PRINT March 1999


Laurie Anderson’s United States opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on February 3, 1983. The work was divided into four parts, comprising seventy-eight separately titled segments, some musical and some spoken; and it took eight hours, split over two nights, to perform. I saw the second show, on February 5 and 6.

United States is usually classified as performance art, but this is misleading. It was much more conventionally staged than performance art ordinarily is. It used the proscenium for the standard theatrical purpose—to establish an unambiguous distinction between the performer and the audience—and it rigorously excluded the element that gives most performance art its edge, which is contingency. In performance art, a piece isn’t performed; the performance is the piece. The work of art is whatever happens within a set of conditions the artist has laid down. But Anderson was performing pieces she had already created, some of which her audience already knew from listening to her hit single “O Superman” (released in 1981) and her album Big Science (1982). Her appearance at BAM had a lot more in common with Barry Manilow at Wolf Trap than it did with Chris Burden at The Kitchen. United States was a concert.

Still, Anderson came out of the performance-art tradition, and United States was essentially an elaboration of that tradition’s central insight, which is that the ground of expression is the body. This may seem a counterintuitive thing to say about a work famous for an ostentatious deployment of electronic hardware—vocoder, harmonizer, synclavier—and lots of visual effects. And most of the songs and stand-up routines Anderson performed in the work were wan and ironic tales about daily life in the postindustrial (what we now call the digital) age, filled with references to airplanes, televisions, petrochemicals, missiles, and outer space. The gadgets and the spaceships gave some people the idea that United States enacted some profound disaffection with creeping dehumanization, that it was a cri de coeur against the progressive disenchantment of the world. But its effect on me was exactly the opposite. I took the point to be that the world can’t be disenchanted, because enchantment is the mode in which human beings experience it. The trail of the human serpent (said William James) is over everything, including answering-machine beeps and airline safety instructions.

One of the great evolutionary leaps in the history of modern entertainment was the invention of the microphone. The microphone is more than a convenience, and it is more than a prop; it is an extension of the body. It expands the space the performer can command by reducing that space to the dimensions of intimacy. It turns the stadium into a bedroom; it murmurs softly into the ears of thousands. And then there is the object itself—this long, sleek, juiced-up thing just begging to be caressed with sounds, to be kissed and teased and masturbated. It is the instrument of vocal seduction and its very image. That the microphone looks the way it does is no accident; the ghost of the body is hidden in the forms of most of the things we make. Many images in United States were designed to make this point: for example, an enormous blown-up photograph of an electric wall socket. It looked, twenty feet high, with its two vertical slots and the little hole underneath, just like a face, frozen in an expression of permanent astonishment, an electronic Mr. Potato Head.

All the hardware in United States was prosthetic in just this way. Anderson programmed her synthesizers with human voices (like the breathy “hah hah hahs” in “O Superman”); she projected her own silhouette onto a vast screen and made shadow puppets with her hands. She inserted a miniature speaker into her mouth and manipulated the sound by moving her lips. She recorded her own voice on a strip of audiotape, fixed the tape to a bow, and “played” it on a violin with a pick-up mounted on it in place of strings. She wired her head and performed a drum solo on her skull. She turned herself, in short, into an instrument. She didn’t sing the body electric. She was the body electric.

The monologues in United States mostly expressed a mild neurosis about living in a world filled with airplanes and answering machines; but the work itself exuded control. A petite androgyne, done up in punk chic—black suit, red socks, Vaseline-spiked hair—and manipulating her voice to sound, alternately, like a midwestern ingenue and a solemnly goofy Ronald Reagan, dominated the room for eight hours. Contingency was banned for a reason: In two evenings’ worth of songs and stories about how things tend to go wrong, nothing was supposed to go wrong. And the gamine persona was plainly designed to create a contrast: The more waiflike Anderson seemed, the more impressive the control she exerted. The show was wired, and there was a woman in a punk hairdo, not a faceless middle-aged guy in a white lab coat, throwing the switches. Feminism was not exactly the center of Anderson’s material, but it was part of the message.

Well, as the song says, that was the time, and that was the record of the time. People like me, coming out of the ’60s, once dreamed of a fusion between something like pop music and something like Conceptual art, of an expressive form that would integrate the urgency and excitement of a rock concert with the cool detachment of an art without illusions. We wished for energy and imagination without pretension, for entertainment that did not pander and art that was not antagonistic to commercialism, merely indifferent to it. I suppose we hoped to strike such a balance in our own lives. Glimpses of what that sensibility might have been like were pretty rare. United States was one of them.