Cover image for Laurie Anderson
Laurie Anderson
Goldberg, RoseLee.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Harry N. Abrams Publishers, 2000.
Physical Description:
204 pages : illustrations (some color), color maps ; 26 cm
Reading Level:
1220 Lexile.
Subject Term:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
NX512.A54 G65 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Prepared with Anderson's cooperation & participation, this book delivers a comprehensive look at the legendary & pioneering performance artist's multifaceted career, from her performance pieces of the early 1970's to her 1999 electronic opera, Songs & Stories From Moby Dick. Publicity: Four-city tour for RoseLee Goldberg & Laurie Anderson; release of Nonesuch Records CD of music from Songs & Stories from Moby Dick. Promotion: postcards inserted in book.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

The term performance artist isn't heard much anymore, but in its heyday, mixed-media artist and musician Anderson was the performance artist nonpareil. Beginning as a solo monologist and singer who used distinctive dress, props, photos, films, and electronic devices, Anderson gradually expanded the scale of her work. Since United States, completed in 1983, she has required other technicians, musicians, dancers, and singers to realize full-scale theatrical works, the latest of which, Songs and Stories from Moby Dick (1999), is the first employing a preexisting story. This album of performance photos and art, song lyrics, and monologues from her works affords quite an eyeful, which Goldberg describes rather than critiques. Lacking the sound of Anderson's voice, straight and electronically varied in pitch so that she can sound male and even carry on dialogues without hiring an actor, the book can't fully convey her wry and surreal humor or the satiric notes she expresses through spoken pitch and duration. Still, it is some book! --Ray Olson

Library Journal Review

Laurie Anderson, the high priestess of performance art/rock, gets the royal treatment in this gorgeous coffee-table-book retrospective of her acclaimed 30-year (and still going) career. Goldberg, author of the critically praised Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present and Performance: Live Art Since 1960, is the consummate performance art critic and chronicler. With Anderson's blessing and involvement, Goldberg wends her way chronologically through the art, writings, performance pieces, videos, films, and installations of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. The 323 illustrations, including 117 color plates, could have easily upstaged the text, but Goldberg's prose is delightfully intelligent and insightful. "The goal of this book," writes Goldberg, "is to present the full range of Anderson's creativity." Mission accomplished. This is a "bomb book" that will fly off the shelves; the alluringly bizarre cover alone (the finale from her 1983 piece, United States) is well worth the modest price. Recommended for all libraries; those with active performance collections should buy multiple copies.DBarry X. Miller, Austin P.L., TX (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Introduction Many of us who saw Laurie Anderson's United States at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York in 1983 knew that we had witnessed an event of historical significance. Visually startling, featuring an ingenious combination of sound and text, and pieced together with equal amounts of political commentary and intellectual inquiry, United States made it clear that Anderson's use of media and her analysis of its role and meaning in American culture would become a yardstick for measuring this debate in the future. Not only did she use a broad range of tools--some classical, like a violin, others custom-built, like a vocoder or a hologram--but the ways in which she single-handedly meshed almost eight hours of material into a large-scale portrait of a country were breathtaking and unforgettable. Most remarkable was the fact that the production was accessible to audiences. It was this achievement, of crossing from avant-garde obscurity into the so-called mainstream without compromising her ideas or aesthetic integrity, that would indelibly establish United States in the annals of art history. Communicating with an audience was Anderson's goal from the start. "One of my jobs as an artist is to make contact with the audience, and it has to be immediate," she has said, an approach that, in the history of "live art," was a radical departure from past tactics. The Dadaists and Futurists in the 1920s and Fluxus artists in the 1960s intentionally provoked their audiences. Epater les bourgeois --to shock the middle classes--was an expression adopted to describe all sorts of actions intended to raise questions about the very meaning of art, and to force a reassessment of the practice of everyday life. In her work Anderson chose to affect viewers differently. Rather than shocking audiences to new levels of awareness, she took a far more subtle approach to change their minds. She floated pictures--thousands of them, in the form of film or slide projections--before their eyes and used streams of words, straightforwardly delivered but cleverly arranged and full of surprising observations. "You're walking, and you don't always realize it, but you're always falling," she sang in one song. She used music to stir her audiences viscerally; her melodies, which she found in the regular rhythms of ordinary conversations or in the to and fro of arguments, were matched with lyrics good enough to qualify as poetry. The result was a collection of songs that combined the complexity of abstract discourse--"History is an angel being blown backwards into the future"--with the 4/4 beat of rock 'n' roll. In United States , Anderson transformed herself into a new kind of artist. She exploded the scale of her work by rising to the occasion presented by an opera house, adding technicians as needed to maintain the flow of slides, film, and lights on the giant backdrops behind her. She constructed photomontages of film and slides, collages of pictures and texts, and paintings made of light, in front of which she sometimes created shadow puppets with her hands and other parts of her body. She built platforms to layer the space of the stage and employed illusionistic projections that appeared to extend it into the auditorium. She designed original instruments that were marvelous objects in themselves. To top it all off, she played the violin, alternating virtuoso bowing with atonal swoops that wailed through the air like a siren. She coaxed lush orchestration from an electronic keyboard, dense with preprogrammed sounds, added live back-up musicians to further complicate the texture of her music, and littered the stage with additional sound-makers--an accordion, a pitch transposer, a digital echo. All of this while signaling, with the grace of a conductor, to technicians in the balconies and sound booth when to run the slides, projectors, prerecorded tape loops, and floodlights. By the end of eight hours it was evident that Anderson was indeed an artist of extraordinary talent. She had utilized a variety of media with ease and invented a repertory of her own. She had sashayed between disciplines, creating seamless borders by frequently crossing them, and she had provided an iconography of visual references that would keep art historians busy for years to come--houses, the sea, mountains, dogs, airplanes, telephones, televisions, metronomes, violins, the face of a wall plug, a light bulb, clocks, maps, the American flag, the open road, clouds, sky, the head of a president engraved on a coin. All were distinctly drawn or represented in signature Anderson style, and each held a clue to her storage bank of obsessions: "house" with its reference to home, family, architecture, and her personal stage; "clocks" to time, fast and slow; "presidents" charged with power, sexuality, and mythology; "television" with the politics of control. Each had appeared in her earliest material, whether in the handmade books of the early 1970s or in performances that she toured continuously on several overlapping circuits to American and European art schools, museums, and galleries throughout the decade. And each was a signpost for the future, since every one of them has continued to appear in Anderson's work to the present day. While United States was for Anderson the fruition of more than a decade's worth of work, it also represented the culmination of a unique era in New York. During the 1970s artistic inquiry ran the gamut from conceptual art to body art, land art, performance art, video, sound art, artists' books, and other areas. This great variety provided fertile ground for Anderson's many interests. Downtown artists encouraged one another not to choose between disciplines. Composers, choreographers, architects, filmmakers, sculptors, and painters borrowed freely from various media. A work by Vito Acconci, who was originally a poet, might appear uncannily similar to one by a sculptor such as Scott Burton, both of whom made several street-works. A walk by choreographer Trisha Brown, in which she explored gravity by descending the face of a building supported by mountaineering equipment, might complement a huge cut-out in the wall of an abandoned building made by architect Gordon Matta-Clark to emphasize the structure's sculptural quality. This mood of adventurous creativity gave Anderson license to follow as many paths as she pleased, and she produced handmade books, sound installations, film performances, and more. This generation of artists rejected the aestheticized art object, critiqued the meaning of art, and attempted to find ways to take their polemic concerns far away from the confines of the art gallery and the elaborate system that supported it. All of them, particularly the ones working "live," such as Meredith Monk or Robert Ashley, Joan Jonas or Robert Wilson, set their own terms. They found alternative venues for their work, recorded their own music, and made art especially designed as a vehicle for their varied talents. These artists simply could not think in terms of one discipline at a time. Rather, their creative impulses took visual, aural, and spatial form, and their multidimensional thinking resulted in remarkable works that appealed to all the senses. They had the discipline, control, and impetus to keep all mediums working simultaneously, like a row of plates spinning in the air. Not only was United States a summation of the sensibilities and value system of the 1970s, but it was also a gateway to the 1980s. Artists who were in their mid-twenties in the late '70s--Troy Brauntuch, Thomas Lawson, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, David Salle, Cindy Sherman, and Laurie Simmons, among others--had grown up on a steady diet of twenty-four-hour-a-day television, B-movies, fast food, and rock 'n' roll. Now they were pointedly examining the overwhelming effects of media on American cultural and political life as well as on their own day-to-day experiences. The format Anderson chose for United States , a large-scale opus, provided an extensive ground on which to lay these issues, and her system of riveting the audience's attention with a continuous flow of images paralleled their method of culling pictures from movies, magazines, or the media and of framing, rearranging, and projecting them to create iconic pictures of the times, These artists were as conscious as Anderson was of current affairs--of the insidiousness of Reagan-era media politics and of the '80s consumer frenzy--and were as determined to include critical reference to it in their work. Like Anderson they juxtaposed references to television's past, such as episodes from "The "Twilight Zone," and to its current crop of advertising logos, with fragments of narratives from daily newspapers, creating several layers of meaning in their work--from the literal to the metaphorical. Indeed, United States , with its sophisticated manipulation of many media, biblical references, and prescient overtones of a futuristic world commandeered by technology, was considered to be a deeply allegorical rendering of contemporary America. In this context, it holds masterpiece status. It also holds mythical status, because just one year earlier Anderson had signed a contract with recording industry giant Warner Brothers committing her to produce six albums for the label, a move that would cause a flurry of excitement in the downtown art world. Such a leap into the mainstream was unimaginable before that time, and for an avant-garde artist it was considered something of a contradiction. Many of Anderson's peers responded to her defection with some disdain, and she felt it. "It was considered `selling out,'" she recalls. Yet hers was a complicated situation. "O Superman," her eight-minute song that had reached the number two spot on the British pop charts in 1981, was compellingly beautiful. It was composed in the context of an art performance, and its popularity took Anderson by complete surprise. The suggestion that she had intentionally created a work for the world of mass entertainment was entirely inaccurate; rather, its success was an odd kind of proof that extraordinary artwork can transcend categories and reach wide audiences. The mystery of how "O Superman" broke through the barricades separating so-called high and low art seemed unfathomable; it inevitably provoked sentiments of envy as well. Nevertheless, her move inspired many artists, especially those who toyed with mass media as content in their work, and provided a model for them to follow. Some, such as Longo, Salle, Julian Schnabel, and Sherman, would eventually translate their own ambitions to straddle high art and the mass media into Hollywood movies, while performers including Eric Bogosian, Spalding Gray, and Ann Magnuson achieved mainstream name recognition in the 1980s in the worlds of theater and television. "A couple of years later," Anderson notes, "crossing over was looked on more favorably.... But by the mid-1980s," she adds, referring to the overwhelmingly consumerist ethos that drove the art world of that decade, "there was no longer much of an avant-garde left to comment on it anyway." The immediate benefits of Anderson's contract with Warner Brothers were the facilities that financial backing afforded her. She built a fully equipped professional recording studio in her downtown loft, which gave her immediate access, around the clock, to equipment that could instantly translate her ideas into freshly made music. It also allowed her to invent ways of combining lush orchestration and spoken words to form a sound vocabulary all her own. Only her film Home of the Brave (1985), which she directed, produced, and starred in, suffered some of the negative effects of '80s excess, since it was far more polished than anything she had done before. Glamorously dressed back-up singers transformed Anderson's conceptual material into finger-snapping songs, musicians in masks and jaunty hats spoofed behind her, and music-hall lighting made the film far more picturesque than might have been anticipated from her earlier work. Home of the Brave was not highly regarded as a concert movie, nor was it a commercial success. But it was a training ground for Anderson in digital recording and film, and for several devices that would reappear in future productions, such as electronically controlled stage sets with cables and equipment hidden under custom-built flooring, or her Drum Suit, a percussive outfit with electronic drum sensors sewn into its seams, which produced a big "boom" whenever she tapped her knee or chest or made particularly expansive movements. Always fearless in the face of technology, Anderson incorporated it into her work from the start, whether film projections, fake holograms, wired mouthpieces, or electrified door jambs. Self-taught, she would invent new uses for old equipment by taking apart cheap electronic objects found in secondhand shops on Canal Street near her loft, and putting the pieces back together again for her own unusual ends. "A lot of my work comes from playing around with equipment, seeing what it will do," she has said. As it was for other artists of the 1970s--Acconci, Jonas, Bruce Nauman--the point for Anderson was to undermine the push toward perfection that high technology proffered, and to treat it as just another tool. "I use technology as a way of amplifying or changing things," she explains. She has also employed it to doctor the most ordinary objects: a pillow has a tape recorder embedded in it so that one can hear a story when one's head is laid on the pillow; a table is wired so that a poem can be heard when one places one's heed in one's hands and then one's elbows on particular points on the tabletop (sound is transmitted through the lower-arm bones); a book's pages are turned by an electric fan. On stage, custom-built microphones change her voice from female to male, human to computerese. Light projections throw her shadow onto building-high backdrops. Neon bows and violins glow in the dark. Stick figures of animals and people run back and forth across the screen, and ideograms of houses, televisions, and airplanes drop in vertically, like rain. But no matter how many electronic filters and computerized devices go into creating this material, the overall sensibility is fragile and fragmented. "Technology," Anderson insists, is "the least important thing about what I do." The personal, hand-drawn quality of Anderson's work has kept it relevant in the high-tech art world of the late '90s. Artists such as Douglas Gordon, Mariko Mori, Pipilotti Rist, or Sam Taylor-Wood, who use sophisticated mixes of film projection, video, and computer-enhanced photography to create eclectic narrative landscapes, have recognized Anderson's work not only for its pioneering status but also for the fact that she has responded to technological shifts as they occurred over a period of more than two decades, as is evident in her use of equipment, from telephones and answering machines early on, to laser beams, CD-ROM's, and the Internet more recently. For them, her art has held its own because it contains prescient criticism of the media they all use and of the politics that continuously shape and are shaped by it. Anderson understands how media works, both technically and perceptually, on the senses, and she questions the artist's role in colluding with the aesthetics of a "cold, speedy, techno world," "We tell ourselves how to get more and more perfect, more and more in control," Anderson has said. Even "time out" is disallowed in the technological world, she notes. "There's no such thing as digital silence," because "silence triggers the `disconnect' button." Anderson counters this orderliness with subject matter that underlines human frailty: melancholic and frequently surreal tales of animals, dreams, families, and angels fill her somewhat chaotic and even anarchic universe. Accelerated media-use in the 1990s attracted a new generation of artists to video and film in numbers not seen since the 1970s. Museums and galleries, responding to the trend, included Anderson in group exhibitions for the first time in almost a decade, signaling a return of sorts for her to the art-fold. Anderson approached the situation with some caution, not least because she found the relatively inconsequential scale of art exhibitions, compared to that of performance, uninspiring. "In a gallery, I need one idea to fill a room," Anderson has said. "On stage, I need five hundred." Her audiences, though, built through years on the music circuit, were thrilled by the opportunity to view the Anderson legend close up, and to spend time with her art objects and instruments, some of which they recognized from stage concerts. Violins displayed on a wall--Tape Bow Violin, Viophonograph--or installations-- Whirlwind (1996), Dal Vivo (Life) (1998)--introduced them to her simultaneously bold and whimsical aesthetic and to her elliptical way of thinking. When the works were displayed in a so-called alternative space, such as Artists Space in New York, her enduring attachment to a 1970s belief system--one that proposed concept over product and a less-formal environment than museums in which to engage viewers--was obvious. Dal Vivo was held in an elegant Milan gallery space, and here her desire to function beyond the walls of a gallery was made literal: the piece consisted of a live projection inside the gallery, transmitted via cable from a nearby prison, of a man incarcerated for life. Anderson's achievement in straddling the art and music worlds is remarkable, especially since, in the end, she belongs to neither camp entirely. Her music fans are often puzzled by her art connection, but they would be no less mystified by her music's complete genesis if they knew it, since it is based in the work of some of the most radically inventive and paradoxical composers of the late twentieth century, from John Cage to Philip Glass and Robert Ashley, with their investigations of everyday sounds and silence, serialization, and language, respectively. The way she makes music from a variety of sound sources also exhibits an obvious empathy for Fluxus artists Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik and members of the Italian Arte Povera group, all of whom adventurously collaged instruments from found objects and irreverently "performed" on them as well. Anderson's installations, such as Chord for a Room (1973), are also part of a history of art objects made of sound; this lineage includes Marcel Duchamp's With Hidden Noise (1916) and Robert Morris' Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961). The rhythmic undertow of her music shows how much she absorbed the moody intonation of the '70s downtown music scene, which was made up of composer-musicians such as Peter Gordon, Blue Gene Tyranny, and David Van Tieghem, among others, and the smoothly asymmetrical melodies of English musician Brian Eno. While audiences may be unaware of Anderson's distinctive musical family-tree, they nevertheless perceive at once that her concerts--which comprise a diminutive, solitary figure at the center of a large stage flipping knobs on a console with one hand and playing chords on a synthesizer with the other, operating pedals with her feet while turning her head from side to side, speaking into voice-altering microphones--are quite different from the multimedia extravaganzas of rock 'n' roll. Incorporating subject matter such as politics, censorship, and war, as well as references to the eccentric scientist Nikola Tesla or underground filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, for example, her shows are uniquely disarming as well as intellectually stimulating. Anderson has an uncanny capacity to make philosophical reflection palatable to a broad public. Without being the least bit patronizing, she merges an intense cultural and political critique with music and visual art in performances that can be read by a wide gamut of viewers--from language theorists and cultural critics to general theater and rock-music audiences. The real vehicle for her thoughts is, of course, language, which she manipulates in hundreds of ways. Words and sentences are cut, spliced, routed electronically through vocoders, pulled backward on a Tape Bow, projected on screens, spoken, and sung; they are filled with meaning and emptied of it with the regularity of waves crashing on a beach. Everyday language--"Hello, this is your mother, are you home?"--is juxtaposed in performance with a large projected shadow of a clenched fist, transforming an ordinary message on a telephone answering machine into an authoritarian threat. More obscure prose--"Language is a virus from outer space," a quotation from William Burroughs--accompanied by a "picture puzzle" used in an essay by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is a parody of theorists sung to a seductive rock beat. Even foreign languages are part of her analysis of communication as an elaborate but universal system of codes. When on tour in non-English speaking countries she separates phrases or words into visual or aural modular units to simplify articulation, as in the Japanese alphabet or in the German "sh" sound. Extensively analyzed by scholars, Anderson's songs such as "Language of the Future" or "Language Is a Virus" have been connected to the writings of several philosophers and linguists, including Walter Benjamin, Julia Kristeva, and Marshall McLuhan. The songs have been interpreted as spoofs on language theories, they have been deconstructed to show the signs and signifiers of postmodern thought, and they have been critiqued as aural samplings of power relationships between the genders. But no one is more aware of the multiple references in her work than Anderson herself. She intends that the viewer pay attention to the way "things pull at each other," to what she describes as the audio and visual layering of each piece, and she makes no effort to disguise her many sources of inspiration. "If You Can't Talk About It, Point To It" (1980) is dedicated to Wittgenstein, while "The Dream Before" (1989) is "for Walter Benjamin." Even though many in her audience might not recognize the names of these heroes of the twentieth-century intelligentsia, they may nevertheless leave a concert humming melodies of songs that have been dedicated to them. (Continues...) Copyright © 2000 RoseLee Goldberg. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. 11
The 1970sp. 30
The 1980sp. 83
The 1990sp. 146
Biographyp. 190
Records, Films, Videos, Cd-Rom's, Scores, and Songsp. 195
Selected Bibliographyp. 196
Acknowledgmentsp. 199
Indexp. 200
Photograph Creditsp. 204