FOR A PERFORMANCE ARTIST, Laurie Anderson certainly has been generating a lot of objects lately—records, a book, even a major retrospective that fills up most of the Queens Museum in New York with photos, videos and weird things. Presumably, this is what they mean by “multimedia.” Yet most of it has the look of documentation rather than art, for her art really comes in the form of words—spoken words, set to music and put in visual context. “Language is a virus from outer space,” she says, quoting William Burroughs, in her sweeping performance piece, United States. If so, then she must be a mad doctor, a midnight gene-splicer whose cryptic communiqués from the lab could lead to some unforeseen form of human mutation.
UNITED STATES, Parts I-IV, Laurie Anderson. Brooklyn Academy of Music, February 3-10, 1983
SHARKEY’S DAY. Laurie Anderson. Single and video, Warner Bros. Records, 1984
UNITED STATES, by Laurie Anderson. Harper & Row, 1984
LAURIE ANDERSON: Works from 1969 to 1983. Queens Museum, July 1-September 9, 1984
This is all very well timed for the Information Age, and indeed one key to Anderson’s success seems to be the playful way she uses, and comments on, electronic technology. By getting on stage and single-handedly manipulating a lot of complicated electronic gadgetry, she puts herself in command of a technology few of us understand and many are frightened of. Yet her naïve persona—basically she comes across as a highly evolved techno-waif—makes her an immediately sympathetic figure. It’s as if some spiky-haired E.T. had unexpectedly offered to stumble ahead into the future while the rest of us tentatively followed.
The unknown is powerful stuff, of course, but what’s really surprising is how few artists are venturing into the same territory. Computerized music is a lot more compelling than computerized art; that certainly has something to do with it. In general, however, the contemporary art world seems to be backpedaling as fast as it can. If it hopes to gain cachet, any budding movement that doesn’t use spray paint had better have a “neo” tacked to the front of its name. Laurie Anderson is an anomaly in this environment. Despite her popularity, she’s a throwback to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the art object was dematerializing and it wasn’t outrageous for artists and scientists to look ahead together.
As performance art, Anderson’s work approaches pure information: ethereal, nonlinear, a succession of discrete bits, abstract yet full of content. What she has to say revolves around the love/hate relationship Americans have with nature and technology. In “Sharkey’s Day,” the lead song from Mister Heartbreak, her second Warner Bros. album, she tells the story of a grocery store employee, a middle-aged, Middle American, middle-everything sort of guy who can probably look forward to being the store manager if he stays at his desk another twenty years. Sharkey has strange dreams he can’t quite remember. He views insects and animals with horror: “I’d rather see this on TV. Tones it down.” He takes note of the new mechanical trees that grow to their full height, then chop themselves down. He views life as something that comes out of a swamp and creeps into the house. Animals howl and yelp in the background. Does anybody still wonder why everything in the supermarket is shrink-wrapped or frozen?
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Sharkey’s saga is set against an aural collage of screeching guitars, droning synthesizers and primitive African percussive instruments. The mix is a strange one; Anderson is almost as anomalous in the music scene as she is in the art world. It’s not that there’s any shortage of self-consciously avant-garde synthesizer bands, just that most of them are more interested in rhythms than in ideas. But even as a musician, Anderson’s primary medium is language. If she resembles anybody in rock, it’s Talking Heads—not coincidentally, a New York City group formed by art school graduates.
After graduating from Barnard as an art history major in 1969, Anderson fell in with the conceptual art crowd. Some of the early work, on view at the Queens Museum until September 9, is surprisingly political—for example, “The Street Wall Journal,” a 1969 newsprint poster that screams “Hanoi—Haiphong—Fight Back.” But she moved quickly from agitprop art to whimsically inventive performance pieces: most notably, her 1974 “Duets on Ice,” in which she played a duet with herself on the violin (one half was prerecorded) while wearing ice skates frozen in blocks of ice. When the ice melted, the piece was over. She did sculpture, too: for example, “Handphone Table,” which allows you to hear music when you put your elbows in its sockets and your head in your hands. But the humor of her work didn’t fit in well with the dry academicism that characterized 1970s art. The SoHo crowd thought her frivolous; she thought them elitist and dull.
This put her on a wavelength with the new generation just coming out of art school, a generation which regarded SoHo as synonymous with enervation. They turned instead to the Lower East Side punk rock scene, which had raw energy and a jolting immediacy. With few exceptions—Talking Heads chief among them—the bands they formed were not the type you’d read about in Rolling Stone. Most of them turned out to be less interested in playing rock than in pursuing art by other means. The results were, to most, as unlistenable as the cool esthetics of minimalism had been unfathomable.
Anderson’s response to all this was summed up in “Difficult Listening Hour” from United States: “So sit bolt upright in that straight-backed chair, / button that top button, /and get set for some difficult music.” But to anyone who was remotely inclined to appreciate it, Anderson’s music wasn’t difficult at all. She blended music and performance art in a way that was accessible, intelligent, even fun. People liked it. She got famous. So famous that, practically speaking, she stopped being a performance artist and became a performer.
It’s been three years now since she signed a multi-record contract with Warner Bros., a step that freed her from the constraints of the art world but brought with it a whole new set of pressures. Warner may not be expecting her to make back the money it lost on Atari, but mass distribution does have its price. There has been uncertainty about the release of United States, a six-record set which should be out in November; meanwhile, MTV reportedly refused to air her “Sharkey’s Day” video unless she added a clip explaining what it all means. Being on the pop charts makes her an easy target for those who are allergic to art.
The reaction to her work is a distinctly binary phenomenon: people either love it or they hate it. The problem is not that she’s all that difficult to comprehend; it’s more that she forces you to experience things in new ways—to hear music through your elbows, for example. She’s also a master of the clever non sequitur, the disjointed association, the sly pun. In United States the book (Harper & Row, $19.95)—a lavishly produced, 231-page word-and-picture record of the work that received its premiere last year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—there are hundreds of these games, some silly, some profound, some simply dizzying. In “Closed Circuits” she declares:
There’s luck, and there’s the law. . . . / And it’s a tricky balancing act between the two because / both are equally true. / ’Cause might makes right / and anything could happen. . . .
That is the kind of thing that a lot of people regard as merely strange. To those who don’t, however, Anderson is not a pop star or a cult figure, she’s a cultural landmark. As an artist whose primary theme is dislocation—being lost, moving fast, unfamiliar territory—she speaks directly to the concerns of the moment. That’s the funny thing about dislocation: when everybody is experiencing it, it can put you right at the center of things. ❑