Inside Feature: Laurie Anderson
It was the strangest sort of mass hypnosis, like Jonestown without the candy colors and the suicides. Only twelve months have passed since someone somewhere kicked sand across the line in the desert and E Pluribus Unum temporarily, tantalizingly, rang with high truth. Suddenly we were a country of drive, unity, self-possession. We were at war. The nation was hypnotized by CNN; military jargon spilled from the mouths of preschoolers; newsmen and generals beamed brawnily from the dead center of the mother of all wet dreams. Everyone knows where they were when Kennedy was shot, but do you remember where you were when you first fell under the spell of the Rumble in the Gulf?
Laurie Anderson does. "Like everybody else, I sort of stayed glued to TV for the war," says Anderson, the spiky-haired, siren-voiced, world-famous performance artist/composer/dancer/sculptor/photographer/pop singer extraordinaire. And she stayed glued, not only during the war, but during the Thomas Confirmation Hearings, the William Kennedy Smith Trial, even the Magic Johnson Press Conference. She watched as the extensive coverage, the traumatically comprehensive coverage, galvanized the American people. She mulled over the hypocrisies of a nation that thrusts cameras into a rape trial but hog-ties its artists with concerns about community standards. And then she turned her observations into art. Voices from the Beyond, the monologue that emerged from her months of televisual exile, will have its only Miami performance Saturday night at Gusman Cultural Center, sponsored by the Miami Light Project. "So many things have changed in the past year, just been ripped inside out," Anderson says. "I really wanted to talk about a lot of the stuff, so I decided I wouldn't start drawing pictures or doing music. Instead, I would just talk about it."
An accomplished artist and musician who both taught college-level architectural history and staged events on New York City streets, Anderson waited until 1982 to become a household name (assuming your household collects the Heroes of the Avant-Garde Refrigerator Magnets Series). She earned the promotion on the strength of "O Superman," a hauntingly comic synth-song that charted in the British Top Ten, and after three critically acclaimed studio LPs and a series of elaborate multimedia stage shows, Anderson stood alone atop the ranks of fascinating but unclassifiable American performers. Formally and culturally omnivorous, she incorporated everything from drum dances to bruitist poetry to sitcom trivia. She collaborated with artists as diverse as William S. Burroughs, Peter Gabriel, Nile Rogers, and Spalding Gray; customized her own electronic violin so that it spoke like a man; and even directed a feature-length concert film, Home of the Brave. Her spiny hair and lightweight suits, not to mention her quirky, deadpan intonation, became as recognizable (and as imitated) a style as Annie Hall's.
But style can change, especially when the times demand it. Uneasy with the entertainment value of wartime gadgetry, the slipperiness of military speech, and the dementia of a society that often cannot distinguish between reality and representation ("This is the time," Anderson wrote in a 1982 song, "and this is a record of the time"), she decided to temporarily forgo her trademark high-tech dazzlement and elliptical lyricism and concentrate instead on direct address. Voices from the Beyond employs only a single visual image, a slide of a receding highway, and only occasionally resorts to musical or synthesized effects. Moving through a series of personal memories, dreams, and tales of the modern world, Anderson attempts to make sense of the modern American character. A calmer, clarified cousin of her intricate and enigmatic works of the mid-Eighties, the piece has the feel of a speech, albeit a canny, mesmerizing, ennobling lecture.
"In fact Voices from the Beyond did begin as a kind of speech," she says. "The Museum of Modern Art was exhibiting a show about high art and low art, and artists were invited to give talks on the subject. I felt that the high-low division wasn't that interesting a categorization any more. The kind of imagemaking going on in pop culture was a much more striking development. The aestheticization of the Gulf War in particular - making smart bombs look hip, devising a new way to use language, getting people whipped up into this state of euphoria." The first drafts of the monologue were of modest size, but its informal staging left room for improvisation, and Anderson continued to supplement the piece as the year progressed. In its current form, Voices from the Beyond includes roughly three hours of reminiscence, observation, criticism, and speculation, a program that might grow monotonous were it not for Anderson's breadth of knowledge, curiosity, and quirky humor. ("I dreamed of a little town in which all the girls were named Betty," she said in Home of the Brave.)
Anderson, who has been performing mostly in theaters and university auditoriums, finds that some who attend her shows come expecting to see a concert. "Those people," she has observed, "are either asleep after a couple of hours or else they've left." But, she adds, "For the most part I have felt that this approach is incredibly useful. It's very hard to compete with the war images, their multitrillion-dollar images. They attack you via the news, which has a certain authority. It was such a barrage of stuff - presented of course as entertainment - but if you deal with them on the level of language, you can understand it a little better."
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.'"
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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