When Laurie Anderson says “I’m haunted by a million things,” believe her.
In a sense, her latest solo performance, Happiness, is a collection of really good ghost stories. But don’t be misled here–hers don’t traffic in hoary old clichés of white sheets, disturbed graves, and suddenly abandoned houses.
Instead, call them postmodern ghost stories. In them, we’re the ghosts: Ours are the spirits caught in the machines of the new technologies. Our own impermanence and losses haunt us, just as surely as the chimera of memory, and sudden, catastrophic change do.
It’s a metamorphosis of sorts for Anderson, whose performances–unpredictable montages of visuals, songs, ostentatious technology and spoken-word narratives–have grown significantly darker over recent years. In the 1980s, her electronic violin, edgy, elliptical wit, and unerring ear for the absurd buzzwords and catchphrases of public discourse (and the lies they’re built on) once qualified her as the Henny Youngman of a downtown New York avant-garde populated by such acerbic kindred spirits as William S. Burroughs. When her act comprised cool, ironic quips and urban tales with existential twist endings leavened by modified violin solos, Anderson’s early work suggested an unlikely mix of Jack Benny, Franz Kafka and Rod Serling, each in roughly equal parts.
But in recent years, the shadows surrounding her wry digs at popular culture have considerably deepened. Her narratives, accompanied by increasingly accomplished ambient washes of synthesizers, violin and prerecorded sound, have grown into haunting inventories of absence: existential reminders of the ways in which each of us is uniquely late, and still a long way from home. Where Anderson’s early shows had a near-conspiratorial camaraderie about them, her later works have increasingly taken on the chill of a late-night winter walk, alone.
In large part, such is Happiness. After closing at Princeton, she performs it at Duke Tuesday evening. It’s well worth seeing, for both Anderson aficionados and those just being introduced to her.
Duke seems to have regularly caught Anderson in what for her are particularly minimal, reflective and autobiographical pauses. These are useful places for a first encounter. Her last performance at Duke, 1991’s Voices from the Beyond, was a similarly focused chamber recital–and a refreshing departure from the hyper-mediation and excess of the previous year’s fully-staged Empty Places. That work premiered at Charleston’s Spoleto Festival, listed in their season brochure under the most unlikely heading of “Opera.” Against that works’ technical tricks and hype, Voices seemed by comparison a much more immediate, vulnerable and human document.
Happiness follows suit. As in Voices, when Anderson strips away the bombast and the multi-media hocus-pocus, all that’s left, thankfully, is more of a conversation, and less of a “show.” Once again we realize that Anderson doesn’t need violin bows tricked out with video mounts and other technical gimcracks to make an indelible impact on an audience. She does that quite easily with a microphone, and a series of thought-provoking tales.
Both worked well throughout her recent performance at Princeton University on March 16. Those expecting–or dreading–a recital of songs from the profoundly uneven Life on a String (her latest CD), with which she briefly toured North America and Europe last fall, found a far superior concert of stories, most of them of recent origin. This is also cause for celebration: The variable ratio of new material to material recycled from previous works had given certain concerts in the past decade more than the patina of a greatest hits collection. Where there are echoes from “The Nerve Bible” and even “United States I-IV,” they support the new material, rather than drowning it out or overwhelming it. From Life on a String, only “One Beautiful Evening,” that work’s strongest combination of narrative and music, was represented in the final sections of the evening.
As was the case in the earlier Voices, Anderson’s narratives again seem preoccupied by loss and absence, but tellingly, the nature of those subtractions has changed. Where Voices focused on the then-recent deaths of Robert Mapplethorpe and Abbie Hoffman, Happiness begins with a reflection on the atrocity at the World Trade Center. The image of an endless caravan of trucks bearing away a series of mute, potent icons by night (a twisted firetruck among them) segues into an inventory of dust, all that was left of some of the victims.
Subtlety is the strong suit of these new tales from strange times. While she still wields a one-liner with admirable dexterity–in a mid-show observation about the difference between Old Testament and New Testament architectural influences, for example–the evening’s most plangent social and cultural critiques are couched in metaphor. In one tale, the barbarism of a primitive culture is exemplified by their practice of burning ancestors for fuel.
In other stories, a species of crane is in decline, because it has few leaders left able to guide the flock on its yearly migrations. On a meditative retreat, a character flees from the insufficiently edifying stories of her companions, only to discover that the surrounding terrain is similarly unsuitable from an aesthetic point of view, littered with rocks that crumble “as if they had come from a cheap movie set.” In a further tale, the most materialistic culture on earth has so much confidence in the abstract that it devotes an entire economy to imaginary places, and its denizens spend much of their time happily trolling these intangible zones.
As Burroughs once said, “You pick up the pieces. You connect the dots.” What’s even more significant is that there are actually no “spoilers” in the preceding two paragraphs. Each of these premises is a set-up in Anderson’s elliptical tales; none of them is a punch line.
Elsewhere, she explores the dubious bounty of constant global information exchange, including strange telemarketers, a generalized dread of silence, and the phenomenon of instant misinformation.
On jury duty in New York City, she is assigned to work out the knotty relationship between sex, the pursuit of happiness, justice and money. Then there’s the time last summer when she worked for two weeks at a McDonald’s in Chinatown, and at an Amish farm before that.
In short, Anderson’s been busy, tracking down the subtle interconnections between seemingly innocuous phenomena and some of our culture’s greatest dilemmas; tracing the ghostly relationship between memory and identity. Some of her findings are funny. Others chill. Their collection here in Happiness presents an Anderson at the top of her game.
Wait a minute: an Amish farm? A Chinatown McDonald’s?? Following author Barbara Ehrenreich’s lead, last summer Anderson actually did work for two weeks in both places, and several more. She had a better time–at least at the McDonald’s–than she’s had working with other artists from time to time.
“These are all things I did to shake myself out of my own patterns,” she recalls in an interview the afternoon after her Princeton performance. “You know how it is when you walk into an office and you can very quickly sort of take the temperature of what’s going on among the people? I think that’s what I was trying to do. Take the temperature,” she says, and follows with a trademark pause. “More than, you know, get a new career.”
After initially assuming that people at a Pennsylvania Amish farm were cooperating in a different way, she spent two weeks with them, an experience that turned into what she calls “a bit of a backfire.”
“I’m sure there are many Amish communities that are really working well, but this family was incredibly isolated and had nearly zero social skills or even basic psychological skills,” Anderson recalls. “The whole ethic was to stick it out, and just try to be a good person. And then you just choke yourself to death along the way.”
Just now she’s working with a group of designers and artists on a project for the upcoming Swiss Expo.02. They’re creating a four-story cube with a lake and high-speed cameras capable of projecting a visitor’s face over 90 feet high on its ceiling.
Anderson’s verdict so far? She had a better time working at McDonald’s. While she calls the Swiss project heady, difficult and interesting, “most of the people on the team perceive it as a series of problems we have to work through that have to be difficult. Nobody’s saying hey, let’s have fun and work on this together in another way.”
In the aftermath of September 11, Anderson is a bit more concerned about the relationship between art and propaganda. “It’s a very easy thing to slide into,” she notes, “kind of a BBC mentality. It says ‘we know what’s good for you and what will make your life better.’ Oh really? Do you? ‘And we know better than you, you poor slobs out there in TV land, looking at all this silly schlock.’”
“So I try to keep things open-ended,” she says, “and not stand around saying ‘here’s the meaning’ or ‘that’s the way it is.’”
After the Princeton concert, Anderson spent some time with local high-schoolers. It seemed the perfect place to talk about national politics. One thing Anderson can say for George W. Bush: He’s an excellent source of raw material.
“There’s this very clean story being presented to us right now,” she tells the students, “a very short story, from our own president about our situation. It’s instructions on what to do.”
“The first thing he said was to pray.”
“The second was to travel.”
“The third was to shop.”
Hmm. Sounds like a Laurie Anderson monologue to me.
Contact Byron Woods at byron@indy week.com.