Liss LaFleur uses light and glass to consider hefty social issues.
She’s an artist of the 21st century, who sneaked into the back channels of Twitter to create an installation that suggested the stuff of cathedrals while confronting the shape-shifting nature of expression and ownership.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts recently named LaFleur, a professor at the University of North Texas, as one of seven 2020-21 Citizen Artist Fellows. The fellowship showcases artists whose work touches on the ideals promoted by John F. Kennedy: service, justice, freedom, courage and gratitude.
LaFleur is in the company of two other visual artists, a dancer, a writer-actor, an arts and media director and a poet in the fellowship, which includes a stipend, professional development and collaborations with the Kennedy Center.
“I wouldn’t have called myself a citizen artist before now,” LaFleur said. “But looking at JFK’s ideals, those values definitely align with mine. I think it’s critical that practitioners engage with the community, and engage with the community they live in.”
LaFleur said those values are part of the reason she returned to Texas from Boston.
“Being a queer kid who grew up in a small Texas town, I get to serve a purpose when I put myself out there,” she said. “I know what that’s like.”
The work LaFleur has done since 2018 probes all manner of big questions that piqued the Kennedy Center’s interest. Coded Glass — a title that riffs on the way technology has amplified #MeToo’s intimate, personal stories — puts a movement in the spotlight.
“I was interested in this huge phenomenon that was started by a woman of color, Tarana Burke, and how any person in the world could be a part of it,” LaFLeur said.
On the outset of Coded Glass, an ongoing installation project that LaFleur unveiled at the iPearl Immersion Theatre in Raleigh, North Carolina, LaFleur asked Twitter for data on the now-famous hashtag. LaFleur was hoping to gather information from specific places for the new media series. Twitter said it would sell her the information for $50,000 — more than the funding from the Immersive Scholar grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
LaFleur has a team that found “back doors” into the information she needed, using open-source websites to duplicate the information. In the end, she was able to create a series that creates virtual stained glass projected onto screens that range in size from 20 to 40 feet. The series takes neutral information — the time frame when most #MeToo tweets were shared in English, the massive number of emojis used in the tweets, and the most common words used in the movement’s tweets — and expresses it in the design of stained glass, protest art and signs. The installation also includes Morse code.
“I wanted to see if the digital forms of activism were reflected in the physical activism,” she said.
The series puts the sensations of #MeToo in handy visuals — the sheer volume of the tweets is reflected on sprawling walls. The virtual stained glass suggests transparency, but also the need for shared healing. Stained glass is associated with churches and chapels, the places where Americans and Europeans have sought solace and the figurative dressing of emotional and spiritual wounds.
Another installation, Don’t Worry Baby, uses a looping serenade of the Beach Boys’ 1964 song and a figure lip-syncing the song projected on synthetic fringe. The pieces make up a whole that probes the relationship between technology, language and identity.
LaFleur said she’s captivated by future feminism, an art movement that’s enjoyed a revival of late, because it’s made her explore what new media should be used to to depict feminism. So far, projections, code, minimal sound and tweets have been a wealth of material.
It only increased her suspicions of Big Tech and its ability to foster community.
“You post these things publicly, and you think, ‘I own this,’ but no. The companies and the data mining businesses, they own it,” she said. “The joke the whole team had while we were doing this was that we wished we could build a new website that we could offer people that everyone would co-own.”
LaFleur said the project has overlapped with her teaching at UNT.
“I recently taught a class called ‘Future Feminism,’ and I had undergrads and grads from majors all over the College of Visual Arts and Design,” she said. “It felt like a lot of them were really thinking about what future feminism means in their art, but a lot of them had difficult conversations with their families and loved ones.”
The Citizen Art fellowship is a young program, founded in 2016.
“They say that once you’re a fellow, you’re in the Kennedy family, and I hope they’ll be able to still have some of the programs for us after the pandemic,” LaFleur said. “I think it’s already making me consider how I should engage in my community. I want to get more involved with queer youth and trans youth. I don’t know how yet, but I definitely think queer youth need people who have been there, who know their experiences and can show them there is community.”