to the small poem and the quiet voice within

bob gendron | laurie anderson urges exodus back to reality

Laurie Anderson | Photo by Pascal Perich



Laurie Anderson Urges Exodus Back to Reality
Bob Gendron

Laurie Anderson sat like a statue, not moving a muscle or saying a word, as she stared out at a near-capacity auditorium Wednesday at Francis W. Parker School. The uncomfortably silent moment — a clever response to a question posed by an audience member about how to emphasize the present — personified the bizarre unpredictability of her hourlong conversation with Steppenwolf Theatre artistic director Martha Lavey at the Chicago Humanities Festival event. While few personalities better suit this year’s Tech Knowledge (pro­nounced “technology”) theme than Anderson, she presents a challenge due to her aversion to scripts and adoration of eccen­tricity.

Renowned for cutting-edge works that span spoken-word presentations to visual immer­sions to experimental albums,” Anderson has embraced, manipu­lated and incorporated technolo­gy in art ever since staging street performances more than three decades ago. A composer, photog­rapher instrumentalist, poet, sculptor and filmmaker, she evades singular descriptions and attracts unique invitations, whether the latter take the form of collaborations with interna­tional museums, installations in outdoor gardens or positions as NASA’s first (and last) artist-in-residence. On multiple occasions, Anderson expressed disdain for formula and championed mis­takes and spontaneity. In recount­ing how she happened upon the creation of a singing table after a typewriter malfunctioned, she praised producer Brian Eno for the manner in which he recog­nizes the opportunities afforded by faults. No matter the technolo­gy at hand, she hinted, it’s impos­sible to bang out and force together a meaningful project. Ironically, many of Lavey’s inquir­ies seemed to try to steer An­derson toward giving responses with a pro-technology slant. And each time Anderson sensed she was prodded in a certain direc­tion, she became more politely resistant and opted to offer exis­tential interrogations of some of the larger issues at hand.

“What does beauty mean?”

“What are you looking for?”

“When is a piece of art finished?”

“What is real and what is not?”

Anderson posed those questions and others, at one point stating, “I don’t even think that we’re here right now” while admitting to believing in an illusory dimen­sion. Anderson wasn’t being strange to attract attention or elevate her reputation as an outré thinker. Diverting from expecta­tion, Anderson frequently criti­cized modem technology, sug­gesting it is largely responsible for humans losing touch with who they are and what they’re doing as a species. She admitted a cur­rent preference for grittier, more physical and less digital ephem­era, saying an abundance of tech­nology can birth a “new pover­ty”— inhabitants driving big cars and living in huge houses but lacking money to buy requisite supplies for the upkeep of their possessions, and starving in the process.

Her observations extended to sonics and why it’s beneficial to watch animals listen to their surroundings.

“It’s sickening to make music that becomes MP3’s,” Anderson said, denouncing the digital files that compress music to allow more of it to be stored on a com­puter drive. She complained that compression destroys the spatial aspects of recordings and accused the technique of lessening our experience with aural sensuality.

To illustrate her points, she invoked dogs and their sense of hearing before launching into a humorous albeit sincere story about devising a “Music for Dogs” concert in Australia that she deemed the best day of her life.

If, in Andersen’s eyes, technol­ogy eradicates the full potential of our consciousness, she finds solace in simpler communication. The New York resident ex­pounded upon how the haiku, stripped of metaphors and related comparative devices, forces one to be in the moment and boasts the capacity to remind of us of places we’ve never been. Howev­er plain, language, not technology, said Anderson, remains the basis of realities supposed and actual, the foundation for the stories that shape our purposes and iden­tities.

[from Chicago Tribune, Arts + Entertainment, Nov.4, 2011]


  1. Leonard Cirinoq

    Never liked her much for her use of tricks and techy but this is interesting and makes her sound far more real, Thanks, Leonard

  2. jean

    MP3’s and digital compression! Hmmm! Can someone out there tell me if that’s the distortion, the speeding up that makes remastered movies difficult to comprehend, speech traveling faster than comprehension? Just watched Dodsworth, a remastered black and white film on TCM where this was apparent.

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