New York

Laurie Anderson

Neil Simon Theater

In her latest piece, The Nerve Bible, 1995, Laurie Anderson logs into the remotest regions of terra firma and cyberspace, restaging the puckish persona of Home of the Brave, 1985. Broadcasting aphorisms about time, history, and especially mortality, Anderson prances among the simulated girders of her stage set (which at one point resemble an industrial-age Stonehenge) or creates her own mischievous, biomechanical semaphore: she flicks a wrist and we get her voice mail; computers beep, Anderson’s heart beats.

The title of her piece refers to the human body itself, oddly morphed through Anderson’s vocal distortions or rendered grotesque as the screen splits it in half. Tapping into our anxieties about exploring the brave, new, hyperreal world, Anderson reminds us that we can still stub our toes in virtual reality. (After all, as she tells us, the human eye makes a lousy camera-there’s no zoom lens.) Across three screens float violet clocks that blur into the spastic photorealism of CD-ROM images, which in turn become a menacing, Disney-like animation of two bluebirds. Subways mesmerize, chattering teeth amuse, even video snow seems to delight and instruct. Some of these images try to out-McLuhan McLuhan: “ONE WORLD ONE OPERATING SYSTEM” is emblazoned over Polynesian dancers, while a video of an aerial bombardment during the Gulf War is replayed for its pyrotechnics. (In the evening’s most heavy-handed moment, Anderson coos over her keyboard about the missile attacks: “It’s like the Fourth of July/Like a Christmas tree.”) But as each motif reappears—interspersed with Anderson’s tales of treks to Tibet, Israel, and the North Pole, punctuated by her electric violin and signature staccato yodeling—the bombardment of the audience with images becomes too rapid-fire to be preachy. The Nerve Bible’s canny irony and visual impact precludes any earnest engagement with global issues.

Anderson constructs herself as performance art’s cyber-cipher, a logical development for the woman who once longed to be enfolded by the petrochemical arms of “Big Science.” Now she longs for voices and, by extension, human connnection: a fellow traveler’s voice keeps her alive in Tibet when she thinks she may die, as Anderson clings to the “long, thin line . . . a tightrope made of sound.” Similarly, while technology continues to seduce both the audience and Anderson, her intuitive sense of the direction things are taking is reflected in a taped conversation with John Cage. She asks him, “Are things getting better or worse?” “Oh, better, much better,” he replies, “It’s just that we can’t see it.” Our relationship to the present is, finally, Anderson’s main concern: just as the human eye makes a lousy camera, our “nerve bibles” present us with a conflicting, sometimes indistinguishable, series of inputs. When you recollect something, Anderson tells us, “your mind has fixed it up for you,” or as The Nerve Bible reminds us, there’s a difference between what is and how we remember it later: “This is the time/And this is the record of the time.” But how can we seize the day when we can’t experience the present, can only grasp history as “a pile of debris,” and don’t even know where our own nerve bibles begin and end? I guess that’s why—as Anderson told us 13 years ago—we can be walking and falling at the same time.

Steven Drukman