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Strange Angel

"I'm stripping it down," says Laurie Anderson from her Manhattan studio. "I'm going to be the avant-garde of the technological backlash."

Anderson speaks of her new live performance piece, "The Speed of Darkness," a program of songs and storytelling she is about to take on a minitour of Western cities that culminates in two dates at Scottsdale Center for the Arts later this week. Anderson was a multimedia performance artist before either term was absorbed into the popular lexicon. Her last show, "The Nerve Bible," employed an elaborate industrial set of girders and other building guts, an extensive system of linked video monitors and multimedia screens, and a body suit that responded to certain gestures with preprogrammed sound effects. It was her first piece in five years, and her most tech-heavy ever. "The Nerve Bible" (the title is Anderson's metaphor for the human body) required more than 33 tons of equipment--two semis' worth.

Anderson plans to arrive in the Valley with little more than several instrument cases and a satchel. "I've simplified," she says. "Of course, simple for me is still some stuff." For "The Speed of Darkness," Anderson's "stuff"--her word for high-tech gadgetry--will top out at a souped-up violin, a keyboard and a digital processor for sound effects. There will be no set, and no visuals.

Despite all the Blade Runner pageantry of "The Nerve Bible," Anderson's last performance piece demonstrated a move away from her usual bemused fascination with cutting-edge technology toward a critical foreboding, a sense that the toys may be turning on us. She performed several spoken-word segments before giant screens depicting bombing-run footage from the Persian Gulf War that looked frighteningly like a video game. In another she turned repetitions of Internet addresses, "http," "double back slash" and "dot com," into a mocking mantra.

When Anderson previewed "The Speed of Darkness" earlier this month in Boulder, Colorado, she performed from three imaginary rooms--a theatre, a mental hospital and a control room. Those three spaces, she says, have metaphorically "merged to form late-20th-century techno culture." Anderson says the theme of her new work is, quite simply, "the future of technology." Is the mission well in hand, or has there been, as the space shuttle Challenger mission-control announcer so memorably understated, a major malfunction?

Contacted at the Tribeca live/work space she shares with Lou Reed, Anderson spoke to New Times about her new work, the merits of the World Wide Web, the merits of severe altitude sickness, and her bedrock optimism for the human race.

New Times: So when you look to the future of technology, what do you see?
Laurie Anderson: Well, it's not a pretty picture. But maybe I've gotten jaded. Maybe I've been attending too many tech conferences. Because everybody at those things has like these glowing visions of how cool everything's going to be, but it comes off to me like just a way to get people to get more stuff. Which disturbs me, because I look forward and I see technology splitting us pretty cleanly into people who have the stuff and people who don't. And for the people who can't keep up, life is going to get really, really hard.

NT: Did that observation have anything to do with scaling back your live show?

LA: That's it exactly. I became frustrated that I was working with so many pieces of equipment. Stripping down comes from wanting to find out what you can do without a ton of stuff. Well, more than a ton of stuff. We actually had to weigh all my stuff on the last tour, and it was 77,000 pounds. It filled two huge trucks. It was ridiculous. I thought, "I've got to find another way to tell some stories."

NT: What's your home-computer setup like?
LA: Yegggh. You caught me. I have 11 of them strewn about my work space here, although a few of them are down at any given time with technical difficulties. I have so many because I like to be able to hop around. You know: Well, I was working on music, but I want to go over to Photoshop, right now. I admit there's an ambivalence at work here. I'm pretty addicted.

NT: How closely do you monitor the Laurie Anderson newsgroups on the Net? LA: You know, I almost never drop in there. It's sort of in the same category as listening to my old records or reading my own reviews. Plus, I don't do that well in chat rooms. Some of them are nice, but I can't type well very fast, so my stuff is full of typos and I come off sounding pretty moronic. There are a few cool spots on the Web; I highly recommend one site called "Interspecies Communication," but, overall, I just don't like to waste that much time online.

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse