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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The Culture and Assumptions of the American Midwest

The second show in Chris La Bove and Steve Walter’s Second Thought Theatre’s season is a combination of theater and film presented in conjunction with Aviation Cinemas, Inc., the operating company for the ultra-cool Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff.

Eric Steele’s The Midwest Trilogy, in a not surprising vein for Dallas theater, presents a critique of Midwest culture through three brief vignettes. Each mini-play presents issues characteristically associated with the stereotypically backwards folk of the middle of the country, which yes, includes Dallas. Where Steele surprises however, is in his ability to overturn our assumptions and in the process, create a memorable piece of theater.

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In the first (and weakest) “act,” entitled “Cork’s Cattlebaron,” Jon and Brady sit down for a meal at a fancy Omaha steakhouse. Brady’s incessant chatter is obnoxious and the audience commiserates with the younger Jon who seems utterly embarrassed by his business associate’s brash mannerisms.

After several minutes Jon snaps, and instead of any number of accusations one might assume Jon to lash out with, he fires Brady on the spot; a task he had apparently been attempting to accomplish all night. Despite an initial lack of respect for Brady’s unsympathetic character, the audience finds itself sorry for Brady as he leaves a painfully emotional voicemail for his wife.

After we travel to Omaha, Steele takes us to “Topeka” in a film where young New York businessman Layne Edelman encounters a group of locals in a coffee shop. In this short film Layne tackles the perceived prejudices of the Kansans as he chats with his fellow customers.

Typical issues of city versus country and the stereotypes that pervade the relationship appear but the audience is never quite sure whether the group is indeed predisposed to dislike Layne because of where he comes from and his religion, or if the bias is all in Layne’s head. The dramatic ending again turns our assumptions upside down as it would appear that Layne is the one placing too much stock in a societal narrative, rather than vice versa.

The third and final installment of The Midwest Trilogy is “Bob Birdnow,” the only live action portion of the saga. Dallas audiences saw Barry Nash as Bob Birdnow in last year’s Festival of Independent Theater and Nash excellently reprises his role here. Second Thought and Aviation Cinemas, Inc. plan to eventually turn this portion of the Trilogy into a film as well.

Barry Nash as Bob Birdnow - Photo Credit Karen Almond

Birdnow is a “reluctant motivational speaker” who relates to the audience, acting as a group of salesmen at a conference, the story of a dramatic plane crash and his survival. While seeming to serve as a critique of the practice of rote motivational speaking, this section of the play also toys with the notion that human existence is based solely upon survival. Nash’s acting is emotional, raw and excluding the plane crash, utterly relatable.

Second Thought is preaching to the choir with this production of Steele’s work. Steele stated he received inspiration for these stories from his days as a “traveling salesman” in the American Midwest, a career in which a pervasive isolation lends itself to ample time for observation.

The stories in the Trilogy are based on circumstances he was confronted with and the stereotypes, narrative of the “culture clash” and the danger of buying too much into both, are ideas anyone even remotely familiar with this area of the country will be able to relate to oh so well. Go see it. You’ll understand exactly what I mean.

Kafka for Dummies

“Time in Kafka is always broken. Every moment leads back to itself. Chronological and eternal.” The opening (and closing) lines for Len Jenkin’s new play “Time in Kafka” could not be more concise in their description of Kafka and the play itself, a fun romp through a plot as confusing and twisted as any Kafka ever concoted, although maybe not quite as philosophically challenging.

Undermain Theater’s world premiere production of Jenkins’ play treats the subject with the lightness it merits. Professor Spellman, recently fired from his teaching position at a university due to his inability to divorce his cerebral philosophizing on Kafka’s life and work from his job teaching freshman literature, is visited by Kafka in a dream. Kafka reveals the existence of a forgotten manuscript hidden in an Italian clinic Kafka visited in 1913.

The play follows Spellman as he abruptly departs to the Italian clinic only to find a group of ridiculous, and in Undermain’s production, hilarious patients and staff who take Spellman on a convoluted and nonsensical journey to understand the nature of the clinic and find the lost manuscript.

Little of the play makes sense, from the “healing dances” Dr. Hartungen advises his patients to perform, to Boothby’s (a patient at the clinic) relationship with his “niece” Charlotte.

The melodramatic music and ridiculous characters make the play fun, but with the overlying sense that life is farce.

Time in the clinic is interminable, no-one seems to know how long they have been there or have any intention of leaving. Their laissez-faire attitude towards checking out is implied explicitly in their participation as the voyeuristic audience for Boothby’s attempted murder of Spellman; events in the clinic repeat and repeat.

Has Spellman come in search of Kafka’s lost manuscript before? Has Anna, the tubercular young woman who has mistaken Spellman for Kafka (or discovered Spellman is Kafka) been here before?

As in a Kafka novel, events repeat in an endless cycle and the plot is not meant to be accessible, just as our word Kafkaesque has come to describe; the play is senseless, and exhibits a disorienting complexity.

That doesn’t make Jenkins’ ride any less enjoyable. With the humor implicit in the script and Undermain’s interpretation of Jenkins’ characters under the masterful hand of director Katherine Owens, audience members would be in a sore mood if they did not enjoy the ridiculous nature of the play.

And just as Spellman opens and closes the play with the prophetic words, “Time in Kafka is always broken. Every moment leads back to itself. Chronological and eternal,” Spellman’s, and supporting characters own experiences in the convoluted plot support the fact that life for Kafka is surreal and distorted, it doesn’t have to, and most likely won’t make sense.