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Centre d'art contemporain Brétigny opens exhibition of works by visual artist Liz Magic Laser
Liz Magic Laser, My Mind is My Own, 2015, single-channel video, 8', video still. Featuring actress Ella Maré. Courtesy Various Small Fires, Los Angeles and Wilfried Lentz, Rotterdam.

by Céline Poulin


BRÉTIGNY-SUR-ORGE .- One of the movie scenes that has impressed me the most over the last years features Julianne Moore, alias Havana Seegrand, struggling with her coach, Stafford Weiss, played by John Cusack, in David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars, which was adapted from the cult book by Bruce Wagner.

The woman is lying on her stomach on a gym mat, the man, positioned behind her, is directing her to scream to root out the anxiety and fears surrounding her past and present relationship with her mother, a famous actress who is deceased. We see the actress, her face streaming with tears, yelling out words of welcome to the ghost of a mother, “Mi casa es tu casa!”

The therapy mockingly practiced by Stafford Weiss is known as “Primal Therapy”. Very popular in the 1970s and developed by the American psychologist Arthur Janov, the therapy involves helping the patient regress to her or his earliest childhood in order to produce a scream from this so-called primal period. Janov’s radical approach focused on abreaction: the cathartic re-experiencing of a traumatic event. The aim was to free people to communicate powerfully in order to effect change in their lives. Liz Magic Laser resuscitated this practice in its integrity in 2017, in the context of Brexit and the American and French presidential elections.

In Primal Speech, Laser films a group of people confined in a padded primal room. The actors she has brought together for this group therapy hold opposing political opinions. Valerie Bell, a certified professional coach who is trained in primal therapy, “treated” the actor participants. Eeach person is guided to tackle his/her own ideology and to search within for the foundation of his/her relationship to the male and female politicians who could potentially lead him/her. In a reversal akin to Deleuze & Guattari’s “Anti-Oedipus”, Laser lays bare our most subjective and infantile motives as citizens. To fashion a synthesis here, Deleuze and Guattari would consider that analytical therapy, by focusing the problems of the individual on the private and familial sphere, protects the public sphere, and by extension the capitalist system, from the individual’s questioning that sphere in any way. Subjects concentrate the search for the causes of their problems in their family history and do not carry it over to the society around them.

The reversal occurs when the artist uses one of the therapeutic techniques employed for Primal Speech to get a patient to relive experiences with family and friends that are linked to a past trauma—the recollection makes it possible to combat the feeling of victimization. But in this instance it is towards the male and female politicians that the subject’s attention is directed. What are my expectations? My desires? My frustrations? The manipulation and cathartic principles that are at work in the film bring these projections to light. Laser adapts Janov's palliative method of clarifying emotional expression, applying it to our current political discourse.

To judge from the presidential election in France, where media communication is shaping up into something new and unexpected, the attention being paid to political discourse is directly confronted with the most complex and the most contentious of today’s issues. Thus, with Primal Speech, while pushing her thinking further on our ambiguous and conflictual relationship to the other in a global sociopolitical context, Laser is looking to put us straight to work on our analysis.

The practicality of the show, if it indeed resonates with the project of CAC Brétigny, an art venue that participates in the life of the region and is there to be used by the community, is linked especially with the performativity of Laser’s work and her desire for it to be effective. Whether doing a performance in public (The Living Newspaper: Extra Extra, 2013), or leading a workshop with young refugees (Identification Please, 2016), or tackling the formalization of media vocabulary (Public Relations/Öffentlichkeitsarbeit), Laser weaves her work intricately and intimately into civil society. She doesn’t just show us in her art how certain things function, she gets personally involved in the system by working in collaboration and in dialogue with the very people whose practices and customs she is questioning, like Elisabeth Weydt, a freelance journalist for local television stations. Laser has her interviewed in Public Relations/Öffentlichkeitsarbeit.The art world itself hasn’t escaped her focus or her methods, witness a project like The Armory Show Focus Group (2013), which was produced by the very same New York art fair of the title. Invited to design the visual identity of the art fair, Laser enlisted the marketing research specialist Ben Allen of Labrador Agency to lead a series of focus groups with members of the art community—collectors, museum curators, art agents and critics—in order to analyze the art fair’s identity and react to demand. In doing so, Laser puts her collaborators in the position of “participant observation”1 with respect to their very own system. Participant observation was theorized by Erving Goffman in his study Asylums to describe the position of anthropologists immersed in a milieu, the daily life of which they share. Here the participants are the very actors of the analysis.

And so it is for the show. The actress in Primal Speech, Adèle Jacques in the French version and Gisela Chipe in the English version, directly addresses visitors as if speaking to patients, inviting them to express their emotions: “Check in with what you're feeling right now. Now I want you to think about the latest news. How has it been affecting you? …Think about those people making decisions for us, who are hurting us. Bring them into the room with us now. They are here. What do you need to say to them? …Say it.” It is an invitation that extends to Brétigny through a workshop to be held during the time between the first and second rounds of the French presidential election (“Political Therapy Workshop”, see page 13). The workshop will be led by the star of the video, Adèle Jacques.

Envisioned as a space that is “designed with the user in mind,” the show “Discours primal” also includes several films and objects based on personal expression formats and using a range of personal development methods to engage in and critique popular forms of public speech.

For The Thought Leader (2015), Laser borrows the format of TED talks, which are quite popular in the United States and increasingly so in France as well. TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a motivational speaking format that aims to promote “the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives, and eventually the world”. The speakers generally propose abstract solutions to contemporary problems, and they have often been criticized for omitting to offer tangible measures to attain the aforementioned objectives. TED talks lend themselves well to film and television, and have inspired many scriptwriters (Dexter is but one example). The monologue delivered by the young actor Alex Ammerman of The Thought Leader is an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground (1864) to the TED talks’ format. Laser introduces the paranoid ramblings of Dostoyevsky’s antihero and applies the writer’s attack on the socialist ideal of enlightened self-interest to its contemporary capitalist incarnation. In the piece complementing The Thought Leader entitled My Mind is My Own (2015), Laser asked the professional voice coach Kate Wilson to teach her own daughter, the eleven-year-old actress Ella Maré, to perform the role of a trainer in an instructional video. Laser worked with the mother-daughter duo to corrupt the instructions and analogies used for their vocal exercises.

These methods, and other TED talks, have a common foundation, namely, the art of public speaking. Above the show hovers the spirit of François Delsarte,2 the French singer, teacher, and theoretician of movement and voice. Two closely related sculptures, a mirror and a crystal cube, adapt the diagrams and system of notation from the Delsartre System of Oratory, a learner’s manual for maximizing one’s persuasive power through the art of public speaking, first published in the 19th century.3

“Eloquence holds the first rank among the arts… The current of opinions follows the prestige of speech, and to-day, as ever, eloquence is universal queen.”4

“Discours primal” is the American artist Liz Magic Laser’s first show in France.


1 Erving Goffman, Asylums: Essays on the Condition of the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, 1961.
2 See Charles Mazé & Coline Sunier, The ABCC of CACB, p. 16.
3 Abbe Delaumosne, Delsarte system of Oratory, E. S. Werner, New York, 1893.
4 Abbe Delaumosne, Delsarte system of Oratory, extract from the Foreword.






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