Liz Magic Laser

New York

Liz Magic Laser: Performance of Weekly at the Swiss Institute, August 16, 2012: Image courtesy the Swiss Institute, New York.Liz Magic Laser: Performance of Weekly at the Swiss Institute, August 16, 2012: Image courtesy the Swiss Institute, New York.

By Tess Edmonson

Liz Magic Laser
The Swiss Institute
August 16, 2012

The evening of Weekly, Liz Magic Laser’s performance, we were asked to give our names at the threshold of the gallery space, which were then recorded onto nametags and handed back to us. So identified, we were then admitted to a half-circle of chairs waiting to be activated by participatory performance art.

This performance is from Laser’s "Living Newspaper" series, which evolved from her Performa 11 commission, I Feel Your Pain (2011). The "Living Newspaper" developed as a kind of Soviet agitprop theatre that consciously and critically manipulates affect in its viewers. Its goal is to solicit empathy towards its subjects. The same form was adapted in depression-era America by the Federal Theatre Project under the structure of the Works Progress Administration. Framed by these historical and political referents, Weekly proposes a discussion around how public empathy is cultivated in the oversaturated program of contemporary news media.

Four performers, the ones who welcomed us in the guise of gallerists or administrators, then introduced themselves as representatives of a fictional institution. Their objective was to make us, as participants of their workshop, feel the news. The procedure began with a poll: “Who here reads the newspaper?” followed by “Who here reads the newspaper every day?” and then followed by personal questions about news media consumption directed at different audience members, conveniently made accessible to interpellation through our new nametags. This person only reads the news online, we discovered. That person is a journalist. And, so on.

Meanwhile, another performer recorded the nature of the audience’s responses with a list of attributes: glibness, apathy, sarcasm, irony, lack of commitment, lack of responsibility. Based on this inventory, the mediators give us a diagnosis: we have a psychopathic relationship to the news.

To rectify this, we were subjected to studying cover-page photographs from recent New York newspapers: an Olympic runner mid-stride, Syrian rebels in a living room hideout, a local man recently shot by police for publicly wielding a knife. Cajoled or bullied into participation, we were then asked to reproduce these tableaux, and encouraged to empathize with their subjects.

Manipulating affect to produce some sort of affinity between media subjects and their public always has political goals. The political ends here were more difficult to determine, or rather seem to not be considered. What are the implications of asking Manhattan gallery-goers to recreate another man’s recent violent death, especially in the hammy performance that combined something like a corporate-backed focus group with a group therapy session. Having an audience involuntarily act out Syrian rebel fighters in a state of haphazard and desperate defence seemed particularly graceless, as does implying that this act can dissolve the larger geographical, political and socioeconomic barriers between these two demographics.