Diverse Publics and their (Un)Necessary Safe Spaces

May 16, 2011

On Friday I was honored to participate in a day long symposium at the Getty, Questioning the Standard, an event anticipating Pacific Standard Time, their impending year-long, city-wide opus on art in LA from 1945-1980. Proudly a member of the “diversity panel”—the feminist and assorted people of color curating some of the feminist and ethnic shows from sixty-plus participating venues—our placement at the day’s end (speaking to half the full house who had attended the earlier sessions, perhaps fleeing in fear of our anticipated politicized feelings) was a prime example of the hows and whys, ups and downs, of “safe spaces” in public (dominant) settings, the very subject of my talk!

For this session, I attempted to allow my current work about feminist spaces online and my earlier body of research on the LA Woman’s Building to triangulate our vision about what might be some current standards for showing and viewing the past and present work of politicized voices for whom public display might be otherwise endangering. I considered how the theories and practices of “safe spaces,” developed and refined in the seventies by women like those at the Building, and continuing to this day, might be relevant for establishment art shows in dominant (rather than alternative) spaces. In the seventies,  a huge body of art was produced in the safe space of the Woman’s Building about these very issues of women’s safety, danger and freedom. And then, so empowered, and by making art about experiences that other women shared, but had never expressed publicly, new spaces were opened for women outside the safety zone. Rape or sexual harassment, as two examples, eventually would become acceptable for discussing outside safe spaces and in the larger public because of the initial freedom allowed by the safe space. Another prime example is Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz’s 1977 public art event Three Weeks in May: Speaking Out On Rape, a Political Art Piece. This piece exemplifies the logical and ideal endpoint to a safe space–that it becomes no longer needed, that it moves into public, that it produces the conditions of its own dismantling: women find voices without the support of other women, women form coalitions with other folks, that which was once dangerous becomes defanged, that which was private becomes public, and the personal becomes the political.

So, given that safe spaces may sometimes create their own obsolescence, I then listed several other retorts expressed over the long and complex history of feminist debate about safe spaces, noting that:

  • safe spaces, by definition, are never safe for all.
  • safety is not the only powerful or empowering place from which to speak or be heard.
  • making safety the feminist priority also demands making danger, vulnerability, or disempowerment the a priori feminist stance as opposed to women’s anger, power, or pleasure.

Here’s Berenice Johnson Reagon from 1981 at the West Coast Women’s Music Festival:

“Sometimes you get comfortable in your little barred room, and you decide you in fact are going to live there and carry out all of your stuff in there. And you gonna take care of everything that needs to be taken care of in the barred room. If you’re white and in the barred room and if everybody’s white, one of the first things you try to take care of is making sure that people don’t think that the barred room is a racist barred room … Coalition work is not work done in your home. Coalition work has to be done in the streets. And it is some of the most dangerous work you can do. And you shouldn’t look for comfort. Some people will come to a coalition and they rate the success of the coalition on whether or not they feel good when they get there. They’re not looking for a coalition; they’re looking for a home!”

Given that a significant amount of the LA art work we had seen presented earlier in the day had been about representing (and selling) a sunny, light-filled, modern, private, middle-class all-white home to both Los Angelenos and the world, Reagon’s old words took on a prescience for the present public curating of past artifacts of home and street, pleasure and danger, anger and safety, and allowed all of us still (safely) in the room to think about how curating is framing and space itself serves as a primary form of protection, contextualization, and mobilization for both safe and dangerous works of public expression.

And with these thoughts on why safe spaces are not the only kinds of spaces that feminist artists and their communities might need, then and now, and about why we always still seem to need them sometimes, I concluded with two more angles from which to consider what might be the necessary spaces for contemporary interactions with earlier feminist art:

1) Is it fair, decent, or even useful to show work that was made from and for a feminist safe space in other contexts and places? Another way to say this is: should some work stay within the safe spaces, the small and specific “diverse” communities and locales for which it was made, and for whom it will always have the biggest impact?

2) Are the Getty and its Pacific Standard Time different sorts of safe spaces, and necessary ones? A wealthy, air-conditioned, honored, well-staffed institutions that can keep the Women’s Building’s tapes from disintegrating, as they actually were until they were recently moved here? These tapes, no longer a part of anyone’s active process, and no longer as dangerous or perhaps even as empowering as they once were, are safe here: safe to become and reframe history.


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