Laurie Anderson considers the heart of her 'performance art' to be storytelling
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On subsequent tours, she made a point of ''playing different kinds of places - a civic auditorium, a rock club, an art museum, a self-help group, anything to mix it up.'' Lately her wanderings have brought criticism from the art world, where she has been accused of a facile and superficial approach to the performance art she helped pioneer. ''At first my feelings were hurt,'' she says , ''until I realized this was the same insular attitude I used to share. Other artists may understand best what I do. But the best audience I can imagine is a real mix of people.''Skip to next paragraph
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Her affection for a variety of arts and crafts began in childhood. ''As a kid ,'' she recalls, ''I did the usual art and violin lessons. I suppose I really wanted to be a librarian - to be around books all the time, and maybe write some.
''In college I decided I liked making things. But the school I went to - Barnard - thought making things was kind of messy, and it was better to just talk about it. I really liked school, but I also got a studio, and enjoyed being outside the official academic realm. I started doing more sculpture.''
Her first taste of performing came while teaching Egyptian art history and Assyrian sculpture at night for a New York City college. ''I was a horrible teacher,'' she claims, ''because I didn't keep up with the field and I couldn't remember anything. So I improvised. And I found I really enjoyed being in the dark with people, talking to them and showing pictures. . . .''
Her artistic style soon took another big step. ''I was doing a lot of writing - narrative art, it was called at the time - and I decided it was silly just to print it, because you'd be missing half the effect: the tone of voice. I felt if I wanted to use words, I should say them. It's like the difference between getting a letter and a phone call. They may say the same thing, but you get so much more from hearing the words. . . .''
Her first full-scale performances involved films, toys, electronics, and other props. She called them ''film performances,'' but ''they were really about images connected with the stories I told. The films were like big metronomes for the stories.'' Later she brought the violin into her act, but through the back door, using it as ''a sort of ventriloquist's dummy, an excuse for a conversation.'' To this end, she devised her own instruments, including one with built-in speakers that could play duets with her, and another with a tape-recorder mechanism instead of strings.
Some detractors have charged Miss Anderson with shallowness, calling her a jill-of-all-trades who has mastered none. ''I do want to be the best at what I do,'' is her response. ''I've just changed the categories. For one thing, you can be too good at something - so involved in your own discipline you can no longer speak to anyone else. Also, I come from an art world in which many people did different things; it wasn't odd to find someone working with steel and writing poems.''
The secret to her growth seems to be simple: Instead of replacing one interest with another, she keeps the old while adding the new. Through it all, a fascination with language has been her guiding light. ''I've never been a filmmaker or musician in the classic sense,'' she owns. ''I use film and music for rhythmic reasons, and to be a subtext for the stories. The real subject, the real work, is the spoken words. I feel that's what I'm best at.''
Her other touchstone is clarity. ''If it's not clear to me, I don't want to do it,'' she says, adding that she feels a special pleasure when children appreciate her work. ''I really enjoy that,'' she says with a happy smile. ''And I think I know why they like it. I have a feeling it's because they can't believe an adult is being so ridiculous!''