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William Leavitt
BEHAVIOR. Film Screening
Feb 11, 2016

“His basic question was: ‘Can we ever find within determinism a way out of it?’”

-Jean-Paul Sartre, Mallarmé or The Poet of Nothingness, 1988


“The product of this Behavioral approach is that the other is placed in the position of an object.”

  -Paul Verhaeghe, On Being Normal and Other Disorders, 2004   



LA><ART is pleased to present the debut screening of Behavior, a new film work by Los Angeles based artist William Leavitt. In his sculptures, paintings, drawings, films, plays and performance tableaus Leavitt has consistently presented uncanny scenes of domestic life, the built environment, and social interaction—familiar yet estranging representations of Americana that evidence their own artifice and disassociated temporality. Consequently, Leavitt’s work offers an encounter, suspended in time, with a cultural landscape that demands to be incessantly updated. The artist’s fifth film work, Behavior responds to the cultural emphasis on constantly refreshing attention through anachronisms and by way of an extended focus on expectant moments rather than their outcome.  


Leavitt’s Behavior closely follows a loosely intertwined narrative between clustered relationships. The beginning of the film centers around a male and female roommate, two youthful characters named Seth and Deanna without clear romantic affiliation. The storyline then quickly branches out to include the roommates’ circles of friends and neighbors. The narrative setup, as well as the call and response dialogue, immediately invokes American sitcoms and reality television. Identifying how Behavior reproduces or subverts the conventions of popular television is increasingly complicated however by Leavitt’s sculpture as mise-en-scene, and the film’s pivots between deadpan and melodrama. By situating each scene within his sculpture-cum-stage sets, Leavitt amplifies and reverberates the theatrical, disorienting familiar representations of time and place. The fluidity between satire and earnest reflection in Behavior further necessitates a close viewing and listening of the film, underscored by the oracular delivery of dialogue. Rather than prescribe determined techniques for subverting the conventions of sitcoms and reality television, Leavitt recognizes that Brechtian distancing and alienation effects have become an expected device within popular television. Eschewing this determined approach to critique, Behavior instead draws from the history, theory and practice of Theatricality to emphasize the illusory qualities of all representation, as well as to recognize popular media’s expanding capacity for mimesis.             

Beyond its reflection of popular media through multiplied artifice, Behavior presents a satire of authoritative positions of knowing. A subplot repeatedly referenced throughout the film names a distinct group of individuals identified as having “grey tendencies.” At one point, the character Deanna describes these individuals as: “people who suddenly become aware of something that’s been going on for a long time—like Christmas as capitalism—they notice something that to everyone else is completely obvious.” Deanna seems to observe this group tendency as a negative condition, as if acknowledging reality amounts to bad behavior. Foreclosing a discussion of what is assumed to be self-evident, Deanna’s cynicism is contrasted by her roommate Seth’s repeated warnings that she “not be so sure about everything.” Freud’s famed bad news that “man is not master in his own house” was also a position against resigned conclusions. It pointed away from a behavioral approach and towards greater human freedom—subjectivity would have to be expanded, against the strangulations of determinisms that had gone yet undetected. Leavitt’s film calls into question culturally dominant assumptions about individuals that are based simply on observing their behavior—a potential critique of behaviorism. The subplot phrase, “grey tendencies,” suggests a behavior of the mind, a term of pseudo-psychology. And it is amidst the indeterminacy of Leavitt’s compounded artifice that his film suggests the need for alternatives to abolishing ambivalence. Behavior asks: how do we relinquish the obsession with fixed identity and claims of mastery.  


About the Artist

Since the late 1960s, Los Angeles-based artist William Leavitt's work has been the subject of numerous one-person exhibitions including an extensive survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 2011. His work has been included in thematic exhibitions around the world and is in public collections such as Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Museum of Modern Art, New York; and Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.