Laurie Anderson, Performance Art vs. Theater, and Minimalism

Laurie Anderson “works in real time.” That’s her take on what differentiates her from theater artists. A response to that age-old question of what really is the difference between certain performance art and theater.

Anderson, who made a name for herself in the aftermath of performance art movements such as Fluxus and minimalist musicians such as John Cage, has experience with many different mediums, separating herself from the Fluxus artists whose ‘happenings’ earned them a spot in the art history book but whose artistic merits rested more firmly in the tradition of philosophy and protest movements than it did in true art (although that term’s definition is up for debate.)

Professionally trained, Anderson is a renaissance man when it comes to artistic practices; she writes music, she designs sets, she writes dialogue, sings, acts, and more. If you see something on stage at an Anderson performance, she designed and most often fabricated the piece or set.

I’m drawn to Anderson for many reasons, not least of which is her innate ability to defy easy classification.

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The recipient of an extensive education in the visual arts, Anderson achieved notoriety for, for lack of a better term, performance art, but has left a lasting legacy that is often most closely associated with independent music, owing in large part to her radio ‘hit,’ “O, Superman.”

Despite what she’s known for now, in Anderson’s prime, she spearheaded a form of performance art that bridged the gap between the ‘happenings’ of the 1960’s and the opportunities that video would provide artists and performance artists in the 1970’s and 80’s.

But Anderson’s sensory overload productions were only part of what earned her a place in the history books. It goes without saying there has been no shortage of meaningless ‘art’ that stimulates plenty of senses. No, to enter the canon, as it were, Anderson had to create content and dialogue and a production that would coalesce to deliver something imbued with meaning and importance. That’s exactly what she did.

In the 1970’s Anderson began performing a set of performances she collectively entitled “United States.”

In the over seven hour work which skips precariously between topics, Anderson simply used her unique style to portray the (or at least a) collective American dream, in this case broken up into four parts: transportation, politics, money and love, resulting in what was referred to by the New York Times as a “pop Opera.”

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The lengthy staging featured Anderson performing her act solo. Singing, ‘dancing,’ miming, talking, conversing (with herself), performing ‘stand-up’ and playing musical instruments (many of which she had altered or straight up invented. She was a pioneer in the combination of unique synthesizers). She tells stories, she sings songs, she changes her voice (Anderson is synonymous with instruments which could alter her voice so she could perform as numerous characters). Sometimes she makes sense, sometimes she doesn’t. Images are projected, props are used, she uses and re-uses musical themes and more. If you’d seen it (or if you have), some of it you’d like, some of it would speak to you, some of it you’d hate, some of it wouldn’t make any sense but you’d probably leave feeling like you hadn’t totally wasted your time and you’d certainly leave impressed by Anderson’s talent and creativity.

Despite the way it sounds, Anderson’s work is strangely minimal. Not minimal in the visual or even sensual sense, but rather in the artistic, performative sense. A sense wherein the performance itself is defined as the copresence of the performer and their audience. One cannot exist without the other. And just as with minimal art, the experience of the artwork is dependent upon the temporal and spatial condition in which the audience member views the artwork.

Here’s what I mean, and here’s a key differentiator between performance art (at least Anderson’s style) and theater.

While it may not always be the case, it can be widely agreed upon that playwrights very predictably utilize their work to vocalize or artistically express their philosophy, worldview or some kind of life experience.

Anderson doesn’t do that.

If you go to an Anderson performance expecting to learn about Anderson, you’re shit out of luck.

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Anderson’s performance art is minimal in that she utilizes herself as a medium, “elucidating ideas and notions from a cast of characters” without ever indicating when she is playing Anderson and when she’s simply using her voice to as the vehicle for someone else.

Anderson’s purposeful obscuring of herself (both implicitly and explicitly through disguising her voice) in order to express myriad viewpoints and portray myriad characters allows her audience members to draw their own conclusions and experience the art in their own way, just as a viewer experiences not Donald Judd’s silver boxes, but rather the space between and around them.

She skews our collective notion of performance art, subverting it to her own aims of forcing us to question where the thoughts and voices she is acting as a channel for are coming from. Are they coming from us? Are they coming from our friends? Are they simply imaginary?

According to Anderson, her approach to theater and performance leaves her “freer to be disjunctive and jagged and to focus on incidents, ideas, collisions.” The fact that there is no cohesive structure, no attempt to create true characters or project the future allows room for the audience to work with the creator in orchestrating a complete work of art. Just as Judd and others rely on audience members to complete their sculpture with spatial experience of it.

Anderson was and is an incredibly unique artist whose artwork defies categorization while redefining what we think of as performance art. She’s hard to understand, combining frenetic, sensational productions while at the same time serving as the proponent for a unique, minimalist take on performance. And, as mentioned previously, despite a prolific output, you’ve been fooled if you think you know anything about Anderson from her art.

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