Liz Magic Laser Feels Your Pain

Against the backdrop of Occupy Wall Street, an artist gives us a political performance; its title grabs a page from the Clinton playbook

But performance was written into her inheritance long before that. Ms. Laser’s mother, Wendy Osserman, is a dancer and choreographer who came of artistic age amid the New York experimental dance scene of the 1960s and ’70s, when choreographers began introducing everyday movements and improvisation into their works. Ms. Osserman has run a company nearly since her daughter’s birth, which meant that her daughter, from a young age, was constantly surrounded by performers. “I grew up in a space with these improvisational rehearsals,” said Ms. Laser. “It seemed quite visceral and humiliating to have that in your living room. But eventually I came around and got into it myself.”

For her that meant ditching dance but keeping the improv. Her works, though scripted, are often a form of extemporized theater. They become unpredictable though their unconventional locations—the stairs in Times Square, for instance—and the direct interaction between cast and audience: in Chase (2010), actors performed Brecht’s play Man Equals Man individually in A.T.M. vestibules, reciting their lines to customers.

Ms. Laser remains connected to her photographic roots, most obviously by filming her projects, but also in a more conceptual way. Much of the strength of her work lies in its tactic of decontextualization: bringing chase scenes out of the movies and into a live public space, or performing Brecht’s plays in loci of capitalism rather than on stage. She began plucking texts and dialogue from the cultural ether and recomposing them long before I Feel Your Pain. For Service (2009), she used lines from disaster films like Armageddon to create a script set at a dinner party, where the hosts and guests frantically argue about saving the world. The result is an absurd conversation that highlights just how far-fetched and cheaply sentimental our notions of heroism are. Ms. Laser reappropriates images and words offered up by the culture, and then alters or subverts their original meanings—which is, almost by definition, the practice of collage, an art form born of photography. Her projects are, in essence, performative collages.

But they are also, according to Ms. Laser, akin to research projects. Her work usually begins with reading about and investigating an idea; the results crystallize into a performance rather than a paper. For I Feel Your Pain, she had been thinking about political activism in two senses: first, how the contemporary right wing had co-opted activism in the U.S. (this was a year ago, long before Occupy Wall Street), and second, how the Soviet avant-garde had pioneered agitprop techniques to protest traditional theater, which its members felt used emotion to manipulate the masses into complacency.

“The avant-garde was not antiemotion,” Ms. Laser explained in her studio. “It was this specific, manipulative use of emotion. They were interested in manipulating emotion to produce critical thinkers.” She was describing a movement from the early 20th century, but could as easily be defining her own work. Ms. Laser’s projects transform their source materials enough to make us think, but they hardly do away with emotion. Often, because of their direct relationship with the audience, they do the opposite.

During Chase, an actor delivering a line about the British army offended an onlooker, a Vietnam vet, who cursed off the crew and called the authorities. In Flight, actors touched and fell to their deaths on audience members, resulting in complaints to Times Square’s public safety division.

“In Liz’s pieces, we’re not playing characters,” said Max Woertendyke, an actor who has collaborated with Ms. Laser on numerous projects. “So much of the work becomes about impulse. In a traditional play or film, you want impulse, but there’s a certain point where you have to make sure you’re telling the story the author wrote. In Liz’s pieces, the idea is more to give the audience a visceral sensation that they can take home with them and translate however they want.”

What are audiences likely to take away from I Feel Your Pain? According to Ms. Laser, the piece investigates “how the contrived emotional manipulation of a romance has completely infiltrated and overtaken the dialogue the public has with the government”—and not only that, but how these political performances affect us even when we are aware of them. In this sense it echoes Flight, harnessing dramatic scenes while also calling attention to their artifice, examining how emotion can be used as a tool to create further emotion.

Ultimately, the reactions to her piece are unpredictable, not least because the context of this kind of political discussion has changed radically in the past two months. “Up until September,” Ms. Laser said,“when you heard about an activist on the news in this country, for the last few years it was a right-wing activist.” Now, with Occupy Wall Street demonstrations taking place in nearly every major U.S. city, the left has gotten back in the game. Ms. Laser finds this exciting, but more to the point, maybe, is the simple fact that whatever happens, politics remains a game. Emotion is just one of the ways to play it.

Liz Magic Laser Feels Your Pain