With Bystander, Liz Magic Laser seems to tell us that news media is unreliable, irrelevant and preys on our emotions. But the intended audience for whom this might be startling is hard to imagine.
On the night of the recent lunar eclipse, when the sky fogged over and the moon disappeared, we watched a news channel’s live feed of the event for a while. As the moon glowed fiercely then submitted to the planet’s shadow, newscasters kept up a constant, anodyne babble. The insatiable digestive system of the 24-hour news cycle can process anything, from eclipses to failed revolutions, into shit.
The New York-based artist Liz Magic Laser is fascinated by the mainstream media’s cannibalization of the present. She works with the material of capital’s self-understanding: TV news, political strategy, consumer research. Her videos and performances use the techniques of live broadcast and theatre, fusing their aliveness with corporate media’s ideological inertia. Previous works, such as I Feel Your Pain (2011) and The Armory Show Focus Group (2013), engagingly splice together the romantic comedy and the political interview, the focus group and the art fair.
Bystander, which premiered in March at The Kitchen in New York, promised to explore the same territory. Working with professional actors, newscasters, and members of the public, Laser collated a script for theatrical performance using the form of TV news. Onstage newscasters read a mixture of real news stories and personal anecdotes drawn from interviews with New Yorkers, while a roving reporter questioned the audience about their responses. Actors embedded among the audience grabbed the mic to declaim expert opinions on everything from Russian foreign policy to the weather.
It sounded fun, but the elements didn’t cohere. The clunky set and awkward performances felt accidental. The focus on TV news rather than the rapid online circulation of information felt faintly dated, as if Laser hasn’t noticed the expansion of platforms like Twitter and Facebook. The script was fashioned from an incoherent mass of material: boring personal memories of the kind you might tell to a polite stranger and recent news stories that everyone already knows. On the few occasions when an audience member did offer up an unscripted anecdote, the interviewer didn’t know what to do with it. After the actors emerged from the audience to join forces with the newscasters, it all ended with the plea that we should get lost together. But exactly what form of collectivity Laser wanted to invoke, against exactly what form of alienation, remained obscure.
Read as political art, Bystander risks mistaking the real terrain of struggle for the reified activity that names itself as “politics.” In this light, Laser’s critique of the media seems to be a critique of over-mediation – not the problem of democratic representation as such, but of the representation of representation. If only politicians would be more authentic, if news were less aestheticized, if people were more engaged, and so on, then we would all be able to participate as full citizens.
The idea that TV and advertising brainwash most people into compliance conveniently casts artists and intellectuals as the enlightened conscience of the population. It is a politics that combines left-liberalism (“capitalism can be fixed!”) with vaguely Leninist vanguardism (“…and we are the only ones who can do it!”). That might be fine if this self-appointed vanguard had any traction, but instead many leftists spend their time wringing their hands over the failure of ordinary people to take action. That this is understood as primarily a matter of the political strategy of something called “the left” rather than the triumph of a brutal and well-resourced capitalist class is both an ongoing mystery and the raw material of many careers in art, academia, and punditry.
It seems extraordinary that Laser sees the vacuity of mass media as an urgent object of critique rather than an everyday fact. But, understood as the critique of corruption, a version of this position was ascendant in the Occupy movements of recent years. Anti-state communists who argued that the 2008 near-collapse was triggered not by “greedy bankers” or poor regulation but by the logic of capitalism itself were mostly ignored – not just in the media, but within the movements themselves. In a painfully telling example, at the Occupy London encampment on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a banner reading “Capitalism is crisis” was replaced with one condemning “usury,” an ancient term for moneylending with anti-Semitic overtones.
This tendency was global. The Marxian collective Endnotes writes: “According to occupiers everywhere, if the state was acting irrationally, then that had to be the result of corruption: the state had been captured by moneyed interests.” They argue that what appears as “corruption” in fact reflects the state’s increasing inability to hold the conflicting needs of capital in balance. Popular demands for fair, peaceful, transparent institutions can never be fully met in capitalism, because violence and deprivation are the system, and not its accidents. Yet to many people who are struggling to deal with worsening living conditions, a diagnosis of corruption feels more subjectively true, more bearable in experience, than a general condemnation of the world as it is.
Critiques of capitalism that focus only on finance and corruption while treating “real” industrial production as benign have a depressing history. As Moshe Postone has argued, the Nazis mounted their objection to capitalism on the conflation of finance capital with the (to them) equally problematically mobile, abstract-but-concrete figure of the Jew. Not all bad analyses turn genocidal, but they inspire bad activism and bad art. Without a clear focus on the scandal of wage labor and original accumulation, on capitalism’s awful history of possession and dispossession, both art and politics mistake images for the enemy.
The failure of systemic critiques of capitalism to fully take root, so far, even in a period of global crisis, might, as Laser’s work suggests, be partly a consequence of a corporate news media that unquestioningly consumes and transmits the theater of capitalist politics. But this theory seems to underestimate people’s ability to interpret the circumstances of their own lives. Even Brecht, whose energetically didactic work Laser explicitly draws on, admitted of the pernicious effects of state propaganda: “True, good speeches can do a lot / But they can’t do everything.” If ideology actually worked, capitalism would have no need for cops.
Bystander’s purpose seems to be to tell us that news media is unreliable, irrelevant and preys on our emotions. But the intended audience for whom this might be startling is hard to imagine, let alone care about. As CeCe McDonald put it at a recent talk at the New School, “I’m an impoverished black trans woman; capitalism never worked for me.” Treating the mendacity and violence of mainstream politics as something you discover intellectually, rather than experience directly, reveals more about the artist’s own subject position than anything else. Specifically, it reveals an affiliation with the white bourgeois culture given an unexpected glimpse of its own fragility by the economic shocks of the recent past.
It could be that this unwarranted astonishment only reflects the predominantly white and bourgeois nature of the art world. No matter how well intentioned college reading lists, a thousand essays on state violence will not do the work of a single encounter with hostile cops; all three books of Capital fade in comparison to the unmediated education in capitalist exploitation that you get by working a low-wage job. If most “critical” art seems to presume an audience who is ignorant of the most basic general conditions of life, it could well be because most art institutions are run by people with little direct experience of the shittiness of the world. This could explain why many artists’ idea of an invigorating and shocking social critique is to point out that museums require money to run, hire low-wage staff, and in all other ways are not hermetically sealed islands standing outside of the general principles of capitalism.
However, this can’t be the whole story. Laser’s career, like all contemporary artists, is partly predicated on her capacity for analyzing and reprocessing culture. These are the skills that art education aims to instill. So it’s unlikely that Laser’s engagement of news media really begins and ends with the non-insight that it fails to accurately represent reality.
Beyond the model of the vanguard (“artist knows best”), politically engaged art has another, more self-critical approach: investigations into the bourgeois subject’s complicity with its conditions of production. As melancholia transforms hatred of lost objects into hatred of the self, left-liberal critique (“the problem is corrupt institutions like the media”) protects the world as it is from the necessity and impossibility of its transformation, but commits the individual to self-blame. It is in this melancholic mode that Laser’s work makes most sense. The machinery of manufactured public discourse is her object of critique, but it’s also her lovingly handled material. Her work is at its most seductive when, as in I Feel Your Pain or Absolute Event (2013), its criticality involutes as fascination. Recast as the intimate dialogue of a couple, Glenn Beck’s interview with Sarah Palin reveals its dazzling strangeness (I Feel Your Pain). Remixed with fragments of a nineteenth-century courtship drama, the production of a presidential candidate’s public image appears as a shared and faintly erotic narcissism between men (Absolute Event).
Perhaps Bystander fails partly because it lacks the register of intimacy, of the couple. In Bystander, the personal stories that Laser has gathered are given the same formal status as the news stories to which they should have been some kind of counterpoint. Perhaps because the news format itself can already sustain a lot of extraneous material – celebrity gossip, cute kids, the antics of animals, the personalities of the newscasters – Laser’s attempt to subvert the form by mixing registers falls flat. With no safe place in the work to parse her love of trashy mass media forms alongside her disgust, Laser’s critique of them becomes shrill with disavowal.
Bystander’s approach is almost exactly opposite to the strategy of I Feel Your Pain, where the apparent authenticity of private life is staged as always already performative and public. Instead, in Bystander, the empty banalities of news media are swapped for the trivia of everyday life. Anecdotes coagulate into a script where all voices are the voice of The People, ignoring differences in race, class, and gender. Perhaps this is meant to support the liberal fantasy that more and better democracy will melt away painful antagonisms, or render them peripheral. But this neutral treatment feels bleak, despite the cheerful DIY aesthetic. Where everyone is supposedly a citizen, no one is a person.
Bystander may be less satisfying than Laser’s other works, but perhaps it’s the most successful of them all, if success means accuracy. It refuses us the comfort of a well-executed critique, leaving us to dwell in the embarrassing overproduction of language, in the banality of both good and evil, as seen on TV. For many of us, in current conditions, our performances of selfhood are just as embarrassing as those of Laser’s hapless newscasters. The wonky sets we live in look more real, but don’t feel it. Our dialogue is bad even when we’re saying “I love you” or “I want to die” – subjectivity sheds crocodile tears for itself. If Bystander’s main effect is faint embarrassment, then maybe the point is that sometimes it is correct to feel ashamed.