Is multimedia performing artist Laurie Anderson coming full circle? Returning to her beginnings? When I heard that she was doing a series of low-tech solo shows, I got curious. The End of the Moon, co-produced by Cal Performances, is the second part of a planned trilogy that started with Happiness, in 2002. Apparently Anderson had gone through a crisis in recent years, perhaps an artistic mid-life crisis. She began to make plans for the simple life of an "electronic troubadour" by taking long walking tours of different countries. The simple life included jobbing at McDonald´s and at an Amish farm. The poet, vocalist, instrumentalist, visual artist, composer, instrument inventor ( the "Talkingstick" ), photographer, film maker, and electronics whiz, had got tired of the high-tech artistic shows she is famous for. Her 1995 mega solo show The Nerve Bible, for example, came along with 40 tons of equipment – giant screens, laser lights, multiple projectors, ramps, girders, and of course countless banks of electronics. "Stuff that would have taken me trucks to do are now like a briefcase," she comments. "I'm running off Macs and a PowerBook, and I'm so happy about that because my ambitions are to travel very, very light."
The last piece I had seen was the 1999 Songs and Stories for Moby Dick. The difference between this performance art /rock concert and The End of the Moon reminded me of the difference between Cecilia Bartoli in a full-blown opera performance versus Bartoli standing all by herself on a concert stage. I have kept a particular nostalgia for the earliest appearances of Laurie Anderson. I happened to see her in 1970, on tour in Hamburg, Germany, in a solo performance that announced her genius like a bolt of lightning. There she was, in an overcrowded, chaotic student hall, still with her long hair and good-girl-from-a-good-family politeness, playing her electric fiddle. She occasionally bent down at the edge of the improvised stage to manipulate the vocoder and amplify her voice into a chorus or a dialogue in suave male baritones or cartoonish sopranos. One hand in a white Mickey Mouse glove, she was waving a white stick above her head, catching the film projection of a road trip in mid-air, on her stick. Already the refrain of her major theme resounded, just as it does now, in The End of the Moon: "Hello, excuse me, can you tell me where I am?"
The mixture of austere simplicity, technical and artistic sophistication, and charm that made her unforgettable in an instant, back then, have returned in the new show. At 57, Anderson still looks cute, boyishly slender, in a tailored black pants suit with a bit of glitter on the lapels, and with her hedgehog haircut that any kid would approve of. The stage is a field of tiny lit candles, an armchair sits on the left, a poster-size relief of a moonscape (complete with footprint) hangs on the right, and in the center an electronic console serves as a pulpit, holding her text and her hooked-up fiddle. There is little movement apart from the back and forth between arm chair and console. Only once does Anderson take a small shuffle around the stage while she plays the violin; a tiny camcorder attached to her hand projects images of her face and fiddle onto the moonscape "screen". In a comical turn, the video image is projected upside down as if Anderson were floating around in a space capsule, talking to TV news cameras about the moon. Her eye is suddenly huge, peering out at the audience while she tells stories from her latest absurd adventures as the "artist in residence" at NASA.
What seems like a good joke is, in fact, real. The space agency has sponsored an art program since the sixties, inviting artists like Andy Warhol or Robert Rauschenberg to use imagery of space technology in their art. Laurie Anderson just finished a two-year-stint as NASA´s first artist-in-residence. It turned out that she also was the last. The End of the Moon is the result of this hard-to-imagine experience that took place at sites like the Kennedy Space Center, the Ames Research Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Of course, the show is about big concepts – space and time, art and science, and beauty. But according to Anderson it's " stories about stars and dogs and people and cities and war and all sorts of things" – and the thing she particularly likes: "wacky facts". Anderson is "afraid of big words" and prefers asking questions to providing answers. So her approach is "typically to make images and music around them, to approach them sideways." This is a beautiful description of her technique as a story teller. She may even begin "sideways" with a pompous line like, "Who taught you what beauty is?" (the opening of The End of the Moon), but from there things quickly warm up when she muses that Einstein rejected certain theories because they were not aesthetic, or that "science is making unbelievable art works, building a staircase to space, out of nano tubes – you know, electronics that grow like biology..." or that, confronted with the disturbing mysteries of space, some scientist feels that "phantom energy defies good taste."
Her understated humor takes on the highfalutin concept of time with a suggestion to replace the periods at the end of sentences with tiny clocks that tell us how long it took to write that sentence. Or she points out that in the endless expansion of space her own "63 inches could get lost so easily...We are all a matter of inches.". In one turn of a sentence, following her melodious voice, one falls from the lofty abstraction of the universe back into oneself, into the dimension of one's own vulnerable body and a life run by the clock. What a place the moon is, she ponders with awe. So much good use could be made of it: "Imagine what a great place it would be for all the new... dance companies..." And how perfect for the development of new sports because "you wouldn't have to wait for that ball... to drop." It's her delivery that makes her stories funny and their punch lines magical because you never know where her voice will take you: like a cat arriving on velvet paws and suddenly revealing claws, she first takes you on a smooth ride, and at the end, before the very last words, after a moment's hesitation, she turns a corner, gives it a twist with a shade of tone, a different vocal temperature - and you are shocked into an unsuspected feeling, or you laugh at the surprise, at having been fooled.
Many of her stories and anecdotes are non-sequiturs or what she calls "jump cuts in one long story". The dark under-tow often comes clear only at the very end. At first, for example, telling NASA-related incidents from her tenure as "Artist in Residence", she marvels at the amazing technology of the space suits that have been created by NASA. Like a second biological "live" skin, the suits inject the wearer with adrenaline or morphine as needed. But NASA is not going to use them, after all, so they will be used by ...the army. They will not go out into space, she says, they will go... to the desert. Because, she concludes, "this war will never end. It will just keep moving from place to place." Then she grabs her violin and plays a piece of haunting music, a dirge.
She alternates between voice and music, between speaking (no singing this time) and her trademark electronic violin, although when she recites from behind the keyboard she accompanies herself with background "space music". The violin interludes are surprisingly emotional, with sudden silences and a yearning sense that our human life in the universe is a world of beauty and pain.
Befitting the time we live in, Anderson is more political in this show than she has perhaps ever been. One of the most poignant anecdotes is her dog story. The "sideways" entry is that she has heard a dog like hers, a terrier, can understand 500 words. So she takes her dog for a long walk in the wilderness in order to find out what these words are. Suddenly a flock of wild turkey vultures appears, hovering overhead as if confused that the dog does not seem to be what it looked like from above – a white rabbit. Her dog senses that she could die. The birds depart, but her terrier, a breed focused on the earth, its smells and dangers, from now on has her nose in the air, scanning and sniffing with the sudden understanding that death could come from above, from the air. It only takes Anderson one more sentence to bring home to the audience that this story is about the people in New York.
The Berkeley audience met her with enthusiasm (Zellerbach Hall was packed) and laughed and clapped at her existential jokes and political punch lines. Anderson quotes the great American question: "We are rich, we are democratic, we are free – so why do they hate us?" She compares the question to the beautiful blond high school girl who asks, "Why do they hate me?" And she answers this one: "It's not because you are beautiful, it's because you are a JERK!" This more decidedly political edge is refreshing in Anderson's work which, at times, in the past, could seem a bit random and rambling on its poetic-philosophical course. The change seems to have been triggered by recent politics. After Sept. 11, 2001, Anderson apparently remembered her provocative early song "O Superman". In 1980, this song that catapulted her to pop chart fame, already had a powerful message: "So hold me Mom/ In your long arms/ Your petrochemical arms/ Your military arms/ ... Cause when love is gone, there's always justice/ And when justice is gone, there's always force/ And when force is gone, there's always Mom – Hi Mom!" But when Anderson started performing the song again, just a week after the attacks, her message suddenly seemed relevant in a new way, especially the chilling coincidence of the lines, "This is the hand, the hand that takes/ Here come the planes/ They are American planes. Made in America/ Smoking or non-smoking?/ And the voice said: 'Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night shall stay these Couriers/ From the swift completion of their appointed rounds'.
Nothing is lost in Laurie Anderson's departure from high-tech wizardry in The End of the Moon. There is still the refined complication of her art, and something is regained – the urgency of a simple, personal message for an audience that is hungry for connection and meaning. Outside, in front of Zellerbach, where usually drummers create the nightly entertainment, a bearded, long-haired man played the cymbalom (or hammered dulcimer), in a mix of world music and ethereal, celestial harmonies that reflected and seemingly continued Anderson's score. A big banner behind him displayed his online address. It was the perfect mirror of the show: inside, "troubadour" Anderson in the low-tech mode of her beginnings; outside, the street musician with a web site.