Laurie Anderson is on stage wrestling with plugs, computers, and other electronic bits. Her hope is to get the machines talking, and as she crouches low to the ground near the snake’s nest of coiled, black cords—eureka! The sound of chirping crickets fills the theater. Alas, it’s only the ringtone on her cell phone. The caller is Shane Koss, a collaborator who is en route to EMPAC to join her for a performance later this evening (Feb. 14). This is just the set up, but with Anderson, it’s hard to tell where the lines between performance and reality begin and end.
The inaugural distinguished artist-in-residence at EMPAC, Anderson has had access to the facility’s space, technology, and support for three years. Johannes Goebel, director at EMPAC, explains, “She comes up with her projects, we come up with the time, space, technology and people.”
Anderson is likely to identify simply as a “storyteller,” but most refer to her as a multi-media artist. She may be best known for her 1981 song, “O Superman,” which was recently used in a commercial for T-Mobile’s HTC One phone, but for the last four decades she has been a notable figure in the art world. Her customizations of various musical instruments, have earned her the designation of “pioneer.” Tonight she, along with Koss, Liubo Borissov, and Konrad Kaczmarek (via Skype), will unveil her new “rig” which has helped pare down the equipment that she travels with to perform. Along with some updated technology, such as an iPad, Anderson is working with new software that allows her to integrate noise, light, text, and music—all central components of her work. As bits of text flash on the wall-size screen behind her, she demonstrates how the programmed words are triggered by her voice or violin to build a story. This is her most recent project, one that she will perform with the Kronos Quartet at Stanford in March.
While presenting examples of her past work, Anderson slips on a pair of glasses. She still wears the same flannel shirt, black vest, and loose black leggings as earlier in the day. In this get up, she could easily walk through the hallways of a shopping mall without any fanfare or disturbance. Suddenly, she smacks herself over and over in the head, and the theater fills with booming, thunderous noises. As the audience watches, Anderson morphs from petite, spiky-haired artist to human-robot hybrid, and finally into a form of energy that surpasses any Earthly life form. The room is transformed into a Hollywood sound stage, the bass resonating to a frightening volume—surely any minute now Jurassic Park-scale dinosaurs will break through the walls and devour everyone in the room.
She removes the glasses and a second later the audience is clapping wildly, some cheering over the din. For the woman who says that “we live in an ocean of sound,” it appears that once again, the tide has come in.