WITH ‘O SUPERMAN’ well on its way to becoming the surprise hit of the year, Laurie Anderson’s debut London performances are creating a stir totally out of keeping with the minimal attention normally accorded to performance artists. Bearing in mind their lousy reputation here for being either pointlessly provocative or unnecessarily austere, that’s not really surprising.
Anderson’s show, however, is different in that it doesn’t neglect the needs of the audience even if it doesn’t make any outright concessions to it. Not that any of this was known when she sold out her three nights at the Riverside, as all people seemed to know about her was that she comes from New York and owns a custom-built violin with a tape head for strings and a strip of pre-recorded tape replacing the horsehair of the bow.
Her violin-playing is not an integral part of her performance but it is incorporated into a wonderfully executed multi-media presentation along with film, pervasive gently pulsating electronic sound, songs and slides, whose functions are to entertain and inform. Correction: to entertain and re-establish lines of communication damaged by the broadcasting media’s coarsening and corruption of language to the point of incomprehension.
To achieve this she employs the various gadgets at her disposal to lead the viewer to what she is saying, rather than to simply distract him. A strangely androgynous figure, she varies the tone, pitch and even gender of her voice to match the mood and character of a piece and then juxtaposes it with the brilliantly synchronised images that might not directly illustrate a song, but are invariably in apposition to the pre-determined mood.
Despite the battery of effects and the occasional help of two musicians, the focus is always on herself, and her performance is witty and sly enough to carry the attention. Not that she has to do much — the most striking part comes during ‘O Superman’ in which she plays keyboard with one hand and manipulates the other before a lamp that throws shapes up onto the screen behind her. Her preoccupations with communication have as much to do with sign as spoken language.
I almost forgot to mention that she is very funny. The show she’s brought over is a selection from her mammoth eight-hour investigation of American mores called The United States, the selections of which affectionately highlight her compatriots’ absurdities, though she comes down more heavily when the subject warrants it — check the sarcastic anecdote about the automation of the car industry.
Setting up the economic use of her body and associated parts as an example of a productive relationship between woman and machine, she’s in a strong position to castigate needless industrial waste.
© Chris Bohn, New Musical Express, 17 October 1981