and In Rage, the coverage allotted to the piece grew phenomenally. A wire service picked up am image of the protest, which was reprinted all over the world. The positive publicity generated by the piece lent credence to the political credentials of feminist artists. Lacy recalled that the radical feminist community, that often viewed feminist artist with skepticism, became more positive.
The enthusiasm generated by In Mourning and In Rage carried over into the creation of Ariadne a social art network which Labowitz and Lacy founded following In Mourning and In Rage to help other artists create public activist art. The idea that public space could be transformed, albeit temporarily, into a stage for feminist activism became well established in Los Angeles. Feminist artists throughout the 1980s mounted work in spaces ranging from the Federal Building to college campuses around issues as varied as nuclear art, homelessness and immigration.
In the period following World War II, the media became the invisible town square of America. The bronze statue in the park was replaced by an angry feminist on the front page, leading off the news, or fielding calls on a talk show. The use of the media to amplify the impact of actual art events that occurred in public spaces created a truly new form of political art, the new genre public art of Lacy and Labowitz. While others in the art world, notable the collective Ant Farm, and artists Chris Burden and Lowell Darling, used the media for their art work, they usually created ironic or humorous pieces that caricatured the power of the media. Labowitz and Lacy offered a feminist model for using the media as tool for provoking actual change. Their emphasis on the creation of a network of political activists designed to last beyond the period of the media event transformed their use of the media from clever and witty gesture into a political act with lasting impact. Their legacy can be seen in everything from Act Up! activism of the late 1980s to more recent anti-globalization protests.
However, in terms of altering remembrances of the Hillside Strangler, I’m not so sure they were successful. There have been three films about the case, at least six books, and countless websites devoted to the killers. I can’t bring myself to read them all, but quick searches reveal that none seem to include In Mourning and In Rage. The video of the event has only recently been digitized and I’m sure academics will make extensive use of it, and works on feminist art and art and social activism often discuss Labowitz and Lacy. Still in comparison to permanent installations of public history, the limited temporal span of commemorative events, unless repeated annually, means that ultimately more permanent forms have longer lasting impact.
As this 10th anniversary of 9/11passes, the idea of ceasing the commemorations is circulating. It seems unlikely that 9/11 will disappear from history, and yet, analyses of textbooks reveal that the space devoted to the event is already shrinking.
The question then for those of us who study public memory is to understand how such events, be they one offs or annual, become incorporated into people’s sense of the past.