- Laurie Anderson and the Politics of Performance
Performance theorist Philip Auslander has argued that whatever theoretical or empirical value finally attaches to the term “postmodernism,” the contemporary performance artists that we call postmodern share a certain critical distance from modernism and are able to historicize the contemporary “in the Brechtian sense of getting some distance on the world we live in and thus gaining a better understanding of it.” 1 Gaining distance from the world of late capitalistic America seems indeed to be the focus of Laurie Anderson’s new performance piece currently touring the United States and Canada. The work is ostensibly to promote Anderson’s book Stories from the Nerve Bible: A Retrospective 1972–1992, but it more importantly offers a contextualization of Anderson’s art from the early 1970s up to current day. The event details the growth of Anderson as an artist from her rougher beginnings like the song “Walk the Dog” to her more polished performance pieces from Empty Places.
The show is a work in progress and it may change from venue to venue as it tours the country over the next few months. This review is being based on the March 29th performance at the Lied Center in Lawrence, Kansas. Though Lawrence seems an unlikely venue for an Anderson performance (she generally sticks to larger, more urban areas), she frequents this small, Midwestern town for the sake of her friend and artistic mentor William S. Burroughs, a local resident who was in attendance at the Lawrence show.
The evening is rather brief—a little over one hour. The performance consists of Anderson sitting in front of a keyboard with two microphones (one is processed and the other isn’t) and a large sound board to her right. Underneath the sound board lies a DAT machine which plays the underscoring of Anderson’s readings from a collection of pages in front of her.
This is the most intimate Anderson to date. The mise-en-scene has been stripped to its bare technical bones. The videoscreens, lasers, techno-gadgetry, and spectacle wizardry are gone. Lighting effects consist mainly of gel changes and primarily only light her well enough to be seen. What one sees is Anderson reflecting back on her career with an eye towards her future. She even says that the show is a retrospective about the future; by looking at where you’ve come from, you see where you’re going.
The stories and talk-songs that comprise the performance are arranged by the series of associations based upon the “Nerve Bible”—by which she means the body. 2 What the audience gets is an apparently free association of juxtaposed images and ideas; the responsibility of finding meaning in the juxtapositions is placed solely upon the audience. The arrangement of the pieces may vary from night to night as Anderson creates new material or deletes old, establishing a whole new arena in which meanings can be created.
Anderson performs a sampling of performance pieces from all periods of her work. Several of the pieces come from her recent notes, and will presumably go onto her upcoming album, Bright Red (produced by Brian Eno), and eventually the album’s multi-media promotional tour next year. She begins with the end of the Nerve Bible book, by talking about the future in “My Grandmother’s Hats,” a story about her Bible-thumping grandmother who kept waiting for the end of the world to arrive:
. . . I remember the day she died, she was very excited. She was sitting in her hospital room waiting to die and she was very excited. She was like a small bird perched on the edge of her bed near the window and she was wearing this pink nightgown and combing her hair so that she would look pretty when I came to get her. And she wasn’t afraid but then something happened that changed everything.
After years of preaching and predicting the future, suddenly, she panicked. Because she couldn’t decide on whether or not...