It’s a scene that can be found on TV in any country in the world, at any time of day or night: politicians holding court from behind a dais, underscoring each talking point with a firm gesture—hands clasped, fists clenched, shoulders squared off.
Viewers are trained to focus on the message: the policies being outlined, the latest campaign promise fulfilled or unfulfilled. New York-based artist Liz Magic Laser, on the other hand, watches political speeches with the sound turned off. It throws into focus the elegant and highly precise choreography of oration, a concept first outlined by the 19th-century theoretician François Delsarte.
In 2012, Laser became fixated on these often overlooked nuances of political oratory. She was particularly interested in the ways then-President Barack Obama used body language as an extension of his political platform.
In an interview with Art21 ahead of the debut of her performance Digital Face (2012), Laser describes watching the State of the Union: “I was struck by the virtuosity of Obama’s movement. And I started to wonder about the choreography that is being used to persuade the public.”
Using Delsarte’s theories of oration, Laser pored over years’ worth of political speeches and discovered that George H. W. Bush was the first US president to practice the brand of animated delivery that has become ubiquitous among politicians today. For Digital Face, Laser enlisted Merce Cunningham-trained dancers to perform body language isolated from two individual political speeches.
Laser’s interest in the slippage between fake news and truth and the murkiness of political conversations continues in Metro Pictures’s current group show, “Evidence.” The New York show includes Laser’s video Primal Speech, in which she brings together a staged therapy group whose members hold opposing political views on Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election. She asks them to engage in Primal Scream therapy, eschewing the party line for a baser, animal instinct.
Speaking to Art21, Laser remarked: “We are living in strange days where performance itself has become the dominant instrument of power. The style of someone’s delivery ends up foreclosing the real content.” In today’s fractured political sphere, Liz Magic Laser’s work serves as a reminder that what we see is just as important as what we’re being told.
“Evidence” is on view at Metro Pictures through August 3. Watch Laser discuss her inspirations and artistic process in this clip from Art21’s “New York Close Up” series.
This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists throughout the summer. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television series premieres this September on PBS. Watch full episodes and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org
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