Inside Feature: Laurie Anderson

Anderson's work has always understood the social significance of both art and technology, and her look at Nineties America includes extensive surgery on its propagandistic heart. "Unfortunately, what we were hearing during the war wasn't information," she asserts. "It was propaganda. Hard information at least would have given people a real opportunity to make up their own minds. For instance, the vote was so close about the declaration of war, and much of the support for war was based on some testimony by a woman who saw some babies being thrown out of their incubators. It turns out that she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador, and that she couldn't recall exactly where she saw these babies being thrown. But the press was not being very aggressive about finding out this stuff. The war became a positive experience for many people because they got to agree with each other."

Amid all the hoisted flags and chauvinistic clatter, Anderson began to feel claustrophobic. "Being American is forced upon us," she explains. "We're constantly reminded of that part of our identity. It's sort of oppressive, as if the highest definition of us as human beings was as Americans. There was a king in Crete, and some people didn't even know there was a king. They were just kind of minding their own business."

Another theme in Anderson's work that comes to the fore in Voices is her concern with the status of women in American society, especially as illustrated by the Thomas-Hill hearings. "Watching that sex trial was the most disturbing thing ever," she says. "It was so stark that it was devastating, all the men saying, `Well, I think this and I think that,' and all the women saying, `Yes sir.' It's as if women don't have the right to speak up, or at least can't do it very well. Then I started thinking, `We never built any buildings. We never wrote any operas. We never wrote any symphonies.'"

Part Two
Despair about gender-specific cultural laryngitis belies the fact that women have made significant inroads in a few specific disciplines, performance art in particular. From Reno, Karen Finley, Julie Brown, and Sandra Bernhard to borderline figures such as Madonna and Roseanne Arnold, female performers have consistently found audiences. Why? "Hysteria," Anderson speculates. "I think that in both its bright side and dark side, women are allowed to be hysterical, that they are accepted in performance art precisely because it has a certain hysteria about it. As an art form, it's considered sort of over the top and irresponsible, but on the other hand it does talk to some of the things that scare us." To disarm the dangerous myth of the irrational, appetitive woman, Anderson has employed voice modulation throughout her career, speaking with the impassive tones of a computer or even parodying rational masculinity. "I'm trying to use language a little differently, a little cooler, to talk from both sides," she explains. Even the stripped-down Voices From the Beyond will include a modicum of voice effects, sometimes to intensify an argument, sometimes because Anderson herself is seduced by the technique. "It's too hard to leave those things at home," she admits, laughing.

As the monologue moves from city to city, metamorphosing en route, Anderson is already percolating new projects. "I am writing some songs now, which I haven't done for a while," she says. "The things I'm working on are longer and much more narrative. They have odd rhythms. But I have no idea when I will be able to trick myself into the studio, or how things will turn out. I'm very bad at predicting what stuff will look like or sound like. Sometimes I think I'm working on an opera and it turns out to be a potato print."

One project that will definitely not turn out to be a potato print is "Real World," an ambitious theme park in Barcelona that Anderson has been designing with musicians Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno. "I think it's going to be pretty amazing," she says with the guileless enthusiasm of someone who has a hand in planning an amusement park. "Peter has wanted to do this for a long time, and I first heard about it twelve years ago. At that point it was going to be an underground environment and you would go down there and put a hair dryer on your head and listen to holophonic music and watch stereoscopic images. The only thing that survives from that version is that it is underground. I think it's going to be very interesting. There's no model for it. We're going to have a TV station, a radio station, a place for people to do electronic media things, even rides and restaurants. But it's still on the drawing board." Never known for artist's block, Anderson also has scored the film version of Spalding Gray's monologue Monster in a Box, and will debut a major multimedia work at Expo '92 in Seville in May.

As she heads back to her creative element, accompanied by her slide projectors and Synclaviers, her overhead visuals and custom turbo violin, Anderson is remembering the lessons of Voices from the Beyond, remembering the way that media can deceive and distort. And she even offers a suggestion to CNN, shop talk really, friendly advice from one performance artist to another. "I think I had some better musical ideas for the news logos," she says. "Something a little more lugubrious than the up-tempo, happy-war music.

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