LIZ MAGIC LASER — PRIMAL SPEECH
Quote—Unquote: Video Station presents Primal Speech by Liz Magic Laser, 2016, single-channel video.
To accompany the Video Station open call and commissioning programme for video works, Quote—Unquote presents a series of artists’ films and videos dealing with topics of speech and public speaking. A new work will be published online every two weeks between July and September 2020.
Liz Magic Laser’s mixed media installation Primal Speech constructs a futuristic version of a political primal scream room. The grey padded walls and therapeutic props such as pillows and stuffed animals based on political party logos, are punched or embraced in Laser’s adaptation of Primal Therapy methods demonstrated in a video embedded in the wall.
For the video Laser assembled a therapy group composed of actors with opposing political convictions about Brexit and the 2016 U.S. presidential election. She collaborated with certified professional life coach Valerie Bell, trained in primal therapy techniques, to “treat” the actors, encouraging them to revisit and conflate their personal histories with their political frustrations.
Developed by Arthur Janov in the 1970s, Primal Therapy was a radical approach that involved abreaction: the cathartic re-experiencing of a traumatic event. In this practice, the therapist coaches the patients to reenact scenes from their past and free themselves from the neurotic repetition of unhealthy behaviors. Laser adapts this palliative method of clarifying emotional expression to process recent political debates. The project elaborates on a theme central to Laser’s work: the appropriation of communication techniques and psychological methods appropriated by corporate and political cultures in order to revive their therapeutic potential.
Infinite Conversation: How have therapeutic practices informed your practice and approach? Do you see them as a vehicle for channeling impulses and deconstructing them or do you use them as a theoretical starting point?
Liz Magic Laser: As I see it, therapeutic practices offer codified formulas for palliative discourse and directives for movement. I have been endlessly interested in the interview as a form and its various applications. Initially for my performance I Feel Your Pain for Performa in 2011 I adapted political interviews into a romantic drama, looking at how the politician constitutes their public persona by performatively divulging their personal stories and passions. In that sense the interview is a vehicle for wielding power. Later I became interested in how market research and therapy both use the interview as a treatment to manufacture desire in one case and as palliative care in the other. My work is concerned with the intersection of political discourse, philosophical inquiry and therapy.
How does collaboration inform your artistic practice, be it with therapists, actors, performers, or coaches? What is common and what differs between these categories from the performative point of view?
A director or choreographer’s work always involves a degree of collaboration with their performers. Likewise therapists, coaches and market researchers all require active engagement with their clients. However it is novel for these practitioners to accept direction as it disrupts their typical role as guide.
My mother, Wendy Osserman, is a choreographer and I grew up in her rehearsal space witnessing her collaborations unfold. I was originally a photographer and would photograph her company for flyers and press, eventually collaborating with her dancers as well. Also, they would take part in my staged tableau-style photographs, and I even performed in some of their choreography.
How are the cathartic experiences of talk therapy integrated into your performances? Is it a reverse engineering process of emotional responses?
It really varies from project to project. I remember when I first started working with actors one of them became quite frustrated that I was not offering enough motivation or back stories that would allow her to access emotional memories or when I did they often conflicted with the text I was asking her to deliver. In contrast for Primal Speech, I did ask amateur actors to engage in a short therapeutic process. Their emotional displays were coming from a place that felt fairly “real” although they were surely more self-conscious in front of a camera.
How did you choose the actors – besides having opposing political convictions – that took part in Primal Speech?
I put out a casting call for “true believers” who had strong political beliefs about Trump and Brexit. I auditioned a few dozen people before choosing a pro-Trump and an anti-Trump person, a pro-Brexit and an anti-Brexit person. I sought out people who would allow me to conflate their personal traumas with their political frustrations. I explained to them beforehand that the project would involve Primal Therapy, a radical therapeutic method from the ’70s that focused on abreaction: the cathartic re-experiencing of a traumatic event. In this method the therapist is very active, more like a director. Patients focus on revisiting moments from childhood when the child wasn’t able to speak up for him or herself, and the treatment incorporates a kind of hypnosis to bring a person back to that time. I was interested in its similarity to Stanislavski’s concept of emotional memory, which became the basis for method acting.
In Primal Therapy, once a trauma is identified, the therapist acts like a director, asking the patient questions like, ‘what were you wearing that day?’, ‘what was the weather like?’, ‘what did he say?’ ‘what do you wish you had said?’, ‘say it now!” Then the therapist directs the patient to speak to the abuser and say what they never got to say in the past.
How choreographed was the therapeutic process for Primal Speech?
I collaborated with a life coach trained in primal therapy techniques, Valerie Bell, and we tightly directed participants throughout the process, suggesting when and how to move. Valerie helped the Trump supporter realize that a Russian woman he’d been dating was trying to scam him. At first I thought Valerie was jumping to conclusions, but in the next session, it came out that she was right. He had sort of known it but hadn’t let himself recognize it, and he was very disappointed and angry. And the irony was, of course, that this Russian woman was an illegal immigrant. She duped and left him, and I directed him to channel his rage by talking about his analogous feelings of Hillary being untrustworthy. While this man told Trump he is the father he wished he’d had, another man yelled at Trump, as if he were his own abusive, homophobic father.
When I first started working on this primal project in the spring of 2016, it seemed more absurd to apply therapeutic strategies to political discourse, but now there are a lot of news stories about therapists speaking out against Trump, saying he’s mentally ill and people going into therapy because of him. It seems Trump has triggered past trauma, bringing back experiences of victimhood for many.
As you often work with people from other professions and disciplines, how do you get to know them and collaborate on projects? Or would you rather work directly with actors?
Sometimes I meet someone by chance, but normally there is an extensive research phase when I am trying to seek out a certain type of professional. I often contact a number of potential collaborators and conduct casting interviews with experiments that will offer the person a good sense of what it would be like to work together.
Another work of yours, Handle / Poignée, uses George Lakoff’s family dynamics applied in politics as a starting point for a performance where the actors take the role of somatic therapists. Is this frame of thought an essential tool in understanding mechanisms of power? What have you discovered along the way?
My personality testing system was based on a political typology to better understand the behavior of conservatives and liberals, using 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 nurturing parenting, and conservatives believe in disciplinary or strict parenting. These belief systems go a long way to explain 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, liberals will always vote for the person who will raise taxes even if they 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.
I’m 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? The personality test format encourages you to suspend your disbelief quickly, to engage with it directly, and in a sense, let your guard down. 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 the techniques that I found interesting and useful. 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.
Featuring actors Gisela Chípe, Armeliane Bindickou, Adam Davenport, Mari Hayes, Adele Jacques, Rhiannon Lattimer and Tom Staggs; Director of Photography: Chris Heinrich; Assistant Director: Hanna Lea Novak; Assistant Camera: Sam Krebs; Audio Engineer: Joe Quartararo; Audio Assistant: Trevor Hoar; Casting Assistant: Rachel Zaretsky; Editors: Liz Magic Laser and Ben Bernstein; Therapist’s script written in collaboration with Valerie Bell with contributions from Gisela Chípe. Produced with support from Various Small Fires, Los Angeles.
LIZ MAGIC LASER is a multimedia video and performance based artist from New York City. Her work intervenes in semi-public spaces such as bank vestibules, movie theaters and newsrooms, involving collaborations with actors, surgeons, political strategists and motorcycle gang members. Her recent work explores the efficacy of new age techniques and psychological methods active in both corporate culture and political movements. Laser’s work has been shown at venues such as Kunsthalle Baden-Baden (2019); Metro Pictures, New York (2018) Malmö Konsthall, Sweden (2017); the Swiss Institute (2016); the Whitney Museum of American Art (2015); Lisson Gallery, London (2013); the Performa 11 Biennial, New York (2011); and MoMA PS1, New York (2010). She has had solo exhibitions at CAC Brétigny, France (2017); Jupiter Artland Foundation, Scotland (2017); Kunstverein Göttingen, Germany (2016); Mercer Union, Toronto (2015); Wilfried Lentz, Rotterdam, the Netherlands (2015); Various Small Fires, Los Angeles (2015); Paula Cooper Gallery, New York (2013) the Westfälischer Kunstverein, Münster, Germany (2013); and Mälmo Konsthall, Mälmo, Sweden (2012) among other places. She staged a daily performance and video installation at the Centre Pompidou, Paris (2018). Most recently she exhibited a major new commission, In Real Life (2019), an experimental reality show about online gig workers, at FACT, Liverpool, UK (2019).