Artist Profile: Liz Magic Laser

I Feel Your Pain, Liz Magic Laser, 2011. A Performa Commission. Featuring Annie Fox and Rafael Jordan. Photo: Yola Monakhov.

One of the greatest parts about Chase is the difficulty in determining who the actor is speaking to a great deal of the time - to the other actors through editing, to the camera and the viewer, to the occasional spectators and even apparently to the ATM machines themselves. Was this complication between the project and the viewer, film and theater a goal of the artwork?

For Chase I worked with each actor to make the “Man Equals Man” script resonate in a two-fold manner, both in the context of the original play’s dialogue and in the immediate scenario of the bank vestibule. We were constantly juggling these two registers of meaning: the illusory space of the play and the actual space of the bank. At the beginning I told the actors they could direct their lines to bank clients, my camera, the ATM machines or other inanimate objects in the bank. I outlined these parameters and we played with each line until it struck a cord on both fictional and immediate registers. It was a challenge I put to each performer to imagine that their scene partner could be a passerby or a bank advertisement. The two-tiered approach is then repeated because we are addressing two audiences, the audience we encountered in the bank and the audience who would be watching the montaged video. One audience is exchanged for another, a passerby is incorporated as a player or a machine is treated as if it were a person. The exchangeability of all people and things loomed large throughout the project as both theme and method.

In addition to dealing with the way ATM's transform us into automatons there is also this idea of engaging in non-automated actions in a highly regulated space, an idea you continue to explore with Flight by staging it both in 'art' spaces and then again in Times Square. What aspects of these environments do you hope to call attention to? Do you consider the performances a form of protest?

The bank vestibule calls for a mindless scripted activity of withdrawing or depositing money and the TKTS steps in Times Square comes with its own stage directions for photographing yourself under the Broadway lights. In both places I did actually stage automated actions, but they were ones we expect to see on screen or stage. In both cases the activity conflicts with the setting and challenges the behavior that is typically programed there.

I have tried to develop an oppositional practice and my performances do have an element of agitprop, but I see protest as a very specific and different form of action. My projects grapple with how ideology insinuates itself in our psyches through movies, television and architecture. I am looking at how our litigious culture coerces us into regulating ourselves. I’m interested in how we participate in our own social control and how this process might be redirected.

Both Flight and Chase are full of (presumably hardly incidental) advertising, from the ubiquitous Chase logo to the almost overwhelming frenzy of signage of Times Square. Did considerations for venue ever consider the presence or amount of advertising? What sort of a role do you think that there presence plays?

Yes, the brandscapes of Times Square and the bank were in the forefront of my mind in both cases. Both environments are indistinguishable from their commercial signage. The logos and advertisements in the bank actually ended up playing into the narrative of the play because Chase was in the process of taking over Washington Mutual. The plotline is about the brainwashing of a civilian who is transformed into a soldier so we were able to aim some brilliant diatribes about the meaning of identity at the posters that announce the Chase take over of WaMu. For instance one actor ends up coaxing WaMu signage to give up its name.

In the case of “Flight”, when I first staged the performance at PS1, I did not want cameras involved because I felt it might prevent the art audience from engaging with the actors. Times Square, on the other hand, is teeming with cameras and enormous commercial video screens. It’s truly a place where experience is mediated through the camera, and this became integral to these performances and the role cameras played in it. When we rehearsed there people constantly photographed us and asked us to take photos. During some performances there were so many photographers and videographers chasing the performers that a paparazzi team seemed to be chasing down the murderous villain in the scene.




New York City

How long have you been working creatively with technology?  How did you start?

I started doing photography sixteen years ago and video five years ago.

Describe your experience with the tools you use.  How did you start using them?

I considered myself to be a photographer for some years, but my mother, Wendy Osserman is a choreographer, so I grew up with rehearsals in our living room. I would often photograph her company for flyers and press. I ended up collaborating with her dancers over the years. As a photographer I confronted the issue of mediating performance with the camera early on and this has had a large impact on my hybrid approach. I was doing directorial photography, so the shift to performance came naturally: the events I was staging for the camera started to supersede the photographs. Yet the camera continued to play a pivotal role in the scenarios I was constructing. Soon after I started working with video, James Dacre, a British theater director, asked me to collaborate on one of his productions. I made video with the cast that was incorporated into the set of The Error Of Their Ways at Here Art Center. That was the first time I worked with professional actors and afterwards I continued working with actors. I was also in a dance piece by choreographer, Cori Kresge, where I met an actor, Michael Wiener, who I’ve worked with often ever since.

Where did you go to school? What did you study?

I went to Wesleyan University where I studied art (primarily photography), as well as philosophy and literature among other subjects. Later I went to Columbia University for Graduate school. I was admitted as a photography student, but the program there is interdisciplinary and I quickly transitioned to doing performance-based video work.

What traditional media do you use, if any?  Do you think your work with traditional media relates to your work with technology?

I often work with actors and some might consider theater a traditional media.

Are you involved in other creative or social activities (i.e. music, writing, activism, community organizing)?

As I explained, my collaborations with artists in theater, dance and film are ongoing. 

What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? Do you think this work relates to your art practice in a significant way?

I teach courses in photography and photo art history. This has definitely informed my work over the past few years. I’ve also done a range of freelance work in photo and video.

Who are your key artistic influences?

I have not had any consistent influences. A few artists I’ve been influenced by over the years include Janine Antoni, Yvonne Rainer and Andrea Fraser. Some of the film makers I have found influential include David Cronenberg, Fassbinder, Catherine Breillat and Claire Denis.

Have you collaborated with anyone in the art community on a project?  With whom, and on what?

Yes, all of my projects involve collaboration. Most recently for “I Feel Your Pain”, a Performa Commission, I worked with actors Lynn Berg, Audrey Crabtree, Ray Field, Annie Fox, Kathryn Grody, Rafael Jordan, Liz Micek, and Ryan Shams. To make the live-feed video, I worked with producer David Guinan (with whom collaborate often) and his crew of cinematographers Alex Hadjiloukas, Matthew Nauser and Collin Kornfeind of Polemic Media. I also worked with costume stylist Felicia Garcia-Rivera with whom I made the video “Bend” a few years back as well. After I wrote a rough draft of the script, I asked a few people to look at it and discussed the project with them. These editorial contributors were Scott Indrisek, Wendy Osserman, Jess Wilcox and Tom Williams.
Last year I made a video called “Breakdown” with artist Simone Leigh in collaboration with the singer Alicia Hall Moran. A few years ago I made the video “Service” with artist Dafna Maimon. The full list of collaborations is too long to enumerate here.

Do you actively study art history?

Yes, I teach “The History of Photography”.

Do you read art criticism, philosophy, or critical theory?  If so, which authors inspire you?

Yes, and there are some specific essays I’ve found important, including Bertolt Brecht’s “The Street Scene”, Jacques Rancière’s “The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and Politics”, Carrie Lambert-Beatty’s “Parafictions”, Tom McDonough’s “No Ghost” and Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” never gets old for me.

Are there any issues around the production of, or the display/exhibition of new media art that you are concerned about?

Since I am doing time-based work I am concerned with issues of duration and how to encourage people to spend time with the work in a gallery context.