- Laurie Anderson, Tisha Brown, Gordon Matta Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene New York 1970s.By Lydia Yee, Philip Ursprung, Rose Lee Goldberg and Alanna Heiss
- Laurie AndersonBy Rose Lee Goldberg
- Talking Music: Conversations with John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Five Genera-tions of American Experimental ComposersBy William Duckworth
Important Art by Laurie Anderson
Handphone Table is one of Anderson's earliest sculptural pieces. The work consists of a five-foot-long table incorporating a concealed sound-system which, in turn, emits low range vocal tones through one end of the structure and instrumental music at the other. Just like the sound-system that produces them, however, these sounds are hidden inside the work and are inaudible in the absence of a viewer. In order to access them the audience must not simply be present but actively engage with the sculpture by positioning his or her elbows onto two depressions on the tabletop and using their hands to cover their ears. Sharing wood's porous properties, the bones of the listener begin to serve as conductors which allow for the sound to travel through the arms to the ears and allow Handphone Table's music and poetry to be heard. Anderson has said that the work was inspired by an experience she had whilst resting her head on her hands while using an electrical typewriter.
More than a sculpture, Handphone Table is an investigation into both sound and materials, informed by the artist's own musical training. But the work achieves also something else: it breaks with a tradition wherein the object of art is something to be looked at. In a manner similar to Anderson's later performances the body is made to function here "as a working part of the machine", as Erin Striff writes or, in this case, as a musical apparatus. "I tried to be as quirky as I could," Anderson has said in relation to her early practice, elsewhere noting that, "at that time none of us thought we would ever be professional artists or that anyone would ever pay us for doing any of this. So it was this really crazy innocent moment". The work can therefore be said to represent the experimental scene and atmosphere in early 1970s New York, with precedents in the Dada movement, such as Marcel Duchamp's With Hidden Noise from 1916.
United States I-IV is a seven-hour-long multimedia performance that combines earlier versions of her performance United States with newly developed material. An audio recording of the performance was subsequently released as a 5-LP album by Warner Brothers. The performance, which combines text, music, photography, film, and projected drawings, is thematically organized into four sections: 'Transportation', 'Politics', 'Money', and 'Love'. While the different sections "share many recurrent images and musical motifs" writer and critic Stephen Holden points out that the sensation is similar to "driving across the country from East to West, with no specific destination in mind."
Anderson's United States is often praised for the "heterogenous mixing of genres", and for being ahead of its time in its ambitious combination of musical performance, projection and written text. It's combination of forms was an inspiration to performance artists in terms of scale and potential, and to musicians inspired by its careful and detailed coordination between visuals and music. RoseLee Goldberg suggests that United States I-IV is most significant in the fact that the performance was still "accessible to mainstream audiences" despite being highly experimental and innovative, and that Anderson's achievement of "crossing from avant-garde obscurity into the so-called mainstream without compromising her ideas or aesthetic integrity' would ensure the performance's continued significance in the 'annals of art history".
In terms of content, United States presents its audience with common phrases and expressions which within the context of the performance are left devoid of meaning and perhaps rendered threatening. Even the things we do and say habitually, all the simple gestures we often take for granted, carry with them, for Anderson, the potential to be misinterpreted or, worse, emptied of all meaning.
The performance also alludes to NASA's launch of the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft in 1977, which carried with them recorded sounds and images selected by a committee chaired by cosmologist Carl Sagan. The contents were intended, as President Jimmy Carter enclosed message read, as "a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting," he wrote, "to survive our time so we may live into yours". As with much of Anderson's work, humor is an important element in United States I-IV. This is something she acknowledges herself in the performance with the line "I see myself as part of a long tradition of American humor." And yet, as theorist Kathryn Van Spanckeren argues, "despite its humor, Anderson's work, like Kafka's, is full of metaphysical angst...To enjoy Anderson, in fact, we find ourselves...laughing at the apocalypse - fiddling as it were, while Rome (America) burns." This sense of angst builds throughout the performance towards the conclusion that "The United States helps, not harms, developing nations by using their natural resources and raw materials".
In 1989, Laurie Anderson released Strange Angels, her fourth studio album produced for Warner Brothers Records. It was alongside this that the series of videos Personal Service Announcements were produced and aired on commercial music television (particularly MTV and VH1). The artist had been asked by the studio to make a music video, but this was something she found conceptually difficult to approach, and she decided instead to create a series of self-contained video pieces to promote the album. She later admitted that "in the end they had nothing to do with the songs", with Anderson exploring in the series a variety of topics, including women's salaries (she is a founding member of the Women's Action Coalition), military spending and the national debt. The videos were subsequently collated in the 1990 VHS release Collected Videos.
It was not only in the choice of topics that the videos differ from more conventional music videos, but also their mode of presentation. In one of the clips, Anderson is discussing the American national anthem from inside the smoky kitchen of a diner, while a cook grills meat in the background. She observes to the camera, "Hey, can you smell something burning? I mean...that's the whole song" - thus jarring viewers out of their typical habits and viewpoints. As with much of her work, here humor is a key aspect of its effectiveness in engaging the viewer. All of the videos in the series deploy humor in their engagement with topical political issues.
This series of videos is most notable for the way in which Anderson plays with the form of the music video, and its relationship to popular culture. They are exemplary of her blending of high and low culture, which has been a consistent theme throughout her career. Anderson writes that as America gets more conservative her "reactions to this are driving me further into the politics of pop culture. I want to know what the motor is, what is driving this culture further and further to the right ... The art that I like the most and the art that I aspire to make helps people live this life as well as possible. It is engaged in this world ... This means being involved with the aspirations, lies, and dreams of what is so snobbishly called low culture."
Anderson's Personal Service Announcements filter ideas developed within the frame of contemporary art practice through a popular culture lens that encourages the widest dissemination possible. In this they preempt the video-centric engagement with political discourse intrinsic to social media, and artworks which intervene in mass media forms.