holding a mirror up to late twentieth century techno-culture
interview by Adrienne Redd
Laurie Anderson's images and motifs come from the commonplace or from turning familiar concepts on their heads. A doodle included in John Howell's 1992 biography of Laurie Anderson provides a key to "The Speed of Darkness," the title of her performance at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania on Friday February 21, 1998. She scrawled on a page, next to cartoons and other musings, "Speed of Darkness: slower or faster than the speed of light??"
One subplot of "The Speed of Darkness," according to Anderson, is control and what that means. She notes that she is mixing the show herself and playing only keyboards, violin and digital processors. Another inverted concept for the informal evening will be privacy and a third, the "information in silence." In a telephone interview from her sixth-floor loft in lower Manhattan, Anderson explained, "Being in a theater is different from getting things through a [television or computer] screen. Silence doesn't mean anything on a computer. Silence in a theater or at a dinner party can be terrifying or spellbinding. It can be a very be a very powerful thing to just stop. Silence on the telephone line or on the computer means you have been disconnected."
Anderson, the only performance artist ever to have achieved superstar pop status, is known for monumental multi-media shows. "Bright Red," her latest album, however, came out in 1995 after a five-year pause and returned to the essential core of her art, a spare sound, courtesy of producer Brian Eno, and an emphasis on the spoken word, which Anderson says has always interested her the most.
Having given performances whose tone ranged from funny, friendly chats to chilling visions of a bleak future, Anderson is known for picking up and projecting fragments, ideas and ordinary images, seemingly chosen by chance, and imbuing them with deeper, even mythological or prophetic significance. She has long been fascinated with the idea from novelist, William S. Burroughs that language is a virus and elaborated on the conundrum of whether language is alive, saying, "We have to stretch our idea of what is alive. There is a kind of river clay that goes through several metamorphoses, building shells, shifting and changing. Is it alive?"
Another set of questions: "And what I really want to know is/Are things getting better/Or are they getting worse? Can we start all over again?" comprise the conceptual center of "Bright Red." And in an earlier opus, United States I - IV, she undertook to offer a "performance portrait of the country" with segments, such as transportation, politics, money and love. That commentary on American culture and politics continues to interest Anderson, but she says, "I don't think [culture and politics] really intersect that often anymore. It's amazing how few political art works are being made maybe because the creation of the illusion through politics is becoming such a refined work of art. There used to be people Reagan, Bush who were such easy targets you could have fun with them. Now marketing is now written all over politics."
Anderson has said that she is more angry than she was in the 1970s and '80s, but says that the benefits she has done best reflect what issues she cares about. She mentions several benefits for Tibet House and adds, "I think Tibetan Buddhism is one of the most interesting things in the United States. I haven't done much on censorship because I notice that those issues mostly come up around election time. It a sexy thing to say that the government should never pay for all of these weird projects." She says that she still supports the idea of spending taxes for the National Endowment of the Arts. "I do believe in it. I think it should be 20 times what it is because my idea of utopia is that everyone can be an artist."
At Lehigh University, Anderson will present a collection of stories and songs about the future of art and technology. Stripped down to the images of a control room, a mental hospital and a theater, "The Speed of Darkness" is Anderson's forum to talk about how these places are merging to form late twentieth century techno-culture.
That techno-culture will certainly include the Internet and Anderson commented on the Communications Decency Act. "I don't see how we can justify limiting the freedom of speech. Everyone gets heated up in an election year about pornography, but I am still looking for the dangerous and colorful and personal thinking [on the internet.] I am supposed to write an afterward for a book on the first world's fair on the internet. I realized to my horror that I am a snob, that I like secret places and backstage passes. The net seems flat and bland. There are not enough neighborhoods. It seems so suburban."
"I have real reservations about the world that is being re-made [in cyberspace]," continues Anderson. "Love and hatred totally co-exist and I do think that humans are capable of living with that totally contradicting themselves, but there is so much pressure to be part of the digital whatever. I was recently in Italy and there were some people there from Boston who told the Italians, if you don't get up to speed you will be part of the digital homeless. It is a kind of threat rather than an offer a threat to be left behind. I have a big problem with that extreme marketing technique. At the same time, my nationalist feelings come out because it has been a long time since US was technologically ahead and this communications network is very American and that is really astounding and wonderful if we don't terrorize each other with it."
Anderson says she is simplifying her work and may even be returning to her roots as a sculptor. Her works have been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia and she holds a masters degree in sculpture from Columbia University, but took a hiatus from making objects in the early 1970s.
Anderson says, "I have been making some things carving them. I have a piece at the Guggenheim [Museum Soho], but it's stuffed with electronics, an animatronic parrot. The beak moves and he talks. It was so much fun writing this character because he criticizes the museum and gives out the director's home phone number." Another work at the Guggenheim allow a person to interact with sound equipment on a "carpenter's level" by lifting up one part of the installation and hear a male voice and another part to hear the female part of a mix. Another recent installation was a sound sculpture in Berlin which created a three-dimensional mix of speaker which made the sound appear to be drawn up.
Asked if she still considers herself, "someone from the art world who happens to be occasionally making records," Anderson responded, "I occasionally make installations, operas and web sites. The medium is not incidental, but I am not a monomedia artist."
Being interviewed, Anderson is candid and warm, skillfully able to ride tangents in new directions and unwilling to offer an over-arching artistic philosophy "I hate making broad statements." Responding to a question about having decided in 1972 to stay in bed until she decided what she wanted to do, reveals, "I made up a new person then and I decided that was who I wanted to be. It was quite difficult to do and it had to do with my right to call myself an artist. It felt so presumptuous and I felt 'How can I make that step?' I thought to myself, 'What do you want to do?' I realized I didn't know and I stayed in bed until I could think of something. I consciously tried to think of something that I would be so glad to do that I couldn't wait to do it. It was a kind of self-hypnosis."
Laurie Anderson will present The Speed of Darkness The McCarter Theater in Princeton, NJ on March 25. (Info: 609-683-9100)
The Guggenheim Museum Soho is currently showing works by Laurie Anderson and five other shortlisted artists for the Hugo Bass Prize. Her animatronic parrot is titled "Your Fortune One $." Call the Guggenheim Museum for more information 212-423-3500.
Adrienne Redd is a freelance writer living in Lansdale. She is currently tracking the Communications Decency Act, freedom of speech issues affecting the arts and environmental issues. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and her website is at http:www.netaxs.com/~adredd/
Article copyright 1997 Adrienne Redd