New York

Laurie Anderson and Peter Gordon

U.S. Customs House

Audience participation and viewer completion are familiar enough strategies in the theatre realm: they keep spectators from falling asleep. Giving the viewers a stake in the proceedings encourages responsibility as well as responsiveness. A dividing line between object art and nonobject art is this interchange between observer and observed. In any interchange—psychological, monetary, artistic, theatrical—the rate of exchange is key to the proceedings.

An engaging performance by Laurie Anderson and Peter Gordon prompts the foregoing. “Commerce,” part of Creative Time’s “Customs and Culture” exhibition at the U.S. Customs House, is truly an intermedia event: sociology, schtick and song numbering among the media cheerfully mixed by Anderson and Gordon.

“Commerce” begins in the foyer of the Customs House, where each spectator is given a pencil and a questionnaire. Questions range from your basic, “Where do you live?” and “What is your annual income?” to esoterica like “Have you ever dreamed about Skylab?” and “Do you tip?” Other data—such as how many television sets (and kinds) and how many telephones are in your house—is compulsory to give. Once completed, the questionnaire is perused by an usher who gives the participant/spectator either a red or a white ticket.

Color coding is important. Fortunately, I was a deemed a red and led by another usher to a seat on the red side, which was divided from the white by a stanchion. On the red side, a francophile’s banquet was arranged on a table set with linen tablecloths and sterling silver: brie, Perrier with lemon, tortes, pineapple, and baguettes. There was also a 21-inch color closed-circuit monitor for those reds wanting a video-eye view of the proceedings. The whites were treated to a fast food special: card tables were piled high with American cheese, cola, pop rocks, pork rinds, and Wonder Bread. They had a 12-inch black-and-white monitor for playback.

The concert began when Anderson and Gordon shyly seated themselves before the audience. Anderson had her trusty tape-bow violin; Gordon his unreliable clarinet and electric guitar. Alternating between performing on their instruments, delivering monologues and sparring verbally, Anderson and Gordon come off as Burns and Allen from the point of view, of the Desi Arnaz orchestra. They interrupt their act to heckle the audience: “Why aren’t you at work?” They play a few bars. “We’re at work,” Anderson gloats. She goes on to describe her brand of movie criticism: the quality of the movie, she has found, is directly proportional to how sticky the theatre floor is with cola syrup and popcorn; hence, the higher the concession sales and spillage, the higher the enjoyment. She also notices that women leaving a Jane Fonda movie always assume the sincere neck posture of the movie’s heroine.

Gordon asks, “Do you own your own home?” More reds than whites raise their hands. Gordon, slightly competitive with his partner, asks, “Do you like me better than her?” Only one hand is counted; a second wavers. Anderson (or is it Gordon?) confides, “Last night I took a test at a Dairy Queen on another planet. . . . ” Gordon, with work-ethic severity, declaims, “There’s no free lunch.” The pair queries the audience, “Are you enjoying your lunch?”

Their disarming mix of class consciousness, self-consciousness, entertainment and didacticism makes this 25-minute performance a particularly winning one. What’s the rate of exchange here? It’s not a trade between observer and observed, since Anderson and Gordon do most of the giving. They set up a series of oppositions: music versus prattle, banquet versus grub, their work versus the audience’s play, and, by a process of fine tuning, provoke the audience to think about the equivalences between these pairings, how one person’s Perrier is another’s club soda. They discreetly avoid the deliberateness of a Peter Handke, who in his “Offending the Audience” prescribes an abrasive interaction between performers and spectators, and instead they achieve a delicate balance, the fulcrum being irony.

Carrie Rickey