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  • Laurie Anderson’s Telepresence
  • Eu Jin Chua

A survey of the work of American artist Laurie Anderson makes clear her career-long interest in what may be described as the modern subject’s self-alienation in the face of excessive technologization and authoritarianism. This article argues that her 1998 installation Dal Vivo forms an extreme endpoint in this ongoing project of artistic critique. It claims that the conceit of this installation, which can be understood as an unusual and highly mediatized variation on performance art, places Anderson in an irresolvable ethical bind. For the installation crystallises, in aesthetic form, the paranoia which Eric Santner argues is endemic to subjects forced to function within the damaging solicitations of disciplinary authority, and it makes Anderson complicit within this process. The ethical predicament created by the installation’s deployment of tele-technologies, moreover, suggests the potential of telepresence technologies to function repressively, thus providing a cautionary note to too uncritical techno-utopian accounts of tele-technologies.

Alter Egos

Ventriloquism—the act of speaking through a surrogate body—is a frequent device in the work of American performance artist Laurie Anderson. In many of her installations and performances, Anderson herself does not speak as such—rather, she speaks through alter egos, usually technologically generated, who ventriloquize her stories and anecdotes. She frequently interposes a substitute persona between herself and her audience, and it is this which does the talking. Such surrogate personae are often vocally manipulated: in her performances, she frequently modulates her voice to play different characters (the masculine “voice of authority,” the squeaky voice of a child, the plaintive tones of “Mom” in her well-known 1981 hit song “O Superman,” and so on). Or they are musical instruments. Anderson, a classically trained violinist, has said that, in her performances, “the violin is the perfect alter ego. It’s the instrument closest to the human voice . . . I’ve spent a lot of time trying to teach the violin to talk” (Stories 33). But there are also more complete physical surrogates to whom Anderson transfers her voice. A list of Anderson’s physical alter egos might include the “digital clones” of the 1986 video series What You Mean We?, a literal ventriloquist’s dummy that played a scaled-down violin in Stories from the Nerve Bible (1992), and the animatronic parrot of the installation Your Fortune One $ (1996) that squawked non-sequiturs in a computer-generated voice at passing gallery-goers.1 In a commentary on this last work, Anderson says:

As a talking artist, I’m always on the lookout for alter egos—surrogate speakers. And I’ve always been completely fascinated by parrots. . . . I spent a lot of time with my brother’s gray African parrot Uncle Bob. Uncle Bob has a vocabulary of about five hundred words. You’re never sure with Bob where the line is between repetitive babble and conscious communication. The more I listened to Bob the more it seemed like he could communicate emotion—cries and phrases that expressed loneliness, fear, sheer happiness—all with his extremely limited vocabulary. It made me realize how much human language is a combination of rote phrases and fortuitous invention, a complex mix of the things that can be said and the unsayable.

(“Control Rooms” 128)

Or to take the title of another one of Anderson’s famous songs, “language is a virus from outer space.” Which should also remind us that the list of Anderson’s alter egos could be expanded to include her policy of performing shows in the local native language when touring non-English-speaking countries—even when completely ignorant of the meaning of the words that issue from her mouth, thus effectively ventriloquizing herself through the mediation of a translator. On one notable occasion, Anderson stuttered through a show in Japanese, carefully pronouncing each sound phonetically, unaware that she had been tutored by a translator with a speech impediment.2 “My mouth is moving,” she said of the experience of performing concerts in French, “but I don’t really understand what I’m saying” (Goldberg, Laurie Anderson 60).

The circuitous route from written words, to translation, to enunciation by a speaker not fluent in...

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