‘Performance Is the Dominant Instrument of Power’: Watch Artist Liz Magic Lazer Investigate Gestures and Movement

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At Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn, right now is an exhibition space lined with eight mirrors, resembling a mash-up of a circus funhouse and a fitness center, where one’s reflection is magnified and reflected back ad nauseam. Visitors’ images are projected onto the faces of pulsing bodies, including dancers and choreographers, practicing movements aligned with breathwork, yoga, and other exercise-based works.

The result is a series wryly titled “Exorcise 1 through 8” (2023) by the artist Liz Magic Laser, whose work in  the new exhibition investigates the history of psychosomatic disorders. The show, titled “Convulsive States” after a film by the artist, uses movement—both voluntary and involuntary—as a mechanism to understand the body and its connection to the brain.

Laser’s work often focuses on the mind-body connection, and how it affects both the primary subject, the one in motion, and those in its immediate proximity. In an exclusive interview filmed as part of Art21’s flagship series back in 2012, Laser decoded the hand gestures of American presidents including George W. Bush and Barack Obama for a performance piece undertaken by Merce Cunningham-trained dancers.

View of Liz Magic Laser, <i>Convulsive States</i> (2023). Courtesy of the artist and Pioneer Works.

View of Liz Magic Laser, Convulsive States (2023). Courtesy of the artist and Pioneer Works.

As in her current work, Laser looked to history, specifically the works of theorist François Delsarte, who helped pioneer theories of expression that are used in modern dance. Speaking of Delsarte in the episode, Laser points to his theory of an “imaginary cube” that corresponds to “The Digital Face.” For Delarte, the “digital” corresponds to “digits,” in this case, the five fingers of a hand, referring to how the hands can be an extension of the face as a way to “win over the audience.”

“We are living in strange days where performance itself has become the dominant instrument of power,” Laser explains in the interview. “The style of someone’s delivery ends up foreclosing the real content.”

In the same way that a measured voice and practiced gestures can connote discipline and strength, as in a presidential address, a body seemingly out of control and wracked by convulsions or tics, can have an affect of instilling fear or uncertainty in a visitor. “As spectators, we’re being treated as lab rats,” the artist says. 

In “Convulsive States” at Pioneer Works, the artist considers how psychosomatic conditions are digested by viewers, and how understanding the source can change our reactions, so that spectators are more aware of the roots of what they are witnessing. 

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s series Art in the Twenty-First Century, below. “Convulsive States: Liz Magic Laser” is on view at Pioneer Works through November 19, 2023.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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