Carolyn Lazard: Support System

Carolyn Lazard, a multimedia artist and writer, was resident at Room & Board in October, 2016. Carolyn’s work centers on care and community, and uses the frame of art to make these things happen in moments and places where they would otherwise be absent. In a culture that values only profitability, their work shows that taking care of oneself and others is not only actively discouraged, it is an act of resistance. Carolyn’s perspective on this has been sharpened by their own experiences living with chronic illness and multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS), but their work implicates all of us, whether we see ourselves as sick or not.

For their residency here, which paralleled another by Canaries, a collective of which they are part, at Recess, an art space in a storefront in Soho, Carolyn wanted to highlight the specifically domestic and inevitably intimate nature of Room & Board. They also wanted to put together a work that would not only serve as a conduit for heir ideas about illness and wellness, but that might actually serve as a structure for fulfilling their physical and emotional needs. Over their residency, we developed Support System: for Tina, Park, and Bob, a durational performance for one viewer at a time. The work would have 24 viewers, each of whom would sign up in advance for a 30-minute performance time. On Sunday, October 30, Carolyn would stay in bed all day, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., receiving these visitors in succession. Part of the idea was to create a performance work that would allow Carolyn to rest: a marathon of comfort instead of the extreme asceticism fetishized by the art world (think of Marina Abramović’s 2010 The Artist is Present at MoMA).

Support System would also allow Carolyn to be social. The forms of sociality most commonly practiced by young people—having a drink at a bar, for example—are unavailable to Carolyn; thus their possibilities for socializing in New York, where private space is often kept very private, are limited. Carolyn envisioned the work as a corrective for that, invoking both the visiting hours practiced by Victorian ladies and the Visiting Hours that artist Bob Flanagan, who lived with and died of cystic fibrosis, first performed at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in 1992. Flanagan is named in the title of Carolyn’s work, as are two other artists who have inspired them, contemporaries Park McArthur and Constantina Zavitsanos, whose ongoing project Care Collective comprises a network of people who assist Park with her nightly routine. Carolyn sees Support System as deeply indebted to these works, but it differs significantly from both of them. One difference is the ambiguous directionality of care in Support System: whom is the piece actually meant to support?

This question came up throughout Carolyn’s residency. If the goal of Support System was to actually support Carolyn, perhaps each viewer/visitor ought to work for them—bring lunch, medicine, entertainment. Perhaps they should sit dutifully by Carolyn’s sickbed and watch bad TV with them. But Carolyn also wanted to stress that we all need care, that sickness and need are not exceptions but the rule. Thus they thought continually about how they might covertly support their viewers.

The difficulty was that Support System, at least as it was instantiated here, couldn’t do both. Ultimately we settled on flowers as a powerfully visual symbol of care, one commonly brought to the sick. Each visitor was required to bring a bouquet, playing with the idea of exchange—flowers for art—but the texture of each “performance” was left open. And in the event, Carolyn’s instinct was not to put each visitor to work, but to discern and provide what they needed, whether a nap, a stretching exercise, a meal, or a sympathetic ear. But this meant that Carolyn was working, that the twelve hours in bed only resembled rest, were actually exhausting. Complicating this is the simple fact that many people are more comfortable giving than receiving help—hence Carolyn’s interest in reversing this—and the few visitors who were given tasks to complete reported satisfaction with the experience.

In short, Support System was very much an experiment, and in some ways, a failed one. This was discussed openly in a public conversation between Carolyn and me a few days later, where many of the work’s viewers were also present to share their perspectives. This salon also featured a grand sculpture of all the bouquets Carolyn received, a performance relic that was itself fugitive. Photos of the salon are below.

There is much more to say about this work; some of it is addressed in an essay I wrote, though this is only a beginning. And as Carolyn stated in response to a question from the audience, “If you’re seeing aspects of race, gender, colonialism, and class in my work, you’re right.” Failure or not, part of Support System’s power was to respond to these overwhelming, engulfing systems with an experience of surpassing intimacy.


Click this picture of the cover to read my essay about Support System.

All photos of Carolyn’s salon are by Sam Joseph.


A visitor enters for his portion of the performance with a bouquet of sunflowers for Carolyn.