Laurie Anderson brings humorous, sinister art

Chapin Hall played host to one of contemporary art’s most versatile and intriguing figures when Laurie Anderson – performance artist, multimedia producer, erstwhile pop star, sculptor, significant other of Lou Reed – discussed “Some of My Other Alter Egos” on Tuesday, April 4. During an informal lecture/performance and question and answer session that lasted for nearly two hours, Anderson entertained a considerable crowd with anecdotes and artwork from her quarter-century career.

The event was the second in a series sponsored by the Lecture Committee. “Future Selves: New Technologies of Individuality” started the previous evening with Dr. Ian Wilmut’s lecture on “Cloning and the Question of Ethics” and will continue with MIT professor of Computer Science Rodney Brooks’ lecture on “The Shifting Boundaries Between People and Machines.”

The Lecture Committee has a history of including artistic heavyweights in its annual spring lecture series – last year Vito Acconci spoke to a packed Adams Memorial Theatre – and Anderson’s thoughtful and varied career made her a similarly impressive guest.

Best known for the lengthy, amelodic drone “O Superman (for Massenet),” one of the most improbable hits in music history when it reached #2 on the British pop charts in 1981, Anderson has released seven LPs, including the four-CD set United States Live. She has also created a CD-ROM project, Puppet Motel, and established a long and fruitful career in performance art. Her most recent endeavor is an ambitious tour which finds her performing songs and stories inspired by Melville’s Moby Dick.

After professor of art Barbara Takenaga introduced her as “an incredibly nice person” whose “intelligence, wit and considerable humor have obviously touched a lot of people,” Anderson immediately praised the series’ theme of “Future Selves.” “I don’t quite understand it,” she said, “and I like that about it.”

Anderson’s art has always been acutely attuned to new technologies – her first album was entitled Big Science and she said that she currently owns 11 computers – and her analysis of the recent technological revolution was dry and unsentimental. Portraying it as a function of speed and desire, Anderson likened the accumulation of new technology to “a personal arms race…a race against speed itself.”

With everyday technology becoming more “monolithic” and inescapable, Anderson continued, reactions to it become less nuanced. “It’s really big and really powerful and not many people understand it,” she said, “So you worship it.” Anderson’s mission in the discussion, then, was to answer the question, “How do artists fit into the technological matrix?”

Much of her own work has openly addressed this concern through self-invention, which she called the “fundamental fiction.” By developing theatrical alter egos, Anderson hoped to speak differently not just in cadence but in subject as well. Her early projects in this vein included an experiment in “audio-drag” (in which she used a computerized filter to speak in a male voice) and a two-foot tall dummy playing a “souped up” violin. Anderson showed a brief video “interview” featuring her and her male alter ego, personified as another dummy.

Anderson’s violin-playing dummy points to another focus of hers: the manipulation of sound and instrument. Her numerous inventions and adaptations included a violin equipped with a speaker so that it literally duets with itself, a “tape bow violin” (and an earlier variation, the “viophonograph”) that added distorted pre-recorded sound to the violin’s timbre and an action-oriented “talking stick” devised as a response to the stationary quality of most musical performance (which, she claimed, was often “like watching someone iron”). Anderson also created a sound-conducting table that she likened to Robert Morris’ minimalist masterpiece Box with the Sound of Its Own Making.

The culmination of much of this experimentation with sound – and one of the best-received sections of the program – was a talking parrot named “Uncle Bob.” Inspired by the conviction that “the idea of a talking animal is so deeply creepy,” Anderson gave the parrot a sizable vocabulary and used the opportunity as a means of blurring the line between “repetitive babble and actual conversation.”

In doing so, Anderson said she “[found] a whole new voice,” one attuned to the often hysterical nature of flattery – phrases such as “I had no idea you were in town” and “Say, you look like someone who would enjoy talking to a plastic bird” take on an almost sublime silliness. In typically trenchant fashion, Anderson submitted an installation featuring the parrot – and a series of chalk drawings – to a competition sponsored by Hugo Boss at New York’s Guggenheim Museum and included in its monologue a passage effusively praising Hugo Boss suits.

Anderson’s flair for wry critique reappeared in one of a series of television public service announcements she recorded in lieu of making videos to support one of her albums (“You can get away with a lot,” she noted of the commercially questionable plan, “if you say it with a straight face”). The announcement found Anderson in a greasy spoon diner re-telling, often to hilarious effect, the stories of “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” as a series of “questions about fire” and “a surrealist masterpiece,” respectively.

Anderson also wove elements of her broader artistic philosophy in and out of the lecture. She asserted that “if you can pull form and content apart [in a given piece of art], then something’s not quite working,” and suggested on more than one occasion that process is as important as product. “I write backwards: I…write to find out what it means,” she said. To this end, her Puppet Motel CD-ROM features a “writing template” which allows the user to re-write Crime and Punishment or type a stream of random words, an option that she said is useful “if you like the act of typing itself.”

The droll wit of Puppet Motel and her public service announcements made Anderson a thoroughly engaging speaker: as the lecture winded down, it even became more performative, with Anderson observing an impromptu minute of silence and performing a mini-symphony on another of her own instruments, the pillow speaker. But for all of Anderson’s ample humor, the evening was marked by an informed wariness. “There is no such thing as digital silence,” Anderson warned; in that light, even her most comic creations retain a sinister edge.