19. February 2016

In the February edition of DOUBLE FEATURE the SCHIRN presents “The Thoughtful Leader”, a recent work by Liz Magic Laser. It will be followed by Laser’s favorite film “A Touch of Sin”.

By Daniel Urban

Free public speaking has a special attraction. Even if meticulously prepared, it seems more direct and personal than speeches simply read from a sheet of paper, seems as though it has been freely formed in the moment or at least adapted to the moment – which in individual cases may of course be true.

Orators enjoyed high regard even in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire and the art of eloquence was taught in special oratory schools. Alongside actual eloquence, the way a speech is given in terms of speed, expression, rhetoric, facial expression and gesture plays a not unimportant role in evaluating a free speech and pushes it, it seems, towards the art of acting.

Society’s optimism

“I am a sick man … I am a spiteful man” are the first words spoken by the orator in “The Thoughtful Leader” (2015) by American artist Liz Magic Laser (born 1981). They are spoken on a professionally lit stage by a smartly dressed boy, played by 10-year-old actor Alex Ammerman.

The boy is giving a radical free speech to an audience which we repeatedly see in cut footage. He is speaking of the profound meaninglessness that each individual finds himself confronted with at some point, announces that the best course to take is to do absolutely nothing and attacks the belief in progress and what he considers to be society’s ideological optimism.

Reduced to 18 minutes

“I am a sick man … I am a spiteful man” – this is also how Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1864 novel “Notes from Underground” begins, in the first part of which the nameless protagonist crushingly condemns in writing himself and the society around him with harsh thoughts. Now in “The Thoughtful Leader”, Liz Laser has Ammerman quote or paraphrase the indictment written by Dostoyevsky’s protagonist and puts it in the formal framework of a free lecture.

Liz Magic Laser, The Thought Leader, 2015, Filmstill, Copyright the artist

In terms of formal aesthetics, this is strongly reminiscent of the world-famous TED series of lectures by the charitable Sapling Foundation, in which well-known and lesser-known personalities give free lectures on scientific or (socio)political topics whose length must not exceed 18 minutes.

A strong closeness to existentialism

Ammerman reproduces the characteristic style of the TED speakers seemingly effortlessly and his style of address suggests a deeper understanding of the cultural and social critique he is delivering, the content of which indisputably demonstrates a strong closeness to existentialism. The audience’s reaction seems to alternate between concern and rejection.

Liz Magic Laser, The Thought Leader, 2015, Filmstill, Copyright the artist

As such “The Thoughtful Leader” can be seen as a kind of satirical remark on the special style of the speakers, which casually squeeze even highly complex topics into an entertaining and easily digestible form with great public appeal in speeches subject to strict time constraints before the next person steps up and talks about something entirely different.

Humanity’s chances of survival

In her video works and mixed media performances Liz Laser repeatedly addresses the question as to the forms of communicating various topics such as advertising or news and seeks out the points where they intersect. In “I Feel Your Pain” (2011) for example, Laser had actors placed in the audience reenact passages from interviews with politicians and thus crystallized their over-emotionalized content; in the video piece “Service” (2009) a married couple has an argument at a dinner party, throwing quotations at each other from so-called disaster movies such as “Armageddon”, “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Outbreak” about humanity’s chances of survival.

I Feel Your Pain (A Performa Commission), Liz Magic Laser, 2011, production still, SVA Silas Theater, New York. Photo: Paula Court, via lizmagiclaser.com

As her favorite film Liz Laser chose “Tian zhu ding” (Engl. “A Touch of Sin”) by Chinese director Jia Zhangke from 2013, which was awarded the prize for best screenplay at Cannes. The original title refers to the genre of wuxia films, Asian martial arts movies whose well-known representative “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” by Ang Lee made this considerably older genre popular in the West, too. The film tells four stories from China’s more recent history that are loosely based on real events.

The monstrous injustice

The various episodes tell of the day-to-day injustice the protagonists are subjected to and the strain of which ultimately leads to acts of violence. For example, in the first episode the former miner Dao tries to fight and rebel against the all-embracing corruption in his province, which ultimately serves to line the pockets of a rich few at the cost of the poor masses. When he fails, Dao takes up arms and runs amok. In this way, in calm, poetic images Jia Zhangke goes beyond clichéd emotionalizing and films the monstrous injustice confronted by the individual, who in the end has no other solution than to react with precisely that which he faces.

In Laser’s works, the impact of the Hollywood film narrative is reflected in other performative acts, be they lectures, interviews with politicians or even private conversations. In “A Touch of Sin”, in turn, reality provides a basic outline for the film world, which however still seems to be so fitting that not only this film by Jia Zhangke was banned in China.