Group Think

Can the focus group be used to give an art fair with an image problem a branding lift or as a method to create better artwork? Liz Magic Laser tests the grounds.

The focus group is a good allegory for democracy under capitalism. On one side of the two-way mirror—which offers narcissistic mirroring for those solicited for opinions—everyone is permitted to have and express their individual discriminations. This “all-ears” invitation obscures the fact that the choices with which we are presented are manufactured, limited, and can only be met with individualized notions of taste: “I like this color best; he seems like a nice person; nuh-uh, too mushy!” On the other side of the glass, meanwhile, there is omniscient viewing for those who hold the ultimate power of decision. Here is the liberty to disregard those opinions voiced, calculate a cost-benefit analysis, and make a decision that is guided by the largest profit margin, which ultimately determines what gets produced and packaged for consumption—the end-product of which arrives for review, in a more fine-tuned form, back on the other side of the glass.

After being selected as the commissioned artist to represent the 2013 Armory Show, Liz Magic Laser decided to outsource the labor of defining a visual identity for this trade fair to a series of six focus groups, adopting a procedure that began with “exploratory market research” and concluded with a “validation and refinement” phase. By doing so, the artist performs the incongruities of an art field that exhibits both resistance to as well as compliance with market logics. Her performative orchestration reframes the artworld’s participants (curators, artists, and dealers in one indiscriminate muddle) as “art market consumers,” and its artworks as products, thereby forcing the question of whether the artworld in fact operates synonymously with a market—and hence if its objects could perform more “successfully” if submitted to the same standardized testing as a new mouth feel introduced by Frito-Lay©.

The result of it all might function less as a familiar accusation that the art market is in fact a market (WE KNOW THAT) and more as a study of the ways in which consumer culture’s trading in feelings might relate to the play on emotion in politics or the summoning of affect in contemporary art. It also illuminates how living under capitalism involves a complex choreography of contradictions in which every desire and impulse, both personal and collective, has the potential to be netted in a profitable transaction, but also to give rise to something else altogether.

The Armory Show Focus Group (official trailer), 2013, Liz Magic Laser, an Armory Show Commission produced in association David Guinan of Polemic Media. Featuring focus group moderator Ben Allen of Labrador Agency. Other contributors include Lew Baldwin, Editor; Geoffrey Hug, Videographer; Matthew Kessler, Videographer; Danilo Parra, Videographer; Brian Mcelroy, Production Coordinator; Reed Seifer, Graphic Designer; Nontsikelelo Mutiti, Post-production Graphic Designer; and Michael Romeo, Sound Editor. Produced with support from Various Small Fires, Los Angeles.

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