The Performer and the Machine: Some Aspects of Laurie Anderson's Stage Work

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Jestrovic, S., 2000. The Performer and the Machine: Some Aspects of Laurie Anderson's Stage Work. Body, Space & Technology, 1(1). DOI:


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Deep in the heart of darkest America.
Home of the brave.
Ha! Ha! Ha! You’ve already paid for this.
Listen to my heart beat.

'Sharkey’s Day', Laurie Anderson

The work of American artist Laurie Anderson inhabits the liminal territory of hi-tech theatre, visual arts, popular music, and cyberspace. Anderson started as an experimental artist in the early 1970s, and became a pop-culture celebrity in the 1980s after her song 'Superman'(1) made it to the top-hit lists. In the 1990s, while continuing to perform live, she refocussed on the use of new media and technology. She created a number of web-pages featuring her work and explored the realm of interactive virtual performance with the CD-ROM Puppet Motel.(2) The scope of Anderson’s work ranges from conceptual minimalist performances (Duet on Ice) to grand electronic operas (United States I-IV). She has also made experimental movies, exhibited sculptures, written two books, and invented several musical instruments and hi-tech gadgets. Laurie Anderson not only brings together various artistic media, but also merges theatre and technology as a means of representing the individual in the modern world of mass culture and hi-tech simulations. This is a theatre where technology becomes an organic extension of voice, body, and space. It is also a device for distancing and shifting both familiar performance strategies and the experience and style of mass-media culture.

The theatricality of Anderson’s performances springs from two sources: the storytelling tradition and the new electronic media. Although her narrative is fragmented and double-voiced, it preserves the storytelling pattern in the minimalist performances and hi-tech operas alike. At the same time, the technological experience in Anderson’s performances remains within the framework of the proscenium arch. Her live spectacles do not offer interactivity or bring the audience onto the stage (as in the recent Wilson/Glass 3D theatrical project Monsters of Grace) (3). Instead, the technological experience is mediated through the performer’s body. In other words, the performance space of Anderson’s live shows remains theatrical and opposed to the virtual space of interactivity that she experiments with in her CD-ROM projects. Anderson theatricalizes both the storytelling and the new electronic media, putting traditional devices into a new framework and creating a unique stage form of 'electronic storytelling'. She explains this amalgamation in the following way:

For me electronics have always been connected to storytelling. Maybe because storytelling began when people used to sit around fires and because fire is magic, compelling and dangerous. We are transfixed by its light and by its destructive power. Electronics are modern fires. (1994:175)

Anderson’s work is not only on the borderline of theatre and modern media, but also between the culture McLuhan named ' The Gutenberg Galaxy'(4), created through the narrative and hypertextual cultures emerging through the electronic and the digital. The borderline between these two cultures is the space of Anderson’s explorations— between the stage and the screen, and between the performer’s body and the machine.

This paper will examine the relationship between the corporeal and the technological as it creates an interplay of real and simulated, presence and absence, performer and object; and as it enables the extension and multiplication of voice and body as a means of making the theatre of 'electronic storytelling' inter-subjective and dialogic.

M. M. Bakhtin introduced, in his literary theories, the notion of dialogicity (1981:426) to point out that the subject, as a solitary consciousness, does not necessarily dominate the text.(5) Dialogicity stresses that the text is an amalgam constituted through the voices of others. Although Bakhtin based his concept on more traditional narrative forms, his concept of dialogicity can be applied to Laurie Anderson's performances in order to describe the constant interactions between meanings (voices), all of which have the potential to condition and alter the others.

Anderson’s narrative is fragmented, consisting of reminiscences, clichés, biblical parables, news stories, commercial slogans, and textual signs taken from subways and aeroplanes. In the song 'Difficult Listening Hour' Anderson utters, through the voice of a character named 'Soul Doctor', a line from William Burroughs: 'Language is a virus from Outer Space. And hearing your name is better than seeing your face.' (1994:152)(6) he creates an entire world through different ideolects and 'lingo' that ranges from everyday conversation to commercials and foreign languages. Furthermore, the language of this 'electronic storytelling' is composed of both linguistic and non-linguistic practice. The linguistic collage is only one aspect of the dialogicity in Anderson’s performances, most evident in the usage of phrases and words from foreign or gibberish languages. For example, the song 'KoKoKu' (1994:215)(7) is written in a nonsense language. During the world tour 'Empty Places'(8), Anderson memorised her stories in the languages of countries where she was performing. However, Anderson’s dialogicity is closely linked to her fascination with technology exceeding the boundaries of traditional narrative.

In the eight-hour electronic opera United States I-IV(9), inspired by the Wilson/Glass project Einstein on the Beach,(10) Anderson’s themes are transportation, politics, money, and love. The opera is about the representation of the United States as a personal, political, cultural, and technological experience. It combines the themes and 'lingo' of the American vernacular of the road and mass culture, using slide projectors, films, songs, hi-tech apparatus of feedback loops, echo effects and devices that alter the performer’s voice. Themes and motives in Anderson’s stories have the capacity to switch from the narrative realm to other performative media. Stories turn into images or rhythmical utterances in order to narrate from different perspectives, mediating one media of representation through another.

The dialogicity of Anderson’s work is multimedial. Voice, sound, image as well as devices, instruments and equipment for its production are taken as independent components of the narratives. A few titles from Anderson’s stories and songs illustrate this point: 'Difficult Listening Hour'—for voice and two harmonizers (1994:151) (11); 'Say Hallo'—for two microphones and a fake hologram (1994:162); 'A Sideshow, a Smokescreen, a Passing Landscape'—duet for keyboards and a man and a woman in a car (1994:163); and so on (12). Although humorous and somewhat ironic, these titles suggest that instruments and gadgets have a tendency to take on a life of their own in Anderson’s electronic storytelling shows.

Even when alone on the stage with her electronic equipment, Anderson is able to utter her stories in a multiplicity of voices. In other words, the human voice and the electronic machine have the capacity to create a new stage character. This dialogicity of Anderson’s performances is connected to various inventions of musical instruments and other electronic props, such as the 'self-playing violin' (13) and the harmonizer (14). The latter is a machine that enables Anderson to perform in many voices and to create her stage interlocutors on the spot. Some of Anderson’s stock characters who came to life through the amalgamation of the performer and the harmonizer include Sharky, a guy who wanders around New York using the language of the 50’s; and the allegorical figure Voice of Authority, whom Anderson describes as 'a car salesman or a guy who wants to sell you the insurance policy you do not need' (1994:150). Anderson’s electronic characters are rooted in different cultural and social strata, identifiable by their 'lingo'. Their voices are made clearly distinct from Anderson’s own. She engages in the dialogues with these characters or inscribes their speeches into her own narratives. The harmonizer also allows Anderson to switch from a female to a male voice. Anderson creates gender-subversive acts on stage by shifting between the representations of male and female characters, especially after she trades the white dress of an ethereal storyteller from the Soho performances of the 70s for the suit and more androgynous look of her hi-tech spectacles in the 80s. Thus, Anderson’s voice, gender, and stage persona of the storyteller are mediated by other voices and stage characters, which are in part technological simulations.

The dialogicity of Anderson’s performances enables both the personal and the political content to be represented from an ironic angle. The opera United States was performed in 1980 at the Orpheum Theatre in New York, just a week before Ronald Reagan was elected president. The performance was a meditation on the sorry state of the world represented through a dialogic collage of music, songs, and stories, and featuring ominous and ironic imagery such as huge clocks ticking on screen, blasting rockets, the American flag tumbling in a clothes dryer, and so on. Anderson’s representation of politics and history is a combination of everyday communication and mass media speech, through a personal, often confessional pattern of utterance. The song 'Night in Baghdad' (15) from Stories of the Nerve Bible (16) is an ironic comment on the bombing of Iraq and its coverage in the U.S. media. The song is performed in front of a screen on which the words 'Hello, California? Can you hear me?' appear, followed by images of the war, while Anderson utters the following lines:

And I wish I could

describe this to you better.

But I can’t talk very well right now

cause I got this damned gas mask on.

So I’m just going to stick this microphone out the window and see if we can hear a little better. Hello California?

What’s the weather like out there? (1994:277)

The dialogicity is established by inscribing an intimate manner of narration into a textual pattern of news reporting. The tone contradicts the content of the song, creating a sense of detachment, while the screen projection further alters the meaning of the utterance.

Anderson’s multimedial heteroglosia (1981:263),(Bakhtin’s notion of interaction between meanings)(17), often establishes a stage simulacrum in order to break through the simulacrum of reality diagnosed by Baudrillard, (18) where it is no longer possible to distinguish between the real and the represented. Her dialogic stories are about politics, love, travel, but also about representation and reception. Johannes Birringer, looking at Anderson’s work in the context of postmodern performance, describes it in the following way:

Her work is as much about the United States as it is about the mediation and the (re) production of looking in performance that frames her body and her gestures with the imaging system of postmodern technology and mass culture. The attention stays on the surface of the stage signs, as Anderson manipulates the media that can alter her appearance, she becomes another surface in a visual-aural design across which indefinite meanings traverse and cancel one another. (1993:30)

Czech structuralist scholar Jiri Veltrusky wrote, in 'Man and Object in Theatre', that in theatre a lifeless object can be perceived as a performing subject, and a live human being may appear as an element completely without will.(19) Veltrusky starts with the premise that the relationship between the animated and the lifeless in reality is a stable one, whereas theatre has the potential to destabilise this relationship, creating a 'dialectic antinomy' between the human body and the object on stage. Although Veltrusky writes with the modernist avant-garde theatre in mind, the postmodern performances of Laurie Anderson illustrate some of his observations. The relationship between the animated and the lifeless in Anderson’s work oscillates between tension and symbiosis. Anderson’s performances not only exercise theatre’s capacity to animate the lifeless and turn the living body into a prop, but also its capacity to theatricalize a reality in which the relationship between the human body and the electronic machine is one of symbiosis. In this reality, the relationship between body and machine is defined most often in terms of interactivity.

Laurie Anderson opens new aesthetic possibilities by altering the representation of space and body through technology. In her sets, the three-dimensional human body on the stage is often juxtaposed to a two-dimensional slide projection of its image or shadow on the big screen. In Home of the Brave, Anderson enters the stage from a trap door in the floor of the stage, while her face is projected on the screen. In United States I-IV, Anderson plays with screen projections used to extend the stage space. A platform with a single step allows the performer to enter the 'film space' and become part of the two-dimensional image. In Songs for Foreshortened Hallway (1994:194), footsteps are recorded on the tap bow and played forwards and backwards as the performer walks along a corridor of light, while on the screen a woman slowly walks in the opposite direction. The configuration of real and filmed space, live and recorded sound, live and projected image creates a constant tension between presence and absence. Furthermore, live body, sound, and real space interact with filmed imagery and recorded soundscape, not necessarily to establish the contradiction between inanimate and lifeless, but to show them as complementary. The representation thus becomes a hybrid—half two-dimensional projection and electronic recording, half corporeal presence and live utterance. The relationship of 'dialectic antinomy' between live and non-live indicated by Veltrusky becomes, in the performances of Laurie Anderson, a relationship of 'dialectic symbiosis'.

Anderson turns her stage persona into a hybrid of human, marionette and electronic body. This stage persona has as its effigy a puppet that often plays a 'dummy violin'. The puppet, made in Anderson’s likeness, doubles the performer, creating a tension between live and marionette body. In United States Part III, in the section about money and greed, an extra set of arms is attached to Anderson’s body. The human body becomes extended through the marionette body. In the performance Home of the Brave, Anderson dances the 'Drum Dance', for which she designed a suit with built-in electronic drum sensors. In order to 'play' the drum, she has to make wide, sweeping movements. The drum sensors act as a kind of electronic puppet strings, dictating the kind of movements she must make—mechanical and puppet-like—in order to produce sounds. Her design for the 'Light Suit' uses a similar concept of dual functionality, where the suit is both costume and lighting device. With the 'Light Suit', Anderson is able to map out the performance space through her bodily movements. This space, although created by the human body, at the same time restricts and conditions its movement. The body, as Anderson puts it, becomes the 'ultimate portable instrument' (1994:217)—at once performer, soundscape, set, and prop. Furthermore, the body as the 'ultimate portable instrument' simulates the stage itself, while the screen as stage backdrop doubles the live body. By merging her body with the stage and its machinery, Anderson animates the lifeless properties of the performance, while mechanising its corporeality.

Anderson’s amalgamation of human body and electronic machine is a postmodern, hi-tech reworking of an old concept, which can be traced to both Renaissance and Expressionist notions of the automaton, as well as to Kleist marionettes, Craig’s Übermarionette, Schlemmer’s mechanical ballets, and to the Futurist fascination with technology(20). Max Ernst’s paintings from the early 1920s often feature modern Centaur bodies—half-human, half-machine. His human subjects with mechanical engines beneath their skin and his aeroplanes with human organs in place of engines represent an amalgam of biology and technology that is both terrifying and fascinating. Anderson often puts a microphone/stethoscope gadget on her chest asking the audience to listen to her heartbeats. Her heartbeats are also recorded as part of some of the songs on her albums, as on Mister Heartbreak,(21) for example. The technological equipment, enabling the performer’s heartbeat to be heard, has a contradictory effect: it distances the spectator from the performance, while at the same time bringing him/her right into the performer’s body. The sound of the human heart transmitted and amplified through an electronic object resonates as familiar yet strange. It becomes a sound both human and digital that points to the 'dialectic symbiosis' between body and technology. Furthermore, Anderson’s heartbeats spring from the gap between the performer and the stage character. They are the sound of a Centaur’s heart from Ernst’s paintings—part human tissue, part electronic gadget—with a terrifying, fascinating, and deeply ironic resonance.


1. The song is featured on the record 'O Superman.' 7' EP; co-produced with Roma Baran; originally released on 110 Records New York in 1981.

2. Although Anderson’s experiments with CD ROMs and cyber space are by all means worth exploring, they will be left aside here, since they, together with other similar works, establish a new artistic medium and genre. Whether or not these new artistic phenomena should be accessed in theatrical terms seems to be a material for a separate discussion. Theatre is understood here as an event and notion that presupposes a live action.

3. Monsters of Grace by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson; design and visual concept by Wilson; music by Glass; lyrics by Rumi; film and computer animation by Kleizer-Walczak Construction Company. Opened in Royal Hall (UCLA Center for Performing Arts), University of California, Los Angeles, 1998.

4. Marshall McLuhan introduced the notion of The Gutenberg Galaxy as means of explaining and tracing 'the ways in which the forms of experience and of mental outlook and expression have been modified, first by the phonetic alphabet and then by printing.' (1962: 1) In his book also titled The Gutenberg Galaxy McLuhan stresses that we live in the moment of 'interplay of contrasting cultures' in our confrontation with electronic technology 'which would seem to render individualism obsolete and the corporate interdependency mandatory.' (1962:1) He finds that the Elizabethan culture, already deep into the mechanical age and poised between medieval corporate experience and modern individualism, is analogous to the contemporary moment.

5. For more on the notion of dialogism see also: M. Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Trans. R.W. Rotsel. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1974 ; M. Bakhtin, 'Discourse Typology in Prose' in Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views. Ed. L.Matejka and K.Pomorska. Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1978 pp 176-196

6. Anderson also wrote a song dedicated to Burroughs called 'Language Is a Virus from Outer Space' in 1986.

7. The song featured in the concert film Home of the Brave made in New Jersey, 1985 and released through Cinecom International Films. The film was based on a performance Mister Heartbreak that toured in United States, Canada and Japan, 1984.

8. 'Empty Places' toured the United States and Europe for over six months in 1990. Many of the concerts were partially in other languages. The performance premiered at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S. C. in 1989. Anderson also published a book Empty Places. New York: HarperPerennial, 1991.

9. United States I-IV premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1983.

10. Einstein on the Beach directed by Robert Wilson; music by Philip Glass; text by Christopher Knowles, Samuel M. Johnson, and Lucinda Childs. It was presented at the Festival d’ Avignon and at the New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1976. It has since been revived in two world tours in 1984 and 1992.

11. The song is featured in the show United States 2 that premiered in the Orpheum Theatre, New York, 1980. It is also on the five-record set United States Live published in 1985, documenting the performance at the Brooklyn Academy.

12. Both songs were part of the two-evening cycle United States that premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1983. The production was also presented in London and Zurich.

13. Self-Playing Violine has a speaker inside its 'body' which gives the performer the option of either allowing it to play on its own or performing in a duet with it. Anderson in collaboration with electronics designer Bob Bielecki invented several violins of a similar kind ('Tape Bow Violin', 'Digital Violin', 'Neon Violin' and so on). The violin is in a way Anderson’s alter-ego, an 'organic' extension of her voice and body. In the 1970’s the image of Laurie Anderson holding a violin was the most frequently reproduced picture of her.

14. Harmonizer is a digital filter that can be tuned to drop the pitch of Anderson’s voice, so that she sounds like a man. She wrote a number of songs counting on the voice altering ability of the harmonizer. This digital tool enables Anderson to establish a multiplicity of voice. This devices is important in determining the dialogic nature of Anderson’s work.

15. The song is featured on Anderson’s CD Bright Red; produced by Brian Eno and L. Anderson; Werner Bros. Records Inc., 1994

16. The show Stories From the Nerve Bible premiered at Expo ’90 in Seville. Anderson’s book Stories From a Nerve Bible: A Retrospect, 1972 – 1992 was published in 1994.

17. Bakhtin explains the notion of heteroglosia (raznorechie) in respect to literature, as a basic stylistic feature of the novel, but it can be applicable to other verbal arts as well. It is the way in which the totality of a work is expressed as a combination of author’s voice, the speeches of the narrators and characters, and the included genres. Each of these components according to Bakhtin multiplies the social voices and the variety of links and interrelations among them (dialogism). Anderson’s work also includes a variety of speeches that can be recognised as belonging to different consciousness and social entities. The effect of dialogic multiplicity of vices is even more heightened with the usage of different languages and lingoes. Bakhtinian notion of heteroglosia and dialogism has been connected to theatre, but the potential of these concept in addressing the mulitmedia performances, such as those of Laurie Anderson, has yet to be addressed in greater detail.

18. Baudrillard views modern media as a limitless seduction, where technological simulation of the world blurs the distinction between subject and object, real and illusory, body and its projection. For Baudrillard it is impossible to break through the endless reproduction of simulations and its automatic self-referentially that disables any coherent viewpoint. For more see J. Baudrillard. Simulations. New York: Semiotext (e), 1983.

19. See Jiri Veltrusky, 'Man and Object in the Theatre'. Ed. Paul Garvin. A Prague School Reader on Esthetics, Literary Structure and Style. Washington: Georgetown UP, 1964. Pp 83-91

20. The interplay between actor and puppet is inherent in the relationship between actor and the role, body and object, reality and illusion immanent to theatrical performance. Theatre of masks such as the Ancient theatre and commedia dell arte emphasise that the dividing line between actor and puppet is not always easily drawn. The notion of automaton (originally medieval figures that appear when the clock strikes) brings into theatre the notion of mechanical body of the stage figure, that L. Anderson achieves through technology. By means of various electronic gadgets and manipulations she creates a sense of mechanical body and synthetic voice that interacts with the live component, enhancing the theatricality. On the other side, her electronic manipulation of space, as well as live and projected images, could be connected to 'Triadic Ballets' of Bauhaus where the live body through the interplay of lights, colours and movements appears as an inanimate geometrical object. This dialectic relationship between actor and puppet in the case of Laurie Anderson transcends into the metaphor of performer and the machine. For more on the relationship between actor and marionette see: H.von Kleist. 'Über das Marionettentheater.' In Werke und Briefe. Berlin: Aufbau Verlage, 1978.; P.Bogatyrev, 'A Contribution to the Study of Theatrical Signs'. ed: Peter Steiner The Prague School Selected Writings, 1929 – 1946. Austin: University of Texas, 1982; also Theater Der Zeit: Puppentheater. Juni 2000. Heft Nr.6

21. Anderson’s CD Mister Heartbreak was published by Warner Bros. Records Inc. 1984


Anderson, Laurie. Stories from the Nerve Bible: A Retrospective, 1972-1992. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994.

Anderson, L; H-S, Huang. Puppet Motel.CD-ROM. Produced by E.Scarborough; distributed by LTI Voyager, 1995

- - - . United States. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.

Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin. Ed. M. Holquist. Trans. C. Emerson and M. Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. New York: Semiotext (e), 1983.

Birringer, Johannes. Theatre, Theory, Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy: the making of typographic man. Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1962.

Veltrusky, Jiri. 'Man and Object in the Theatre'. Ed. Paul Garvin. A Prague School Reader on Esthetics, Literary Structure and Style. Washington: Georgetown UP, 1964. Pp 83-91.




Silvija Jestrovic





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