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February 16, 2003
The cult of Laurie Anderson
Last night I went to see a New York based multimedia artist, and emerged from the show with my fashion sense safely unaltered.
Laurie Anderson appeared on stage wearing normal trousers, in stark contrast to some members of her audience, who were decked out in ridiculous trousers of all colours and hues. Almost the entire audience was middle class or wealthier, so the ridiculous trousers served to indicate the crazed anti-social nature of their wearers. To further add to the effect, many of the ridiculous trouser brigade sipped champagne and spoke in hushed voices.
Anderson uses a simple trick to keep the audience's attention, which is to talk over a pulse, or a drone, or some kind of flowing ambient sound. The overall effect is of a mother talking to her unborn child. It's hypnotic and incredibly effective, which is why some cults use a similar technique to indoctrinate people. Once the mind has become absorbed with making sense of a rhythm, it's very hard for the rational part of your brain to think "wait a minute: these people want me to wear baggy trousers and chant nonsense in public places."
Strangely, Anderson balances out the effectiveness of this trick by using her voice in a frustrating way. Apart from a couple of moments when she talks in different accents, she always speaks at the same volume, at the same tempo, and, most damning, in the same detached, neutral tone. It all adds up to an antiseptic delivery. She's a bit like a cult leader with a fluctuating interest in her followers.
After a time of being an unborn child I started getting impatient with the show. It's called "Happiness," but a more accurate title might be "Concentrate," which is what you have to do for nearly two hours.
Anderson spends the entire show standing behind a keyboard, which makes for an unimpressive visual spectacle. A couple of times the lights on the curtains behind her changed, which assumed a dramatic significance far in excess of what it deserved. About ten minutes after the show started I wanted her to grab the microphone and pace up and down the full length of the stage. I wanted her to wave her arms around and to talk louder and faster. I wanted more action and drama. I didn't get it.
But I also wanted her stories to make a clear start and move towards a clear ending. Instead they just floated from one fragment to another, without adding up to anything. Eventually she reincorporated something that sounded vaguely familiar from earlier in the evening, and stopped there. I was absurdly pleased that she didn't do an encore.
Along the way a couple of the things she said were really interesting: that we're afraid of silence, that technology is the great marketing coup of the twentieth century, that the Amish argue with each other in extreme slow motion. And I think there was something about the benefits of wearing baggy trousers and chanting nonsense, but I can't be sure. As I left the Concert Hall I glanced down at my trousers, and was relieved to find that they were the same old jeans I was wearing when I arrived. Others weren't so lucky.Posted by Sean Hegarty at 08:44 PM in the Reviews category | Comments (0)
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