I’ve always been wary of blonde children. Maybe this stems from having grown up in a mostly white Canadian small town, where civic pride swelled for the farmer boys with hair the yellow of corn who became NHL players, or the figure skating girls able to lutz and flip jump in their sparkling spandex.
In Liz Magic Laser’s Kiss and Cry at Mercer Union, the chilling universalism of the sacred, blonde prodigy is affirmed. Commissioned by the artist-run center, the video follows figure skating coach Marie Jonsson MacKenzie conditioning her blonde blue-eyed children, seven year old Anna and eleven year old Axel, from training practice to spot-lit performance. It’s a straight-forward and minimal video work install: a blacked-out gallery, a large-scale projection, and not much else. Their dialogue with each other is stiff and unsettling—at one point after a performance in a darkened, empty North Toronto arena, young Axel says in a robotic-sounding voice-over “fuck the child … fuck the future”.
If hearing a child speak a line directly lifted from Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive sounds weird, don’t worry, that’s the intended effect. The New York-based performance artist is best known for employing in her video work the “living newspaper” agitprop theatre technique, where actors are cast in performances entirely scripted from lines lifted directly from mass media and literature. Her lip sync technique twists the sound bytes from our typical 24/7 news round-up as fodder for dramatically staged sinisterly double-speak performance. Her more recent work is more of the same, but now casting primarily child actors as professional vocal coaches—My Mind is My Own, the show’s only other video work, and the Kiss and Cry figure skating competitors.
In Kiss and Cry, the role-shifting and disjointed dialogue pull quotes from a myriad of sources, including GOP debate transcripts, Wordsworth, Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Lecture as a means of toying with childhood as an invented, myth-like notion. At one point, seven year old Anna stumbles after attempting a jump; cut to closeup of tear-stained face and her tentative but resolute voice over “it’s going to be alright, it’s going to be alright” mantra. In seeing this, I found it hard not to be reminded of the kind of inner-stealing-ourselves faking-it-to-make-it dialogues we all have. As a kid you can cry over frustration with your own limitations, when you’re an adult, you don’t have that luxury.
But in pointedly characterizing the blonde, blue-eyed child prodigy as precious, I was left wondering why as a culture we remain tyrannically obsessed with these myths, and the necessity for artists to project that unchanged perspective. Michael Jackson was a compelling musical prodigy because he was an 11 year old James Brown, a work like Laser’s My Mind is My Own plays with the believable conceit of a child as a professional vocal coach leading a class full of adults through absurd but instructive “gaga, ga-ga” vocal exercises. But the seated, theatrical viewing experience of Kiss and Cry in the larger gallery—from the subtle, luminous cinematography to its sports genre narrative mimicry—felt distancing, grotesque, and ultimately conventional in its affirmation of separation between viewer and subject.
While Kiss and Cry‘s Aryan Master Race performance-enhanced robots may sound creepy when they advocate for children’s rights (Malala) or retell their idyllic youth (Wordsworth), they are still child actors playing a version of themselves. Only a single moment in the video gives a sense of child-adult role-reversal: a mechanistic slow-motion sequence where the camera spins around the faces of each child figure-skater and then their mother/coach. The daughter, son and mother all have a frozen, aghast grimace, suggesting the pain high expectations may inflict on a child is shared by mothers who measure their self-worth by their child’s success. Despite Laser demonstrating the fluxing parameters of the stringent innocence-above-all childhood experience, the mother and child roles remain strangely unchanged.