The first performance artist to find a mainstream audience, Laurie Anderson was born on June 5, 1947, in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, an affiuent suburb of Chicago. After studying violin in high school, Anderson attended Barnard College in New York City, majoring in art history. She continued her education at Columbia University, where she earned a master’s degree in fine arts. As part of New York’s conceptual art scene, Anderson began producing performance pieces in the early 1970s. In Duets on Ice (1974), she played the violin, accompanied by a taped instrumental track hidden inside the violin. While playing, she wore ice skates encased in ice. When the ice melted, the performance was over. In other early works, including Songs and Stories for the Insomniac (1975) and Refried Beans for Instants (1976). Anderson combined music, sound, and the spoken word. Using references to popular culture to produce social and political satire, the stories she told in performance were anthologized in two collections, Airwaves (1977) and Music for Electronic and Recorded Material (1977).
In 1980, Anderson began performing United States II. A section of the piece called “O Superman” featured Anderson’s voice electronically distorted by a Vocoder. Released as a single in England, “O Superman” became a surprise popular hit, reaching number two on the British charts. In addition to marking Anderson’s first financial success, the single led to a long-term record deal in the United States with Warner Brothers.
In 1982, her label released Big Science, which included excerpts of an expanded performance piece titled United States I–IV. Premiering at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in February 1983, United States was a multimedia concert that ran for eight hours over two evenings. Anderson described the piece as a “big portrait of the country” and divided it into four sections on transportation, politics, money, and love. The extravaganza brought together monologues, music, sounds, light shows, and photographs to create a witty commentary on modern American life. As Anderson attracted sold-out crowds while touring with the piece through the United States and Europe, Time magazine declared that United States was “the biggest, most ambitious and most successful example to date of the avant-garde hybrid known as performance art.”
Anderson brought United States to an even larger audience in 1984, when a live album and book chronicling the performance were released. The same year, she brought out Mister Heartbreak. The album included a piece titled “Sharkey’s Day” that featured the voice of novelist William Burroughs. Two years later, Anderson released the album Home of the Brave and a concert film with the same title. On the heels of Natural History—a 1986 greatest hits tour—Anderson moved in a new direction. Of this period, she later explained, “I was tired of being Laurie Anderson. I wanted to start over.”Responding to criticism that her performances were becoming overproduced, she began creating simpler pieces, such as Empty Places (1989) and Voices from Beyond (1991). She also performed excerpts of Stories from the Nerve Bible, a collection of writings and pictures published in 1994. In Anderson’s solo show, The Speed of Darkness (1996), she returned to familiar themes of art and technology while approaching them through her own personal stories.
After taking voice lessons, Anderson sang for the first time on the album Strange Angels (1990).Her other recordings included Bright Red (1994), an album produced by Brian Eno and featuring a duet with rock star Lou Reed, with whom Anderson has been romantically linked. Anderson alsoexperimented with an interactive CD-ROM titledPuppet Motel (1995).
In 1999, Anderson returned to the stage with the ambitious Songs and Stories from Moby Dick. A postmodern reworking of Herman Melville’s classic novel, the performance piece marked the first time Anderson performed with a sizable cast. In Moby Dick, Anderson also employed the “talking stick,” an inventive instrument that translates movement into sound. Calling the piece “10% Melville, 90% Laurie,” Anderson in Moby Dick grappled with larger, eternal themes, such as thesearch for the meaning of life, suggesting a new direction for her future work.
In 2001, Anderson wrote an impressionistic essay on New York City for Encyclopedia Britannica, to be included next to the scholarly entry.
Anderson, Laurie. Stories from the Nerve Bible: 1972–1992,
A Retrospective. New York: HarperPerennial, 1991.
Goldberg, Roselee. Laurie Anderson. New York: Abrams, 2000.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Talk Normal: The Anthology. . . . Rhino, CD, 2000.
United States Live (1984). Warner Brothers, CD, 1991.