Laurie Anderson’s United States

Laurie Anderson was born in Chicago in 1947 and was raised in the suburb of Glen Ellyn. She entered Mills College, in California, in 1965, with the intention of becoming a doctor, but dropped out after a year and moved to New York City, where she enrolled at Barnard. She graduated with a degree in art history in 1969, studied for a year with Sol Lewitt and Carl Andre at the School of Visual Arts, and in 1972 received an M.F.A. from Co¬lumbia, where she majored in sculpture and studied with Meyer Schapiro and the philosopher Arthur Danto. Her career as a per¬formance and mixed-media artist began the same year.
In 1978, Anderson heard the song “O Souverain,” from Jules Massenet’s opera Le Cid (1885), at a concert in Berkeley. The expe¬rience inspired her to write “O Superman,” which, with the help of a five-hundred-dollar grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, was released as a single by no Records in 1981. “O Superman” went to number two on the British pop charts. It was a crossover hit that no one had anticipated—no Records had pressed only a thousand copies, and lacked the capacity to meet the demand for more. The song’s success led to a six-record contract between Anderson and Warner Bros. Records. The first of those albums was Big Sci¬ence, released in 1982.
The Warner Bros, money enabled Anderson to complete and mount her mixed-media work United States, which she had been working on since 1979, and which included many of the songs on Big Science. United States opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Mu¬sic on February 3, 1983. (I saw the second show, on February 5 and 6.) The work was divided into four parts, comprising seventy-eight separately titled segments, some of them musical and some spoken; and it took eight hours, split over two nights, to perform. Although it is Anderson’s most famous work, it has been performed in its en¬tirety only four times—twice in the Opera Flouse at BAM, once at the Dominion Theatre in London, and once in Zurich, where it was done in one all-night, eight-hour set. No complete video of it exists.
United States is often classified as performance art, but this can be misleading. The work was much more conventionally staged than performance art ordinarily is. Anderson used the proscenium for the traditional theatrical purpose—that is, to establish an unam¬biguous distinction between the performer and the audience, a dis-tinction performance artists generally go to some lengths to blur. And she rigorously excluded the element that gives most perfor¬mance art its edge, which is contingency. In performance art, a piece isn’t performed; the performance is the piece. The work of art is whatever happens within the set of conditions the artist has laid down.
Anderson had created that kind of work many times before. In her Institutional Dream Series (1973), she had slept in public places (such as the beach at Coney Island in January; night court at 100 Centre Street, in New York City; and the women’s bathroom in the Schermerhorn Library at Columbia). In Duets on Ice (1974-75), she had performed on the streets in the five boroughs of New York City and in Genoa, Italy, to whatever groups of passersby assem¬bled. She told them personal anecdotes, accompanying herself on a “self-playing” violin—that is, an instrument that played prerecorded music when the bow was scraped across the strings. “The pre¬recorded material was mostly of cowboy songs recorded on ninety- minute cassettes,” as she described the piece. “I’d play along, but since it was a loop there was no definite way to end the concert. So the timing mechanism was a pair of skates with their blades frozen into blocks of ice. When the ice melted and I lost my balance, the concert was over.” The blocks of ice were the performance-art element: they made each performance time- and place-specific. In United States, though, Anderson was performing pieces she had al¬ready created, and some of which her audience knew from listening to “O Superman” and other tracks on Big Science. Anderson’s ap¬pearance at BAM had a lot more in common with Barry Manilow at Wolf Trap than it did with Chris Burden at The Kitchen. United States was a concert.
Still, Anderson did come out of the performance art tradition, and United States was essentially an elaboration of that tradition’s central insight, which is that the ground of expression is the body. This may seem a counterintuitive thing to say about a work famous for an ostentatious display of electronic hardware—vocoder, harmo- nizer, synclavier—and lots of visual effects. And most of the songs and stand-up routines Anderson delivered in United States were wan, ironic tales about daily life in the postindustrial—what we now call the digital—age, with repeated references to airplanes, televi¬sions, petrochemicals, missiles, and outer space. The gadgets and the spaceships may have given people the idea that United States enacted a disaffection with creeping dehumanization, that it was a cri de coeur against the disenchantment of the world. But its effect on me was exactly the opposite. I took the point to be that the world can’t be disenchanted, because enchantment is the mode in which human beings experience it. The trail of the human serpent (said William James) is over everything, even answering-machine beeps and aircraft safety instructions. Our electronics is no less an expres¬sion of ourselves than our poetry is.

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