Liz Magic Laser: Tell Me What You Want to Hear at Diverseworks
Liz Magic Laser‘s Diverseworks commission Tell Me What You Want to Hear began by enlisting professional empathy conjurers to cull, perform, and refine their methods of influencing public opinion. Directed to play heightened versions of themselves, participants were asked to narrate a moment of performance when they were entirely authentic, spectacularly engaging, and not at all manipulative.
The Media Training
To this elusive end, media training was conducted at Houston Media Source in February. The storytellers were interviewed on camera and live feed went into to a conference room for screening by panelists Nick Anderson, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist; Shannon Buggs, journalist and Director of Communications for the University of Houston’s College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences; Felipe Campos, artist, producer, and educator; Maurice Duhon, realtor, former political candidate, musician, and reality TV personality; Lizette Garcia, Broadcast Journalism major at the University of Houston; Linda Lorelle, Emmy Award-winning journalist and former KPRC-TV news anchor; Sue Lovell, former Houston City Council member; and Mustafa Tameez, founder and managing director of Outreach Strategies, one of Texas’ leading public affairs firms. Once interviewed, each participant was seated in front of their muted footage to receive criticism according to the amalgamated tricks of the charismatic communication trades.
In addition to attention span considerations: keep it direct, on task, brief, energetic, and assertive, the main point is that the audience cannot digest you unless you are refined. The key to success is refusing to exhibit natural responses of the human body to its environment– scratching, sipping, shifting eyes or shifting in your seat– that could make you appear unattractively like a person in front of the persona capturing camera.
The disavowal of maintenance is not new, but it was eerie to hear the body’s need for rest and support flatly deemed unacceptable. And although disturbed by these rules, I nonetheless later found myself irked at Lorrelle for wearing a pair of distractingly bobbly earrings on camera– she should hold her head still!
The Screening and Recording Before a Live Audience
In keeping with Laser’s compelling investigations of potentially democratic forms gone awry (majority rule in focus testing, voting in political polling, and authority leveling in the interview) Tell Me What You Want to Hear used the multi-vocal judicial panel and the audience-input inclusive talk show.
For last Wednesday night’s screening before a live audience at Diverseworks, Shannon Buggs played a talk show host whose emphatic “We are all so comfortable here with one another!” manner (of a focus group leader or a fish camp counselor) waned over the course of the show. Her scripted questions “Do you respond to this? Would you like to have media training? Is performing a skill that every person should have? Is there a difference between trying to influence and manipulating?” were asked politely and elicited polite responses from a hesitant audience, able to see themselves on camera and adjusting accordingly.
The Studio Performance
The participant’s performances at an offsite studio, UH’s Valenti School of Communications news studio, were also projected in front of the audience at Diverseworks. Relentlessly on-camera, the preened personalities looked like animatronics after the lights ignite but before the electricity flows. Each was activated to deliver highly refined, empathy-inspiring sound bites, intercut with footage from their pre-media training interview and previous TV appearances. To my ear, their stories had the bizarre quality of Toastmaster speeches, so smoothed over by abstract principles that they lose their spark and credibility. The art crowd audience seemed to agree, asserting that mistakes and vulnerability make it seem more real.
Back at the media training in February, in an on-the-spot moment, the award winning, show stopping Linda Lorrelle shared her experience reporting on a competing anchor and eventual friend’s struggle with cancer. The room was emotionally saturated and we were all cancer-awareness champions, when, in an emotion-barring voice, Laser offered incriminating and inconsistent feedback. At times she echoed grooming tips on posture, gesture, and inflection, and at times she seemed to be working against it to deliberately pale the evocative.
The same week of this media training, Laser’s own delivery during her artist talk at Rice University was long and drawn out. As her voice slid into a grating and disaffected monotone, it seemed curious that someone so steeped in methods of effective communication would not deploy any of them. Maybe it’s a deliberate modulation to avoid spectacle or celebrity, but it is also recognizable as the designated artist affect.
Alongside a requisite cynicism, the wry reveal has risen to prominence as the most recognizable artistic gesture of our times. This was exactly the case in Laser’s Armory Show contribution, crowd sourced from art consumers in focus groups. As in Push Poll, Laser looked at the feedback loop, how behavior is generated based on response, and on and on and on. In this case, Laser’s approach of asking the consumer what they want to consume produced something novel, but pre-digested.
Sometimes, overestimating the institution’s intention to take advantage, the artist gives support a preemptive thrashing that the harshest neoliberal would applaud. Sometimes, underestimating the institution’s ability to take advantage, the artist as a whistle blower merely creates on-demand disruptions too reliant on support to effectively address issues or implicate the host.
Considering this minefield, kudos to Laser and to Diverseworks. She let down some of her well justified guard to conduct a less predetermined examination of authenticity in performance. They continued to support dynamic work in its unruly but rich experimental stage.
Degrees of Consumability
Earlier this March, Laser answered an interview invitation with an insightful investigation of the interview as a form. She mentioned resentment at having to stand outside her work and reveal its truth, and having to perform her authentic self.
This is understandable, especially with lifestyle questions asking, “What bar do you like? What books do you read? What art do you buy?” that seem designed for fans to consume like her in addition to consuming her. Like others in the spotlight, artists can’t afford to drop a rich thought just once or slow down the personal divulging- getting off the conveyor belt means becoming obsolete.
If Laser has figured out that resistance’s next turn will, in fact, be a very purposeful invisibility, she has a given us a head start on how to tactically disappear behind performed affectations.
At a time when the public is not only media literate but increasingly fluent, from entertainment (reality TV) to political spectacle (Mission Accomplished) Laser is hung up on why performances are still effective even when we know how they are constructed.
The Art Show
Tell Me What You Want to Hear is represented for subsequent audiences as three channels of synced video: from the control room of Laser and the production team, from the studio of the participants as they performed (intercut with previous media training and TV appearance footage), and from Diverseworks of Buggs and the live audience.
As you enter the space, perpendicular to the posted script, shiny and smiley photographs of each participant greet you. In these photographs as well as in the video, the participants appear stacked into frames with their previous appearances, pinpointing degrees of refinement throughout the media training process, and forcing a collapse between personality and performance.
In projects such as In Camera, The Digital Face, and I Feel Your Pain, Laser used actors to play media professionals and politicians. In Tell Me What You Want to Hear, she seems in pursuit of a less removed representation. She used people, who have actually performed these roles, to perform heightened versions of themselves. This is where things may have gotten interestingly off-kilter for Laser. Not only could she not control the non-actors, but she had to contend with their expertise.
Although Laser “see[s] camera and camera operators as playing constitutive roles in the scenarios [she] create[s],” the project’s lack of clear intention was a point of frustration for some participants. “This is what we do,” asserted one of the media production students who did the camera, sound, and editing for work Tell Me What You Want to Hear. Although appreciative of the unique, hands on experience, they wanted to be respected for and directed in their craft.
At times, I wondered if Tell Me What You Want to Hear was another absorption of a non-art field into the art world to be observed, examined, and teased – not necessarily with anything being teased out. Critical distance has such cache that artists who operate at a remove can be valued more than artists who work near enough to perceive the essential.
Without acknowledging Lorrelle, Buggs, and Anderson’s motivations for getting their message across with as much impact as possible, Tell Me What You Want to Hear could stop at faulting them for their method.
When Does Media Become Mass
But, what at first seemed like antagonism directed at the wrong people (not having access to the president’s coaches or the news media giants and picking on local professionals who volunteered for her project instead) turned out to be a question of “When does media become mass?”
This inquiry hung in the air most starkly during young, aspiring broadcast journalist Lizette Garcia’s moments on camera. She earnestly described how she wants to influence people’s opinions and amplify the Latino perspective, but she couldn’t help mechanically repeating the questions and agreeing that she must straighten her hair to be camera ready.
When the artist’s deconstructive unraveling lacks a simultaneous additive process to create new meaning, the gotcha! impulse makes for art that is paranoid as well as predictable. Where Tell Me What You Want to Hear raises crucial questions is in Laser’s own use of the feedback loop and in the participants’ contributions- pivotal elements of a show that, in the end, echoes its own multilayered process.
In the case of Lorrelle, the virtuosity of her performance disarmed the examination of it. Those tense moments between Lorrelle and Laser created some of the weirdest disconnects between the art worker’s propensity for deconstruction and the media worker’s aim to perfectly refine.
Something generative came from the clashing between the current art world formula: irony + opacity = sophisticated art and the media standard: easily consumable entertainment = successful journalism.
The fact that artists can take extant but untapped parts of life; garbage collecting, walking, luchadors, shrimping, focus groups, and reconfigure them in an art context to generate cultural value is one example of what experts artists are at manufacturing meaning–or in Marxist terminology – surplus value. The charismatic talking head that makes the news seem real is not all that different from the brand that makes a product twice as expensive is not all that different from the extra white space around a print that takes itself more seriously and so fetches a higher price.
As Maurice Duhon said when asked what he saw in artists’ investigations of his roles as a political candidate (City Council Meeting) and as a reality TV star (Tell Me What You Want to Hear), “More than anything, it all relies on what the audience is willing to receive.”
1 Shannon Jackson described the assumption that “Rather than exploring love or any affect at risk of corruption and blind sentimentalization, the job of poets and artists should be to reject such accommodations to the world, to resists full intelligibility, and to guard against any warm incorporation by society. Art should challenge social sense and social sentiment at every turn, refusing to be a vehicle for softening political agendas, refusing to make social injustice palatable through the pleasure of aestheticized emotion” Jackson, Shannon. “Why Not More Love.” More Love: Ackland Art Museum. Ackland: Ackland Art Museum, 2012. copy at www.is.gd/4O9KqV
2 “In a bid to be ‘fit’ for philosophical, as well as political discourse, artist have learned to cultivate detachment, distrust, and doubt…” the normalized status of disenchantment within the new spirit of contemporary capitalism… disenchantment itself has become a normalized aesthetic strategy fully integrated into a contemporary art market…So too the cultivation of disenchantment and various ‘ugly’ feelings within the critical humanities risks becoming an ‘operational requirement.'” Jackson, 207.
3 See also Komar and Melamid’s Most Wanted Paintings.
4 Far too many arts institutions have become media masters in their own right, shooting the photos and writing the copy that portrays any event as a raving success regardless of how substantial or interesting it actually was. Documentation that makes the stuff look good after the fact is, after all, what is required by the funders, so it is sometimes what takes precedence. Glimpsing all that went into it, I can vouch that how Tell Me What You Want to Hearis represented by Diverseworks is just the tip of the iceberg.
5 “I’m dissatisfied with the relationship we, the public, have to mass media. This is precisely the relationship I would like to see dismantled and re-assembled…The avant-garde distrusted catharsis because it rendered viewers passive and unable to think critically…The same performance methods used to conjure audience empathy are being applied in tandem with market research to engineer public opinion. In my work I am trying to reckon with the fact that our awareness does not break the spell performance can have on us.” “Liz Magic Laser, Commissioned artist, The Armory Show Focus Group, 2013” by Katy Diamond Hamer, Flash Art Online, March 5, 2013.
7 Though perhaps only in an abstract, isolated sense, insofar as I’m not sure how much good social practice has done for social work, etc.
Images courtesy of Diverseworks.
This essay was first published on The Great God Pan is Dead.