Leaps Beyond Boundaries

Defying both conservatives and the avant-garde, Laurie Anderson keeps her art firmly off-center

"I just think that there are lots and lots of ways to make art, and there just aren't any rules about how to do it. And that anytime somebody tries to make rules about it, it's a terrible mistake."

Judging from Laurie Anderson's reputation as an avant-garde artist, you'd expect her statement to be directed straight toward the Jesse Helmses of the world. And, after all, none other than the late Robert Mapplethorpe photographed the cover for her new album, Strange Angels. It was Mapplethorpe's work-- controversial, homoerotic photos-- that emerged as the cause celebre in the recent National Endowment for the Arts funding controversy.

But while Anderson is a firm opponent of Jesse Helms, she's willing to face off against anyone who places constraints on art--including the sometimes haughty avant-garde community that at first embraced her.

Anderson herself refuses to be pigeonholed. Her first priority isn't to impress the art world's intelligentsia, but to communicate to her audience--regardless of its sophistication level. Anderson says in a phone interview from her Soho loft that she first learned about the art of reaching people while teaching subjects like Assyrian sculpture and Egyptian architecture at universities around New York.

"I really wasn't a professional art historian. I was really a sculptor," Anderson remembers. "So I wasn't reading all of those `Egyptological' journals very often. I'd be teaching away with these slides, and a slide would come up, and I would just draw a complete blank--I couldn't remember a single thing about it. So I would just, um, make things up, and then people would write them down, and then I would test them on it. What I realized was that I loved talking to people in the dark, with pictures. I thought to myself, `This is really wonderful.' Such great contact."

That was when Anderson was working toward a master's degree in sculpture at Columbia University. Anderson, whose first public performances were in 1973, has gone on to record the 1980 hit single "O Superman," host the PBS underground-arts showcase Alive From Off Center, and stage a seven-hour, multimedia extravaganza, United States. Long one of the New York art community's most vital contributors, she's also worked in media as diverse as painting, photography, computers and performance art.

Even as a student dabbling in mixed media, Anderson was recognized as a pride of the underground. But it was apparently a role that never limited her. Anderson remembers one early musical performance in particular that indicated how her art could reach beyond the boundaries of a growing cult audience and connect with anyone.

"I think it was in 1976, in Houston. I was supposed to do a concert sponsored by the art museum, and there wasn't enough room in the art museum, so they decided to have it in a big country-and-western bar instead. And they kind of advertised it like `country fiddling and stories,' and so a lot of the regulars came. And they knew where to stand, you know--near the bar. And the art crowd sort of stood awkwardly towards the other side. And what I realized in doing that was that the regulars understood perfectly well what I was doing; it was not avant-garde to them at all. It was like somebody playing the violin and telling stories, and yeah, the stories were a little weird--but so are Texan stories.

"So I thought, `Wow, I don't need to isolate myself in this avant-garde.' The avant-garde is very, very snobbish. It kind of has to be in a way, because it is hard to be an artist in the United States, and the avant-garde is protective of artists. And I benefited from that; but as soon as I started doing things outside of the avant-garde, they thought, `Oh. No longer avant-garde. I see. Sellout. Pop. Pop culture.'"

Anderson has taken heat from some critics, particularly for her new album, Strange Angels, a surprisingly mainstream collection of songs. In the past, Anderson has used a variety of effects to alter her spoken voice. On Angels, Anderson actually sings naturally part of the time. "I used to construct simple rhythm patterns and hang lyrics over them," she told Rolling Stone in a recent interview. "Now I use melodies as the lead lines. That's something I've never done before." Anderson even went so far as to enlist the services of vocal gymnast Bobby McFerrin for the LP.

Anderson predicts that she won't be performing much of Strange Angels in Tempe. She sees the album and her tour as relatively independent events, and says she'll appear solo, a mild surprise considering the lush production of the LP. "I found that when I was performing with a band, the energy would be more focused on band rapport than on communication between the audience and myself."

The Tempe performance will not be so much musical as political, Anderson explains. "I found myself napping through the Reagan years, and now I'm really interested in how things are going to recover, to shake out of the dream state of the last ten years. We're already beginning to see it happen. Did you see Drugstore Cowboy? William Burroughs had this line about the right using the drug users as a scapegoat for its own transgressions, which is true."

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