Laurie Anderson: the Art of Storytelling

By: Emma Dors.

Laurie Anderson is a versatile avantgarde artist whose multifaceted activities cover a wide scope of artistic fields, ranging from her stunning creations in the world of music and multimedia performances to her work as a critic for different art magazines, not to mention her experience as a professor of Assyrian and Egyptian sculpture at university, writer and solo artist or collaborator in exhibitions and cultural events of different kinds.

Born in Chicago, Illinois, and settled in New York, Laurie has been criticised both in the popular press and in many papers, even scholarly ones. Like many other avantgarde artists, Anderson believes that her particular brand of art, which she understands as a basically urban event, is better understood outside her country than in it, and she mentions Paris as one of the places where she has felt more successful in her performances. This success is likewise noteworthy in such cities as Zurich, Berlin, Prague, Seville, Tokyo, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, where the artists usually prefers to display her talent.

Laurie learns sculpture at the University of Columbia, where she gets her degree in 1972, besides her studies at Barnard College, where she specializes in the history of art, and soon after finishing these she collaborates with different New York magazines writing articles on the arts. One of her first performances was Duets On Ice, which she premiered in New York in 1972, a peculiar event which lasted as much as it took the solid blocks of ice where she had stuck her skates to melt, as she played her piece with a very peculiar tape-violin in summer.

Fascinated by the universe of artistic creativity, this lively woman develops her creations into complex, multifarious works in which she interweaves different genres in a wholly innovative, and yet at the same time harmonious way. As a musician, dancer, poet, sculptor, photographer and enthusiastic user of high tech devices, imaginative in the applications that modern technology has to offer to the artists, Laurie Anderson organizes different multimedia exhibitions and performances, both using video-cinema and recordings, partaking in various projects with other artists, many of these being elite ones, and is commissioned still even more projects for exhibitions and performances in interactive events for festivals and art museums. In a few words, she carves for herself an unforgettable post among the most notorious avantgarde artists of our times. A true American, stubborn, a talented storyteller, defiant, her main concern is to create a whole Work of Art, no matter what her sex is, yet she does not neglect to consider the problems inherent to our world, the world where she lives, and reflects her ideas about controversial issues, such as her views about war, a topic she feels strongly about, since she sees war as an image of power being used in the worst possible way, like she sings in a song based on an aphorism by the Italian futuristic poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, in an ironic way: "War is the highest form of modern art". At a performance she developed in Israel, the artist insists on this issue, as she uses explosive special effects in the criticism to the abuse of power that war means. In other works, the artist also criticises the technological excesses of an "advanced" society that ignores the less advanced ones, and the constant bombardment of information that threatens to drown the civilized world of our century.

In 1986 Laurie Anderson performs as the famous presenter of the PBS series, Alive from Off Center, and a year later she writes the soundtrack for the spectacular movie by Spalding Gray Swimming to Cambodia, as well as another movie soundtrack for the movie of this same author, Monster in a Box, in 1991. Other works by this artist include the lyrics for one of the songs by Philip Glass, the one called "Forgetting", included in his song cycle Songs from Liquid Days. Yet no doubt it is the production of her own movie, Home of The Brave, in 1986, where Laurie creates an impressive multimedia performance in video-cinema format, making extensive use of her artistic knowledge to achieve what she has intended to do all along. The artist takes exquistite care of every minute detail so as to produce a movie that comes to be outside the normal ways of any conventional cinema productions, one where she mixes contests, theatre, special effects and all the ingredients typical of a musical, thus creating a macroperformance that will not be forgotten in the realms of the seventh art. Even so, this movie is far from becoming a commercial success, yet she had not intended that with such an ambitious project. In actual fact, Home of the Brave will no doubt attract many women who have felt equally enthusiastic about the world of high tech, a world that, due to the absurd social misconception of the role traditionally assigned to women, appears to be an exclusive ground for men only, so that women perceive their female presence in this area as something perhaps inappropriate or strange, which must not be so in fact. In this work we see Laurie dancing on the stage as she sings her ideas based on an aphorism by William Burroughs: "Language Is A Virus From Outer Space", and at the same time the screen shows different images. Many of the audience felt moved to buy her albums after viewing that movie. After a new performance called Empty Places, developed in 1990, a new video by Anderson is released, based on her performance in this new work, where the artist displays her creativity and her rich mezzosoprano voice, an adult voice which one can instantly identify, yet slightly different to that in her former performances. Two years later Anderson travels to Spain, where the Teatro Central de Sevilla ("Central Theatre of Seville") have commissioned her a new project. The result, The Halcyon Days, narrates a story of Greek myth, one which also has its own parallels in the Celtic and Saxon cultures, about the days that precede the winter solstice. In this story, the daughter of the mythological god of the winds in ancient Greece, elopes with her lover fleeing from her father's wrath, and sails into the seas towards an uncertain fate. To Laurie, this legend could well symbolize the current situation, when quiet precedes the storm, perhaps in the sense that our society is facing a crucial time when the tensions between the advanced world, rich and powerful as it is, and the poor nations, tends to become increasingly critical, or maybe it is but a metaphor for the world of the arts, where high tech and man tend to diverge into a dehumanization that might swallow the essence of the human being... Whatever interpretation we may give to this, The Halcyon Days is a performance that deserves viewing, in the typical line of this versatile woman who, as she herself explains, usually organizes her performances based on a combination of different techniques she has come to improve throughout the years, developing them and studying them from the point of view of the novelty they represent, as well as her way of approaching each of the issues she feels interested in, in each of the techniques she uses to carry out her projects, somehow interrelating all the possible forms of artistic expression, at the same time displaying their holistic connection, as she takes into account the fact that we are living in a contradictory, constantly changing world, with ideas and feelings that occasionally, if not always, clash into a constant contrast.

Besides utilizing all the advances that the current technologies provide her in the world of audiovisual media, Laurie has a special ability to adapt the electronic elements of a conventional equipment to her own needs in an original way. An example of this would be the body suit she herself has designed for her live performances, one to which the artist has integrated the sensors from a simple drum box, attaching them to a synthesizer, in such a way that when she dances she can produce a series of sounds and musical phrases assigned to each one of the sensors, thus creating body music with each movement she makes on the stage. Another example of her technological creativity is the use Laurie makes of an acoustic violin, which the artist has altered, by replacing its traditional strings and bow by a magnetic tape, in such a way that when playing it, the instrument is even able of reproducing words, in the tempo and cadence the artist wishes at any given time. The peculiar use that Anderson makes of everyday technology with her unusual applications has an echo of wizardry, or perhaps of alchemy, just like the medieval alchemists used to experiment with everyday elements to find them new, unexpected uses, and reminds us of the methods used by post-modern visual artists in their extracontextual utilization of everyday images and elements as a new way to reflect information. And just like the latter, Laurie reflects her artistic formation in the field of sculpture by incorporating the world of visual image to her work, always taking into account the resources that electronics can provide her with in this sense. Her performances always include then this visual element elaborated by means of an extensive use of videotapes, slides and computers, with which she develops a visual construction that goes from the purest of narratives to the most hypnotic of abstractions in a whirl of surrealist pictures portraying eminently visual phenomena. All that integrates the use of word, in a linguistic lyricism -always using the native tongue of the country where she performs, whenever she can- not easily surpassed, and the language is used as a unifying element which allows the artist to transmit her message, together with her music and the undeniable beauty of her dance, besides this visual and aural component so special in her artistic creations.

The best known image of this artist is that of a woman, alone, either playing her peculiar violin or before her electronic keyboard, just in front of an enormous screen (or several), where giant images are projected, portraying scenes, words, phrases, slogans... An image this one that not always corresponds to reality, since this lively woman does not use her female traits to make art, but is a person who loves art above all. As has already been said, Laurie Anderson intends to create a work of art ignoring the fact that she is a woman, so that her art is neither feminine nor masculine, but merely Art. Laurie will use any trick to achieve that, and she even comes to disguise her feminity with the help of technical gadgets. For instance, she loves using voice filters so that her voice becomes an authoritative, deep bass. She began doing this, in 1970, in Germany, where she had worked for a time before she made a name for herself in America. The artist states the contrast she could thus achieve: when speaking with her natural voice, the most she could get was a polite attention on the part of the listeners, but with her authoritarian, male voice she was given undivided, thorough attention, as if her listeners loved to be ordered about. Laurie admits she loves ordering people about, yet in a playful manner. In actual fact she hates authority. So this voice shifting is merely a game she loves to play every now and then. As is a game her male- ish disguise, a disguise she constructs with a wig and video tricks, besides the voice filters, with which she designs a sort of person quite unlike her own self, one kind of clone that onscreen appears with thick eyebrows and a thick moustache, athlete-like biceps, and an apparently slightly stupid countenance, all that by means of visual effects she gets to create onscreen thanks to her peculiar use of technology. As she alters her voice, shape, size and physical appearance on the screen, the artist makes us see things under a different light. Like Laurie expresses through her male clon, "the camera is a great liar, but reality is boring". In her stereotypes, Laurie laughs at sexist categorizations. She herself comments: "My point of view is expressed as that of an artist in the first place, as a New Yorker in the second place, and as a woman in the third place, probably in this order. This limits yourself quite a bit". Since she makes of her art a neutral event, just ignoring any sexist considerations, she gives her art its own voice. This is why she often chooses to appear an an asexual being, a figure having no particular face. Even her voice, changed by a synthesizer, eliminates this element from her humanity, so that only the gestures, and the words, are left, words stripped of everything, naked, simple, having no shades of meaning to distort them, so that their precise, exact value is preserved.

Laurie Anderson's talent has led her to display her art all over the world, always astonishing her audiences with her technological tricks, both on the stage and in her recordings, CDs, videos, performances, exhibitions, etc. Also in her books and articles she can appear as a nice and/or provocative character, and her stories tend to awake in her audience a sense of deja vu, even if before they had not been seen quite in the same way as she presents them. The artist admits that it is not always easy to create Art with the use of high technology, as there is a risk that the result will come out as something cold, soul-less, inhuman. Therefore, and despite the fact that she uses whatever she may find of interest in technology even in unusual ways, she states that we must not depend on technological progress at all costs. She also criticises the big, unmanned petrol carriers used in Japan, the software errors that can affect the devices used in radio therapy to help the patients suffering from cancer that perhaps end up killing them rather than curing them, the abuse that is being made of the information highways, which sometimes are used to tag people, to prosecute debtors or to control the people, instead of being used in an educational, constructive way... Technology is not bad (or good) per se, but we must be careful about how its applications are being utilized. Laurie admits that she does not feel enthusiastic about the CD-ROMs for the users to create their owm albums. As a user, she prefers a finished product, since she believes that the "Do-It- Yourself" fashion is fake creativity in fact. However, she does release a CD-ROM, Puppet Motel. In her opinion, to create is to make something out of nothing, not a mere recombination of things that have already been done. Art consists in paying attention to things and making something new. Even if we live in a society saturated with high technology, Art does not need so much techhnology to be Art. According to Laurie, you can also make a marvellous work of art with a simple pencil. Besides, high tech tends to complicate things; a device can always go wrong and spoil the whole.

Many are the paths that this brilliant artist has explored in her search for the Total Work of Art, with a drive that has on occasion attracted the attention of well-known artists. In 1994 Brian Eno produces a new record by Laurie Anderson, Bright Red, impressed by the energy this untiring woman displays, whose ideas are based on a kindly feeling towards the people, as he comments, so that even when she is angry or when she feels like criticising something, she includes an air of tolerance, fascination and even affection for the people, never coming to humiliating or despising them. About the way she works, Laurie explains that she usually starts with a fragment of a movie, which she views several times, and on which she writes some lyrics. The artist tries to construct an emotional landscape, then seeks for the ideas that fit in it, in an interesting reverse process to what appears that the creative process should be. One of her songs, the one called "What I Believe", is but a list of her beliefs about two pages long. Laurie trusts herself about what she writes and how she writes this, and besides, she trusts some listeners who are friends of hers whenever she can to test her compositions before launching them on to the public stage at large. Anderson is aware that she sometimes includes some shades of meaning or references that are uniquely understandable, amusing or meaningful to her alone, and even so she may decide to include them all the same if she feels like it, if she feels it's funny or even provoking, even if to other ears they may appear to be irreverent, dangerous or even blasphemous, like for instance, as she explains, the phrase "because God is my boyfriend".

In the spring of the year 1994, HarperCollins publish a retrospective of the last twenty years in the work by Laurie Anderson, in a book called Stories from the Nerve Bible. The reference "The Nerve Bible" is a sort of metaphor used by the artist to refer to the human body. Later, Laurie engages herself in a multimedia tour, precisely called The Nerve Bible, where she reads fragments of this book, besides interpreting her works with some 35 tons of computers, 11 computer languages, three enormous screens where she projects crazy, dreamy images, her electronic body suit with which she produces different sounds, including percussive ones, and her peculiar violin. Laurie is aware that in all these years her voice has changed, as is natural. Anyway, and despite all the limitations that the passing of the years can impose on the vocal skills of the artist, she considers that Art can continue, taking into account such limitations. This is why she releases a new CD where the spoken word dominates, rather than singing, unlike other of her albums, this one being called The Ugly One with the Jewels. Besides, at age 47, she becomes very good friends with Lou Reed, and she creates her own Web, The Green Room.

Having become known as "the technological storyteller", the "priestess of radical art", a visionary, an explorer of different fields ranging from music to the audiovisual arts, besides her works as a writer and a reporter, as well as her work in illustrating books, Laurie, for whom art is what gives meaning to her life, never ceases to amaze us with her peculiar way of understanding the avantgarde artistic creativity, in a constant narrative flow that transmits to the audience real as well as imaginary stories, immersed in a technological whirlwind that nowadays has become a new, shifting universe, where multiple paths are open to the artist and to the general audience.


-LET X = X (This recording was included in the February 1982 issue of Artforum and is a different version from the one appearing in her LP).
-UNITED STATES LIVE (A double album in four parts).
-SELECTIONS FROM UNITED STATES LIVE (Released as a promotional album).
-LAURIE ANDERSON: THE INTERVIEW (Released as a promotional album for radio stations only).
-BRIGHT RED SAMPLER (A promotional release that includes two themes, from "The Ugly One With The Jewels" and "Hotel Hot Dogs").


-YOU'RE THE GUY I WANT TO SHARE MY MONEY WITH (A shared release with Laurie Anderson, William S. Burroughs, and John Giorno).
-A CHANCE OPERATION - THE JOHN CAGE TRIBUTE (Text by John Cage. This work was composed, performed and produced by Laurie Anderson).


-NONA HENDRYX - NONA (Laurie performs with her violin in "Design for Living").
-JEAN MICHEL-JARRE - ZOOLOOK (Laurie Anderson collaborates in the vocals and other sonic effects throughout this recording).
"Forgetting" (Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass co-write the last theme, but it has been performed by Linda Ronstadt and "The Roches").
"This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds)" - (The song by Laurie Anderson does not appear in the LP version).
"The Day The Devil Comes To Getcha" (Laurie co- wrote the song but she does not perform it in this recording).
-ONE WORLD, ONE VOICE: (This album resulted from the collaboration of different artists all over the world who contributed with one theme each, with non-profit aims to support the cause for the protection of the environment. In this occasion, Laurie performs a version of "John Lilly").
-MARISA MONTE - ROSE AND CHARCOAL. (Laurie participates with the theme "Enquanto Isso" ("Meanwhile"). Besides, Anderson recites a poem during one of the themes that Marisa sings in another album.).
-PETER SCHERER - VERY NEON PET (In this album Laurie collaborates with a masterful performance with her violin).
-LOU REED - SET THE TWILIGHT REELING: (Laurie participates with the theme "Hang On To Your Emotions").


-A PREVIEW OF STRANGE ANGELS (A ten minute interview at Laurie's studio, where she comments on the recording of Strange Angels. Fragments of this album are played, and the video has also a cassette with the complete version of the recording).
-COLLECTED VIDEOS (Includes the complete versions of "Beautiful Red Dress", "Language Is A Virus", "Sharkey's Day" and "O Superman", besides some fragments of "What You Mean We?", "Alive From Off Center", "The Eleventh Hour", as well as various images of other interviews and live concerts).


-THE PUPPET MOTEL (CD-ROM only available in Macintosh format).


-LAURIE ANDERSON'S POSTCARD BOOK (Contains 24 cards with the lyrics of some of her songs, scenes from her videos, artistic images, etc.).




-THE KITCHEN TURNS TWENTY (A collection of essays written by different artists who participated in the early years of "The Kitchen", such as Philip Glass, Karen Finley, Eric Bogosian, Laurie Anderson and others. Laurie contributes with this article).


-WINGS OF DESIRE, "Circus Music"
-YOU'RE A HOOK (A work which celebrates the 15th, anniversary of the program "Dial a Poem", (1968-1983), with texts by Laurie Anderson, William S. Burroughs, Jim Carroll, Allen Ginsberg, John Giorno, Philip Glass, Lenny Kaye, Patti Smith, and Frank Zappa).
-GREETINGS FROM A GUTTER (Dave Stewarts) (Laurie participates in this recording with the theme "Kinky Sweetheart").


-HOME OF THE BRAVE (1986) (This one can be available in video format).
-O SUPERMAN (1982)
-THIS IS THE PICTURE (1985) (With Peter Gabriel).
-"KITCHEN PRESENTS", Two Moon July, with Philip Glass, David Byrne, Brian Eno, and other artists. (1986)
-TALK NORMAL (1989) (One of the first Laserdiscs to be released).
-HEAVY PETTING (a film containing a number of interviews to famous people, not-so-famous people, and some videoclips of a more or less erotic -if not outhright pornographic- nature).

* BOOKS: Almost all of them, except perhaps for Empty Places and Stories From The Nerve Bible, are currently out of print and therefore it is not possible to get them in the conventional commercial channels.

-NOTEBOOK (1977)


-"David Budd: Continental Drift," Art News, (summer 1971), pp. 32-33
-"Galleries," Arts Magazine, (November 1972), pp. 70-71
-"About 405 East 13th Street," Artforum, (September, 1973), pp. 64-65
-"Mary Miss," Artforum, (November 1973), pp. 64-65.
-"Sylvia Sleigh and Jackie Ferrara", Artforum, (Jan. 1974), pp.79-80
-"Artists Space Gallery, New York," Artforum, (March, 1974), p. 81.
-"Take Two," Art-Rite, (summer 1974), p. 5
-"Reviews and Previews," Art News, (November 1970- December 1975).

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