The Stoop and the Street

Still from “Behind the Door and the Street” via CreativeTime

In trying to foster a sense of feminist community, Suzanne Lacy’s art performance “Between the Door and the Street”  revealed some of the blind spots that fracture it

On October 13, celebrated feminist artist Suzanne Lacy staged “Between the Door and the Street,” a performance-art piece on a tree-lined block of brownstones in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. It was a clear autumn day, and more than 400 women (and a small number of men) were seated on the stoops and courtyards in groups of four or five, engaged in semi-guided conversations about feminism and women’s oppression today. For an hour and a half, audience members wandered from stoop to stoop, eavesdropping on different discussions that ranged from New York City’s stop-and-frisk policing policy to body hair, from workplace discrimination to rape. “Listen, observe, and form your own opinions, perhaps gaining a new understanding of what feminism means to different individuals,” implored the program guide. By the close of the performance, the street was packed with human bodies, a sight rarely seen in the city’s public spaces, even in the wake of Occupy Wall Street.

The piece was intended as a tapestry of authentic female experiences “unmediated by television or radio or newspapers.” In the world of Spike Lee, the Brooklyn stoop is where neighbors while away entire summer days, shooting the shit and watching neighbors go about their lives. This nether-region between private and public space is where the secrets of the home might be revealed to utter strangers—the door is close enough for safety, and the street is far enough that we are not fully on display. “It is a civic encounter,” reads the program, “that can only come from art.”

I was one of the participant-performers, and in the nearby school where we had been instructed to meet, I unexpectedly ran into several friends who were also participating, much as I used to during OWS. We were all dressed in dark clothes with yellow scarves draped around our necks, but despite the uniform I could see we were a diverse bunch. This diversity was reflected by the list of participating organizations too: the Sex Workers Project alongside the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, Kingsborough Community College and Girls Against God. Though some of the groups involved, like the website Feministing, can command mainstream media coverage, the vast majority were brought into the project through nonprofit networks, giving center stage to many women who are normally relegated to the scenery.

In many ways, “Between the Door and the Street” was less a reflection of the stoop than the “street” — the public sphere where we work, engage in commerce, deal with strangers, and participate in politics each day. These are not the places where we show our intimate thoughts but where we represent our interests in the world. Therefore it’s where being eloquent or charming is a distinct advantage and dressing and behaving in a particular way is a condition of participation. But perhaps the most significant parallel was what could not be seen: the choices and arrangements that participants had made in order to create this harmonious display. Our uniforms hid the fact that some women had taken time off from work and were losing income by being there, while others had hired babysitters in order to participate.

I participated with the Regeneracion Childcare Collective (I am a former member), which provides childcare at events for low-income women- and families of color. On the street, we were situated between FIERCE (an LGBTQ youth of color organization) and Brownstone Brooklyn Men on a Stoop, which was not an organization but an assortment of middle-aged, white Brooklyn men. As spectators wandered by, our conversation meandered from whether this stoop constituted a safe space (definitely not) to anxieties about being respected in male-dominated environments, and whether offering our personal experiences to an anonymous public created any real potential for social change.

However, our group kept returning to one topic: how childcare has been devalued in contemporary society. This had been one of the guiding topics provided by the organizers—“why does care work command a lower wage?”—but we chose not to answer why but how. Someone in the group began by discussing the lack of public provision for childcare, like paid maternity leave or free public day care. When mothers ask for time off or help with childcare from employers, they are often considered a nuisance. “The burden should not be placed on mothers to request it!” I said. Another member chimed in that provision for childcare should be non-negotiable, since it is fundamental to society continuing. “I have a baby,” added another, “and find myself trying to get a deal from our childcare providers, even though I know that it is like haggling over my kid’s worth!” I added that this further shifts the burden of childcare onto women who are often working immigrants or women of color, who often must leave their own children to care for others.

Spectators leaned in, waiting intently on our words. It was at once thrilling and nerve-wracking. My voice might have quavered at times. Once I hit my groove, I was happy to have an audience interested in our perspectives, though occasionally, I would be hit by sudden moments of panic. While most of the performers were women of color, most of the audience was white, which made me wonder: Was this just a pity party in which a white audience descends briefly into the heart of darkness that is our trauma? Were we really owning our voices and opinions? Whenever the crowd began to dissipate, I wondered if I was being a rambling bore, who should maybe conjure up a wild story to bring them back—and fast! But the point was for the audience to move on.

Far from being a civic encounter, “Between the Door and the Street” was more a micro-media project in which audience members change the channel by walking away. Even then, however, the fact that our identities and affiliations were hidden under uniform meant that the event only really provided media for Lacy, even if these encounters ultimately add richness and nuance to the audience members’ ideas about feminism and women’s oppression. From an activist perspective, “From the Door to the Street” was a consciousness-raising art piece, not a movement-building project.

Throughout our group’s conversation, as each of us tried to maintain the illusion that an audience wasn’t three feet away, young children occasionally approached with their parents, oblivious that we were discussing their kind. They did not find us captivating. They were much more interested in climbing the short wall that separated sidewalk from stoop—our fourth wall.

As a performer in the piece, I was hyper-aware of how everything was staged: real-life passer-byers don’t stop to watch; they typically pretend they aren’t eavesdropping while continuing along their way. Instead, I was performing the act of being myself, on a stoop with friends, meaning that spectators were not glimpsing an unmediated snapshot of my inner life, but an image I was projecting of myself as a woman particularly concerned with how child care has been devalued in contemporary society. I probably spoke passionately at times. This was not a put-on—I believe that child care is of paramount importance to a feminist project—but at the same time, I am not a mother.

***

It is hardly a surprise that child care was the focus of our conversation; these issues are central to the vision and concerns of the Regeneracion collective. But we also focused on the issue because one particular incident was on all our minds. Three days before the event, artist Leina Bocar and two other performers in the event addressed an open letter to Suzanne Lacy and her institutional partners, Creative Time and the Brooklyn Museum, taking issue with the lack of payment for participants and lack of child-care options. “Most of the women participating are nonprofit professionals, or women attached to high-visibility nonprofits discussing the prompt questions of: ‘who will take care of the nannies’ children?’” the letter stated. “But can the ‘nanny’ bring her own children to this event and participate in an equitable manner, given that she will not be paid, and there will be no child care?”

When I asked Bocar about the letter, she explained that her group included two mothers with small children, but they did not know for certain that childcare would not be provided until one week before the event, which did not give mothers much time to make alternate arrangements. One of the other performers on Bocar’s stoop, April Reynosa, brought her six-month-old son to the event, bound in a wrap. “I was drawn to [the project] because I have a new baby and there aren’t many places I can go with him, but I felt like this would be a good opportunity to bring him and represent new mothers,” Reynosa said. “If you want to talk about feminist issues, we have to have our kids.” Reynosa, who practices attachment parenting, was discouraged from bringing her three-year-old, as there were liability issues with the homeowners. Also, Lacy’s experience with other similar projects had been that mothers found it distracting to participate while also looking after their kids.

A few days after the event, I asked Lacy about the child-care issue. She described an art and education project she had initiated in Oakland in 1997 called “Expectations,” a six-week summer school for pregnant and parenting teens. She and the other organizers had set up a child-care center for the project, as this was the only way the young mothers could participate. But navigating stringent state regulations around liability and insurance had been difficult, so for “Between the Door and the Stoop,” they decided instead to look for an existing child-care center, which would already be insured. But none were open on Saturdays. A week before the event, they found a nearby space they could use for child care but ran up against insurance problems. Finally, the day before the event, the organizers announced that they would provide a $25 child-care stipend to 50 mothers. But as Bocar points out, $25 was hardly enough for the five-hour event.

“We put in a lot of attention and time into the issue, but we didn’t find the perfect solution,” Lacy said. The real problem, she explained, is that in the political realm, a shift has occurred from child care being a right, as it was talked about by feminists in the 1970s, to it being something that women are expected to hire other women to do while they make a living—and these “other women” are usually migrants from other countries. “I totally support the issues in [Bocar’s] letter. I just don’t know that attacking Creative Time is the right way,” she said. “This conversation has got to go way beyond the Brooklyn Museum and Creative Time.”

Thinking about care work as a right, which movements like the Wages for Housework campaign popularized in the 70s, has been replaced by the sort of “Lean In” feminism that focuses on individual boot-strapping. The simple fact is that arranging child care should not be as difficult, complicated, or contested as it had been for Reynosa or the organizers. Yet this is the kind of difficulty that nearly all mothers, but especially working-class mothers, deal with on a daily basis.

“I don’t even know that the art world is the best place for this conversation,” Lacy said. She paused. “I think that’d be Washington.”

***

An hour and a half after we began talking on the stoop, the sound of music seeping into the street was our cue to wrap up, and it broke the spell of our “private” conversations. The homeowner of our stoop brought us a tray of pumpkin donut holes, of which I promptly ate 15, and overhead, a voice began to quiver through the speakers before thickening into a rich melody. “Is that Arooj?” asked my friend, confused. We stepped closer to the street to investigate, and she turned out to have been correct. It was Arooj. The singer Arooj Aftab is her friend.

The street had been empty when we started talking; now, it was densely packed with hipsters, children, mothers, professionals and men teetering on canes. It was an uplifting sight. I could not stop taking photos, and in every direction I turned, I spotted a friend. This did not wash away my skepticism about the political potential of the event, but it was assuring to be reminded that there was a radical political community before the event, and there would continue to be one afterward as well, regardless.