Michael Gac Levin discusses “Law & Order: Express”

On Thursday, February 9th, LABAlive will present an evening of art works and subversive teachings exploring our annual theme, OTHER. The evening will feature teachings by Ruby Namdar and works by fellows Gil Sperling, Keren Moscovitch, and Michael Gac Levin, who would present his work in progress, Law & Order: Express.

Here, Gac Levin talks about his project and the inspiration he found in our house of study.

Hanan Elstein: Tell us about your project.

Michael Gac Levin: My LABA project is a multi-part drawing and video installation entitled Law & Order: Express. This project looks at the relationship between drawing and control, both as an external force that the artist has to deal with, and as a force that the artist brings to bear on his/her own expression. Under the auspices of LABA, I will bring those questions before the community of the 14th Street Y, to take what has been a more personal process of self-exploration into social space.

Each element of this project will offer the Y community a different way to engage with the work and the questions it raises. The project will debut with an interactive exhibition of small drawings at the LABAlive event in the upstairs theater. These small drawings, 50 in total, fill a yellow legal pad that will be mounted on a temporary wall. Each drawing represents a white supremacist symbol listed on the Anti-Defamation League’s Hate on DisplayTM database. Considering that LABA is a Laboratory for Jewish Culture, and that I and most of the audience are Jews, I expect the display of these drawings to be upsetting. But I also expect it to be generative, as I will invite audience members to react to these drawings freely, even to destroy them or take them as souvenirs. In this, I give audience members permission to relinquish the self-control that the viewing of artworks normally requires of them. Instead, I hope they will direct any remaining desire for control outwards, onto the artwork itself. As part of the exhibition, I will provide a written statement describing my experience of making the drawings. On a facing wall, I will hang an illuminated display bearing the title of the project, Law & Order: Express.

The following day, the next segment of the project will unfold downstairs in the building’s lobby. Children coming to Y classes will discover a cordoned-off section of the room enclosing a supply cart full of crayons and a blank segment of wall. Signage will encourage them to step under the cordon and use the crayons to draw freely on the wall, something likely not allowed at home. A separate sign will ask parents and caregivers to keep out of the cordon and not to interfere with their children’s drawing, unless there is a threat to safety. Nearby, a looping video will run on a mounted screen, with sound coming through attached headphones. The video is a lightly-edited segment of a Law & Order: SVU episode, in which a therapist coaches a young girl to express herself through drawing. Like in the upstairs exhibition of the night before, this segment gives the audience permission to perform a normally prohibited act as a way to explore what can happen when we relinquish control over expression. It complicates the proposition by directing it specifically at children and their parents. While it invites children to behave as they wouldn’t at home, it invites parents to let go of their children. Releasing them to draw without intervention may require more self-control than keeping them in line.

On the same day, I will move the illuminated display down from the theater and rehang it facing onto 14th Street from the lobby of the Y. Although it will hang in this space during the wall-drawing workshop, it prefigures the final phase of the installation, which looks to the desire for “law and order” in the public sphere. After documenting the results of the drawing workshop, which will run for three weeks, I will hang a large-scale drawing of my own on the same lobby wall. This drawing weaves hand-drawn images of detectives and lawyers from the many seasons and spinoffs of Law & Order into a printed aerial photograph of looting during the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. This drawing reflects my personal ambivalence towards control and expression, as contextualized by an epoch-making social upheaval that took place not far from my childhood home.

HE: Could you tell us more about your working process?

MGL: This work began about 18 months ago, when I first started reflecting on my childhood memories of the Los Angeles Riots. What I wanted to do was use drawing, which I feel connects most directly to the unconscious, to depict what prevented me from truly understanding the Riots as an adult. This, I imagined, would be largely unconscious material, the kinds of prejudices and presuppositions rooted in our least accessible and most complicated memories. By drawing images that connected strongly to my memories of that time, I thought I could dredge up a web of associations unavailable to conscious thought, but capable of revealing something as visual experience. My main materials were paper and pencil, because they were so familiar to me from my childhood. More recently, I have been using ballpoint pen and notebook paper. I have even stronger associations with these humbler materials from years of doodling in school. My work with pencils and pens usually comes first, providing a core for a work that I then build out from using other materials like paint and pastels. I am still using this method in my work for LABA, and all the ideas for Law & Order: Express came out of this earlier work on the Riots.

HE: What about the work and our annual theme? Any new thoughts about the other and otherness?

MGL: Since before I began working with the Riots material, my work has been about what it means to draw, what part of ourselves we awaken in the act of drawing, and what part of ourselves we put to sleep. I think that is intimately connected to the theme of OTHER, because the others we identify outside of ourselves often symbolize aspects of our inner experience we would like to be rid of. This principle animates all of my work for LABA, in one way or another.

HE: How have the texts we’ve studied so far, or the discussions we’ve had, inspired this work?

MGL: In our first meeting, Ruby Rabbeinu introduced a text from Midrash Tehillim, Psalm 9, linking the creative impulse to t
he “
yetzer hara”, the evil inclination. It reads: “Rav, son of Rabbi Samuel, said in the name of Rabbi Samuel: to what does the verse (Genesis 1:31) ‘And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good’ refer? This refers to the Evil Inclination. You might ask: how can the Evil Inclination be referred to as ‘good’? From this we learn that if not for the Evil Inclination a man would not marry a wife and would not beget her with sons, and humanity would not exist” (Trans. by Ruby Namdar).

This text inspired me because I related to it so strongly. I have never been able to sustain an interest in art that is simply beautiful, or that aims only to please. Much of the art I am attracted to is wrong in some sense, either intentionally or not. This goes for my own artmaking as well. I only really enjoy making art when I feel I’m making something I’m not allowed to. This connects me to drawing specifically, because if it is true that drawing links to the unconscious, it is linking to a primordial soup of animal impulse and desire. Here, Kabbalah becomes very appealing to me, particularly because it self-consciously presents itself as a window into the archaic, into a logic that precedes and therefore suffuses Judaism in all kinds of unseen ways.