Copyright © 2000 RoseLee Goldberg. All rights reserved.
Many of us who saw Laurie Anderson's United States at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New Yorkin 1983 knew that we had witnessed an event of historical significance. Visually startling, featuring aningenious combination of sound and text, and pieced together with equal amounts of political commentaryand intellectual inquiry, United States made it clear that Anderson's use of media and heranalysis of its role and meaning in American culture would become a yardstick for measuring thisdebate in the future. Not only did she use a broad range of toolssome classical, like a violin, otherscustom-built, like a vocoder or a hologrambut the ways in which she single-handedly meshed almosteight hours of material into a large-scale portrait of a country were breathtaking and unforgettable.Most remarkable was the fact that the production was accessible to audiences. It was this achievement,of crossing from avant-garde obscurity into the so-called mainstream without compromising her ideasor aesthetic integrity, that would indelibly establish United States in the annals of art history.
Communicating with an audience was Anderson's goal from the start. "One of my jobs as an artist is tomake contact with the audience, and it has to be immediate," she has said, an approach that, in the historyof "live art," was a radical departure from past tactics. The Dadaists and Futurists in the 1920s andFluxus artists in the 1960s intentionally provoked their audiences. Epater les bourgeoisto shock themiddle classeswas an expression adopted to describe all sorts of actions intended to raise questionsabout the very meaning of art, and to force a reassessment of the practice of everyday life. In her workAnderson chose to affect viewers differently. Rather than shocking audiences to new levels of awareness,she took a far more subtle approach to change their minds. She floated picturesthousands ofthem, in the form of film or slide projectionsbefore their eyes and used streams of words, straightforwardlydelivered but cleverly arranged and full of surprising observations. "You're walking, and youdon't always realize it, but you're always falling," she sang in one song. She used music to stir her audiencesviscerally; her melodies, which she found in the regular rhythms of ordinary conversations or inthe to and fro of arguments, were matched with lyrics good enough to qualify as poetry. The result wasa collection of songs that combined the complexity of abstract discourse"History is an angel beingblown backwards into the future"with the 4/4 beat of rock 'n' roll.
In United States, Anderson transformed herself into a new kind of artist. She exploded the scale of herwork by rising to the occasion presented by an opera house, adding technicians as needed to maintainthe flow of slides, film, and lights on the giant backdrops behind her. She constructed photomontagesof film and slides, collages of pictures and texts, and paintings made of light, in front of which shesometimes created shadow puppets with her hands and other parts of her body. She built platforms tolayer the space of the stage and employed illusionistic projections that appeared to extend it into theauditorium. She designed original instruments that were marvelous objects in themselves. To top it alloff, she played the violin, alternating virtuoso bowing with atonal swoops that wailed through the airlike a siren. She coaxed lush orchestration from an electronic keyboard, dense with preprogrammedsounds, added live back-up musicians to further complicate the texture of her music, and littered thestage with additional sound-makersan accordion, a pitch transposer, a digital echo. All of this whilesignaling, with the grace of a conductor, to technicians in the balconies and sound booth when to runthe slides, projectors, prerecorded tape loops, and floodlights.
By the end of eight hours it was evident that Anderson was indeed an artist of extraordinary talent.She had utilized a variety of media with ease and invented a repertory of her own. She had sashayedbetween disciplines, creating seamless borders by frequently crossing them, and she had provided aniconography of visual references that would keep art historians busy for years to comehouses, thesea, mountains, dogs, airplanes, telephones, televisions, metronomes, violins, the face of a wall plug, alight bulb, clocks, maps, the American flag, the open road, clouds, sky, the head of a president engravedon a coin. All were distinctly drawn or represented in signature Anderson style, and each held a clue toher storage bank of obsessions: "house" with its reference to home, family, architecture, and her personalstage; "clocks" to time, fast and slow; "presidents" charged with power, sexuality, and mythology;"television" with the politics of control. Each had appeared in her earliest material, whether in thehandmade books of the early 1970s or in performances that she toured continuously on several overlappingcircuits to American and European art schools, museums, and galleries throughout the decade.And each was a signpost for the future, since every one of them has continued to appear in Anderson'swork to the present day.
While United States was for Anderson the fruition of more than a decade's worth of work, it also representedthe culmination of a unique era in New York. During the 1970s artistic inquiry ran the gamutfrom conceptual art to body art, land art, performance art, video, sound art, artists' books, and otherareas. This great variety provided fertile ground for Anderson's many interests. Downtown artistsencouraged one another not to choose between disciplines. Composers, choreographers, architects,filmmakers, sculptors, and painters borrowed freely from various media. A work by Vito Acconci, whowas originally a poet, might appear uncannily similar to one by a sculptor such as Scott Burton, both ofwhom made several street-works. A walk by choreographer Trisha Brown, in which she explored gravityby descending the face of a building supported by mountaineering equipment, might complementa huge cut-out in the wall of an abandoned building made by architect Gordon Matta-Clark to emphasizethe structure's sculptural quality. This mood of adventurous creativity gave Anderson license to followas many paths as she pleased, and she produced handmade books, sound installations, filmperformances, and more.
This generation of artists rejected the aestheticized art object, critiqued the meaning of art, andattempted to find ways to take their polemic concerns far away from the confines of the art gallery andthe elaborate system that supported it. All of them, particularly the ones working "live," such asMeredith Monk or Robert Ashley, Joan Jonas or Robert Wilson, set their own terms. They found alternativevenues for their work, recorded their own music, and made art especially designed as a vehiclefor their varied talents. These artists simply could not think in terms of one discipline at a time. Rather,their creative impulses took visual, aural, and spatial form, and their multidimensional thinkingresulted in remarkable works that appealed to all the senses. They had the discipline, control, andimpetus to keep all mediums working simultaneously, like a row of plates spinning in the air.
Not only was United States a summation of the sensibilities and value system of the 1970s, but it wasalso a gateway to the 1980s. Artists who were in their mid-twenties in the late '70sTroy Brauntuch,Thomas Lawson, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, David Salle, Cindy Sherman, and Laurie Simmons,among othershad grown up on a steady diet of twenty-four-hour-a-day television, B-movies, fastfood, and rock 'n' roll. Now they were pointedly examining the overwhelming effects of media onAmerican cultural and political life as well as on their own day-to-day experiences. The formatAnderson chose for United States, a large-scale opus, provided an extensive ground on which to laythese issues, and her system of riveting the audience's attention with a continuous flow of images paralleledtheir method of culling pictures from movies, magazines, or the media and of framing, rearranging,and projecting them to create iconic pictures of the times, These artists were as conscious asAnderson was of current affairsof the insidiousness of Reagan-era media politics and of the '80s consumerfrenzyand were as determined to include critical reference to it in their work. Like Andersonthey juxtaposed references to television's past, such as episodes from "The "Twilight Zone," and to itscurrent crop of advertising logos, with fragments of narratives from daily newspapers, creating severallayers of meaning in their workfrom the literal to the metaphorical. Indeed, United States, with itssophisticated manipulation of many media, biblical references, and prescient overtones of a futuristicworld commandeered by technology, was considered to be a deeply allegorical rendering of contemporaryAmerica. In this context, it holds masterpiece status.
It also holds mythical status, because just one year earlier Anderson had signed a contract with recordingindustry giant Warner Brothers committing her to produce six albums for the label, a move thatwould cause a flurry of excitement in the downtown art world. Such a leap into the mainstream wasunimaginable before that time, and for an avant-garde artist it was considered something of a contradiction.Many of Anderson's peers responded to her defection with some disdain, and she felt it. "It wasconsidered `selling out,'" she recalls. Yet hers was a complicated situation. "O Superman," her eight-minutesong that had reached the number two spot on the British pop charts in 1981, was compellinglybeautiful. It was composed in the context of an art performance, and its popularity took Anderson bycomplete surprise. The suggestion that she had intentionally created a work for the world of massentertainment was entirely inaccurate; rather, its success was an odd kind of proof that extraordinaryartwork can transcend categories and reach wide audiences. The mystery of how "O Superman" brokethrough the barricades separating so-called high and low art seemed unfathomable; it inevitablyprovoked sentiments of envy as well. Nevertheless, her move inspired many artists, especially thosewho toyed with mass media as content in their work, and provided a model for them to follow. Some,such as Longo, Salle, Julian Schnabel, and Sherman, would eventually translate their own ambitionsto straddle high art and the mass media into Hollywood movies, while performers including EricBogosian, Spalding Gray, and Ann Magnuson achieved mainstream name recognition in the 1980s inthe worlds of theater and television. "A couple of years later," Anderson notes, "crossing over waslooked on more favorably.... But by the mid-1980s," she adds, referring to the overwhelmingly consumeristethos that drove the art world of that decade, "there was no longer much of an avant-gardeleft to comment on it anyway."
The immediate benefits of Anderson's contract with Warner Brothers were the facilities that financialbacking afforded her. She built a fully equipped professional recording studio in her downtown loft,which gave her immediate access, around the clock, to equipment that could instantly translate herideas into freshly made music. It also allowed her to invent ways of combining lush orchestration andspoken words to form a sound vocabulary all her own. Only her film Home of the Brave (1985), whichshe directed, produced, and starred in, suffered some of the negative effects of '80s excess, since it wasfar more polished than anything she had done before. Glamorously dressed back-up singers transformedAnderson's conceptual material into finger-snapping songs, musicians in masks and jaunty hatsspoofed behind her, and music-hall lighting made the film far more picturesque than might have beenanticipated from her earlier work. Home of the Brave was not highly regarded as a concert movie, norwas it a commercial success. But it was a training ground for Anderson in digital recording and film, andfor several devices that would reappear in future productions, such as electronically controlled stagesets with cables and equipment hidden under custom-built flooring, or her Drum Suit, a percussiveoutfit with electronic drum sensors sewn into its seams, which produced a big "boom" whenever shetapped her knee or chest or made particularly expansive movements.
Always fearless in the face of technology, Anderson incorporated it into her work from the start,whether film projections, fake holograms, wired mouthpieces, or electrified door jambs. Self-taught,she would invent new uses for old equipment by taking apart cheap electronic objects found in secondhandshops on Canal Street near her loft, and putting the pieces back together again for her ownunusual ends. "A lot of my work comes from playing around with equipment, seeing what it will do,"she has said. As it was for other artists of the 1970sAcconci, Jonas, Bruce Naumanthe point forAnderson was to undermine the push toward perfection that high technology proffered, and to treatit as just another tool. "I use technology as a way of amplifying or changing things," she explains. Shehas also employed it to doctor the most ordinary objects: a pillow has a tape recorder embedded in itso that one can hear a story when one's head is laid on the pillow; a table is wired so that a poem canbe heard when one places one's heed in one's hands and then one's elbows on particular points on thetabletop (sound is transmitted through the lower-arm bones); a book's pages are turned by an electricfan. On stage, custom-built microphones change her voice from female to male, human to computerese.Light projections throw her shadow onto building-high backdrops. Neon bows and violins glowin the dark. Stick figures of animals and people run back and forth across the screen, and ideograms ofhouses, televisions, and airplanes drop in vertically, like rain. But no matter how many electronic filtersand computerized devices go into creating this material, the overall sensibility is fragile and fragmented."Technology," Anderson insists, is "the least important thing about what I do."
The personal, hand-drawn quality of Anderson's work has kept it relevant in the high-tech art world ofthe late '90s. Artists such as Douglas Gordon, Mariko Mori, Pipilotti Rist, or Sam Taylor-Wood, who usesophisticated mixes of film projection, video, and computer-enhanced photography to create eclecticnarrative landscapes, have recognized Anderson's work not only for its pioneering status but also forthe fact that she has responded to technological shifts as they occurred over a period of more than twodecades, as is evident in her use of equipment, from telephones and answering machines early on, tolaser beams, CD-ROM's, and the Internet more recently. For them, her art has held its own because itcontains prescient criticism of the media they all use and of the politics that continuously shape and areshaped by it. Anderson understands how media works, both technically and perceptually, on thesenses, and she questions the artist's role in colluding with the aesthetics of a "cold, speedy, technoworld," "We tell ourselves how to get more and more perfect, more and more in control," Anderson hassaid. Even "time out" is disallowed in the technological world, she notes. "There's no such thing as digitalsilence," because "silence triggers the `disconnect' button." Anderson counters this orderliness withsubject matter that underlines human frailty: melancholic and frequently surreal tales of animals,dreams, families, and angels fill her somewhat chaotic and even anarchic universe.
Accelerated media-use in the 1990s attracted a new generation of artists to video and film in numbersnot seen since the 1970s. Museums and galleries, responding to the trend, included Anderson in groupexhibitions for the first time in almost a decade, signaling a return of sorts for her to the art-fold.Anderson approached the situation with some caution, not least because she found the relativelyinconsequential scale of art exhibitions, compared to that of performance, uninspiring. "In a gallery,I need one idea to fill a room," Anderson has said. "On stage, I need five hundred." Her audiences,though, built through years on the music circuit, were thrilled by the opportunity to view the Andersonlegend close up, and to spend time with her art objects and instruments, some of which they recognizedfrom stage concerts. Violins displayed on a wallTape Bow Violin, Viophonographor installationsWhirlwind(1996), Dal Vivo (Life) (1998)introduced them to her simultaneously bold andwhimsical aesthetic and to her elliptical way of thinking. When the works were displayed in a so-calledalternative space, such as Artists Space in New York, her enduring attachment to a 1970s beliefsystemone that proposed concept over product and a less-formal environment than museums inwhich to engage viewerswas obvious. Dal Vivo was held in an elegant Milan gallery space, and hereher desire to function beyond the walls of a gallery was made literal: the piece consisted of a live projectioninside the gallery, transmitted via cable from a nearby prison, of a man incarcerated for life.
Anderson's achievement in straddling the art and music worlds is remarkable, especially since, in theend, she belongs to neither camp entirely. Her music fans are often puzzled by her art connection, butthey would be no less mystified by her music's complete genesis if they knew it, since it is based in thework of some of the most radically inventive and paradoxical composers of the late twentieth century,from John Cage to Philip Glass and Robert Ashley, with their investigations of everyday sounds andsilence, serialization, and language, respectively. The way she makes music from a variety of soundsources also exhibits an obvious empathy for Fluxus artists Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik andmembers of the Italian Arte Povera group, all of whom adventurously collaged instruments from foundobjects and irreverently "performed" on them as well. Anderson's installations, such as Chord for aRoom (1973), are also part of a history of art objects made of sound; this lineage includes MarcelDuchamp's With Hidden Noise (1916) and Robert Morris' Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961).The rhythmic undertow of her music shows how much she absorbed the moody intonation of the '70sdowntown music scene, which was made up of composer-musicians such as Peter Gordon, Blue GeneTyranny, and David Van Tieghem, among others, and the smoothly asymmetrical melodies of Englishmusician Brian Eno. While audiences may be unaware of Anderson's distinctive musical family-tree,they nevertheless perceive at once that her concertswhich comprise a diminutive, solitary figure atthe center of a large stage flipping knobs on a console with one hand and playing chords on a synthesizerwith the other, operating pedals with her feet while turning her head from side to side, speakinginto voice-altering microphonesare quite different from the multimedia extravaganzas of rock 'n'roll. Incorporating subject matter such as politics, censorship, and war, as well as references to theeccentric scientist Nikola Tesla or underground filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, for example, hershows are uniquely disarming as well as intellectually stimulating.
Anderson has an uncanny capacity to make philosophical reflection palatable to a broad public.Without being the least bit patronizing, she merges an intense cultural and political critique with musicand visual art in performances that can be read by a wide gamut of viewersfrom language theoristsand cultural critics to general theater and rock-music audiences. The real vehicle for her thoughts is, ofcourse, language, which she manipulates in hundreds of ways. Words and sentences are cut, spliced,routed electronically through vocoders, pulled backward on a Tape Bow, projected on screens, spoken,and sung; they are filled with meaning and emptied of it with the regularity of waves crashing on abeach. Everyday language"Hello, this is your mother, are you home?"is juxtaposed in performancewith a large projected shadow of a clenched fist, transforming an ordinary message on a telephoneanswering machine into an authoritarian threat. More obscure prose"Language is a virus from outerspace," a quotation from William Burroughsaccompanied by a "picture puzzle" used in an essay byphilosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is a parody of theorists sung to a seductive rock beat. Even foreignlanguages are part of her analysis of communication as an elaborate but universal system of codes.When on tour in non-English speaking countries she separates phrases or words into visual or auralmodular units to simplify articulation, as in the Japanese alphabet or in the German "sh" sound.
Extensively analyzed by scholars, Anderson's songs such as "Language of the Future" or "LanguageIs a Virus" have been connected to the writings of several philosophers and linguists, including WalterBenjamin, Julia Kristeva, and Marshall McLuhan. The songs have been interpreted as spoofs onlanguage theories, they have been deconstructed to show the signs and signifiers of postmodernthought, and they have been critiqued as aural samplings of power relationships between the genders.But no one is more aware of the multiple references in her work than Anderson herself. She intendsthat the viewer pay attention to the way "things pull at each other," to what she describes as the audioand visual layering of each piece, and she makes no effort to disguise her many sources of inspiration."If You Can't Talk About It, Point To It" (1980) is dedicated to Wittgenstein, while "The Dream Before"(1989) is "for Walter Benjamin." Even though many in her audience might not recognize the names ofthese heroes of the twentieth-century intelligentsia, they may nevertheless leave a concert hummingmelodies of songs that have been dedicated to them.