Liz Magic Laser’s new video work, Convulsive States (2023), opens with a deceptively simple question: “Why are you shaking?” In 2009, while teaching a class on the history of photography, Laser came across images of nineteenth-century hysteria patients at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, which was famous for establishing the first neurology clinic in Europe. The clinic’s founder, Jean-Martin Charcot, went down in history not only for being “the founder of modern neurology,” but for making highly sexualized, theatrical spectacles of his female patients. For his weekly “Tuesday Lessons” he put them under hypnosis to demonstrate the symptoms of hysteria for Paris’ mostly male elite. These pseudo-educational shows became a notorious example of scientific exploitation.
For Convulsive States, Laser returned to psychology’s primal scene, so to speak, interviewing doctors, priests, and movement therapists at Salpêtrière about Charcot’s legacy. She investigated present-day distinctions between psychosomatic and neurological disorders from tics displayed on TikTok to Parkinson’s disease. The video anchors Laser’s eponymous exhibition at Pioneer Works, which features a dark corridor lined by fitness mirrors (Exorcize 1-8, 2023) with moving figures demonstrating exercises thought to heal the day-to-day psychological stresses of our hyperconnected, digital existence. “Convulsive States” is perhaps the crowning achievement for an artist whose career has provocatively assessed how mass media and the Internet, predatory wellness industries, and general consumerism impact our behavior in pernicious ways. These behavioral affects were explored in works about the precarity of global gig-workers (In Real Life, 2019); the impossibility of free will as monologued by a child during a TED talk (The Thought Leader, 2015); and political TV interviews being turned into rom com cinema (I Feel Your Pain, 2011).
Soon after “Convulsive States” opened to the public, Laser sat down with anthropologist Aimee Meredith Cox, whose former experience as a dancer and emotional fitness instructor—as well as living and working with houseless women—informed her academic work in Black studies. Together, they discussed the body as both a site of trauma and a site of resistance, and the ways in which we can, and should, make our bodies break the rules of normal behavior.
—David Everitt Howe
I could’ve stayed downstairs in Convulsive States for two hours, even with just one of the movement practitioners in the long hall of mirrors. How many people are featured in the installation?
Some are moving and some are still, but there's a mirroring effect where you can see yourself in the image, transposed on top of the video of the person. Experiencing that body in front of me was a way to also come back into my own body. Normally when you walk through an exhibit, it's like, okay, and then you go on to the next one. I just felt like I owed that person [in the monitor] some energy back. I thought it was very powerful.
I hoped it would become an emotional gym, where people could at least dabble in some of the trauma healing practices. What I've witnessed so far is that even in a jokey way people will take on the poses for a photo op and then start to really perform the movement. I wanted to entice people to move by mimicking this fitness mirror product, which is kind of like Peloton.
I almost bought one.
It's a mirrored monitor, and a fitness coach or yoga teacher guides you in the mirror while you see yourself reflected. It was initially called the fitness mirror and then it was bought by Lululemon.
They buy everything.
It's a bit like an enormous Fitbit.
So then in “Convulsive States” you move through this hall of fitness mirrors and then at the end is a film that you can engage with in a different way. I mean, it's not the case that everybody will take that chronology. But there’s the invitation to experience yourself in relation to someone else in these different states, then sit or stand still—while retaining that residual movement—to watch this film give us a deeper understanding of what these practices could mean across individual and collective bodies. I think it's just very powerful. Also the way you tap into the power of the breath, and how the breath is such an important part of these movements in bringing someone to an altered state. Breath work has become more mainstream now and understood as part of the wellness package that we know well, like meditation, yoga, or Pranayama and its three-part breath and alternate-nostril breathing. Holotropic breathing is intended to bring you to a heightened state in ways that Pranayama isn't necessarily meant to do. But it’s more and more prevalent.
For me the guiding question for this project has been why the same kind of shaking and paralysis happens in classic hysteria from the nineteenth century and in current healing practices, such as holotropic breathwork; it’s akin to hyperventilating and you really do trip out.
You can set your own pace, but after a while your body sort of takes over. How much can you control whether that’s healing, or shifting from catharsis to something you're traumatized by? Does it feel like trauma because you can't control it, but after the fact you realize it was healing?
You accept being out of control, I suppose, even if it's scary and painful for a time. Ideally you learn to deal with that out-of-control feeling.
Even if you don't, I wonder if the body has still been healed in some way, despite there being all these social narratives where it’s embarrassing to be out of control. The body might be like, yeah, that was traumatic for you mentally, but that helped me. I released these toxins that were held at the biological level. I wonder about the way we even talk about hysteria and its negative connotations, how it’s gendering and out of control and silly. It’s hysterical, yes, because there's many reasons to be hysterical in the social and political world we live in, then and now. Hysteria is a state that’s responding in a very sane way to insane circumstances. Who says what is sane and insane anyways? Think about women during that period. Even if there wasn’t a clear-minded, intentional desire to be hysterical, how much did their body know and it was taking them to that place?
I do feel like hysteria needs to be resuscitated out of its pejorative status. That’s what was so fascinating about Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot and his approach to psychology. He was the neurology forefather figure for Freud and Gilles de la Tourette. He’s so easily demonized by our current social mores because he was exploitative towards his female patients who were mostly of the lower classes. However, these patients had previously been locked away in a prison. Perhaps his primary objective was to self-aggrandize, but he was also nerdy, eccentric, and dedicated. While I don't think his work was all do-goodery, he was both progressive and reactionary for his era—an out-of-the-box thinker who brought attention to the plight of people who were clinically “insane” and shut away, not looked at or listened to at all. He put them on stage and made a spectacle of them for the medical profession and for Parisian high society. While I wouldn't say that that was healthy, I do think it was a radically effective therapy for some and probably highly traumatizing for others. I think it was probably hit or miss.
I researched accounts of women like Jane Avril, who was a famous Moulin Rouge can-can dancer featured in all those Toulouse-Lautrec posters. She was in Charcot's hysteria ward as a teenager, and in her memoir she describes doing an ecstatic dance at the hospital’s “Mad Women's Ball,” where she received wild applause. It was a Mardi Gras celebration where patients dressed up to parade in front of the city’s elite. She said she was cured after doing this and then went on to have an illustrious career. It turns out she had a biological neurological disorder from rheumatic fever. I also found out that rhythmic movement, shaking, and art therapy are currently being used at Salpêtrière for both neurology patients and those who have psychosomatic disorders. It often takes many years to differentiate whether someone has a neurological condition or a psychological one.
I think you speak to the broad and deep history across cultures of rhythmic shaking and release. It's not just found in one place. I’m thinking about Reiki and its Japanese lineage, but also across the globe. My grandmother would say to me, "We need to go down the street and lay our hands on that young woman who just had a baby and doesn't have anyone to help." This understanding that our hands have the power to heal—and that when you shake your body something is relieved—is codified and passed down across communities, whether that’s ecstatic dance or letting your body move in a way that looks out of control. Children do it. They have a tantrum and then they're done. It's innate, they just get it. Maybe we need to have more tantrums, to get out of feeling stuck.
What's that line between a tantrum that helps you be more so-called functional versus one that brings you into dys-function? I have a six year old and she throws my therapeutic mumbo jumbo back at me. She'll be like, "I have to let it out. You have to let me let it out." And I'm like, “I think you let it out enough. I think you're working yourself up now more than you need to.”
It's interesting to think about the intentionality behind shaking and ecstatic dancing: are you in charge of it, or is it in charge of you? Are you dangerous? Are you a dangerous body or is your body in danger?
The first large-scale project I did was Man Equals Man, in 2009. It was a theater production of the eponymous Bertolt Brecht play, which is about an ordinary man who was turned into an instrument of war and capitalism, basically disassembled and reassembled like a machine. I staged the production in bank vestibules around New York City. It was a bit aggressive because we were treating other people in the bank as scene partners. And when there wasn't someone there, the actors would speak to the ATM like it was a person. All the actors were filmed separately, and then I edited it together into one piece so that they were speaking to each other through the conduits of other people or machines.
I love this.
When security would confront us and try to kick us out, saying I had to come to the office because I was in trouble, I found a kind of mind control that I couldn’t do in my day-to-day life. I'd be like, "It's okay, we're leaving." And the bank manager would say, "No, I'm telling you it's not okay." And they would get confused why I was being calm and affirmative. I would say, "No, I'm not coming with you. I'm leaving. It's okay." I was maybe 29 then, and I looked like I was 20, so I became highly aware that if I was an older male actor l’d get kicked out faster. I came to realize that as a young white woman, I was able to get away with misbehaving.
At that time I was teaching the history of photography, and that's when I got preoccupied with these photographs of Charcot’s hysteria cases. I wrote a paper for an art history conference that attacked the preeminent expert on the topic, Georges Didi-Huberman, who I thought was implying that the women in Charcot’s “medical studies” were theatrical and fraudulent, and that he was doing it for attention.
I have a neurologist aunt named Amy Knorr, and I asked her, "Is there something like hysteria now? What do they call it?" And she said, "They call it a pseudoseizure." She sent me some papers about it, and the studies reported that the highest incidence of pseudoseizures were in Black male prisoners. Someone would have epileptic fits, and under observation it turned out they weren’t manifesting the brain activity of a seizure. Then the doctor would say, "You're having fake seizures, sorry," which resulted in a lot of suicides, because patients felt blamed for their own plight. Now these fits are called psychogenic nonepileptic seizures, and I think they're already coming up with a new term for it. But the research left me with the idea that hysteria is the performance of a body reacting against oppression.
It’s not shocking to me that it was Black male prisoners who were exhibiting these pseudoseizures. Captive bodies are inextricable from the social landscape, and they voluntarily and involuntarily react against extraordinary oppression and extraction.
Does any of this discussion around therapeutic movement or hysteria resonate with the work you did with homeless and high-risk girls for Alternatives for Girls?
I was working and living with young, houseless women for the nonprofit from 2004 until 2008. They were using dance, music, and their own writing as a way to move daily traumas—small and large—through their body, in ways not unlike how we were talking about shaking. They started to think not only about their bodies as a site of trauma, but also as a site of healing.
When I was downstairs in your exhibition just now, before this conversation, I was taking in the bodies in the mirror, but I felt compelled to move with them. There's something powerful about the somatic transference of witnessing someone in motion, especially when they're right in front of you. It changes how you feel in your own body, even if you’re not moving in response. There was a lot of that kind of empathetic observation with those young women in Detroit, too. And it’s the same with your work. What does it mean for the body to be on display as it’s moving through these different states? What bodies are seen as needing care, and what bodies are seen as potentially dangerous to themselves and others? When someone walks into your exhibit, how important is it for you to think about the social body?
I also teach movement for The Class. It's easy to make fun of it, since it’s primarily all of these women just shaking and losing their shit. There's resistance to moving this way, since it’s somehow out of the norm, like you're doing something that might be considered a little transgressive, like what are these bodies doing, exactly? It’s a question that goes beyond the exhibition space, to how we think about bodies moving differently.
And you're talking about age…
All of it. Aged bodies, brown bodies, poor bodies. We can talk about what happens when someone gets on the subway who we think is moving in a way that’s out of control, that’s not normal, and how we understand that body being a dangerous body. I can walk into a space, but the minute my arm moves a little bit slower and my leg comes up, then that's a body that's doing something that's not supposed to happen. There seems to be endless potential in your work to think historically, socially, and politically about bodies out of control, or bodies that are possessed or seem to be a threat to social order.
Yes, the body has a very real reaction to oppression. This project is more personal and sincere than anything else that I’ve put out there in my adult life. In the past, I’ve had more of a critical distance—perhaps more of an element of comedy—which I removed from this work fairly late in the game. I felt I had to let this work be vulnerable, because that is part and parcel of the territory that I was aiming for. ♦
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