Adriana Blidaru of Living Content had an in-depth conversation with Liz Magic Laser about some of her most recent projects that draw inspiration from a variety of disciplines such as Primal Therapy, method acting, and choreography. Laser explains how these disciplines fit into her practice through concrete examples, and she describes the process of working with different professionals: from actors, dancers, and directors, to life coaches, researchers, dance therapists, and designers. We also talk about the artist's latest project, for which she created a performance and a video-work that maps her own political cosmology by designing a personality testing system to better understand the behaviors of conservatives and liberals.
Adriana Blidaru: Hi Liz, when we last met we were discussing how you would document Handle/ Poignee, your latest work that you were commissioned to create for the Pompidou. Perhaps we can start by talking about how this project began, what it was inspired by, and how it was produced?
Liz Magic Laser: When starting a new project my interest is often sparked by something that I excluded from the previous project. In this case, the preceding project was Primal Speech for which I enlisted a primal therapist to work with a group of actors. This was in the summer of 2016, in the lead up to the U.S. presidential election, and it was also around the time when Brexit occurred. I basically approached composing a Primal Therapy group with the strategies of reality television in mind. I put out casting calls on professional and amateur acting sites, asking for 'true believers.' In this case, I was looking for a Trump supporter, a Trump hater, a pro-Brexiter, and an anti-Brexiter. I interviewed and cast a few dozen people who really held these political beliefs and who were interested in mining this territory. I explained to them that, as I saw it, Primal Therapy had a lot in common with method acting and Stanislavski's idea of emotional memory.
I worked with a life coach trained in Primal Therapy techniques, Valerie Bell, to subtly manipulate and kind of pervert what she normally does. I would interject during sessions and have her switch back and forth between prompting our subjects to speak about personal trauma and their frustrations with specific politicians, conjuring the analogies between the two. This process grew out of a longstanding interest in how the interview form is instrumental in the production of a public figure's persona and how the interview also functions as the treatment in psychoanalysis.
For the Primal Speech video, I wanted to make it feel ambiguous whether this group therapy was happening in person, with everyone present, or remotely via video chat. It's only towards the end that you see that the therapy subjects are occupying the same space together. I was interested in cultivating a slightly futuristic vision of a public sphere in which political discourse takes place via these group therapy sessions. This idea was perhaps latent in the final video but I'm reminded of it right now by this book I'm reading by Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, that I was telling you about the other day.
But anyway, I had an exhibition with this therapy project outside of Paris at CAC Bretigny in May 2017, which included a whole padded room installation with paraphernalia that I developed for my version of political Primal Scream Therapy. It was then that one of the curators involved in this performance exhibition at the Pompidou, Sarina Basta, who I hadn't seen in years, showed up at the opening. Then we met a few days later together with Caroline Ferreira, who's the head curator of the MOVE exhibition at Pompidou, and we started talking about how my political therapy work might extend into dance and kinesthetic territory.
My mother is a choreographer and I've photographed and worked with dancers frequently over the years, so I was interested in moving in this direction. The prior work I've done with dancers had a tighter focus. For instance, I worked with Cunningham dancers to reinterpret the oratorical gestures of politicians. For the Pompidou project, I started off wanting to do something more process-oriented with movement therapy practices. Around that time, I also had a very young child who was 3 or 4 months old, and I started to bring her to these movement development classes at Babies Project, a Body-Mind Centering® place in New York during the Summer of 2017. Their practice is about facilitating healthy movement development - in some ways it's like the physical analog to psychoanalysis. For instance, they believe that if the parent sits the child up too early or encourages walking too early, it makes the child feel unsafe and can install imbalances in their skeletal movement patterns and posture. The idea being that the conditions the parents create for the child's early physical experiences stay with us for the rest of our lives. They also offer workshops for adults which I've done.
AB: So, what does this consist of?
LML: They're interested in cultivating mindfulness about touch and subtle movements. You practice rolling around on the ground in very specific manners, alternating legs and arms to re-access this early stage in your movement development as an infant. In the end, for the Pompidou project, I worked with a Body-Mind Centering® practitioner, Mandoline Whittlesey, who I met through this BMC community, and also with a Primitive Expressions dance therapist, France Schott Billmann, who has done a lot of anthropological field research that underpins her work.
AB: When did the personality testing element come into play?
LML: It was very early on in the process, in the summer of 2017, when I was first conceiving of the project. I can't remember how I first thought of it, but these personality tests are everywhere, they just pop up on your screen and in your google searches constantly and they draw you in in the same way a horoscope does.
AB: They're very appealing.
LML: Exactly. I think that, at least in the U.S., they're really quite pervasive at this moment. These personality testing firms market their services to both job seekers and corporations for job hiring and placement. These firms draw on radical therapies from the '60s and '70s that were designed for personal consciousness expansion and were, in their emergence, in the service of radical utopian ideals. I'm interested in how these anti-capitalist practices that grew out of the New Left and counterculture movements are now offering corporate consulting services. In many cases, the very same practitioners have become consultants. This came up at the beginning of my research for the primal therapy project when I met with my mother's former primal therapist from the '70s, who now is a corporate executive coach. Not to mention that documentary Wild Wild Country that everyone was talking about last year. Now "Osho" as an entity also offers its services as a corporate consulting firm.
AB: Oh it does?
LML: Yes, but it's not as odd in a way for them because they were never anti-capitalist, they always embraced a certain kind of luxury and wealth.
AB: That's so interesting. I'm sure they didn't do so well after that documentary though.
LML: This popular notion that these "radical practices" have been co-opted, is a bit of a misguided take. Fred Turner's book traces how key elements and technologies of the counterculture, grew out of the military industrial complex. For instance, LSD was first experimented with by the CIA before the hippies got ahold of it. Originally, Ken Kesey was used as an LSD guinea pig by the CIA before he popularized LSD in the Counterculture. From moment one the counterculture was appropriating technologies and collaborative working methods that were emerging from Cold War research.
AB: Right, it's quite ambiguous. A lot of similar projects have been actually derived from military experimentation and then repurposed or re-assimilated.
LML: Yes, so in some way it was an a-political appropriation, or it was a turning away from politics and towards the self. And this, in a way, brings us back to the personality tests which are a really quick and facile way to draw people into a personal exploration of their own consciousness. These branded tests always legitimize themselves with a pseudo-scientific claim that they're based on Jungian psychology and cutting-edge research, but they really rely on the allure of astrology. For instance, one of the corporate consulting firms that I came across, Insights Discovery, was hired for many years by Microsoft to analyze all of its employees and promote smoother communication amongst its workers. The promise of Insights Discovery is that they will make your workforce more enlightened: each employee will understand why they behave the way they do and why others behave the way they do. Each person will understand what kind of communicator they are and will know how to modulate their approach to communication accordingly.
This will result in conflict avoidance and in greater productivity. I see this as a new wave of scientific management that acts on the psyche via technology. Scientific management of the individual computer user is being pushed further and further into nanotechnology of communication. I'm interested in how these firms use "creative thinking" and lift strategies and techniques from the visual and performing arts.
AB: Maybe it is because of the aesthetic of this particular last work that we've been discussing, but I wouldn't necessarily say that this comes across as a critique. More like an investigation. Is this explicitly a critique?
LML: Normally the critique is more explicit in my work, but I think in this case it was less outright because I wanted the public to really engage in this personality test. So, if I approached it totally cynically, it would be like I was setting a trap for people, which just seems really obnoxious and counterproductive. I couldn't just point my finger at this, "Oh, this is bad that psychology is being used to engineer workers and their every effort to communicate with one another, all in the service of maximizing profits while insidiously promising a greater level of enlightenment." It's not enough to just say that this is "bad." I'm also interested in how these strategies are effective. In some aspects this therapeutic personality analysis might actually work to make for a better corporate culture, so how can we apply it to a wider public? Then it emerged as I was finishing the project that Cambridge Analytica had already used personality tests to manipulate people and administer targeted propaganda. It's clear that the seductive power of the personality test can have a powerful effect on us.
My personality testing system was based on a political typology to better understand the behavior of conservatives and liberal. I used the archetypes from a book from the 90s called Moral Politics: How liberals and conservatives think by George Lakoff. He breaks down two different types of family values. He writes about how liberals believe in a nurturing parenting, and conservatives believe in a disciplinary or strict parenting. These belief systems go a long way to explaining why people will, in many cases, vote against their own interests. So, for instance, maybe you are somebody who benefits from social services but you will vote for the person who will cut those several social services because you believe so strongly in this idea of strict parenting being what's best for people and that if you spoil people they're not going to help them learn how to take care of themselves. On the other hand, we liberals will always vote for the person who will raise taxes even if we try to get out of it when tax time comes around. My political cosmology started with the nurturing parent and the disciplinary parent. Then I added to that the rebellious child and the obedient child.
AB: I can imagine this being a very self-reflective process, both for your audience and also for yourself.
LML: For this project I needed to start with a positive or maybe even willfully naive approach. The personality test takes on the character of a horoscope, encouraging you to suspend your disbelief quickly, to make you directly engage with it and let your guard down. In the making of this, I felt that I could have critical ideas about corporate consulting firms misusing radical and pseudo-spiritual practices, but I also had to actually engage with therapies that I found interesting and useful.
AB: You've experimented with multiple audiences throughout your projects, can you tell me more about how you incorporate and conceptualize these audiences in the production of your performances?
LML: In a funny way working in the Pompidou's lobby took me back to my roots to a project I did ten years ago called Chase. It was a Brecht play that I staged in bank vestibules and filmed over the course of a few months. At the time, I was working more in public and semi-public spaces and also did a project in Times Square, which had a tourist audience. Strangely, my first major project in a museum actually marked a return to these guerrilla-style performances.
The Pompidou lobby space is really a public congregation space; you have to go through a metal detector and have your bag looked into, but the lobby is not a ticketed area, so people just come and hang out there. The museum is in some ways the most elite art space, but this lobby, in particular, feels like a communal democratic space: there's a library, a cafe, and groups of teenagers and elderly men who meet there every week. It really takes on the feel of a community center. And I was actually surprised at how willing people were to participate. About seventy percent of people were really willing to get on my stage set and learn the movement therapy sequences that we developed.
AB: How would they interact with the dancers?
LML: The dancers took turns being diagnosticians: they would walk up to someone and try to catch them as they were entering the museum. The diagnostician shook the person's hand - they would insist on a prolonged handshake - and this handshake was the personality test used to diagnose their type. I wanted to play with the quotidian notion of the businessman sizing someone up based on their handshake and infuse this "test" with more mindful ideas from bodywork practices such as "Zero Balancing." After the handshake "test" the dancer would guide the visitor over to the set and teach them the choreography for their type. Then, the three dancers would announce the established type with a movement. They would yell it out either in English or French, depending on the language the person spoke.
My set installation was made of a coated soft foam material that was rather inviting for visitors. I also filmed the set from above and presented it on a jumbotron behind the performance where it functioned as explanatory infographics for my personality testing system. My design for the set used a Venn diagram to outline three spheres of experience: home, work, and politics, as well as the relationship of each personality to these spheres. The installation incorporated equipment for my therapeutic exercise routines: foam prop elements that resemble a bed, chair, and podium. The performers use the props to demonstrate sequences of therapeutic movement developed to "empower" each specific type.
AB: Your practice is very multifaceted: it includes choreography, costume-design, live-performances, installations; it includes videos and sometimes live-feeds. There are a lot of complex aspects of the production of your works. Is there a particular aspect where you feel most comfortable and one where perhaps you feel least 'at home'?
LML: I spend most of my time on planning and the production. That's what feels most comfortable and I do get satisfaction out of that. But the most stimulating part is when I'm actually with people doing the work. In this case, since I did the casting in Paris, I was working with people remotely and then I was going there for short bursts of time to work with them. The process was fairly compressed for this: I had four days of workshopping to create the piece and come up with a semblance of a therapeutic process. Later on, I had another three days to rehearse with them and produce the video, and then we had a final dress rehearsal. This meant that I had to get creative about how I was able to instill a more involved process.
I worked with the movement therapists to come up with detailed instructions that I sent to the dancers. They workshopped material according to my individualized assignments.
In New York, I also workshopped material and approaches with a dancer / choreographer, Cori Kresge, who I've collaborated with frequently over the years. So, I developed the piece through a lot of remote communication, writing, skyping, sending protocols on how to develop raw material that became the basis for the choreography.
AB: Wow, you must be a great manager.
LML : I often complain about how I've become my own production manager, and I've spoken to other artists who work in a similar way. A friend of mine was saying, "You have to either make this part of the work or cut this shit out." Strangely, I take on the role of the consultant in these scenarios, assembling case studies and doing retreats. For instance, for the Times Square performance I did in 2011, the performers and I had these sessions that were like work retreats. They were somewhere between socializing and work, which is also kind of endemic in the art world. It's never really all social or all work.
AB: So, these create a community around the work and a network that extends through the people who participate in your projects.
LML: Yes. For the Times Square performance, for instance, we had a three-day film festival retreat because the performance was based on a few dozen films with chase scenes that took place on staircases. First, we worked on the piece in 2010 for MoMA PS1 and the following year I re-worked for Times Square. The second-year the actors really wanted to see the entire films, so I arranged a weekend-long slumber party/work retreat. This makes me think back to the Turner book again. He goes on to argue how the hippie communes drew on a model of collaborative research that originated in military research at a place called the 'MAD lab' at M.I.T.
This form of inter-disciplinary research was specific to the Cold War moment during the race to develop nuclear bombs. Technologists from different fields were being brought together to collaborate with one another and operate on a more horizontal playing field that was less hierarchical. They had this kind of work retreat scenario that then, as Turner puts it, was what fed into communities like the Merry Pranksters. This is what proliferates from that kind of alternative vision of communal working and living. He traces it to its origins in military-industrial complex research.
AB: It makes perfect sense, but of course, it's not a comfortable thing to think about how these hippie and collaborative practices have their roots in this highly militarized context.
LML: All these proto-Silicon Valley people were excited about how this is the merging of old and new, reimagining technologists' work retreats and merging that with tribal, more "primitive" ways of living together.
AB: Can you tell me a bit about the way in which you create adaptations of movies, literature, plays? And more specifically about some of the play iterations that you picked to adapt to work with and why?
LML: I keep thinking back to this earlier bank perfect sense in the bank with its automatic teller machines. We never remember using the ATM, just as we never remember using a public bathroom.
AB: Right, you just don't register it anymore.
LML: It's like this non-place, like an elevator or an airport.It's designed to make you not engage, to make you forget. I filmed the Brecht-script project in 2009, shortly after the 2008 economic crisis, and when the U.S. was still in Iraq, so all of this language about colonial power and occupation was very much on everybody's mind. It made sense to people in an offhand way. Lines like "Military crimes are being perpetrated in our town and none of the perpetrators have yet been identified."
I used a Brecht play called Mann ist Mann - in English it's: "Man is Man" or "Man Equals Man". It was the second play he ever wrote, so maybe not his most well-known or best play, but a really fascinating one. Brecht was closely reading and riffing on Kipling's plays. Man Equals Man takes place in British Colonial India, and is focused on the mechanization of man. I'm fascinated with this moment in the 20s when the avant-garde in Germany and Russia were both preoccupied with man becoming machine. They already had some premonitions of the fascistic potential but also of the utopian potential of human mechanization. In most cases with my work, the scenario comes first and then the script follows. When I search for a script, I look for one that will serve as a catalyst for a specific place or scenario. This Brecht play had so much great language about men being money-like and being machine-like that it made perfect sense in the bank with its automatic teller machines.
AB: In the past couple of years you have been focusing on working with young actors. For The Thought Leader, you trained 10 year-old Alex Ammerman to deliver an adaptation from Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground (1864) in a TED-like professional speech. Before that, in My Mind is My Own you hired a professional vocal coach to teach her 11- year old daughter to perform as a trainer in an instructional video. Similarly, in Kiss and Cry, the figure skating coach Marie Jonsson Mackenzie is filmed training her two children. I'm interested in how your research and your interests shifted throughout these projects and why you found it appealing to work with children?
LML: Well I worked on The Thought Leader and My Mind is My Own at the same time. The casting was all done at the same time. So, the two videos were developed in tandem.
I wanted to do something with the TED talk and its techno-utopian ethos of promoting enlightened self-interest and entrepreneurship, supposedly in the service of the greater good. People were posting and sending TED talks around; they were really proliferating. You would hear stories about people preparing for TED talks for an entire year because it was going to greatly affect funding for an M.I.T. scientist for instance.
I had been focusing on how performance techniques were being used and applied by politicians and business leaders to fine-tune every utterance and every gesture of a public appearance. TED Talks launched careers in self-help and this made me very aware of how public speaking was becoming increasingly important across a wide variety of fields. Not just for a politician or a business leader. This was making or breaking your entire career: how you would tell the story and narrativize your personal history, and often your personal trauma. You're telling very personal stories in this context; as you would in a group therapy session where you're confessing. Except your TED talk is highly cultivated and condensed into an eight to minute nugget. I was looking at this critically and wanting to mess with it in some way.
I figured that with a child, it would be clear that the child was not speaking for himself and that the words were totally scripted. Plus, the child is often used as a representative of innocence and of the future. I used the child in some of my earlier scripts in terms of political rhetoric. Here, the child becomes the excuse for limiting liberties, to save the future. That was how I came to this idea of working with child actors, but I wasn't so focused on why. Then later, with the film Kiss and Cry this resurfaced; it was what I left out of the last project. I was like 'OK I used the child as the model of innocence and futurity but didn't really explore this rhetorical metaphor yet.'
AB: That makes perfect sense because you do draw a lot of narratives and references in your work. Do you want to say something about your upcoming projects?
LML: The next project I'm doing is with a place called FACT in Liverpool; it's a commission for a larger project they're doing about the future world of work. They asked me to submit a proposal for the lead commission for the project, and one of the sub-themes was the gig economy.
This immediately sparked my interest because, over the last five or six years, I have used services from sites like Fiverr or TaskRabbit. Doing this always evokes such an odd feeling of consumerism toward human labor, and a bit of guilt, but also a little bit of satisfaction going down this rabbit hole of, "Oh, what else can you buy from people?" You'll start looking at things you don't need, in the same way, you might be doing some online shopping on Amazon. For Kiss and Cry I commissioned voice actors from Fiverr first to see if a voiceover would work for the piece, and then I eventually cast child voice actors I could work with in person because directing people via the site was impossible: I was instant messaging with a mom through the Fiverr system, trying to convey subtle directorial notes.
It was clearly not going to work, but it was also kind of fascinating how these "freelance platforms" are anonymous both to protect the service worker and ensure the website's profit. If Fiverr and TaskRabbit let you communicate outside of their system, then you wouldn't need them anymore. These policies are supposed to protect the people and the profit, but there's also something dehumanizing about this. No one can really have a voice. I started to think about actually enlisting one of these personality testing firms to offer career coaching to my select cast of gig-worker. It will all feed into a semi-fictional reality television show produced by and about internet workers.
I'll direct each participant to interpret the stories of another gig worker so as to create a portrait using the lens of their service specialty. For example, a whiteboard animator could make a portrait of a psychic astrologer who could, in turn, provide her written analysis of a telecommunications specialist. These are creative professionals who work on Illustrator and animation programs or do voice-over work or telecommunications services for automated calls and internal communications. I want to play with the "corporate pitch aesthetic" that has developed under strange conditions due to the work being out outsourced in a rush.
So the project is going to involve personality testing and a kind of tech-oriented professional coaching that I'll offer to the group.
It is a kind of work retreat scenario that I'm assembling. Then recently an unexpected thing came up. I was looking for life coaches or personality testers based in England, and I found one, but then the project was delayed, so in the mean time, I ended up working with her myself. I got more sucked in than I expected. Her whole approach is very much inflected by Silicon Valley utopianism, and what they call "biohacking"-ways of scientifically managing your mind and body-such as using binaural beats designed to maximize your ability to focus and tech strategies for enhancing one's efficiency. There are a few "biohacks" I'm interested in using in my project that I haven't tried yet. One of them is a ninety-minute "Neurodynamic Breathwork" workshop that's conducted live online. Presumably thousands of people are breathing together at the same time all over the world. It's very emblematic of the current vision of this techno utopianism, but instead of going off to the commune in Oregon to live with Osho, you show up and you pay your 24 dollars for the communal remote breathing experience.