Laurie Anderson has a career like a rock video it's all transitions. Art student to art critic CUT. Sculptor to performance artist CUT. Recording artist to provocative popster to novice film director CUT . . .
Small wonder she's ready to catch her breath.
Two weeks ago, Anderson brought the tail end of her current tour through Washington. Yesterday the film version of her previous tour, "Home of the Brave," opened at the Key Theatre. Now she has abandoned the road, the stage and the spotlight for a while, and she's taking the opportunity to do something she's had very little time for -- looking back.
"I don't usually stand 15 feet back and do that," she says. The words float softly from the familiar visage, with its kinetic eyes, scarecrow hair and smile that seems perpetually awry. "Then again, I always try to start over. That's the goal. I'm really trying to think about what I'll do next."
In some artists, this constant reinvention might seem the mark of dilettantism. But Anderson is sort of a stand-up chameleon, bringing humor, insight and innovation to almost all of the multiple media she's involved herself in, and usually escaping criticism for the quick cuts.
"Home of the Brave," in fact, marks the first time her work has generated generally harsh reactions -- and it's largely because there's nothing really new in her approach to the concert-movie genre. The film is almost too literal a stage-to-celluloid transposition, with few of the twists and inventions that Anderson has brought to previous videos, records and live performances.
"There's been a lot of negative criticism," she admits. "I feel like I just got eaten alive by it, and much of it was geared to why this wasn't more of a 'film film' than a 'concert film.' I had a choice of doing three concerts and getting a lot of hand-held shots and not being able to represent the visual imagery of the concert, or doing a studio shoot and making it into some kind of extended MTV extravaganza."
But Anderson -- once the darling of the avant-garde, and despite that, eventually the object of a larger fandom -- is not totally dismayed by the critical barrage.
She remembers being equally threatened as an art student at Columbia "by a review board in my sculpture class giving me their opinion about my work. That's something artists always need to have equanimity about, because otherwise they'll either get so unjustifiably happy or unjustifiably depressed that they won't know what to do next."
Says the one-time critic (Artforum, Art News, Art in America): "It's a very hard thing to listen to yourself and to try to tell the truth."
As she was finding her voice and vision in New York's arts vanguard, Anderson moved from sculpture to photography and electronic arts, coming up with objects whose humor and technological innovation presaged her pop persona: the table, for example, that played music when you leaned your elbows on it and held your hands to your ears (music from a concealed recorder flowed through wood and bone to ears).
A couple of years ago there were two Laurie Anderson shows traveling the country at once: a 15-year retrospective first mounted at Philadelphia's Museum of Contemporary Art, and the performer's own tour in support of her mainstream rock album, "Mr. Heartbreak." This period brought early murmurs of audience disaffection, with many old-time fans accusing Anderson of pandering to the rock mainstream and producing product instead of projects.
In a way, "Home of the Brave" provides a certain symmetry: It was film that led Anderson to performance in the first place. "Right after doing sculpture, I was making silent super-8 films," she explains. "I would never finish them but I would enter them in these avant-garde loft film festivals, and I'd stand in front of the screen and play violin and tell stories. That was really how I started doing performances. And I began to realize that I sort of liked being in the tradition of the silent-movie piano player -- a little bit more elaborate, but still off to the side."
The violin, of course, was not the kind Anderson had studied as a teen-ager. It became a radical prop, electronically altered, with a prerecorded tape bow and a playback head where strings should have been. This enabled her to bow phrases instead of melodies, altering their pitch and speed. As with the drum suit -- with which Anderson created different percussive effects by hitting electronically altered garments -- technology met avant-garde invention, and the genial encounters began attracting ever-expanding audiences.
In her performances, Anderson also used film loops, animation, slides and diagrams, and all sorts of electronic gadgetry, including vocoders, harmonizers and synclaviers. It didn't hurt that her work was much in the storytelling tradition of Mark Twain and Garrison Keillor -- though infested, as she once pointed out, with humor in the tradition of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Road Runner and Yosemite Sam.
The cult success of her single "O Superman" (it was a No. 2 hit in England in 1982) presaged the arrival of "United States," Anderson's epochal seven-hour, four-part multimedia presentation. The popularity of "United States," which explored the character of its namesake with sections on transportation, politics, money and love, helped Anderson become the first (and so far the only) performance artist to cross over to wide public recognition. After she toured the country with "United States," Warner Bros. released a five-record, four-hour recorded version and Random House put out a book (or as Anderson calls it, an "illustrated libretto").
*Touring with "United States" transformed Anderson from a cult heroine into a cult star, that rare experimental artist whose work is accepted by the general public. With stardom, she found, came an overemphasis on her distinctive looks: It bothered her that they drew as much attention as her work. "A lot of what was written was about me personally, as someone who had wandered onto the stage at the last minute," she says. "The concentration was on how I was dressed or how I looked or my acting skills, rather than what was being touched on by the work."
That hasn't changed in some quarters, she says, adding -- only half-jokingly -- that "I'm about to get plastic surgery to get rid of my dimples because I've really had it with the whole 'pixie' thing. Why not look at something else?"
"Home of the Brave" was shot over a 10-day period last year in a New Jersey theater originally built for 19th-century passion plays. After a long period of story-boarding and run-throughs with scale models, half was filmed before audiences, half as studio shots. What was whole was Anderson's role playing: She was star, scriptwriter, composer, performer, director and fundraiser.
"It was a very different experience than a live concert," she says. "I think of my role as director, not as performer, in that film. And I think of the time it took to get the money, because I had to be very conscious of all of that. I've always had to deal with budgets, but this was a lot more money than a record or a performance has ever cost, and I had partners, so I couldn't just suddenly go, 'Let's make it 49 minutes instead of 90 . . . '
"I like a lot of things about the film, but I think I'd like to make a film that doesn't have that secondary nature which is the burden of every concert film," Anderson says. "But the kind of compromises I made I would probably make again . . .
"I did have a choice of shooting a lot in the studio, trying to use images in a more primary way, staying off the stage and all the problems that presented. I'd love to do something like that at some point, but I wanted to try to document this kind of concert.
"Part of it was that the concerts themselves are sort of postproduction already, and we were trying to give them another kind of 'live' life. Their nature, which is things slowly gliding from one to another, makes the concerts strong but weakens the film; that's my analysis of why the film doesn't have what the concerts have. Still, I don't think there are any other schemes or constructions that I could have used to express the concert better than I did."
Next time, she says, she'll try a different approach. "I do want to learn from this. That was another reason I didn't want to jump into making a feature film with images and music because I don't know enough about the whole process. And frankly, it's harder to get that kind of project funded. I'd like to make a big beautiful film that really is a film, not a record of a concert."
Anderson's compulsion to fix her work on film reflects her art-world background. In that world, "most of the work is documented because it exists as things. But my work disappears, so I try to document it. There's a lot of problems with it and it doesn't really look the same and it doesn't have a lot of the things it's about. Whenever you make a film, suddenly the camera is as much an element of the tempo as the music and the editing, so it becomes a totally different work. You think you're documenting a concert and you're really not."
Still, Anderson seems a bit miffed at some critics' suggestion -- echoing a key line in her work -- that her technology is a parasite that has taken over its host.
"I care if it seems like I'm a slave to machines. What I'm trying to do in many ways is the complete opposite," she says. The subversion is crucial: " 'Yes, I'm using the stuff, but watch what I can make it do.' It goes back to this thing of people thinking I've somehow wandered onto a stage at the last second and I'm singing a few songs, like I haven't somehow constructed this . . .
*"I'm interested in scattering myself rather than consolidating myself as a performer," she adds. "I like switching points of view, voices. You have to have a certain attitude towards yourself, some degree of suspicion about what you're doing up there in the first place."
So for now, Anderson is off the road. What directions she'll take when she gets back on it, or exactly when she'll get back on it, are questions she's in no hurry to answer.
"I like being my own boss," she says. "One of the things I've been trying to do lately is put myself in other contexts . . . because it really has gotten to me in the last few years of being this two-dimensional type. I'm a voyeur and I can't do my job well if I'm being watched."
By way of illustration, she tells a typical Laurie Anderson story. A year and a half ago, she says, she got a motorcycle. "I'd wear this helmet and be really incognito and I really loved being on the street. I love being in parts of New York kind of at the wrong time of day -- wrong place, wrong time -- that's very wonderful. But I was taking the helmet off one day and all of this foam sprung out of the helmet and I realized I'd been wearing it for weeks with the packing material around the ears. And when I put it back on, it was so loud, all the stuff that I'd been filtering out was suddenly there and it was a little less private after that."
But "I'm not into motorcycling anymore," she reports, "though I'm still into anonymity. I saw a terrible accident. I wasn't in it, but it was a beautiful sunny day, 100 percent visibility, and two people were killed 10 feet from where I was. I just went home and put my motorcycle away. I'm a lousy motorcyclist anyway, so I have to find some other ways to sneak around now . . . under a big sombrero and dark glasses."
Who knows -- in New York, that just might work.