Currently on view at Derek Eller Gallery in New York, Liz Magic Laser’s chase (2009) stems from interpretation of Bertolt Brecht’s Man Equals Man (1926), performed by eight different actors in various bank vestibules throughout New York City. The ongoing project unfolds in the gallery as a feature-length video and a theatrical set for an ancillary performance of The Elephant Calf, a one-act farce that Brecht originally intended to be the final scene of Man Equals Man, but later made as an addendum to the script.
The Elephant Calf, performed at the exhibition’s opening, is an absurdist tale of an elephant calf who is tried and convicted of murdering his mother despite the fact that his mother is very much alive and no evidence exists to condemn him. The play makes clear that truth is often a matter of opinion backed by mob rule. Applying the same blustery irrationality that blogger Andrew Breitbart uses to dismiss every racist comment attributed to the Tea Party, claiming that the epithets are plants by the left wing media, or the faulty reasoning behind George W. Bush’s search for his WMD MacGuffin, the Elephant Calf is the parable version of Man Equals Man, a condemnation of the convenient truths that drive the logic of war.
While chase makes clear the parallel between war’s distortions and a phantom economy based on mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps by situating the play in a bank lobby, it is questionable whether invoking Brecht has the subversive potential it once had. In an age where détournement comes in the guise of Jon Stewart and the absurdity of the theater is no match for the absurdity of the nightly news, even Brecht’s alienation technique seems up for grabs. The most subversive potential of chase may lie in its repurposing of the ATM vestibule as public space.
Like the Surveilance Camera Players, Laser’s actors are well aware that they are playing for not one, but many cameras. Yet they do not act in accordance with the rules of conduct that normally govern such occupied territory. Latin America has a long tradition of marrying theater and politics in an effort to liberate civic space. Laser may want to consider some of these approaches, such as Augusto Boal’s invisible, legislative, or analytical theater. Beyond that, an actual deliverance from wag-the-dog politics may require leaving the gallery behind to develop new techniques that can interrupt the speed at which every act of resistance is reclaimed by ever-agile corporate technologies.