“This is a story about a story...”
...indeed it is! Laurie Anderson’s interview and performance happened on successive nights. Yet, despite one being a multi-media extravaganza and the other the equivalent of a cosy chat over a bottle of wine, I soon found my memory unable to tell them apart. Please bear that in mind for what follows...
In conversation mode, Anderson said two things which struck. She described herself primarily as a storyteller and, when asked what format she preferred when listening to music, despite strong hints that the looked-for answer was vinyl, she replied firmly “live.”
The show had a strong narrative bias. (Seemingly to the surprise of some in the audience, who had taken if for granted she’d encore with ’O Superman’.) However, far be it from me to disagree, but I’m not sure ‘storyteller’ is quite the right word.
Her narratives seem to spontaneously take on the form of her conversation, often approximating the semblance of causation, but darting off at tangents, never quite answering questions for the sake of darting off to explore something else. Similarly, while some of the pieces were explicitly drawn from dreams, most felt like they could be. There’s the same assemblage of surreal and random events, the same anti-causation, delivered like it’s all supposed to make sense.
Maybe she’s telling anti-stories. One interpretation of the title is that stories are delusions given form, or at least are the bricks by which we build up our delusions. (Anderson has herself referred to “interlocked stories and delusions”.) What of that “a story about a story”? In interview she spoke of an incident from her childhood she’s often told. Then one day she was telling the self-same story, to realise it had actually detached from the experience, become a polished construct in its own right which could be wheeled out and admired. Finally, it had stopped acting as a connection to the experience and instead become a barrier to it.
It’s like the way we once believed atoms were the solid, dependable building blocks of everything, then found out they broke down into a series of weird relationships and were in fact mostly empty space.
She also tells the story of how her teacher played her a sound and asked her to concentrate on it. Then he played the same sound again and asked her not to concentrate on it.
Of course it’s impossible. It’s like when you see a discernable shape in a cloud or in the grain of wood. Once you’ve seen it the hardest thing is to un-see it, to turn the cloud back into a cloud. In the same way her story-snippets suggest things to your mind, and you don’t know what was intended and what you’ve simply made up. You can create art that’s about something. Or you can create art that’s not about anything, or witholds enough information for the audience to know what it’s about. The show approaches big subjects, not least daddy of them all - mortality. But the approach is always oblique. The effect is a bit like the psychic paper always being flashed in ’Doctor Who’, the audience will simply see in it what it wants.
I started wondering at one stage how a religious fanatic might react to it. I reckoned they would react against it far more strongly than something with an actual anti-religious theme. Feeling the onus upon them to make sense of it in their own way, they would desperately try to stuff it into some safer box – even if the one marked ‘Satanist.’
(Something else Anderson said: “I’m not trying to express myself. That’s not my goal at all. My collaboration is truly with the audience. Maybe part of that is flirting with the audience; part of it is having a kind of rapport with them… I like it when we fall into that communal dream.”)
This may explain Anderson’s preference for the live setting. The show definitely worked best as a live event, passing like a kind of floating dream, the fragmentary storylines floating past you, assembling and breaking apart again. A recording, where you could rewind to anything you “missed”, may not capture the sensation. (While her songs, particularly the richer and denser works such as ’Mister Heartbreak’, need hearing over and over and so work best as a recording.)
Similarly, though the show was billed as a kind of multi-media extravaganza, what was appealing was the way it was made up of simple elements. The video screens show straightforward, almost elemental images – rain running down windowpanes, fire, blown leaves. In this age where every website has it’s own all-dancing animation, several images were scrawled hastily on a blackboard. Musical lines were equally simple, only becoming more complex when acting to divide the vignettes. Art always appeals to me the most when simple elements are combined and juxtaposed.
However, I am not entirely sure we were seeing Anderson at the height of her powers. She was just doing her kind of stuff, not coasting bur neither breaking new ground. I’ve never seen her live before, and the recordings (such as the ’Home Of the Brave’ album) have tended more to her songs. But, just like I’m not convinced she’s a storyteller, I’m not quite sure of her “live” answer.
My favourite work of this side of Anderson may be the cave-like installation she created on the South Bank sometime in the Nineties, the outside adorned in graffit’d aphoprisms, the inside full to bursting with overlapping projections, tapes and ringing telephones. (Can anyone remember the name of this?) [LATE EDIT! Anna came to the rescue in the comments section to tell us it was 'Dancing in the Moonlight With Her Wigwam Hair'!] It was rather like that old ’End of Part One’ sketch where the only available seats are within the film itself. It was like being dipped inside the artists’ head then realising you’d been placed too close to make sense of anything, yet there was now no way to step back. Rather than a contemplative work like a painting, where you are the master of what you look at and when, it was like every line from the show happening at once and cross-breeding with every other line.
Some snippets of the show from Dublin: