Out of the darkness, a voice:
"Our plan is to drop a lot of odd objects onto your country from the air. And some of these objects will be useful. And some of them will just be...odd. Proving that these oddities
were produced by a people free enough to think of making them in the first place. The United States helps, not harms, developing nations by using their natural resources and raw materials."
The voice is hushed, wry and seductive, weird and funny. It comes from a shadowy figure at center stage, a slender, androgynous-looking person whose spiky haircut frames an angelic, dimpled face. Illuminated only by the slides and films projected onto a giant movie screen behind her, Laurie Anderson goes on to tell a story about how some American farmers during a drought began renting their silos to the Federal Government for the storage of nuclear missile heads. Her narration is illustrated on the screen by a photonegative image of the State of Liberty overlapping a film of the American flag spinning around and around in a clothes dryer. The red stripes flicker like flames at the glow-in-the-dark hem of Lady Liberty. As Anderson turns to face the screen and play a soaring solo on an electric violin, she becomes a mad empress overlooking a radioactive cityscape, her music evoking the whines of sirens and the sobs of people.
These are but a few fleeting images from the performance-art work United
States, which Laurie Anderson has been composing and showing in parts for several years. The complete version of this four-part, two-evening extravaganza is currently receiving its world premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, thus capping the meteoric rise of an oddball adept in an avant-garde medium: performance art. John Rockwell, a music critic of the
New York Times has said that Laurie Anderson's specialness lies in the diversity of her talent: she is at once a composer, lyricist, singer and electronic wizard. What the 35-year-old Laurie Anderson also possesses after a decade in the art form is something no other performance artist has ever had: popularity.
"O Superman," which Anderson wrote and recorded with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, went to No. 2 on the British charts after Warner Bros. Records bought and released it in England in the fall of 1980, and a later album,
Big Science, which includes "O Superman," has sold more than 150,000 copies worldwide. To promote her album, Laurie Anderson for the first time forsook her usual art spaces to play rock venues on a tour across the country last spring, and when her eight-day stand at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is over, she will take
United States on a 16-city tour of Europe and the United States. When a major pop-record label and a high culture musical institution join forces to endorse an experimental artist, it strongly suggests that performance art has infiltrated the mainstream after a decade or more of appealing mainly to the arty Soho crowd in the lofts and basements of lower Manhattan.
The term "performance art" has been applied retroactively to describe many kinds of animate art since the early days of the century, when Russian Futurists strolled the streets of old St. Petersburg with homemade tattoos on their cheeks and published manifestoes explaining "Why We Paint Ourselves." But the term first came into general usage about 10 years ago as a catchall label for a multitude of artistic activities so new and varied that even today critics quarrel over what is and what isn't performance art. The narrow definition might be "performance by artists," and the modern manifestations of this have roots in the Futurists' cafe and cabaret "evenings" and the Dada frolics of post-World War I Europe, which were essentially an excuse for visual artists to step out of their studios and have fun -- to paint themselves instead of their canvases. In a broader sense, performance art has become a useful term to describe the work of an increasing number of artists who function in several
disciplines and do not neatly fit into any traditional category. Some of these multimedia performers seem in pursuit of the Wagnerian ideal of
Gesamtkunstwerk, the united art work using every genre in an effort to represent the whole of human nature. If such aspirations seem pretentious, still they are a healthy reaction to the reductio ad absurdum of modernism and
its last, "minimalist" gap.
After World War II, there occurred a leveling of the cultural landscape -- a Hiroshima of the arts. Reinterpreting Marcel Duchamp's dictum, "Anything can be art," for postwar America, the composer John Cage declared that the purpose of art was "simply" to make us "wake up to the very life we're living." Cage's influence inspired countless experiments which effectively reduced art to the tiniest increments of human activity, glorifying everyday behavior. This was the logical, and perhaps inevitable, extension of modernism's quest to locate the essence of each art and to express only that essence. But minimalism transformed the notion of purification into a reductive impulse, and that impulse could go too far, stripping art not only of impurities but also of joy and content.
Oppressive though it may have proved as a tradition, minimalism did leave a clean slate for artists. Just as computerization has found a way to convert all forms of
information into bits of electronic "memories" that can be stored in and quickly retrieved from a magic machine, modernism has broken down the individual art forms into a pool of elements available to all artists, whatever form they favor. And it is the performance artists who have taken up the challenge of recombining speech, song, images, movement, and modern technology in new ways.
In its fetish for mixing media, today's performance art most resembles the "happenings" of the 1960s. The brainchildren of Allan Kaprow, a professor of art, "happenings" were often aggressively chaotic events employing words, music, sound, lighting, and actions. They were usually performed one time only for an audience of observer-participants. Many of the important young painters of the time -- Red Grooms, Claes Oldenburg and Jim Dine -- did "happenings" as well as their more conventional work. Testing John Cage's elastic definition of an artist's materials, "happenings" to some extent reflected the
anti-materialism of the 1960s youth culture by rejecting the marketplace or museum-piece conception of art -- they produced no objects that could be bought or preserved. In the 1970s, performance art reinstated the clear distinction between audience and
performer, sometimes emphasizing the primacy of the performer with a vengeance. Probably the most extreme art performer of the period was Chris Burden, who once had himself nailed to a Volkswagen in a mock crucifixion, and, in a piece entitled "Shot," had a friend fire a real bullet into his arm from 15 feet away.
Today's performance artists are more concerned with searching for ways to combine their private visions with public concerns. And after a hermetic decade, it seems a sign of developing maturity that performance artists are now tapping the rock-music world, television and the
theater for ways to reach a mass audience.
Laurie Anderson embodies both the visual-art component of performance art and its multimedia aspect. She is an accomplished sculptor and photographer -- an exhibition of her art objects mounted by the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London is currently touring England and Scotland -- yet in performance she plays a violin and keyboard instruments, sing-speaks in a sly, friendly voice and always brings along a giant movie-screen backdrop for the slides and films that supply the visual dimension of her compositions. The visuals, all of which are her own work, sometimes illustrate but usually have only a tangential or poetic relationship to the songs. When Anderson waxes romantic, murmuring, "Your eyes -- it's a day's work to look into them," fat white clouds drift across a deep blue sky on the screen behind her. And when accompanied by horror-movie wolf howls, a huge photo of a three-pronged wall socket looks like a child's frightened face -- an image at once humorous and strangely moving.
Speaking of Anderson's effect on performance art, a fellow practitioner, 24-year-old Tim Miller, who belongs to a generation young enough to take the art form for granted, explains: "Performance art has a tradition of boredom, of extended time, of repetition. People didn't want to have anything to do with it. That's why Laurie is so important. She's popular, but epic; show-biz, but avant-garde."
Born in Wayne, Ill., in 1947 and raised amid a large, affluent family, Laurie Anderson studied art history at Barnard College in the late 1960s and then dabbled in sculpture and music before turning to performance art. "I tried to be as quirky as I could," she recalled recently.
Quirkiness came easily. Anderson's best-known sculpture from that period looks like an ordinary table, but a viewer placing his elbows on the table and his hands over his ears can hear music conducted through wood and bone from a concealed tape deck. A musician since childhood, Anderson invented instruments such as the tape-bow violin, which replaces the traditional horsehair bow with a strip of audio tape, and composed simple songs and sound pieces for it. One such composition, performed in a series cosponsored by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Walker Art Center of Minneapolis, featured elegantly dressed classical musicians whose tape-bow violins emitted a sound mixture of voices and bongo drums.
Anderson's first appearance as a performance artist consisted of orchestrating a symphony of car horns at a drive-in bandshell in Vermont. Another early routine involved playing a violin while wearing skates embedded in blocks of ice, all the while talking about the parallels between skating and violin-playing, both of which require balance -- skate blades over ice, bow over violin bridge. When the ice melted, the performance was over.
Although Anderson was merely one among dozens of young performance artists groping for a form to match their imagination during the early 1970s, she did have a useful talent for being in the right place at the right time. She fell in with a motley group of artists who participated in collective performances
organized by the entrepreneur Jean Dupuy in his 13th Street loft and at the Kitchen in Soho. One of several centers that sprang up to exhibit performance art, the Kitchen also arranged touring expeditions to other hospitable performance spaces across the country and abroad, and Anderson quickly plugged into this circuit.
Probably the turning point of Anderson's career was her appearance at the 1978 Nova Convention, where, through an electronic filter that made her voice sound like a frog's, she performed a monologue from "Americans on the Move," the first section of
United States. A tribute to the writer and perverse visionary William S. Burroughs, the Nova Convention brought together an unprecedented collision of poets (Allen Ginsberg, John Giorno), composers (John Cage, Philip Glass), punk rockers (Patti Smith, the B-52's), and performance artists.
Emboldened by the punk example to experiment with using a rock band, Anderson became more and more drawn to the world of intermedia, a realm already inhabited by others who were forging their own cross-disciplinary forms. Meredith Monk, for instance, originally a choreographer, has been creating large-scale pieces since the mid-'60s and calling them "operas" or "live movies" or "theater cantatas," but they are all performance collages that attempt to transcend the barriers between dance, theater, and music. Composer Robert Ashley began using television in 1975 to add dimensions to his minimalist rock music. A sampling from his television opera
Perfect Lives (Private Parts), shown on the Public Broadcasting System in 1981, features particularly exciting work by the video artists John Sanborn and Kit Fitzgerald. Mabou Mines, a nine-member theater collective founded in 1970, has a direct-address style of performing, a boundless fascination with high-tech gadgetry and an extraordinary concern for the visual elements of its members' work (they hire sculptors rather than set designers, for instance) that link them as strongly to performance art as to theater. JoAnne Akalaitis's
Dead End Kids, for example, is a sort of intellectual vaudeville that uses film, dance, music, and comedy to compile a history of nuclear power, while another director in the collective, Lee Breuer, calls his
Shaggy Dog Animation and Hajj performance poetry.
The performance art of Laurie Anderson and the intermedia form of her United States
-- the pop-collage style of performance, the poetic use of technology, the attempt to make videos images "dance" to music -- are to some extent a composite of elements from the work of these seminal artists. But if she did not create the intermedia model, Anderson has certainly brought it to a larger audience than any of her predecessors, who still seem intimidatingly experimental to the general public.
While many artists acknowledge that performance art is their way of seizing the means of theater -- present time and public space -- without its cumbersome conventions of plot and character, Anderson is one who makes a clear distinction between her work and theater. "Traditional plays invent characters, change them, and predict their postplay lives," she explained in the 1979 premiere issue of
Performance Art Magazine. Her approach, she said, leaves her "freer to be disjunctive and jagged and to focus on incidents, ideas, collisions...Personally, I feel closer to the attitude of the stand-up comedian -- not only because I believe that laughter is extremely powerful but because the comedian works in real time."
Anderson's sense of humor exhibits itself not so much in jokes or one-liners as in expert timing and cagey delivery. In performance, she often distorts her naturally mellifluous voice with electronic filters, creating multiple personalities. In "Walk the Dog," a song about finding strangeness in the most familiar things, one such device pitches her voice helium-high, so that when she makes delirious exclamations she sounds like an idiot child. The same filter sinks her voices two octaves to produce an exaggeratedly masculine croaking that
suggests the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street trapped inside a computer.
Anderson's best songs fuse electronics with sustained exercises in wordplay. Her British hit record, "O Superman," for instance, begins with a tape loop of
Anderson's voice murmuring "Ha, Ha, Ha..." in a metronomic
fashion that continues as background throughout the song's nine-minute length. Meanwhile, Anderson channels her voice through a vocoder, which alters it into
robot-like sounds, and stitches together everyday expressions in a manner that is both comical and disturbing. After a standard automatic phone-answering message -- "Hi, I'm not home right now" -- and a familiar response -- "Hello, this is your mother" -- comes a more ominous message: "Here comes the planes. They're American planes. Made in America. Smoking or nonsmoking?" Next, the postman's credo, "Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night shall stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds," is juxtaposed with another official-sounding but somehow sinister recitation: "'Cause when love is gone, there's always justice; and when justice is gone, there's always force; and when force is gone, there's always Mom. Hi, Mom!" The song concludes with an eerie petition: "So hold me, Mom, in your long arms, in your automatic arms...your petrochemical arms, your electronic arms, in your military arms."
Evocative as they are on records, Anderson's songs don't become complete until performed live. Those loaded images of "American planes" and unstoppable "couriers," that revered "Superman" and the mother with "petrochemical arms," link myth and menace, military arms and their maternal counterparts.
The image of the American flag in the clothes dryer is particularly rich with possible meanings, coming as it does at the end of the first evening of
United States and lingering onstage long enough to inspire several interpretations. When Anderson serenades the glow-in-the-dark Statue of Liberty, the immediate connotation is that of a nuclear-age Nero. Originally a gesture welcoming immigrants to America, the statue now seems to warn them away. Then it can become the picture of this small girl facing a ghostly reflection of her world, like something out of Lewis Carroll -- Alice Down the Missile Silo?
Perhaps other associations would occur, but Anderson turns back to the audience and says: "Breadbasket. Melting pot. Meltdown. Shutdown." Blackout.
The first time I met Anderson, it was the fall of 1980. She had just mounted a brief run of
United States Part II at the Orpheum Theater, an Off-Broadway theater on the Lower East Side, which was so successful that several additional performances were scheduled. Anderson greeted me in front of her Canal Street loft with a flashlight; the elevator was broken and she had to lead me up five treacherous, pitch-black flights of stairs. The top floor was safe, spacious, sunny. We settled down with coffee.
Anderson is more fragile in person than she is onstage. She looks like a baby chick; her features are delicate, her skin almost translucent, and when she combs her punk-cropped hair with her fingers, she simply pulls it straight up in the middle. But her manner is the same everywhere -- soft-spoken, quick, intelligent. You want to ask her: Why do you perform? What is your musical background? What does love mean to you? How did you get on the international poetry/art circuit? Who does your hair?
Instead, she tells you stories. There's no such thing as a brief answer: every detail must be recounted. Then too, each story suggests dozens of other interesting and illuminating stories, none of which she is too busy or too impatient to tell.
As we spoke, the phone interrupted every few minutes. Anderson didn't have an agent (the Warner Bros. recording contract was still in the future) and she preferred to handle all the requests for performances and lectures herself. She tours a lot, she said, mostly in Europe.
"I feel most comfortable working in places where there are no electrical power problems, and that means Germany, which is probably my least favorite country in the world. I have tremendous conflicts about it because they've been the most supportive to me. They say, 'Ve love your vork! Come! Do it!' And you just go and everything's set up for you, every piece of equipment works, they are ready, and it is so automatic, it is frightening! I mean, I'd rather be blowing fuses in Italy, I really would. At the same time, I like to do things that don't have technical fuck-ups, so I do a lot of things there. I had some real weird experiences a few years ago, though. I was in Germany performing with a dancer who was completely, legally slandered by the press because she was Jewish. The reviews would start, 'Anderson, oh yes, yes, very good,' and then go on to describe this dancer in the most fascistic terms I've ever heard in my life. Our mouths were just hanging open."
What did they say? "They said, 'Semitic, paranoid creature who is dirty, she's just dirty.' You couldn't believe it. We said, listen, you can keep your money, we're just gonna go, and here's our letter saying why we're doing this. Our next concert was in Copenhagen, and when we went up there it really felt like some kind of flight. I swore I would never work in Germany again. Then, like a complete idiot, the next time somebody called and said they had some wonderful opportunity for me in Hamburg, I went. Because it was a wonderful opportunity. I'm really embarrassed about it; it's a terrible conflict. The funny thing is, the French call Americans the New Germans. So do the Dutch, though it's getting a lot easier to work in Holland since the Moluccans came over.
"Do you know about that? The Moluccans were a Dutch colony, and the government said, 'Well, we know that we gave you a hard time and stole all your spices and worked you to the bone, so if you want to come back to Holland you can be on welfare.' Well, hundreds of thousands of Moluccans got on the boat! Now, you have to understand that those countries are totally homogenous. The Dutch are all pleasant little blond people with the shoes and the hair, and here came all these wild men and wild women. Suddenly, Holland is, like, a quarter black. And they don't know what to do. They've been totally critical of American racial problems -- you know, 'Why can't those Americans get it together?' They're finally going, 'Ohhh -- it's really hard, isn't it?' It's really, really hard when someone who's so totally, basically different from you in every way is living next door. It's such a cliche, but there isn't a pluralistic society like the United States in Europe. I think that's why I've been focusing on the subject in this series; since I'm away so much and I'm identified as an American, I have to come to terms with it when someone calls me a New German."
Somewhat facetiously I asked Anderson whether she considers herself primarily a composer or a writer or a performance artist. "If anything, I consider myself a linguist," she said -- which surprised me at first, even though while she recounted various fabulous experiences (medical miracles, mostly) and describing her earlier performances, I found myself doodling in my notebook the words "archaeology of language." It's true that even her most superficial songs degenerate into sophisticated wordplay. And although the only foreign languages she speaks are French and a little Italian, she's obviously well versed in music, gesture, sign language, semiotics and other object languages. This interest has an early genesis: she has twin brothers six years her junior who, at an early age, developed a language of their own that became the focus of a lengthy study by doctors interested in twin language.
"There were 10 people in my family, and we did a lot of things together," said Anderson. "Everything was a production number; we had uniforms and everything. It was the situation of a big house in the country, lots of animals, stained-glass windows, tennis courts, golf course, swimming pool -- it's like a country club."
Papa Anderson, now retired, was in paint; the children are all members of the board. "We're not billionaires," she admitted, "but we got what we wanted." A lot of artists, as Anderson pointed out, "seem to have a weird thing with their parents about what they choose to do. I've never done anything that wasn't utterly wonderful to my father."
Anderson's linguistic approach to performance is also a product of the times. She began her career in the late '60s, just when ideas about contemporary sculpture and painting and music and writing began to overlap. "I was writing a lot of art criticism at that time, and as the rookie critic I got assigned to all those minimal sculpture shows. So I had to come up with a lot of synonyms for 'clean,' 'precise.' I was rifling through my dictionary trying to be a precise critic, and the precision of the work went into me, too; it's contagious.
"One of the first sound pieces I ever did was about that, too. It was a pillow with a silk-screened open book on it -- it was van Gogh's diary -- and inside it was a small speaker. You had to rest your head on the pillow to hear this song, which was called 'Unlike Van Gogh.' The story was something that came out of writing that kind of criticism. At that time my favorite artist was van Gogh, because of his intensity. I wanted somehow, in contrast to the cool work that was being done, to keep another view in the foreground, so I would mention his name in every review that I wrote. 'This artist, like van Gogh, uses yellow and blue.'
"Eventually, this editor called me in and said, 'Not every artist can be usefully compared to van Gogh.' I could see his point, but at the same time I couldn't really edit that out because I felt very strongly about it. So the reviews began to read, 'This artist, unlike van Gogh...' whatever. It was a short career. Actually, I wrote for three or four years for various art magazines. I liked doing that a lot -- mostly because I liked seeing what was in other people's refrigerators."
Which strikes me as the most important ingredient in Anderson's art. Where so much of performance art's experimentation is formidably formal, Anderson's is essentially friendly. The directness and personal involvement that are performance art's chief assets are here, but Anderson expresses her ideas on so many levels -- literal, private, metaphorical -- that her work steers clear of self-indulgence and mere autobiography. Like Lily Tomlin, her performance skills and nimble wit allow her to suggest multiple personalities within one frail body. Besides, the work is funny, musically accessible and topical in a way that says, "Hey, this is what it's like to live and breathe and think and play in New York on Earth right here right now!"
When I visited her loft again recently, Laurie Anderson and sundry associates were gearing up for her Brooklyn appearance, and every corner of the recently renovated space, now divided into living areas, rehearsal space and a 16-track recording studio, bustled with quietly frantic activity.
At the end of the loft space, opposite a 9-foot by 12-foot projection screen hanging from the ceiling, Perry Hoberman, Anderson's projectionist and mechanical right-hand man, tested a tableful of equipment. In performance, Anderson uses two conventional slide projectors and one with a mirror attachment that flashes spots of light across the screen, along with a film projector and a film strip -- a complicated system which Hoberman plays as if it were a Pac-Man, cross-cutting myriad images with dazzling speed and precision.
Meanwhile, in the studio, a musical rehearsal was in progress. Two horn players, Chuck Fisher and Bill Obrecht, practiced their parts against a prerecorded percussion track by David Van Tieghem, Anderson's regular percussionist, who also performs outside the group. Anderson herself added a few chords on her Oberheim synthesizer while casually consulting with Roma Baran, who produced her single and album and generally serves as an assitant music director. Baran's dog, Brandy, napped underneath a large studio console full of knobs, switches, and blinking lights.
Next door, Anderson's all-purpose laundry/darkroom/editing studio was temporary unpeopled. A long counter top brimmed with film canisters, editing
paraphernalia, slide carousels, reels of film labeled "White Clouds" and "Horses Passing," and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of slides lined up in long rows divided by cards that read "Snowy Day," "Bowling," and "Faucets." Surveying this atmosphere of creative clutter, one can hardly imagine how it all comes together. Sometimes it doesn't. "When there are so many machines, there are a million things that can happen," Laurie Anderson admitted. But after settling at the kitchen table and nervously lighting the half-cigarette she allows herself hourly, she quickly added that "breakdown is important to me. It's exciting to try to improvise."
Throughout the loft, bookshelves bulged with volumes bearing the word "America" in their titles, from the
American Heritage History of the Law in America to Weird America. The talk turned to how
United States came into being. "Since I tour a lot, especially in Europe," she said, "I've frequently found myself sitting across the dinner table from people who ask me, 'How can you live in a country like that?' I really am on the defensive a lot of the time, and I need to have some way to deal with that.
"The idea was to make a big portrait of the country," she said, "and I divided it up sort of arbitrarily into four parts: transportation, politics, money, and love. If there's any throughline, it's some question about America as Utopia and trying to understand how people really feel about living here.
"I've been using as a sourcebook The Machine in the Garden," she explained, referring to Leo Marx's classic study of American culture, which discusses the dreams and impressions of people who came over in the 1600s and 1700s and thought this was Arcadia, the lovely garden setting they had been seeking.
"For me," she continued, "that vision of Utopia is very bound up with technology. This is a country where the machine was supposed to free people from menial tasks, where we wouldn't have the sweatshops and steel mills that England had. I think we've found out how quickly you can mess up a country, how much a machine like just the car can change things utterly.
"It's not that I object to any of that stuff," Anderson said. "Another theme of my work is how to live with technology and how to accept it. How to humanize it.
"I'm hoping to have a revelation this week about how to describe this idea of Utopia I'm getting at. The piece
begins with a story about upstate New York being mistaken for the Garden of Eden, and I want to end the whole thing like
Huckleberry Finn, where people sort of light out for the territories. But there aren't any new frontiers left. Outer space is not a dream anymore, not for me. So where do you go?"
Of course, Laurie Anderson did come up with an ending for United
States, but the question of where to go next still looms large in her own career. Her bridging of the Soho art world, the commercial pop scene, and high-art concert halls is a remarkable accomplishment, but now she faces the dilemma of maintaining her goals and integrity as an artist while remaining attractive to her newfound audience. With an advance from Warner Bros. Records, Anderson recently bought a $40,000 synthesizer called a Synclavier to use in her next project, a combined record album and videodisk. And
she is sufficiently secure in her intentions that she can even make fun of her art, herself, technology, and Warner Bros.
"There's a section about Warner Bros. in part three of United States. I hope they don't mind," she said with a wicked gleam in her eye. "First of all, I point to all this expensive equipment on the stage, the state-of-the-art stuff with which I cast my spell, and I make the point that this stuff doesn't grow on trees. That's when the Warner Bros. insignia comes on the screen with all these dollar signs floating by.
"Then I tell this story where I come into their office and say, 'I have this vision of myself as part of a long tradition of American humor -- you know, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Road Runner....'
"And they say, 'Well, we had something more adult in mind.'
"And then I just go, 'Oh, don't worry. I can adapt!'"
New York Times Magazine, February 6, 1983 (interpolating
excerpts from a Soho News cover story from November 5, 1980)