Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

The Art of Banking: A Talk with Liz Magic Laser

Written by Julie Fishkin
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Curating an exhibition is never easy, particularly when the depth and premise of a project extend well beyond the capacity of a very small exhibition space. Such was my challenge at Heist Gallery when Matt Lucas and I decided to kick off our summer series with a preview of Liz Magic Laser’s chase: a production of Bertolt Brecht's Man Equals Man, a brilliant and curious project that probes certain quotidian experiences, pointing to vulnerabilities in structures we overlook or take for granted. Once the project was installed I was able to sit down with Liz to, among other things, discuss feeding prosciutto into her bank account via the ATM, staging Bertolt Brecht’s Man Equals Man in various bank branches, and how the project, as a whole, came together. A preview of Laser’s video, the first forty-five minutes of what will be a three and a half hour film, was on view in our summer series.
 
 

Curating an exhibition is never easy, particularly when the depth and premise of a project extend well beyond the capacity of a very small exhibition space. Such was my challenge at Heist Gallery when Matt Lucas and I decided to kick off our summer series with a preview of Liz Magic Laser ’s chase: a production of Bertolt Brecht's Man Equals Man, a brilliant and curious project that probes certain quotidian experiences, pointing to vulnerabilities in structures we overlook or take for granted. Once the project was installed I was able to sit down with Liz to, among other things, discuss feeding prosciutto into her bank account via the ATM, staging Bertolt Brecht’s Man Equals Man in various bank branches, and how the project, as a whole, came together. A preview of Laser’s video, the first forty-five minutes of what will be a three and a half hour film, was on view in our summer series.

Julie: It’s tough to think about banks and the banking system in light of everything that’s been going on over the past year. I guess I’ve always been broke yet hopeful, but you’re not really exploring notions of wealth or lack thereof. Tell me more.
 
Liz: The starting point was our daily interactions with the ATM machine. I also became interested in working in this ATM vestibule space because a vast array of people pass through it. It takes on some attributes of a public space, yet it structures a highly private individual experience. Even if you’re only a semi-functional member of this society, you have to have this plastic card and a bank account. The homeless also use the bank for panhandling and shelter.
 
Julie: Did you always think about that or were you using the bank one day and had an epiphany moment?
 
Liz: Generally I associate a strange sense of intimacy with our ATM relations. I began to take note of how the  bank is designed to prevent interaction. This space is clearly not a congregation space. You are individuaded there. You go to your stall, your private kiosk. You confront personal anxieties…[in regards to] how much money you do or do not have in the bank. Or if you go to take money out alone at night you might worry that someone is watching you. I see it as a site of all these semi-conscious fears and anxieties.
 
A few years ago I did have this quirk of a moment when I accidentally said thank you to an ATM after it dispensed my cash. Though I completely forgot about it until months later.
 
Julie: Wouldn’t it be funny if it was like in LA Story with that huge automated sign that Steve Martin talks to on the freeway? What if the ATM was like, "You’re welcome, dear Liz, wink, wink. I hope your project works out, and you find an apartment."
 
Liz: Hilarious. Yeah, I’m facinated with these contingently contemporary daily experiences and how they lead us to anthropomorphize the fixtures that surround us.
 
Julie: How did Brecht come about?

Liz: There’s an immediate connection I made with his notion of the everyday. Also I was drawn to Brecht’s ideas about countering the audience’s empathy and disrupting the identification process that typically takes place with theatrical activity. He develops a number of methods for instigating the audience’s critical engagement.

Julie: So you took it to the next level. I mean, Brecht still doesn’t invite you to step into the play itself inadvertently. There’s still the actor/audience dichotomy and the separation created by the stage.
 
Liz: Right, I suppose I’m taking his train of thought to an absurd degree. For this project the actors and I used Brecht’s script to aggressively engage with strangers in an effort to breach this seemingly controlled space.  
 
Did I tell you this one? I spent a whole day in this bank uptown that has ATMs without any human bankers. Since I was there for most of the day I saw them refilling the cash machines. The second time the armed guards came to refill the ATMs one of lines the actress Cat Yezbak had to deliver was “You monster”. She said this directly to an ATM and from behind the wall, this voice says, “You talking to me?!”  It was one of the armed guards in the process of filling the machine. A second guard then suddenly opened this unmarked door and said, “I’m the monster! Whatcha doing?!”

Julie: So they were cool, the armed guards with machine guns?

Liz: Yeah, completely. There were many other lines that corresponded well with our real engagement with the bank.  While I was working on the second scene with the actor Max Woertendyke we orchestrated his line, ”This temple doesn’t play fair.  Filthy, I call it, filthy!”, to correspond with our expulsion from the bank. He delivered this line as we were being kicked out by a bank manager whose response was, “I know, I understand, but you can’t do this here.”

Julie: Did anyone recognize the play?
 
Liz: No, but there were people who were quite familiar with Brecht.
 
Julie: Was it well received all in all?
 
Liz: It really depended on the day and the location. For example, on Fourteenth Street and Fifth, it was like the party bank and everyone was very engaging. This one woman we approached with was like, “Oh, I’ve been waiting for you to come up to me!!” Though other times we were ignored, which is also very aggressive. Another time one of the bank customers said “This is the second time this week I’ve seen theater in a bank.”
 
And I said, “Oh, it was probably me.”
 
And she was like, “No, it was two women.”
 
And I was like, ”What bank? Was it the WaMu on Second Ave and Eighth Street?”

It turned out she had seen me working with the actress Andra Eggleston (who played the lead role, Galy Gay) the week before.

Julie: Was the final video really not doing the process justice at all? Forty-five minutes out of hours of brilliant footage…..
 
Liz: Somehow this performance occurred and dissipated, but it’s ongoing life is a postulation that I’m really  excited about. In the end the resulting video will be a few hours long and encompass the entire play. It’ll definitely evolve and change as I continue the editing process.
 
Julie: You were turning this question to others in the playbill you made for the exhibition, but I have to ask you now, do you trust your bank?
 
Liz: [Pauses and thinks it over for a few minutes] No… Though I think Chase feels more trustworthy because it has such a major presence, which implies a certain false yet comforting sense of strength. The bank is bureaucratic and it’s not going to treat you like a person. All of these ad campaigns about personal attention are bunk. I’m interested in how bank advertisement constructs a notion of individual needs. I think this type of phenomena has a real effect on subject formation. What a strange trajectory that has led us to feel unsafe physically possessing our currency. We need a big conglomeration to hold on to our stuff for safekeeping, and we need it to keep on growing.  
 
Julie: Yeah, and sometimes it grows so big that it has tentacles and ten heads. And then it explodes and everyone is fucked. And jobless. At least we’ve given people another way to consider the system and turn some stale conventions on their heads.
 
Liz: Hopefully.   
 
chase actors: Annika Boras, Andra Eggleston, Gary Lai, Liz Micek, Justin Sayre, Doug Walter, Michael Wiener, Max Woertendyke and Cat Yezbak
 
chase costume styling: Felicia Garcia-Rivera  
 
chase program pamphlet designed: Lauren Adolfsen
 

Video stills courtesy of Liz Magic Laser.

 

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