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LAURIE ANDERSON MULTIMEDIA MASTERMIND

The American multi-artist Laurie Anderson is not only one of the most successful of her kind – she is a rare gem indeed.

She is a performance artist and a musician, a sculptor and a writer, a video artist and a computer wizardress, a film-director and a painter - she is a post-modern Leonardo da Vinci, a multi-genius of the avant-garde as well as a pop icon, she did multimedia before anyone really knew what multimedia was all about.

Part of Laurie Anderson's success is to be found in her having broken down the barrier between the traditionally esoteric world of the avant-garde and the commercially minded mass media of popular culture. She has reached a large audience ranging from art critics to anarchist punks, and has definitely made her impact on late twentieth century culture.

In fact, one of the major themes in Anderson's art is her portrait of late twentieth century, multicultural America. Through her focus on the United States she addresses a number of themes and issues such as technology, authority, identity, alienation, and the role of art in a hi-tech society, but she rarely does so in a very direct or determined way. She is far removed from didacticism and preaching.
Instead, Anderson described herself as a cultural spy, an Agent X of art:

Now, I've always been interested in trying to determine what makes up the late twentieth century American f.ex. and so, as an artist, I've always thought my main job was to be a spy. To use my eyes and ears and find some of the answers.
(Laurie Anderson, The Salesman. The Ugly One with the Jewels. US: WEA, 1995)


STRANGE ANGEL - A SHORT BIOGRAPHY

Laurie Anderson was born June 5, 1947 in Chicago, Illinois, the second eldest in a family of eight. At the age of seven she began taking violin lessons, and only four years later she was attending art classes at the Saturday School of the Art Institute of Chicago. By the age of nineteen, however, Anderson gave up on the violin classes as she figured she would probably never become a virtuoso anyway, and instead she moved to New York City where she attended the Barnage College and received a B.A. in art history.

During the late sixties, Laurie Anderson got acquainted with the New York avant-garde art scene, and in 1970 she did her first one-woman exhibition at the Barnage College, working with newspaper sculptures, fibreglass, and wall-drawings. Throughout the seventies, she did a wide range of exhibitions, performances, and art events, developing a very personal style, to a large degree centred around the concept of language.

In 1973, Anderson met the avant-garde composer Philip Glass, whose additive minimalist music inspired her to use music in her own performances. Later that year she decided, rather intuitively, to hitch-hike to the North Pole and subsequently wrote the book, The Rose and the Stone about the journey. 1974 saw the premiere of Duets on Ice, a series of performance happenings around the streets of NYC and Rome. Anderson would show up with her tape-deck violin, wearing skates embedded in blocks of ice, and play duets with her pre-recorded material until the ice would melt. She had 'cold feet about performing', she explained. (John Howell, Laurie Anderson, 1994, p. 228)

In the late seventies and early eighties, Laurie Anderson's performances grew ever more complex, relying more and more on sophisticated technology to keep all the different elements together, combining visual and audio expressions to form multimedia syntheses of a completely new kind. Anderson herself came to play an increasingly central role, basing much of her work on autobiographical material, slowly building up the foundation for what was to become the big breakthrough - the massive almost eight-hour long two-nights performance, United States Parts I-IV.

United States was more than four years in the making, and it premiered in its complete four-parts form in 1983. The impressive performance offered a surreal portrait of post-modern America, told, sung, performed by Anderson and her deployment of state-of-the-art technology. A song used in Part II of United States, the mesmerising O Superman somehow became a hit in the UK, despite it's experimental sounds and eight minutes length - Laurie Anderson had left her first impact on the world of so-called popular culture.

During the eighties, Anderson worked primarily as a recording artist, putting out albums containing music and songs from United States such as Big Science (1982) and Mister Heartbreak (1984). In 1984, she collaborated with French synthesizer wizard Jean Michel Jarre on his groundbreaking sampling adventure Zoolook, and she also worked with art-rocker Peter Gabriel, with whom she recorded the song, This Is The Picture/Excellent Birds. In 1985, Laurie Anderson shot and directed the concert movie Home of the Brave, based on her 1984 Mister Heartbreak Tour. Not completely satisfied with her own talents as a director, she has described this project as her 'minstrel era'. (Laurie Anderson, Stories from the Nerve Bible, 1994, p. 228)

The movie was not a complete flop though, and was selected for Directors Fortnight at Cannes where it received favourable reviews. Home of the Brave was followed in 1986 by the Natural History Tour which was meant to promote the movie. Although a very ambitious project, Natural History was more of a conventional concert tour than a multimedia performance and on Strange Angels, the studio album that followed three years later, Anderson went further into the territory of the conventional, recording her most easily accessible album to date. However, the performance tour that followed - Empty Spaces - saw Anderson return to her innovative avant-garde performance style, although she had become more overt political and harsh in her criticism of American society. In her own words:

This really seemed risky because I'd always been proud that I never told anyone what to do. I'd always bragged, 'Well, I'm drawing the picture, I'm making the observation, but it's up to the audience to draw their own conclusions. I wouldn't tell them what to do even if I knew.' And here I was dispensing advice. On the other hand, being cool and collected seemed very mannered given the ruins I was showing on the screens.
(Laurie Anderson, Stories from the Nerve Bible, 1994, p. 217)

This deep-felt frustration with the inabilities of American society - particularly its inability to nurse and protect its poor and helpless citizens - became a more and more central theme in all of Anderson's work. In 1991, she presented a three-hour long talk performance called Voices from the Beyond, to the backing of just the single slide of a road. Her themes changed with each venue, addressing various media topics, though the Gulf War played a central role. The following year, she wrote a retrospective book - Stories from the Nerve Bible - which developed into a truly multimedia concept, leading to two album releases, Bright Red/Tightrope in 1994 and The Ugly One With The Jewels (1995), a CD-ROM entitled Puppet Motel (1995), a big internet site, and a 1994-1995 world tour, combining unique social criticism and commentary with deeply personal stories.

1996 saw Anderson work on the War Child project, a campaign raising money for children in Ex-Yugoslavia, supported by the likes of Brian Eno, U2, and The Cranberries. Anderson's rather enigmatic contribution to the project was a strange...hat which undoubtedly did its very best to stop Balkan war atrocities.

The following years, Laurie Anderson devoted her time to strange projects such as a highly hypothetical avant-garde theme park and a small performance tour called Speed of Darkness - a meditation on functional food, info overload, cybersex, and web-life, scored for electronically treated violin, synthesizer, and digital processing and in 1999, she returned to her studio to record new music for an ambitious multimedia project themed around Herman Melville's Moby Dick. This music eventually turned into 2001’s Life on a String which was followed by live performances, one of which took place in New York City but a few days after the terrorist attack September 11th.


MANY VOICES

As an artist I have made many things: performances, prints and drawings, films, records, comics, sculpture, videos, computer animations, and books. But it's spoken language that has always interested me the most. I believe it's possible that language is a virus, as William S. Burroughs claims. But to believe that language is a disease, first you have to believe it is alive. So, is language alive?
(Laurie Anderson, Stories from the Nerve Bible, 1994, p. 6)

This is a central and fundamental question in most of Laurie Anderson's work. The concept of language, in one way or the other, often serves as a basis for, or foundation of, a myriad other themes and ideas - many of which do not initially seem to have much to do with language in the first place. Her lyrics call for interpretation whereas most pop songs don’t and at the same time they defy meaningful interpretation, they are like Walter Benjamin’s ruin in that they only hint at construction.

Throughout her many performances, Laurie Anderson has made up numerous different voices by use of audio technology such as vocoders and filters of every kind, enabling her to shift between various vocal identities on stage or in the studio, changing her normal pitch to a low, robotic 'voice of authority' or a high, flangered soprano, conjuring up a complex and imaginative presentation of fragmentised subject and plurality of identity, common to post-modern theory - very much in line with what cyber-feminists are celebrating in cyberspace these days. This strategy often serves as a platform for Anderson's unique portrait of post-modern (American) society in that she is able to juxtapose different themes and ideas, singing discussions with herself in different voices. Sometimes her violin talks too, the strings of the instrument replaced by a tape-deck head and the horsehair of the bow by a strip of pre-recorded audio-tape. Messages can be played both forwards and backwards or they can be looped, creating a strange continuous babble, representing, perhaps, lack of successful, even meaningful communication in this so-called info age of ours. A post-industrial age of mass media and multiculture where alienation and the lack of true understanding seem to be the only truly shared 'cultural values'. The critic Janet Kardon speaks about this phenomenon in terms of 'anonymous language':

It is a world of the defenseless self, indeed of the disembodied self searching for a place in a placeless universe; encountering the opaque codes of the official 'they' - the generators of the anonymous language (advertising, commercials, instructions, the officially posted do's and don'ts of everyday life) that is appropriated unconsciously in our fantasies and dreams. Once again, in Anderson's world we come, as in classic Pop Art, to the terror, banality and awe of the capitalist Word. Anderson has monumentalized the Word (extended time is a form of monumentality) by carefully bringing it into a structure that is built almost architecturally, episode by episode, to exhibit chaos and discontinuity.
(Janet Kardon, Laurie Anderson Works from 1969 - 1983, 1985, p. 30)

Terror, banality, and awe - perhaps - but there is also in Anderson's work a sheer fascination with the disembodied self, roaming the placeless world of post-modernity. One might argue this is what Anderson herself is doing as an artist - exploring endless semiotic labyrinths where signs communicate intertextually, offering no simple or single meaning or message, but instead a post-structuralist blizzard where each sign refers to other signs endlessly, as Roland Barthes would have it.
Martha Ann Lavey compares this post-modern sensibility of Anderson's to the theories of Jean Baudrillard:

In Anderson's United States, time and place become 'states' through which the traveller proceeds in what Jean Baudrillard refers to as 'the era of networks.' Like Anderson, Baudrillard treats the technologies of communication as definitive of the post-modern sensibility. And, like Anderson, Baudrillard uses the metaphors of travel to describe a post-modern landscape that conflates the experience of space and time in the 'era of networks.' ...Baudrillard's rendering of the post-modern era as a universe in which all 'secrets, spaces and scenes' are abolished in 'the ecstacy of communication' is a fitting description of Anderson's United States. ...The traveller in this universe stands alone on the road at night, in what Baudrillard describes as 'a state of fascination and vertigo' linked to this 'delirium of communication,' repeatedly asking, 'Can you tell me where I am?'
(Martha Ann Lavey, Representing the Body: An Archetypal Approach to the Performance Art of Rachel Rosenthal, Laurie Anderson, and Karen Finley, 1994, pp. 265, 268, 269)

Laurie Anderson shows a genuine and profound interest in language and communication, but at the same time a just as big fascination with something which would best be described as 'non-language', 'non-communication'.

In America - mass media capitol of the world - communication failure is witnessed throughout all parts and levels of society, but perhaps most strongly, alas, within multicultural relations. The inability to communicate leads to ignorance - ignorance begets fear, fear of the unknown which perpetuates the inability to communicate, thus going full circle - 'a vicious circle, an endless fight', to use Anderson's own words.
(Laurie Anderson, Speechless. Bright Red/Tightrope. US: WEA, 1994)

There seems to be a Babel Tower complex present in Laurie Anderson's work, somewhat reminiscent of what is found in the books of Paul Auster - a very intimate love/hate relationship with language. Thus, it is no mere coincidence that one song from United States is called If You Can't Talk About It, Point to It - an almost desperate and frustrated statement in the face of the incompetence of language and communication. Naturally, the piece is instrumental, made up of a repeated electronically manipulated voice, followed by a slow, haunting - and very expressive - violin. As a final ironic gesture, the piece is dedicated to Ludwig Wittgenstein, the German philosopher whose claim to fame, of course, was his theory on language. Another song is called Language Is a Virus from Outer Space, the title borrowed from William S. Burroughs. Here too, the absurdity of language seems to be the central theme, juxtaposed with sarcastic lyrics and music sounding like a cross-over between avant-garde synthesizers, vocoders, rock saxophones and drums.
The first verse of the song recalls an incident, true or imagined, where Anderson and a friend meet some person on the train, 'and he seemed to have gotten stuck in one of those abstract trances, and he was going ugh...ugh...ugh...'
(Laurie Anderson, Language is a Virus from Outer Space. United States Live I-IV. US: WEA, 1984)

Each 'ugh' is sung through a metallic vocoder, and Anderson's friend thinks the man is in pain, that he is emitting pain cries. Anderson replies, 'If that's a pain cry, then language...is a virus...'
(Laurie Anderson, Language is a Virus from Outer Space. United States Live I-IV. US: WEA, 1984)

The vocoder voice is used again for the chorus ('Language, it is a virus!'), symbolising the idea of an actual communication disease that attacks the voice of the speaker, rendering it hollow and metallic. A few verses later, we are offered an ironic treatment of misunderstanding between different cultures, as Anderson takes on the role of a naive American commenting on Japanese language:

You know, I don't believe there's such a thing as the Japanese language. I mean, they don't even know how to write. They just draw pictures of these little characters, and when they talk, they just make sounds that more or less synch up with their lips.
(Laurie Anderson, Language is a Virus from Outer Space. United States Live I-IV. US: WEA, 1984)

Then follows a heavily syncopated bridge leading on to the final verse where things start to take on a somewhat more sinister tone. Anderson, who is no longer the naive American but rather, perhaps, Anderson again explains how she visits a con entitled, 'Big Science and Little Men', and here she is met by a horde of salesmen:

They were singing: We're gonna link you up. They were saying: We're gonna phase you in. They said: Let's look at it this way - Picture a Christmas tree with lots of sparkly light, and each light is totally separate, but they're all sort of hanging off the same wire. Get the picture? And I said: Count me out. And they said: We've got your number. And I said: Count me out. You gotta count me out.
(Laurie Anderson, Language is a Virus from Outer Space. United States Live I-IV. US: WEA, 1984)

The idea of an 'anonymous language' seems present here, with the Christmas tree a possible if slightly surreal metaphor of mass media America, and all the lights hanging off the same wire an image of multiculture, the diversity of individual American citizens. The salesmen talk about linking people up and phasing them in, like a grinding melting pot, a desire to create uniformity in culture, and thus anonymity. Happy consumers for Christ dancing around the sparkly Christmas tree, like zombie elves with stiff smiles and empty eyes. Of course Anderson ends up singing, 'You gotta count me out!', not willing to trade in her own identity (/ies) for that of a puppet American. From a somewhat different and relatively more contemporary perspective, it would seem obvious to see the wires on the Christmas tree as electronic networks such as radio, TV, and of course internet, but the theme of cultural dominance persists. Although suddenly the song takes on a rather sinister Orwellian tone.
The last chorus of the song is sung without the vocoder - Anderson has, in a way, freed herself from the virus through her anger, banging her fists against her skulls while wearing a special pair of dark glasses with a contact microphone attached to them, amplifying and reverbing her frustrated banging. Or she simply forgot to switch on the vocoder.

There are numerous examples of language in relation to multiculture in Laurie Anderson's works. In the song Smoke Rings, the first verse is sung in a strange mixture of English and Spanish, conjuring up a rather Monty Pythonesque multiculture quiz show:

Buenas noches Señoras. Bienvenidos. La primera pregunta es: ? Qué es más macho, pineapple o knife? Well, let's see. My guess is that a pineapple is more macho than a knife. Si! Correcto!
(Laurie Anderson, Smoke Rings. Home of the Brave. US: WEA, 1986)

Perfect kitsch and at the same time a most humorous and rather sarcastic comment on the increasing commercialisation of post-modern mass media, where everything is show and even serious matters neglected in the name of hype and advertisement. The song calls up the image of Jerry Springer's TV de/construction of America with all it's petty arguments, simplified conflicts, and stage-fighting as well as the jazz minstrel shows of the twenties rendering black musicians as clowns performing to white audiences.

Laurie Anderson often speaks of her art as relating to No Bodies:

But the bodies I relate to the most are the No Bodies. I've written many songs and stories for these 'people'. They have no names, no histories.They're outside of time and place and they are the ones who truly speak for me.
(Laurie Anderson, Stories from the Nerve Bible, 1994, p. 6)

It seems almost like a paradox when Anderson claims that the No Bodies speak for her when clearly she speaks for them in her art. But this does reveal something about Laurie Anderson's approach to art as opposed to reality - what is art and what is illusion (as indeed was the theme for one of her early songs).
The tragedies of the No Bodies function as artistic inspiration, they are muses, yet at the same time they are very real, in a sense resounding Andy Warhol's strategy of bringing everyday objects into art galleries, blurring the distinction between what is art, and what is real but also rendering the artist a vampire, feeding on the misery of these No Bodies. And at the same time the 'no names' and 'no histories' of the No Bodies, once again, bring to mind the notion of anonymous language, uniformity, and empty identity. The No Bodies are real and they are not real in that they do live and die in the gutter but they do not feature in the hype and money language of mass media.


UNITED STATES – HOME OF THE BRAVE OR EMPTY PLACES?

Well, deep in the heart of darkest America Home of the Brave Well HA HA HA
You've already paid For this Listen to my heart Beat.
(Laurie Anderson, Sharkey's Night. Home of the Brave. US: WEA, 1986)

The portrait of (post-) modern America is very much central to most of Laurie Anderson's work; social criticism and servation blend strangely with personal ideas, thoughts, experiences, and dreams to form a unique, at times surreal and bizarre, but most of all multi-faceted artistic expression. A multitude of different themes and ideas, interlaced and juxtaposed, are drawn into focus, most of which, in one way or the other, relate to the idea of American identity and culture. Is there such a thing as a genuine American national identity in the multicultural hyperreality that makes up the United States? And so, what does it mean to be American? What role does technology, authority, and politics play in regard to diversity as opposed to uniformity? Who really sets the agenda - the people or the powers that be? Is alienation perhaps at the very core of modern American society, a force of creation or the result of a lack of identity and roots and a national history of oppression against minority groups, be they racial, religious, sexual or cultural. Or female.
Does multicultural America fear multiculture more than anything? Does the notion of the alien Other still prevail to the extent where racist hate-groups and fascist ideals rear their ugly head? And is multiculture not just a question of different ethnic cultures but also different values - socially, politically, ideologically, artistically?

At the same time, however, Anderson's focus is also essentially very personal, at times intimate. She is the small character on stage amidst the mass of technology, dwarfed by the screens and projections as well as the chic conductor, pushing one key on a synthesizer to trigger a string of samples, very much the conjuror control freak. Much has been said about her on-stage appearance - her spiky punk hair-do or her all-black or all-white outfits. Notions of an androgynous or sexually neuter character spring to mind - in the words of Janet Kardon:

Anderson projects an androgynous image. ...This punk androgyny is accentuated by cropped hair and boyish costume... .The voice, manipulated by a vocoder, slides back and forth on a gender and age continuum, from a girl child to a mature man's 'corporative voice.'
(Janet Kardon, Laurie Anderson Works from 1969 - 1983, 1985, p. 25)

Anderson certainly does use her body and physical appearance in her art, clearly drawing on punk and new wave aesthetics, but according to herself not only in a symbolical way. Wearing all black makes her blend in with the dark background of the stage, making her appearance altogether more disembodied, thus avoiding the much spoken of objectifying gaze, while an all white costume makes a good, human projection screen.
And as for the punky hair, it seems she just likes it:

You ever take care of really long hair? Takes a lot of time.
(Laurie Anderson in John Howell, Laurie Anderson, 1992, p. 17)

A recurring theme in Anderson's portrait of the United States is her love/hate relationship with technology and the way in which technology is often used by authorities as an instrument of uniformity - regimentation, an effect leading to a profound sense of alienation. In fact, one of the stories from United States entitled It was Up in the Mountains, is a transcription of a Franz Kafka short story. It recounts the tale of a ceremony being held once a year up in the. However, one year a lot of tigers attack the ceremony, snarling at the dancing people, pretty much ruining the party, breaking the tradition. Most of the following year is spent on rebuilding all the things which the tigers broke, but by the time of the ceremony the tigers return. This happens four or five years in a row and then it is decided 'to make these tigers part of the ceremony - you know - to expect them.'
(Laurie Anderson, It Was Up In The Mountains. United States Live I-IV. US: WEA, 1984)

Thus, at the next ceremony food is put out for the tigers, and every year they get more and more. 'Then one year, the tigers didn't come. They never came back.'
(Laurie Anderson, It Was Up In The Mountains. United States Live I-IV. US:WEA, 1984)

One way to read the story of the tigers is from a multicultural point of view. The tigers represent the image of the Other, a different way of life, a different culture to that of the mountain-dwellers who celebrate the ceremony. In time, however, the tigers are incorporated into the ceremony - they're fed like tame animals - encouraged to forget what they are – carnivorous animals. The pot melts again, resounding Frankfurt School theories where avant-garde- and counterculture, is always eventually incorporated into mainstream commercial society, losing its original aura and element of resistance.

The theme of loss of identity is resounded in another song from United States called Hey Ah, in which Anderson recalls a visit she paid to a Cree Indian reservation. One day, a group of anthropologists came by to shoot a documentary about the Indians. And 'they asked the oldest man on the reservation to come and sing some songs for their documentary.'
(Laurie Anderson, Hey Ah. United States Live I-IV. US: WEA, 1984)

This Indian is very old, he is blind, and is rocking back and forth as he tries to remember the song, the light of the cameras causing him to sweat.

Pretty soon it was clear that he didn't know any of the songs. ...The only words he really seemed sure of where 'Hey ah...hey ah hey...hey hey hey ah hey...hey...'
(Laurie Anderson, Hey Ah. United States Live I-IV. US: WEA, 1984)

The music kicks in, minimalist synthesizers and syncopated drums forming the background for Laurie Anderson's chanting of the 'Hey Ahs', reminiscent of an Indian tribal dance, but - worth noticing - without the sounds of any traditional Indian instruments, either sampled or played conventionally. This is Anderson's song about the Indian, not his own. It is her interpretation from now on:

I am singing the songs, the old songs...but I can't remember the words of the songs, the old hunting songs. I am singing the songs of my fathers and the animals they hunted down. I never knew the words of the old songs. I never went hunting. I never sang the songs of my fathers. I am singing for this movie; I am doing this for money. I remember Grandfather, he lay on his back while he was dying. I think I am no one.
(Laurie Anderson, Hey Ah. United States Live I-IV. US: WEA, 1984)

The only thing the old Indian remembers about his Grandfather, his past, is that he died, and thus he feels like no one. He is singing for money, for a movie presenting a more or less stereotyped image of Indians, be it romantic or not. He can choose to play the role of the Indian, to be someone, to create himself in the image of the media but he cannot be himself for he is no one. And this, of course, is not just the song of an old Indian, it is the American national identity because the Indians are the indigenous people of America and the media the mirror of life.

Anderson's perhaps strongest and most strikingly clear comment on heritage and alienation is to be found in the song, Speak My Language:


Where I come from it's a long thin thread Across an ocean. Down a river of red. Now that the living outnumber the dead I'm one of many. ...Speak my language.
(Laurie Anderson, Speak My Language. Bright Red/Tightrope. US: WEA, 1994)

Anderson is singing about herself, her own persona, tracing her own ancestry, the river of red - a bloodline.
Where she came from is described as 'a long thin thread Across an ocean'. Knowing that Laurie Anderson's ancestors emigrated to America from Sweden (thus the surname), it is tempting to see the long thin thread of the song as an actual, though rather abstract, description of the geographic form of Sweden. Also, Sweden would be 'Across an ocean' from an American point of view. The themes of emptiness and alienation are brought into play with the notion of the living outnumbering the dead, an actual fact which renders all of us just 'one of many' - a powerful and strangely frightening picture of ultimate uniformity in an almost metaphysical sense. Throughout the song, Anderson's voice is quavering, only sometimes to break into tormenting laments, backed by eerie synthesizers and distorted violin. And the final whispered, 'Speak my language' resounds one of the favourite themes - that of lack of communication.

Another favourite theme is that of technology and authority. In Laurie Anderson's work, technology is often used as a symbol of the anonymous state, of authority. Hence also 'the voice of authority' - a deep, metallic, vocoded voice used in many songs and stories. Technology is the law and it often functions as an oppressive factor, a weapon of dominant culture, stigmatising the individual as well as social groups and identities. However, at the same time, Anderson is herself a post-modern diva of hi-tech, her art electronic - she surrounds herself with synthesizers and vocoders, video images and projected slides, MIDI violins and computer-animated clones. To Anderson, technology is a two-edged sword, it is the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and she is a hungry snake.

The song Closed Circuits from United States serves as a good example of the double role of technology:

Well I saw a blind Judge and he said: I know who you are and I said: Who?
And he said: You're a closed circuit, baby.
(Laurie Anderson, Closed Circuit. United States Live I-IV. US: WEA, 1984)

The joke is pretty obvious - justice is supposed to be blind (the colour-blind clause from the civil rights acts springs to mind), and if so, how is the Judge in the song going to know who Anderson is - to know who anyone is? Justice is of course never blind, the Judge’s remark even rings slightly sexist - the term 'baby' is not in itself derogatory, but when used by a Judge who is supposed to be blind in the name of justice, it certainly seems out of place just as it hints at exual dominance and seduction. Performing the song, Anderson is sitting on the floor by a small light bulb, singing and banging her hands against a microphone, producing random 'thuds' over and over - embodying difference through her performance, difference through technology, utilising simple means such as a lightbulb and a microphone to create syncopated beats.

Another theme that ties in with that of authority is the role of religion in late twentieth century America and the way in which especially conservative or even Puritan Christian ideals have come to play an important role in the shaping of American mainstream dominant culture. Again and again, the American quest for perfection, the restless need for an ideal society which of course is the American Dream, manifests itself in Laurie Anderson's art, both as a sweet melancholic fantasy and a diabolical nightmare. Notions of Puritan religious ideas like the concept of the 'city on the hill' are found in a song such as Big Science, in which we find Anderson asking a stranger for directions to get to town:

And he said: Well just take a right where they're going to build that new shopping mall, go straight past where they're going to put in the freeway, take a left at what's going to be the new sports center, and keep going until you hit the place where they're thinking of building that drive-in bank. You can't miss it. And I said: This must be the place.
(Laurie Anderson, Big Science. Big Science. US: WEA, 1982)

Obviously this place does not exist - it could be anywhere, any place. The song echoes Baudrillard's disappearance of reality, and as the music moves on to a gloomy crescendo of timpani and synthesizers, we are presented with an image of what the non-existing city is going to look like in all its splendour:

Ooo coo coo. Golden cities. Golden towns. Golden cities. Golden towns. And long cars in long lines and great big signs and they all say: Hallelujah. Yodellayheehoo. Every man for himself.
(Laurie Anderson, Big Science. Big Science. US: WEA, 1982)

A marvellous, shiny city, full of long car lines and big signs, accompanied by dark organ movements and the lonesome electronic howls of a wolf, but completely devoid of human citizens. The only hint we get of such is the almost religious appreciation of all the gold represented by the 'Hallelujah' on the signs, juxtaposed with the jovial, somewhat silly, 'Yodellayheehoos'. The idea of the 'city on the hill' is further drawn to attention a few lines later:

You know. I think we should put some mountains here. Otherwise, what are the characters going to fall off of? And what about stairs? Yodellayheehoo.
(Laurie Anderson, Big Science. Big Science. US: WEA, 1982)

Most clearly, someone is playing God here. However, creation is most random and done rather intuitively, without much intent, reason or plan. Putting a mountain somewhere just to have someone fall down from it is obviously not a grand scheme, though quite the good joke. Point is something is being created just in order to create something, definitely not because there is much need for it. Creation without a specific rational plan or purpose. Creation for creation's sake. Art for art's sake. Art for boredom’s sake.

The idea of Utopia, the American Dream come true, resounds in the song Coolsville as well. This song bears much resemblance to Big Science in that it turns the American Dream into nightmare:

Coolsville. Cooooolsville. So perfect. So nice. Hey little darlin. I'm comin your way, little darlin. And I'll be there. Just as soon as I'm all straightened out. Yeah. Just as soon as I'm perfect.
(Laurie Anderson, Coolsville. Strange Angels. US: WEA, 1989)

Apart from the two initial chants of Coolsville which are sung in a very high-pitched voice, with lots of intonation, the rest of the verse is half spoken, half sung in a very calm and collected, almost casual manner, but with dramatic use of delayed echo effects to the backing of synthesizers and concrete sounds of trains, conjuring up a ghostly sensation of emptiness, with the voice hollow and estranged, the trains passing by, endlessly. The lyrics too are almost void of human feeling or poetry. Instead, they are empty statements, a detached quest for a perfect identity, an ideal which is the pure manifestation of nothingness.
This idea is taken further in the next verse:

And down by the ocean Under the boardwalk You were so handsome We didn't talk. You're my ideal. I'm gonna find you. I'm goin to Coolsville. So perfect. So ideal.
(Laurie Anderson, Coolsville. Strange Angels. US: WEA, 1989)

Something which could resemble a love scene is at play, but the words seem bereft of any deep feelings and emotions - the beloved one is described as being 'so handsome', immediately followed by the statement 'We didn't talk' - that well-known Anderson theme; lack of communication and the inability to understand one another. Following this strain of thoughts one could also be led to the conclusion this is not love for another person, but for oneself, a narcissistic strive for a perfect ideal, reminiscent of Baudrillard's theory of the clone - an American Dream which is a nightmare because this is not an actual self but a construction, as seen on TV. A strive for a self which does not exist. The music proceeds into the chorus where the singing turns very expressive, bringing out feelings of hopelessness and desperation, a sign of basic human characteristics:

Some things are just pictures. They're scenes before your eyes. And don't look now!
I'm right behind you. Coolsville.
(Laurie Anderson, Coolsville. Strange Angels. US: WEA, 1989)

The 'scenes before your eyes' constitute a profound feeling of indifference, fuelled by the obsession with the perfect ideal. These scenes may be the dark side of reality; the countless people living in misery all over the world, the poor, the No Bodies who cannot exist in hyperreality because they are not hyper at all. Thus also the statement, 'don't look now!' - ignore these tragedies, deny their existence – only then can you get to Coolsville, the perfect place where hunger and bad haircuts don’t exist.

I don't need anybody's help. I'm gonna get there on my own.
(Laurie Anderson, Coolsville. Strange Angels. US: WEA, 1989)

And egotism begat isolation, resounding the chorus from Big Science, 'Every man for himself' – a nightmare vision of the American ideal, but unfortunately strikingly familiar. The vocal is eventually drowned in sounds of trains while those very same trains, each train a metallic shell, a closed circuit, hurrying off towards Coolsville.

The picture of 'perfect America' found in the two above-mentioned Anderson songs bear an almost strikingly scaring resemblance to a future Metropolis described in one of William Gibson's early cyberpunk short stories:

Behind me, the illuminated city: Searchlights swept the sky for the sheer joy of it. I imagined them thronging the plazas of white marble, orderly and alert, their bright eyes shining with enthusiasm for their floodlit avenues and silver cars. It had all the fruitiness of Hitler Youth propaganda.
(William Gibson, The Gernsback Continuum, in Burning Chrome. Glasgow: Grafton, 1988)

The purity of the perfect taken to its dark extreme - fascism.

In the first verse of her song Strange Angels, Laurie Anderson connects the idea of the perfect with that of religion, conjuring up a humorous, yet moving poetic vision:

They say that heaven is like TV A prefect little world that doesn't really need you And everything there is made of light And the days keep going by.
(Laurie Anderson, Strange Angels. Strange Angels. US: WEA, 1989)

Again, indifference and carelessness are the trademarks of the ideal, leaving the idea of the perfect lifeless. As one fan put it on the internet Homepage of the Brave:

Strange Angels - heaven taken to its absurd extreme, a lifeless place because complete, having no need to change. ...I think Coolsville the song is related to Strange Angels' first verse; about 'perfection' and how frozen and lifeless our idea of perfection is.
(Laura Miller, Homepage of the Brave)

Laurie Anderson herself put it this way in a 1990 interview with The Guardian:

But perfection is probably some sort of horrible death wish, I always forget that imperfect things are the most perfect expression of what it's really like to be here.
(Laurie Anderson, Stories from the Nerve Bible, 1994, p. 208)

During the nineties, Laurie Anderson commented more directly on social issues than ever before, especially concerning problems related to sexism, art, politics, censorship, and the Gulf War. The latter was the main topic in the 1991 talk performance Voices from the Beyond, and it also played a considerable role in the Nerve Bible Tour four years later, where Anderson used the song Night in Baghdad to convey her thoughts on the war, backed by videos of SCUD missiles exploding over Iraq like a sickening green psychedelic fireworks display, utilising video recordings of war as a dramatic light effect on stage, a shocking visual use of the musique concrete aesthetics of electronic music pioneer Pierre Schaeffer, utilising actual, concrete video material as a dramatic artistic expression.

And oh it's so beautiful It's like the Fourth of July It's like a Christmas tree It's like fireflies on a summer night. And I wish I could describe this to you better. But I can't talk very well right now cause I've got this damned gas mask on.
(Laurie Anderson, Night in Baghdad. Bright Red/Tightrope. US: WEA, 1995)

The Arabic-influenced music and Anderson's lyrics, shifting between analytic sarcasm and artistic poetry, deliver a unique critical approach to a war which was fought, sponsored and brought to you by the USA , supposedly valiantly opposing a ruthless dictatorship. The war was not just broadcast by the media - it was made and fought for and by the media, a full-scale PR stunt. The war became a symbol of America as a proud conquering, victorious nation; it had in it all the mythic ideals of the Frontier Experience – an expression of national identity. Saddam Hussein was of course a much needed national enemy, a villain to take over the role of the Soviet Union - the Soviet Union which Ronald Reagan, during the eighties, would usually refer to as the 'Evil Empire' because it is essentially easier to fight evil than to do good. The US could commence its crusade, with all its connotations of American Christian mainstream cultural dominance. And of course, the USA was fighting its own dark side, projected onto Saddam Hussein, Iraq, Islam. America was fighting a merciless despot, an oppressor, whilst in America millions of poor people living below the poverty line experienced economic oppression on an everyday level in the name of the free market, every man for himself.
- Home of the Brave Well HA HA HA

Baudrillard's theory of the hyperreal springs to mind, and during her Nerve Bible Tour, Anderson dealt not as much with the actual Gulf War as with the media representation of the war - the greatest, best planned, and most expensive show on Earth - with the drama of a baseball final and the highbrow solemnity of an art gallery. In the info age war becomes information, whoever controls the media holds the power to seduce the masses, to dissolve torment and death into cool hyperreality, to cut to commercial breaks, go for a weather forecast or a quiz show. Information ceases to inform, it creates, it becomes ritual, it can hardly be termed information in any conventional sense, and ceases to exist in itself. However, war still goes on.

Another example of Laurie Anderson's dealing with authority and control is her arguably most famous song, the repetitive but strangely mesmerising, O Superman, based on part of an opera by Massenet. The song is an obscure collage of conversations with an answering machine and a childish, vocoded voice yearning for comfort.

O Superman. O Judge. O Mom and Dad. O Superman. O Judge. O Mom and Dad.
(Laurie Anderson, O Superman. Big Science. US: WEA, 1982)

These very first lines of the song conjure up the image of a child singing in a robotic voice, addressing instances of authority on a descending scale, starting off with the divine character of Superman, icon of the (imperialist) American system, then the Judge, representative of the very foundation of America, namely justice, the law, and finally Mom and Dad, the authorities of upbringing, the safe haven. The sound of two simple, repetitive organ chords and Anderson's robotised, vocoded voice brings to mind the lamenting performance of Daisy, as sung by HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But as the song proceeds, the lyrics turn bleaker:

And the voice said: This is the hand, the hand that takes. This is the hand. The hand that takes....Here come the planes. They're American planes, made in America. Smoking or nonsmoking?
(Laurie Anderson, O Superman. Big Science. US: WEA, 1982)

As the planes are introduced, so is a low, sibilant sound, and you get the idea that these aeroplanes are not just for smoking or non-smoking passengers but that the smoke may indeed be accompanied by falling bombs or, with 9/11 in mind, American planes, American technology, turned against America itself - an image which is taken further a few lines later:

Cause when love is gone there's always justice, and when justice is gone there's always force, and when force is gone, there's always Mom. Hi Mom! So hold me Mom in your long arms...So hold me Mom in your long arms, your automatic arms, your electronic arms, in your arms...so hold me Mom, in your long arms, your petrochemical arms, your military arms, in your arms...
(Laurie Anderson, O Superman. Big Science. US: WEA, 1982)

Mom takes on the role of ultimate authority, she is at once both Superman and Judge, she is the American system, power impersonated, and her long, military arms (obviously a wordplay on the double-meaning of the word 'arms') not an embrace of affection and protection, but a wall of control and authority, not quite unlike the animation sequence by Gerald Scarfe in Pink FLoyd The Wall, Pink's neurotic mother embraces her son, her arms turning into a tall, frightening wall.
Musically, O Superman is in many ways extremely minimalist, based compositionally on just two alternating chords - an Ab major triad inverted and a basic C minor triad, both played on an electric Farfisa organ, to the backing of a repetitive, vocoded syllable on C, sounding like a mocking 'ha, ha, ha' or an erotic, mechanised 'ah, ah, ah'.
Susan McClary comments on the musical structure of O Superman:

Yet, as easy as it may be to label the individual moments in the piece, we run into trouble as soon as we try to fix the two chords in terms of atonal hierarchy. ...First, the only difference between the two is the choice between Ab and G. The dramatic action of the piece hangs on that flickering half step. Second, the Ab chord is in first inversion and is thus somewhat flimsy, while presumably the decorative C minor chord is very solid. Third, the semiotics of tonal music associate major with affirmative affective states (hope, joy) and minor with negative states (sadness, depression).
(Susan McClary, This Is Nota Story My People Tell: Musical Time and Space according to Laurie Anderson. Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media, 12 (1989-1990), p. 116)

It seems appropriate to talk about Anderson's minimalism as a break with hierarchical, functional harmony in that she does not structure the two chords of the song in terms of form and decoration, with one dominant and the other subordinate. So does the point regarding semiotics of tonal music. It certainly is true that in traditional western music, historically major has been associated with positive states of mind whilst minor bears negative or dark connotations. It may even be true that certain combinations of acoustics in terms of sound waves influence us in more or less specific ways, and that major and minor harmony respectively produce electrochemical processes in various parts of the brain resulting in sensations which we may term 'positive' and 'negative'. But how much is environment, how much biology, and is a reductionist approach really the answer?
Essentially, an analysis of Laurie Anderson's music relying too strongly on traditional music theory somehow seems to miss the point – after all one of the ups of pop music amidst all the downs associated with commercialisation and disposability, is its power of intuition, to admit the simple fact that sometimes you choose to play a C note, not because the deduction of Beethoven, Mahler, Debussy and Stockhausen dictated it, but because it sounded bloody good at three AM in the night.


PUPPET MOTEL

So if you think we live in a modern world Where everything is clean and swell Take a walk on the B side of town Down by the Puppet Motel Take a whiff. Burning plastic.
(Laurie Anderson, Puppet Motel. Bright Red/Tightrope. US: WEA, 1994)

Puppet Motel is the name of Laurie Anderson's 1995 CD-ROM release as well as a song on Bright Red/Tightrope, and it is also a metaphor of cyberspace. It is hardly surprising that an artist like Anderson would venture boldly into the realm of CD-ROM art, being always in touch with the latest in hi-tech, and compared with most of the CD-ROMs produced by musicians during the nineties, Puppet Motel ranges amongst the better ones.

Though the CD-ROM medium offers new possibilities in terms of technology it is never an easy task to utilise a new art form, and a few years into the 21st century, the interactive CD-ROM does not exactly look like a hot medium but has more the ring of a dated trend to it. Admittedly, the CD-ROM is a good forum for interactivity, yet there are severe limitations to take into consideration - first of all those concerning computer capability and compatibility. It is no use creating multimedia extravaganza that will only work on expensive mainframes when most people use more modest home computers, and this means CD-ROM artists always have to walk a narrow tightrope, keeping a balance between artistic dream and technological reality.
Most CD-ROM artists, excluding computer game designers of course, seem to be primarily recording artists, and only very few of these know how to actually program a computer on a serious level, which means they have to rely on a production team of programmers and technicians, serving as mediators between the abstract ideas of the artist and the technological realisation of these ideas. Not surprisingly, the most innovative CD-ROM releases have come from artists who, in their music, have worked with computers and electronics for a long time, such as Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, The Residents, and Laurie Anderson. A new art form, CD-ROMs can be an expression of innovation, but there is also the danger of the 'gimmick effect', as pointed out by French electronic music star, Jean Michel Jarre - CD-ROMs which serve mainly as an extended PR campaign, backing up this or that artist's latest album or tour, the interactive highlight of the virtual invitation being a visit to the artist's toilet facilities.
In effect, a lot of these CD-ROMs are no more than fairly ordinary computer games which, in itself, is no great sin. The only problem is that actual computer games are often more complex, not to say more interesting, and often far better designed, than these CD-ROMs because computer games have a longer history and have gone through several stages of development. Frankly, game designers are better at designing computer games than most multimedia artists so far.

Contrary to this, Puppet Motel is a very surreal experience, an expression which is truly Laurie Anderson, at once both fragmentary and ambient, humorous and eerie. The loose structure of the CD-ROM environment is that of a virtual hotel which the visitor or user, as it were, may explore, moving through different locations by the use of various symbols drawn from Anderson's visual repertoire, such as violins, aero planes, and telephones. One moment, the screen turns into a hotel room, the next a swirling galaxy, and every now and then Laurie Anderson appears from out of nowhere, as the ghost in the machine, speaking, singing, or playing her synthesizers. And then she is gone again. There is no overall meaning or goal in Puppet Motel, but a feeling of placelessness. Not quite unlike Anderson's stage performances you get the feeling that you are moving through a post-modern hyperreality where everything somehow seems connected, but in no particular order. You connect the dots. There is a feeling of aleatoric element in Puppet Motel, in that different parts of Anderson's artistic work are used throughout the CD-ROM, but in new contexts; the chord structure of one song serves as the music for the lyrics of another song while the graphics may hint at a specific performance or event in Anderson's life.

In many ways, Puppet Motel seems a journey into Laurie Anderson's mind, a digital autobiography with a serious twist - the twist of an interactive autobiography, blurring the distinction between artist and audience, but at the same time limited by a computer interface which is essentially much inferior compared to the human mind. And Anderson knows this. Throughout the CD-ROM, Laurie Anderson's Ventriloquist Dummy appears - a small, funny chap who looks somewhat like a male caricature of Anderson herself. The Dummy pops out of nowhere at various times, almost like Wintermute, the Artificial Intelligence in William Gibson's Neuromancer who, time and time again, appears and rips holes in the fabric of cyberspace reality.
Instead of experimenting with simple Artificial Intelligence for her Dummy - which at the present state is by no means satisfactory anyway - Laurie Anderson does the exact opposite by making it clear that the Dummy can only speak, not listen, not interact with the visitor. However, once again there is a twist, because when the Dummy addresses the visitor and gets no answer - because this is impossible - he gets disappointed and sad, resulting in that well-known Anderson theme, lack of communication. Lack of communication in the face of technology.

Puppet Motel is in many ways a 'floating' experience - like a temporary gap in reality which, in a strange way, is always the same, yet also different with each visit. The result is a both eerie and interesting contribution to Laurie Anderson's multi-faceted artistic output - one that also deals with input since it is, after all, an interactive experience.


SUMMING IT UP

For more then twenty-five years, Laurie Anderson has managed to remain avant-garde and progressive without growing overtly elitist, and though her work can hardly be called easily accessible as a whole, she has succeeded in presenting it to a large number of different audiences and cultures all over the world, somehow succeeding in that elusive marriage between pop and high-brow.
She has never offered the solution, even if her work became less subtle in the late eighties and early nineties, in respect to politics. However, a common thread seems to be the need for people to accept and work towards major changes if things are to improve. Important work has to be done within the world of technology which, more and more, makes up the post-modern hyperreality which is our everyday existence. And art must go hand in hand with technology to make sure creativity is kept intact in this brave new world - like a romantic artist fighting and riding a storm of semiotic chaos.

Hansel and Gretel are alive and well
And they're living in Berlin
She is a cocktail waitress
He had a part in a Fassbinder film
And they sit around at night now drinking schnapps and gin
And she says: Hansel you're really bringin me down
And he says: Gretel, you can really be a bitch
He says: These years I've wasted my life on our stupid legend
When my one and only love was the wicked witch.
She said: What is history?
And he said: History is an angel being blown backwards into the future
He said history is a pile of debris
And the angel wants to go back and fix things
To repair the things that have been broken
But there's a storm blowing from Paradise
And the storm keeps blowing the angel backwards into the future
And this storm, this storm is called Progress

- Laurie Anderson, The Dream Before


Copyright: Ras Bolding 2003

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