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What's in a name? What's in the lack of a name? Is it art to take a walk? And, oh yeah, is there in beauty no truth? Laurie Anderson is working on a theory, as she returns to Santa Cruz, once again hanging off the edge of the art world by her fingernails.

By Steve Palopoli

For Laurie Anderson, happiness was hard. But it made for a good title.

"That was a good title," she says of Happiness, her last touring show. "'Cause it was so unhappy. It was just not at all jolly--one of the darkest things I've ever done."

True to her iconoclastic reputation, Anderson toured Happiness in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, while she herself was still reeling from the destruction in New York City by planes that had flown over her apartment on the way to their target. For that show, which she performed in Santa Cruz two years ago, she dropped the high-tech click tracks and giant stacks of computer equipment that have characterized her acclaimed performance art for two decades. And it was a little unsettling to be that naked.

"It definitely felt like that was a way I could communicate with people really directly and not be always worried about whether this or that was going to work," she says by phone from New York. "Not feeling that it had to be a 'show.' In a way, it was about trusting audience members, and it was hard, Happiness was."

But if she was going out on a limb then, it's nothing compared to her new performance piece, a work-in-progress that extends Happiness' low-tech stripped-down approach.

"This one doesn't even have a title," she says.

The Show With No Name

Of course, it will have a title. The new show doesn't officially tour until the fall, but Anderson is performing it as a work in progress in several cities, including a Santa Cruz stop on Monday, May 3, at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium.

For right now, though, she doesn't have a name around which to crystallize the ideas that seem to pour out of this grande dame of post-punk performance art. And that's even scarier than dropping your membership in the art world AV club.

"It is scary," she admits, "and it's scary to get the title, too, 'cause then you go, 'Does that really say what it is?'"

The funny thing about Anderson is that she seems to enjoy being a little scared. As a person, she comes off as confident and grounded, but as an artist, she almost seems to be working overtime to keep herself off-kilter. For instance, even if she knows what the title of her newest work should be, she's not ready to give up the sweaty, prickly, edgy feeling of not knowing.

"What this is about is beauty," she says of her new work, "but I'm too afraid to call it that. It'd be like, 'Happiness then Beauty--what's going on with this person? Tone it down!'"

Another thing about Anderson is that, perhaps like all of the most prolific artists, she is insatiably curious. In interviews, she seems to ask as many questions as she answers--not necessarily of the interviewer, but of herself. So it's no surprise that her new show, too, began with a question.

"I was talking to a friend, and she said, 'Who taught you what beauty is?'" recalls Anderson. "And I thought, 'I have no idea. What a question!' That set me off into this thing. Also in terms of thinking about how that question affects other parts of your life other than just what we think of as art. I'm trying to work my way towards a theory, and I don't think I've got it yet, but I have part of it, about the purpose of art objects. It's a long story, and it's also still a little bit incoherent, and it's one of those stories that needs some music."

Accompany Yourself

Music was indeed a big part of Happiness, which was part storytelling, part lo-fi (for her) multimedia and part violin. This time, her musicianship will be more prominent, as she attempts to create a kind of duet between what she's playing and what she's saying.

"I played a little bit of violin on Happiness, but not really very much," she says. "This is a whole new way, for me, of playing. I find that it helps to have music come and go more often. It's kind of weird lyrics in a way, halfway between a story and some lyrics, and you're kind of going, 'Is this a story or is this a song?'"

The "story line" --as if performance-art pieces should be thought to have story lines--involves Anderson speculating that artworks in the future may be viewed as fetishes, "things that teach us about beauty rather than things themselves," as Anderson puts it. If the theme of her last tour was the search for happiness, this one is perhaps the search for a better definition of what is beautiful, and why.

"The next step is [to question] 'what do you need those objects for?' and 'why can't I use that same way of looking to look at this tree,' and that then becomes one of the most elegant, aesthetic things in the world, that really beats anything that we make by far," says Anderson.

Her stated aims with both Happiness and the new piece include such dauntingly ambitious goals as "to write an epic poem made of songs, images and stories," "to invent a language that will explore the contemporary meanings of freedom and time" and "to make a work that will focus on spirituality and consumerism, a work that will attempt to be a true portrait of this country at the beginning of our century."

That's all plenty impressive, but as you might guess, there's only one way for her to really know whether this this dog is gonna hunt, and that's to take it on the road.

"A work in progress is really interesting," says Anderson, "where I can say, 'I wonder if anybody understood that? Maybe it should be more vague, maybe it should be less vague, maybe people already understand it perfectly and I just don't realize that it's already working.' I don't know that until I try it out with real people."

She laughs, and then sighs. "It's lonely in my studio."


Photograph by Annie Leibovitz

Big Science

Anderson's lofty ambitions alone may not set her apart from the artistic pack, but her track record with them certainly does. Most people know her as the author of one of the most unexpected pop hits in history, 1981's "O Superman." With its digitally treated vocals; minimalist, New Wave-like electronics; and mix of singing with spoken word, it defined Anderson's art for the mainstream. It also earned her a record contract, ending up the next year on her first album for Warner Bros., Big Science. But only a small percentage of those impressed with the eight-minute song realized it came from what would eventually be a seven-hour, four-part multimedia project called United States I-IV.

Nor did most of them know that Anderson, who had been playing violin since her teens and earned degrees in art history and sculpture at Barnard College and Columbia University in the early '70s after moving from Chicago to New York City, was already something of a phenomenon in the avant-garde art world. She was touring almost constantly through Europe and the United States, and was known for, besides her multimedia work, unusual creations like a self-playing violin, a concerto for cars and a pillow that sang its user to sleep.

Through the '80s and '90s, she released a half-dozen more albums, directed her own concert film Home of the Brave, composed music for Spaulding Gray's films Swimming to Cambodia and Monster in a Box, released three books, exhibited innumerable installations, toured shows like "Talk Normal" and "Stories from the Nerve Bible" and almost died mountain-climbing in Tibet.

Most recently, she raised eyebrows when she did some rather unusual research for Happiness, including taking a job at McDonald's and living on an Amish farm. In a similar vein, she's recently been traveling around to NASA sites as the agency's first artist-in-residence, doing research for the new tour.

"NASA will be in it a little bit," she says of the new show, "in the sense that in science and in regular life as well, the decisions that are made are often aesthetic decisions. The research heavily involves what people think is beautiful; i.e., correct, and that's what they then look for."

Anderson says she's seen this process of elimination going on undetected at many of the sites she's visited--the whole thing kind of makes her sound like the Hans Blix of mass deconstruction, but she's not ready to release her report quite yet.

"I can't give you any specific examples without totally giving it away," she says. "But you can imagine that some of the discoveries are so hair-raising that they can't be absorbed, so they're rejected. In fact, they're true, but aesthetically, they're wrong. They don't fit into the pattern. Beauty has to do with patterns and things like that, and that's some of the stuff I'll be talking about as well."

If the new show is starting to sound too highfalutin, though, don't worry, she's on it.

"My worst nightmare is that it's going to be some kind of know-it-all lecture on aesthetics," she says. "But I'm too lazy for that."

Take a Walk With Art

It's not that Anderson has completely abandoned her impulse to do large multimedia shows. Right now, she's also doing a large-scale piece in Japan that involves "a big film project and a garden and stuff." But she says she's sick of trying to tour such shows, what with the tons of computer equipment and the technical glitches and the fact that, as we all know, no matter how many extension cords you need, you will always have one less than that.

And something deeper than that has changed, as well.

"I've changed my life totally in the last year, more than I ever have in my whole life," says Anderson. "I decided to do everything outside. I was burning out on those screens, I just could not do it another second. That's why I'm doing this garden project in Japan. I'm also doing a lot of projects where I'm just walking places."

She doesn't mean walks around the block, either--she usually allows about 10 days for each one. The last walk she did was from Athens, where she had been working on a project for the Olympics, to Delphi. But it's not about the physical endurance--in typical slightly-odd-but-surprisingly-well-organized Anderson fashion, she tries to come up with a single idea and develop it over the course of one walk.

"I'm going 20 miles a day, three miles an hour--nothing. It's not to prove I can do this, because if I can't make my distance, I just call a cab. It's not like, 'Well, I marched from here to there!' It's more about trying to feel free, and trying to be free, and feel what that really is like," she says. "'Cause I honestly felt really trapped, and I think a lot of Americans do, too. You're free to what? Have a Coke or a Pepsi?"

All of these issues play in some way into the new show, whether Anderson likes it or not. Like Happiness, she finds it a very personal work, which is not to be confused with "confessional."

"It's very weird, a week-and-a-half ago there was a big get-together here for Spaulding Gray. A lot of people were eulogizing him as a poet of the self, and stuff like that, and I never thought of him like that at all," she says. "Maybe it's because I did the music for a couple of his movies, and when you listen to somebody over and over and over and over again, you kind of go, 'What is this guy really about? I know the cliché, but what's he really doing?' And for me, it was giant pictures of the world. Yes, they were from his point of view, but they were not, as many people say, so about being self-absorbed. He was in many ways about trying to lose that. It's my ambition as well, to make big pictures."

But despite the constant pull of the audaciously large high-tech art, Anderson says she could get used to this new direction.

'You know, I could be so happy spending the rest of my life just doing more and more chapters in this thing. Just make a little epic poem and travel around the world," she says. Then she laughs. "A little epic poem, yes. A really tiny, intimate epic poem."


Laurie Anderson performs Monday, May 3, at 8pm at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium.Tickets are $30/$27, available through the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium Box Office at 831.420.5260 or Ticketmaster at 408.998.8497.

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From the April 28-May 5, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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