In the short time it takes you to be dazzled by her art, Laurie Anderson does a hand-shadow play against the light of a waving neon violin bow . . . turns her sweet voice into a rumbling chorus . . . amplifies her body sounds by swallowing a microphone . . . beats out rhythms on her cranium . . . plays a violin with a tape recorder embedded in it, bowing it with prerecorded tape, creating different words as she moves it forward or backward.
Around it all, there is a delicious, playful passion for words and ideas and touching, testimony to her friend William Burroughs' observation that "language is a virus from outer space." Naturally, that phrase gets a delightful workout in this performer's hands.
Anderson is a poet, philosopher, musician, semanticist, painter, composer, actress, dancer, mimist, inventor -- a "performance artist." Sitting in the office of District Curators, the mercurial New Yorker is a sculptor, a wordscaper shaping thoughts with her expressive face, then encircling them with a haze of cigarette smoke. She's a Jill of all trades.
"It's a hybrid," Anderson says of her brave new art. "The wonderful thing is that it gets redefined every time someone does something and calls it that. Europe has a looser term for it -- action art. It's a wastebasket for whatever people want to do."
From the Futurists and Dadaists through the Happenings of the '60s, that prescription has been an invitation to excess and solemnity in the vanguard arts scene. What sets Anderson apart is the total accessibility and intelligent humor of her work. In a field known for its recluses, the wraith-like artist has just signed an eight-record deal with Warner Bros. She also just returned from England where "O Superman," an excerpt from one of her pieces, became a top-10 single.
"When I first started doing performances, people thought humor was a trick, a disguise for banality," Anderson says. "Yet the art world at that point was heavy, heavy, minimal esthetics. You can flip that over -- seriousness can be a disguise for utter banality."
Despite her irreverent approach, Anderson has become a darling of the international art world; she is a star in Europe as well as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. In the hinterlands, people might mistake her self-cropped hair and loose clothing for a punk stance, but though her wit is sharp, Anderson's presence is as gentle as her speaking voice.
She grew up in Chicago, one of seven children who, lacking television, started a family orchestra; that sense of extended personality figures in Anderson's work when she uses a vocoder or harmonizer to multiply her voice into a variety of characters and tones. The 34-year-old artist came to New York in 1966, graduating from Barnard College with a B.A. in art history and from Columbia with a Master of Fine Arts in sculpture. Her initial efforts were in the narrative arts tradition (photos with texts).
"Most of my interest is in the spoken word and it seemed odd to take that dimension out of it. You get a letter from somebody and you can tell a certain amount from the format. But if you speak to them on the phone and they say the exact same thing, you have so much more information." Anderson was also greatly influenced by sculptor-poet Vito Acconci. "Much of his work was about defining his own space. He would sit at the bottom of the stairs, blindfolded, with a cane. If anyone tried to come into his territory, he would bat them back; there were also these long, beautiful poems generated by this 'begrudging' attitude. It was intensely private work that was also very understandable."
That last sentence also defines Anderson's work, which for several years has centered on the ambitious four-part, six-hour "United States," which she describes as "what happens to people in a highly technological society." What she sought was a way to overcome the constraints imposed by the static, impersonal nature of conventional exhibition.
Anderson thinks that may be one of the reasons Warner Bros. signed her; deep in the corporate mind, her potential as a video artist/musician must have seemed like the proverbial golden goose. They may also have appreciated the essential gentility in a mix of art, politics and language.
"I really like short words, Anglo-Saxon two-syllable, simple . . . and yet I try to make them special. Most of all I try not to be didactic, I try to leave room around me. It's not a prescriptive situation, I just want to describe. I feel I have the right to look and describe."
The four segments of "United States" deal with transportation, politics, money and love and there are consistent undercurrents of memory, disintegration, rehabilitation; yet Anderson sees it all through a double lens, lightly and darkly. The contract with Warner Bros. will give her work the permanence and distribution it hasn't had before. "I used to think the record world was full of sharks, but I also always wanted to make cheap things that wouldn't just sit in museums."