I hang around with children pretty often and I think I learn more from them than they do from me. Not in a direct way like they're instructing me, but through epiphanies that register when dealing with their resistance when I attempt to instruct them as a parent or a teacher or a grown-up. The resistance bugs the hell out of me, but I also admire it because it means they're asserting their independence. It makes them more human and less just a reflection or a projection. When I see children involved in adult art making, I worry about them being used as props or stand-ins for adult voices and concerns (though if that's my problem, why aren't I worried about adults being used as props in the same works?). They are handy little defamiliarization devices that can render something funny, cute or disturbing (or all three in the case of my wife's recent video of our four year old singing along to Drake's Hotline Bling in the backseat of our car) or they can recontextualize something taken for granted to be heard anew (like in Gary Hill’s video of his daughter reading Wittgenstein).
Liz Magic Laser, Kiss and Cry, 2015, single-channel video
All these thoughts ran through my head when I escaped the full infant onslaught that is the pre-Xmas rush and ducked into Mercer Union to see Brooklyn-based artist Liz Magic Laser's exhibition of two new videos, both of which feature child actors in lead roles. To navigate my ethical response so I could get to my aesthetic response, I texted Darren O'Donnell, who left a career in theatre to pursue a career in relational work that often features young people as key collaborators. His first foray into this realm some ten years ago, Haircuts by Children, earned him a couple accusations of simply exploiting kids (and the last time I saw him he joked about his teenage collaborators eventually turning on him), but the gist of the piece was a desire to empower children and give them agency, thus inverting the relation of authority between majors and minors.
Laser's videos are also concerned with power relations as played out by two sibling figure skaters who recite quotations concerned with the status of children as oppressed or revolutionary figures (in Kiss and Cry) and a self-possessed girl who leads a troupe of adults through a series of public speaking exercises (in My Mind is My Own). The latter work is more evocative as the content of the exercises sneakily alludes to a whole slew of potential antagonisms that eventually turn the class into a bizarre form of group psychotherapy. The featured work plays up political ideology alongside the exhausting training of the young athletes to compete ostensibly as adults (they aren’t having any fun out there on the ice). The artist is wise to use competitive sport as a setting for this work (particularly one that has the added layer of a highly theatricalized performance) because it is an arena for wrenching childhood away from the young and placing demands on them that turns leisure into work (I speak from my experience as a father of a competitive gymnast).
In the end, the children in these videos aren’t even children. They are child actors taking on adult roles to represent the fascinating and troubling idea of the child as a paradigm for adult idealization. I find this more troubling than fascinating because it seems to perpetuate the exploitative nature of the relation. However, the inversions that Laser has incorporated through layers of artifice deflect that response, so I’m left feeling queasy, which I think is the point.
Mercer Union: http://www.mercerunion.org/
Liz Magic Laser: Kiss and Cry continues until January 23.
Terence Dick is a freelance writer living in Toronto. His art criticism has appeared in Canadian Art, BorderCrossings, Prefix Photo, Camera Austria, Fuse, Mix, C Magazine, Azure, and The Globe and Mail. He is the editor of Akimblog. You can follow his quickie reviews and art news announcements on Twitter @TerenceDick.
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Posted by John Porter, on 2016-01-07 12:00:16Thanks for referring to these videos as "videos". (: