Convulsive States
Liz Magic Laser

Convulsive States, by video and performance artist Liz Magic Laser, explores the shaking body as both a symptom and a cure for psychic distress. The newly commissioned presentation traces the lineage of psychosomatic disorders, from historical concepts of hysteria to contemporary diagnoses of nonepileptic seizures and spirit possession. Developed over nine years of intense conversation and friendship with the poet Ariana Reines, the exhibition comprises interactive videos offering therapeutic movement exercises, and a hallucinatory investigative report that feverishly pursues the cure for hysteria as it uncovers mysteries at Paris’s Salpêtrière Hospital—a site widely regarded as the birthplace of modern neurology and psychology.

Upon entering the exhibition, viewers encounter a hall of eight mirrored monitors, collectively titled Exorcise 1 through 8 (2023), that riff on the smart fitness mirrors popularized in recent years. The audience’s reflections become superimposed onto the pulsating bodies of somatic practitioners, which include the artist’s own mother, choreographer and Authentic Movement Practitioner Wendy Osserman. The guides appear on screen to demonstrate methodologies such as qigong, holotropic breathwork, Kundalini yoga, and GYROKINESIS® method. Though divergent in their cultural origins, these practices all use movement as vehicles by which individuals can reach euphoric and meditative states. Punctuated by solfeggio healing frequencies—electromagnetic tones reputed to have cellular healing and consciousness raising powers—Laser’s videos prompt viewers to become empathic imitators of the figures on screen.

The instructors on the mirrored monitors appear as apparitions, functioning as a movement chorus that synchronizes with elements in the central film Convulsive States (2023). In it, Laser examines various artworks, incidents, and art therapies uncovered at the contemporary Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital. The artist searches for clues about the legacy of nineteenth-century hospital director Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, whose medical innovations were informed by his own pursuits in painting, photography, and proto-performance art. Recognized as the forefather of modern neurology, Charcot’s classroom presentations of patients demonstrating fits of hysteria became popular theatrical spectacles, drawing an audience of Parisian socialites along with pupils of his, such as Sigmund Freud; the spectacles also inspired the Surrealist movement, decades later.

Laser’s film links these historical narratives to more contemporary ideas and attitudes within psychotherapy. Filmed in collaboration with French journalist Laura Geisswiller, Convulsive States follows a television reportage style, featuring interviews with doctors, historians and dance therapists. These conversations are interwoven with meditative footage that spirals around the sculptures and images of Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, rendering visible the history of hysteria and its continuing influence demonstrated in recent events—including the outbreaks of TikTok ticks spread via social media, non-epileptic seizures in the suburbs of Buffalo, New York, and the convulsive cries issued from the balconies of a locked-down Shanghai.

Gradually, Laser’s cinematic gaze transitions from "objective” journalism to her subjective experience embodying the psychosomatic condition that she set out to study. Delving further into personal essay and auto-fiction, the film arrives at the artist’s suspicion that she has instigated her own hysteria. Laser invites us to question whether her embodiment of shaking is a discharging of individual trauma, or a conjuring of our enraged collective consciousness that compels our bodies to express resistance. She asks: Is hysteria and its current incarnation—the “psychogenic nonepileptic seizure”—a phenomenon of individual maladaptation, or the appropriate social-emotional response of our collective human organism?

To expand on the themes of the exhibition, Pioneer Works will present a new iteration of Scientific Controversies, a signature series created and hosted by astrophysicist and Pioneer Works’s Director of Sciences, Janna Levin. The program, to take place on October 11th, features psychologist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, who authored the celebrated book The Body Keeps the Score, and neuroscientist Rachel Yehuda. Laser will also facilitate a participatory workshop that invites viewers to partake in the therapeutic methodologies depicted on screen, as part of Second Sundays in November. Lastly, the Tate Modern in London will present a screening of Convulsive States and host an online participatory program, as part of the Terra Foundation for American Art Series: New Perspectives.

About the Artist

Liz Magic Laser is a multimedia video and performance based artist from New York City. Her work intervenes in semi-public spaces such as bank vestibules, movie theaters and newsrooms, involving collaborations with actors, surgeons, political strategists and motorcycle gang members. Her recent work explores the efficacy of new age techniques and psychological methods active in both corporate culture and political movements. Laser’s work has been shown at venues such as The Smithsonian American Art Museum (2023); ICA Boston (2023); Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen (2022); Guggenheim Museum, New York (2021); MUDAM The Contemporary Art Museum of Luxembourg (2021); Kunsthalle Baden-Baden (2019); Centre Pompidou, Paris (2018); Metro Pictures, New York (2018); CAC Brétigny, France (2017); Malmö Konsthall, Sweden (2017); the Swiss Institute (2016); the Whitney Museum of American Art (2015); MoMA PS1, New York (2010); Various Small Fires, Los Angeles (2015); Paula Cooper Gallery, New York (2013) the Westfälischer Kunstverein, Münster, Germany (2013); Lisson Gallery, London (2013); the Performa 11 Biennial, New York (2011). Laser is the recipient of grants from Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Foundation, the Southern Exposure Off-Site Graue Award, New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, and the Franklin Furnace Fund for Performance Art. Sternberg Press published her monograph, Public Relations / Öffentlichkeitsarbeit, in conjunction with a solo exhibition at the Westfälischer Kunstverein, Germany (2014). Her work has been critically acclaimed in publications such as Text zur Kunst, Artforum, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Frieze, and Art in America.

Liz Magic Laser: Convulsive States is made possible by generous funding from the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation. It is also supported in part by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in Partnership with the City Council, as well as the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature.

Convulsive States features cinematography by Laura Geisswiller; video editing by Isaac Goes and Michelle Yoon; sound design by Jared Arnold; musical recordings by GOBBY; Colorist: Nic Seago; Subtitle Translation by Charlotte de Mezamat; interviews with the staff of the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, including neurologist Dr. Martin Catala, psychiatrist Dr. David Cohen, Father Frederic Louzeau, neurologist Dr. Vincent Navarro, dance therapist Svetlana Panova, neurologist Dr. Emmanuel Flamand Roze, and dance therapist France Schott-Billmann; and additional interviews with artist and tai chi instructor Fabrice Brunet, journalist Hélène Combis, librarian and archivist Remi Gaillard, and journalist Virginie Girod. The artist offers special thanks to historian Asti Hustvedt for sharing research, the memory of Dr. Catherine Bouchara, who staged the seminal exhibition Charcot, une vie avec l'image at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, the School of Visual Arts MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department for equipment support, and Zhu Miansheng of Ars Asiatica and Emmanuel Roussille for supporting the participation of artist Fabrice Brunet. Additional thanks to Manuel David, Joan Dupont and Vanessa Gould.

Exorcise 1 through 8 features performances by multidimensional medicine woman and physical therapist Eia Buenconsejo, birth doula Bonu deCaires, somatic acting technique professor Erica Fae, personal trainer and wellness coach Erik Potempa, dancer and massage therapist Cori Kresge, choreographer and Authentic Movement practitioner Wendy Osserman, GYROTONIC® Master Trainer Naoko Moriyama Robbins, and Kundalini yogi and competitive krumper Reuel Crunk Rogers; cinematography by Michelle Yoon; additional camerawork by Isaac Goes, Liz Magic Laser, and Grace Poppe; sound design by Jared Arnold; musical recordings by GOBBY; video editing by Isaac Goes and Michelle Yoon; choreographic consulting by Cori Kresge; and costume design and casting consulting by Felicia Garcia-Rivera.