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

Performance still of “I Feel Your Pain” by Liz Magic Laser. (Courtesy the artist and Performa)

The improbably named artist Liz Magic Laser has been watching and reading a lot of political interviews. “The conceit of the political interview,” she told The Observer in her studio in Dumbo, “is that you’re getting to see the real person, that they’re exposing themselves in some way—that this important, influential figure is performing a breach in their performance. I started to look at this as a form of dramaturgy.”

Ms. Laser’s words call to mind the ancient Greeks, who brought theater, oration and representative politics into the world. They could hardly have imagined that the combination of them would result in today’s political circus, where an entire nation tunes in to watch Sarah Palin go hunting, John Boehner cry, the government nearly shut down, the president purchase a dog.

Politics has largely become a reality TV show, a situation absurd enough to be beyond artistic critique. In this climate, it would seem altogether too obvious to put political episodes on a stage. Not to Ms. Laser, who will attempt just such a feat next Sunday and Monday, at the School of Visual Arts Theatre, with a piece titled I Feel Your Pain, commissioned for this year’s edition of the performance-art biennial Performa.

I Feel Your Pain examines the role emotion plays in politics by taking particularly charged dialogue from interviews and press conferences with political figures—mostly contemporary material involving the likes of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, but also some text from the 1990s and earlier—and scripting it as a romantic drama. Actors will perform mainly in the seats and aisles of the theater while three cinematographers film the show. Their footage will stream live to a screen onstage, and Ms. Laser will edit it on the spot, directing the cameras and selecting angles and shots she wants the audience to see. Her production draws on the techniques of agitprop theater—in particular the Russian Constructivist idea of the “living newspaper,” which used theater to enact current events, with a push toward social action—and includes voice-overs, pantomime fight scenes and a clown.

There’s a self-referential aspect to all of this, Ms. Laser explained in her studio. Around the same time she started reading and watching all those political interviews and conceiving of the piece, she found herself increasingly cast in the role of interview subject. Back in May, the art world was abuzz about the performance of her piece Flight in Times Square. Ms. Laser enlisted actors to perform a bill of famous steps scenes from movies like Vertigo, Raiders of the Lost Ark and American Psycho live on a staircase. The scenes involved pursuit, violence and, often, death.

“The fact of starting to get interviewed had a large bearing on the genesis of [I Feel Your Pain],” she said. “I became interested in how this form becomes a performance of one’s authenticity; it’s the stage upon which people are allowed to—are supposed to—are egged on to demonstrate their real commitments.”

“Are allowed to—are supposed to—are egged on to”—Ms. Laser edits as she speaks, homing in on an idea until she’s arrived at exactly what she means to say. One could take it as her own performance of authenticity, although it seems more genuine than preconceived, the product of an active mind that has trouble translating thoughts into words. Such a comment does, however, leave an interviewer slightly ill at ease.

During our interview, Ms. Laser, dressed in a trim, sober, predominantly gray and black outfit, gave off an air of comfortable cordiality. Her calm, professional demeanor belies her name—the one her parents gave her—which sounds like the diminutive with which a video-game-loving 13-year-old boy would anoint his dream girl. When Ms. Laser gets excited, it is likely to be about Bertolt Brecht or photomontage.

Photography, in fact, was her original artistic medium, the subject in which she received an M.F.A. from Columbia University and the one she now teaches at S.V.A. Her photos landed Ms. Laser a spot in her first large international group exhibition, the Prague Biennial, in 2009. Most of her success, however, has come since she transitioned to video and performance. This wasn’t a clear, conscious choice; at some point, she simply couldn’t distill her concepts down to single, static pictures anymore. “I started having ideas where one image wasn’t going to do it,” she said. In 2007, she made a video for the set of a fellow graduate student’s play. The project served as a turning point, bringing her into the world of theater.

Liz Magic Laser Feels Your Pain