By Pamela McCorduck
No borders on the planet are more rigid, more vacuum sealed than those around the rectangular screen. The females who clutter videos and films are airheads, baby dolls, bimbos, bitches, earth mothers, martyrs, madonnas, material girls, morons, shtickmeisterin, shrews, witches, wiseacres, whores, welfare queens, and n-factorial recombinations of those dreary roles. Any and all of them are interesting, apparently, only insofar as they relate to men - bearing and rearing men, loving them, helping or impeding them, above all sacrificing for them, and meanwhile laughing, crying, singing, and dancing about it.
Let a mature woman, reasonably serene in her person, relatively confident in her tastes - in any case self-sufficient - concerned about public issues and knotty puzzles of human existence, let such a woman penetrate those borders and she'd be unlikely to find any company.
So how is it that Laurie Anderson, nobody's mom or sweetheart, nobody's victim, nobody's predator - indeed, a disquieting undocumented alien among all those cliches - has broken through and made some of the most interesting art of the late 20th century within those borders, earning as she goes a reputation as one of the world's premiere performance artists? Her complex and multifaceted art crosses and mixes genres with witty grace (she is musician, singer, dancer, sculptor, poet, photographer, technology-freak) and renders these persistent subjects: her country - the United States - and what it means to be an American adult today.
For more than twenty years, Laurie Anderson has taken her art around the world. On stage, on records, CDs, videos, and in books, she has amused, provoked, charmed, and sometimes puzzled her viewers with an ensemble of the latest electronic instruments, effects, gadgets, and paraphernalia. Yet none of her work appears strained or studied, no razzle-dazzle for razzle-dazzle's sake; all of it serves to show and tell stories that we instantly recognize, though we hadn't seen it quite that way before.
Her performances here and abroad sell out as soon as they're announced, and she often collaborates with other artists. She was the celebrated host of the 1986 PBS series, Alive from Off Center, and she did the score for Spalding Gray's 1987 film performance, Swimming to Cambodia and his 1991 Monster in a Box. She does words too, and supplied lyrics to one of Philip Glass's songs, "Forgetting," in his cycle called Songs from Liquid Days. If her own 1986 feature film, Home of the Brave, didn't do much at the box office, it nevertheless reassured and delighted countless women who love technology but feel slightly aberrant in a world where technology can seem for men only (especially in those pre-Net days when you couldn't easily find others of like mind). There was the glorious Laurie, her supple body dancing across the stage, singing riffs on an aphorism from William Burroughs: "Language is a virus from outer space." Behind her a giant screen offered its own visuals, and, simultaneously, an implicit commentary on the nature of scale. The film spurred viewers to buy her albums: Big Science and Mister Heartbreak, and reminded them that a few years earlier, they'd been beguiled by her quirky hit single, "O Superman."
In a video pulled from her 1990 performance, Empty Places, the Anderson persona leans toward us, her Statue of Liberty spiked hair framing one of those planed faces that fashion photographers love (but animated by a cheer and intelligence never seen in fashion spreads), her aspect a bit mock-solemn, a bit faux-naive, her voice a richly modulated mezzo, her diction precise and nuanced. Hers is a grownup voice, and she invites us to share the joke:
"You know, I'd have to say my all-time favorite song is probably the US national anthem. It is hard to sing though, with all those arpeggios. I mean you're out at the ballpark and the fans are singing away and it's sort of pathetic watching them try to hang on to that melody."
She seems to stop and think. "The words are great, though - just a lot of questions written during a fire. Things like:
'Q: Hey? Do you see anything over there?
A: I dunno...there's a lot of smoke. Q: Say! Isn't that a flag?
A: Hmmmm...couldn't say really, it's pretty early in the morning. Q: Hey! Do you smell something burning?'
"I mean, that's the whole song!
"It's a big improvement over most national anthems though, which are in 4/4 time: 'We're number one! This is the best place!'" She's marching, puffing, and posturing, capturing and demolishing the jingoism that underlies every national anthem you can think of. Then she stops, as if struck by a new thought.
"I also like the B side of the national anthem - 'Yankee Doodle.' Truly a surrealist masterpiece." She phrases the familiar words carefully and you hear them again for the first time: "Yankee Doodle came to town. Riding on a pony. Stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni." Now, if you can understand this song, you can understand anything that's happening in the avant-garde today."
Another political subject: As maps and graphs appear on the large screen behind her, the nation neatly bisected, Anderson solemnly tells us how much the national debt will have increased by the end of the evening's performance, observes that all taxes from west of the Mississippi go exclusively towards paying its interest. She continues with deadpan earnestness, telling us how taxpayers in a narrow sliver along the eastern seaboard will be responsible for everything else, "things like, oh, defense, social services, foreign aid, the space program, the drug war, and last but not least, paying off the principal of the debt. And if my calculations are correct, taking population and inflation into account, by the year 2020 each citizen in New York would have to be pulling in an annual gross income of approximately $32 million in order to contribute his or her fair share."
The great tradition of the American jeremiad has ended (except in health magazine journalism and on the floor of Congress), and it won't be resurrected by Laurie Anderson. She understands her medium perfectly and is way cool.
That cool, mind you, may be freely dispensed toward her medium, but it is no measure of her passion. Recently she told a small group at her alma mater, Columbia University (where she received an MFA in sculpture in 1972), that just after she graduated from Barnard College as an art history major, she kept body and soul together by writing criticism for small art magazines around New York City.
"It was the heyday of minimalism," she recalled, "and everything was," - she shrugs - "very minimal. Now, I appreciate minimalism, but I also appreciate passion. So I would begin every article I wrote by comparing the artist I was writing about with Vincent van Gogh. Of course, after a while the editors didn't like that, and they asked me to stop. So then I began every article I wrote by saying, 'Unlike Vincent van Gogh, this artist....'"
The audience is there to celebrate the autumn 1993 inauguration of a new president at Columbia University, and a handful of stars (among them Tony Kushner, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for his play Angels in America; and Eric Bogosian, just back from touring his one-man show Sex, Drugs, Rock 'n' Roll) have gathered to discuss the city as a venue for art. Anderson concurs with her fellow artists that theirs is an urban art. "What I have to say is better understood by people in Paris than in Tallahassee." And in Zurich, Berlin, Prague, Seville, Tokyo, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, all cities where Anderson regularly takes her shows.
Lured first to New York by its glamour ("I was born in Chicago, and it was always an hour later, darker, and somehow more alive in New York City - things were always coming to you live from New York") it holds her with its freedom, its variety, its emotional intensity. "Nobody ever invites you to a barbecue here. Ever." She can live like a hermit for a year, seeing no one; then emerge, meet and talk to other artists. People do that all the time in New York City.
Her hermitage is a spacious Manhattan loft, the white-walled living areas simple, almost austere, with few images on the wall (mostly prints from a recent visit to Tibet). Small, beloved objects are scattered on the window sills, a counterpoint to the views of the nearby Hudson River with its patterns of currents, its reflections, its neighborly watercraft; and of the New Jersey Palisades in the distance. Oddly, it conjures Georgia O'Keeffe's utterly isolated desert house in Abiquiu, New Mexico, whose same simplicity of expression, beloved stones and bones on the window sills, set off that distant landscape.
One big difference is that the fine Abiquiu adobe lives on only as a memorial to a dead painter, and so lacks the smell of oils, turpentine, a painter's tools. Anderson's loft is alive with her electronic equipment, upstairs and down, though the equipment is firmly, deliberately segregated from the living areas. Here she is currently immersed in a calendar-crowding round of projects: a new album, a retrospective book of her work, and a tour of a new performance piece.
Anderson's oeuvre goes far beyond mere droll snapshots. Like all good art, it rewards probing. A throwaway dada query (?Que es mas macho? Lightbulbs, pineapples, schoolbuses?) offers a lucid subtext: Pineapples were bombs in military slang. Or consider her use of voice filters, where her lovely mezzo suddenly becomes an authoritative basso. She used them first in Germany in the 1970s, where she worked before she came to be recognized in the US. "When I spoke as myself, their reaction was politely interested. When I spoke as a man, and was bossy, they listened up - ja, sehr Deutsch - and I thought, aha! People who like to be bossed, and I like to boss, so - und so weiter, und so weiter. I'd pushed this powerful little button. Then I thought, stay with that, but find some other things too. Do we need more authoritarianism in this world? Do we need to bring a little more of that particular kind of pain into this world? Only to play with."
One plaything has been the nameless clone, one of Anderson's masculine avatars, an artifact of voice filters, fake hair, and trick video. He's a funny pint-size character, as we compare them on-screen together, bushy mustache and eyebrows, steroidal biceps, and slightly stunted intellect. (Though come to think of it, the clone's observation isn't so dumb: "The camera is a great liar, but reality is pretty boring.")
Anderson has some gentle fun with gender stereotypes in these dialogues, but the clone is really intended to allow her yet another point of view. "My point of view is first of all as an artist, and second as a New Yorker, and third as a woman, probably in that order. This is pretty limiting." By changing her voice, her appearance, her size ("the clone has a lowered altitude point of view") she - and we - see things differently.
The quintessential Anderson image is a woman alone, playing her hopped-up violin or standing at her electronic keyboard, before an enormous screen (or bank of screens) upon which oversized images, words, phrases, and lights are projected: "Zero, one, zero, one; nobody wants to be a zero, everybody wants to be number one!" Her first performance ever, called Duets on Ice, was on the summer streets of New York in 1972. She stood on ice skates, themselves frozen in blocks of ice, and played a duet with a tape inside her violin. When the ice melted, the performance was over.
"I wanted to make a violin that talked. The violin had a speaker inside, and one part of the duet was on tape, the other was me live. In trying to make the violin talk, we made many different designs for violins, including my tape-bow violin, which ran a prerecorded tape over heads mounted on the violin's bridge." She wanted to sing like a violin too, and ended up using a pillow speaker inside her mouth, something normally used to learn German in your sleep. "A pillow speaker is a 79-cent item here on Canal Street, and cheap was my word - if it cost over a dollar, forget it; I was a struggling artist - but I wanted to use stuff I could get in my neighborhood, which was electronics, maybe part of the reason I moved here. I like junk stores, I like electronics, I like trying to fix things and making them do things they didn't do before."
Anderson lives on Canal Street, one of New York's more infamous souks, which stretches across the lower bulging belly of Manhattan. Stroll it anytime, day or night: Pass through electronic-surplus stores, used-clothing shops, discount odds-and-ends, into a throbbing central district of Chinese food markets and shopkeeps hawking gold baubles that push the envelope for thin-film applications; finally you wind up at the Bowery, once a notorious skid row, but these days home to Hong Kong dim sum palaces and wholesale restaurant supply houses. A block off Canal Street, depending on whether you go north or south, is SoHo and Little Italy (more vestigial than viable) or the city courts and municipal offices. Anderson is "Down-town" in every sense.
Many attempts to make art with high technology don't work, she concedes. There's often a chilliness to the art, a whiff of the trade show, and if not those, it's a kind of relaxation device, "like the mind-gyms people are putting up all over town. I went last week to the opening of one and, let's put it this way, paisley has never been my favorite pattern. Moving paisley gives me a special kind of headache; it's almost drug-induced, as if there's a smaller gyro inside your regular head turning a different way. I find that irritating rather than illuminating; I don't even find it relaxing, and that's the point of a mind-gym. But they may figure out how to make a really exciting, flexible mind-gym."
Anderson has said that technology today is the campfire around which we tell our stories. She reconsiders this idea. "Of course, there's the attraction to light and to this kind of power, which is both warm and destructive. We're especially drawn to the power. Many of the images of technology are about making us more powerful, extending what we can do. Unfortunately, 95 percent of it is hype, because I think we're powerful without it." She thinks the information superhighway is being oversold, and brings out a book she's reading: Digital Woes: Why We Should Not Depend on Software, by Lauren Ruth Wiener. She ticks off the examples that trouble her: unmanned supertankers to carry oil to Japan, software bugs that overdose radiation therapy and kill cancer patients, even the car that will parallel park itself, thanks to sensors, and wedge you into the available space with an inch or two to spare. "But suppose you go to the movies," Anderson continues, "come back, find yourself between these two super-wonder cars, and you don't have the software - you're in big trouble. The information highway is being used mostly for tracking people down in terms of debt and credit, not for tapping into the Library of Congress, not really."
This leads her to the Gulf War, "absolutely the biggest multimedia spectacular in the last few years. It was an art form on every important level: an incredible plot, wonderful graphics, a hidden monster we were supposed to get, and high-tech equipment. So what if it didn't work?" She pauses. "A big so what." She recounts the story of the 28 Americans who died due to a bug in the smart-bomb software: By the time a debugged version had been copied to tape, sent to Fort Maguire Air Force Base, then flown to Riyadh and trucked to the installation, it was February 26, the dead were dead and the war was over. "If you're going to do a fast war, this stuff better work."
Anderson's new show, at present without a title, is going on nationwide tour in the fall of 1994, and has one song built on a maxim from the founder of Italian Futurism, poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti: "War is the highest form of modern art." Part of the show is preoccupied with these images of power and its misuse. "But it's also an extremely personal thing as well. I got rather bored with being the techno-ice-queen observer, spouting. The question is, who am I to say these things? So I'm trying to look at things from quite another place."
"Techno-ice-queen observer"is an odd self-description from an artist whose passions have always been apparent, if politely under control: "Large Black Dick" is a mordant sendup of Senator Jesse Helms and his attempted censorship of Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs, while the poem "Listen, honey..." confronts both Playboy bunnies and feminists:
And she said: "Listen honey,
I make $800 a week at this job.
I've got three kids to support.
This is the best job I've ever had.
So if you want to talk about women
why don't you go down to the garment
where women make 10 cents an hour
and why don't you go and march around
And I said: "Hmmmmmmmm..."
Polymath poet, artist, musician, and composer Brian Eno is producing Anderson's new record, due out in summer 1994. "I suppose the thing that most impresses me about Laurie is her extraordinary energy to do things well," he says. "Having ideas is one thing - actually quite a lot of people can do that. Getting them realized is another. Fewer people do that. Doing new ideas well is very rare."
He adds: "Laurie is conceptually generous. Her ideas are based on a kind feeling towards people, a sense of delight and affection for them. That feeling runs through everything she does; none of her work is based on humiliation or sneering, even when it's being angry or critical. She displays - both personally and in her work - a kind of tolerance for and fascination with whatever people actually do."
In late 1992, Anderson took a prototype version of the new 1994 show to Israel as a guest of the Israeli government. As part of the performance, she'd brought some explosives, and her Israeli promoter turned out to be a bomb expert. "When you're in the weekend military, you have a specialty, and his was bombs." He arranged a demonstration in a parking lot as a special surprise for her.
"The first one goes off, and it's fabulous, an orange thing with a beautiful purple tail; the next one makes a huge pop, nothing visually. I'm really starting to enjoy this, until I think, wait a second, I'm from the country that is the largest arms supplier in the whole world, talking bombs with the world's second biggest customer, and I'm having a great time! This is really disturbing. That's what high-tech means, really: Images of power to me have many connotations."
As she began early in the fall of 1993 to record the show, she suddenly found herself going off into other wild new directions. She had no lyrics for these directions, and had to stop recording, reconsider. She went through a few months of what she calls "the collection phase," that is "making huge notebooks of ideas that don't attach themselves to any sounds or even to each other very much. Then, working with the individual pieces, I try to make smaller piles of ideas - endless spewing into the PowerBook - just trying things out. I've been on a sleepless roll here for a while. Sleeplessness is important. It eliminates the Afternoon Critic: Is that any good? Do you really think. . . ? You just go ahead and do it.
"I've never worked this way before. Usually I begin with a little bit of film, watch it over and over and get some lyrics from that. This feels backwards in a really interesting way, trying to make an emotional landscape, then find what kinds of ideas can live in it. I'm also trying to be not so fancy. There's one song I just wrote called 'What I Believe.' It's just a list of things I believe, a couple of pages long - it was so much fun to write. Since I don't have time to try these out on audiences, I have listeners who come in, people I really trust to listen to different versions. I trust myself to some extent, but some things are just too quirky, too personal; they don't make anybody else laugh, or think, or feel; they're simply opaque. To me, they're hysterically funny, so I do them for myself. But for performances, a line like 'because God is my boyfriend' feels dangerous to me - and fun. So it's in there."
Brian Eno has pointed out that in some ways, art today is less a matter of traditional skills (learning to finger an instrument, prepare a canvas) than a matter of selection. This suggests that almost anybody can do anything: What matters is what we choose to do.
"The corollary is that selection - what you choose to focus on - is itself an art form," says Anderson. Nevertheless, "plenty of artists haven't been able to control their equipment very well, yet they've made fantastic art, out-of-control art. Maybe they don't know how to draw, so they make these incredibly expressive things that are much better than if they were making just another copy. What do we need another copy for?
"On the other hand, I'm not a fan of the CD-ROM that's a mix-your-own album. I would rather, as a reader or a listener, read or listen to something that has been finished. Perhaps the format hasn't been set up well enough; there aren't enough choices - it's fake creativity."
She smiles as she begins to explore the contradictions. "It all became very wide open from the moment John Cage said that everything sounded as good as everything else, and it was only our limitations that made it less beautiful. I don't know - to me that's a giant stumbling block. I think the thrill of creation is making something from nothing. Yet whenever I stop to listen, for just one minute, to whatever is happening in this giant ocean of sound, I thank John Cage for making me pay attention. There are some things you don't really need to manipulate. Art is about paying attention."
Even if we live in a technology-saturated society, art doesn't have to be high-tech. "I'm absolutely convinced you can make a fantastic, exciting, relevant work with a pencil now. If you like these electronic tools, great. But it does genuinely make it harder: You're working with a giant pencil, really huge, with little parts that can and do go wrong all the time."
This spring, HarperCollins will publish a retrospective of Anderson's last twenty years, a book called Stories from the Nerve Bible. "Like every artist, my own voice has changed a lot," she says, adding that she would argue for what she calls a "statute of limitations" on those voices from more than ten years ago. "You don't really have to take responsibility, because it's quite another person, a country cousin who hasn't called in a while, kind of corny. But I am attached to some things about that way of speaking: it's direct, and I appreciate that a lot, absolute directness. Not trying to make it clever or new." She'll be touring with readings from Stories ("kind of a radio play") in the spring of 1994, and by summer the as-yet untitled record produced by Eno will be out. She takes her new show on the road in the fall of 1994.
"A few years ago, Brian began collecting little perfume bottles, just because he liked them. Then he began mixing the scents, making these incredible combinations. Now occasionally he goes to a big factory to do it. So when we did our last record, rather than sitting around afterwards talking about how we mix that, or who played bass, he took us all to a perfume factory, where we made a perfume. The secret of a really good perfume, Brian taught us, is that at its very core is something very, very stinky - civet - because the purpose of the nose is danger, to alert you. After that happens, then you can put on the pleasant smells. But first - wake up! So that's one of the things we've paid attention to in making this record, that at its core is something that's repellent, because those are the things that interest me."
Pamela McCorduck's (email@example.com) most recent book is Aaron's Code, a work about art and artificial intelligence. She's playing for the East Team in the upcoming SuperComputer Bowl.
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