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performance: Cultural Spy

Through her performance art Laurie Anderson is really just a storyteller, and this time she tells it like it is.

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"I chose these places," she explains, "because these were places where I felt at sea, not a little at sea, but very at sea."

Her work at the fast-food chain in her New York neighborhood, which she assumed would be lousy, proved the most satisfying. "A lot of people I knew saw me there, but they didn't recognize me. It wasn't like I was in deep disguise." Their inability to notice led her to realize how much expectations determine what you see.

Then the planes struck the World Trade Center, a mere quarter of a mile from her home. For months, trucks carrying twisted debris rode past her front door, a constant reminder of a world in conflict. Her material took a U-turn, changes even now, months later, she has difficulty putting into words.

The historic event shadows the work, and she makes a few references, but she didn't want to voice her opinions using art, which she believes then becomes propaganda. "Artists have very powerful tools to convince people. ... Art is about total freedom. With propaganda, you have an agenda. ... If you want to make a good argument, go ahead, but don't hide behind some notes and colors."

"Happiness" evolved into a series of stories "about the moment you change your mind." Some of these cover her period of research when she assumed her role as "cultural spy." Other stories draw straight from her life, making this work her most personally revealing, and this led to an investigation of "deception and fiction, the stories we tell ourselves so that we can go on."

Unlike "Moby Dick," her previous multimedia extravaganza based on Melville's classic, the technology of "Happiness" is significantly simplified. She devised no set and kept electronics to a minimum, allowing for improvisation and the opportunity to play DJ. Her signature violin, a keyboard with digital processing and several MIDI triggers accompany her, nothing more. In fact, the music has been so pared down since the original performance, she no longer considers it music. "In the beginning, it was full of chord changes, and I thought: Why am I having a hard time following this? I realized I hadn't decided what would lead. Until you decide, there's sometimes too much stuff. In this case, the words lead and the music takes a back seat. I'm not even sure I would call it music. It's pulses. It's a kind of humming that goes on in the background. I sink into it almost like another voice."

With a sound score as backdrop to her voice, she has no qualms about emphasizing words, which she realizes often get lost in music. Not a bad thing altogether, she adds, because words consistently compel her creations. Considered a musician, songwriter, performance artist, filmmaker, ventriloquist, photographer, electronics whiz, among other identities, she returns again and again to the prime one, storyteller. "Storyteller...drives most of [my work] whether it be images or whatever. That's at the core more than anything else.

"What I like are ideas that jump from one to another and illuminate each other in different ways. It's the way my own mind works. That reminds you of this, then you backtrack and go over there, rather than this thing that just chugs along and resolves itself in some way. ... I don't think things really resolve themselves very well, at least not as neatly as I would hope."

The anecdotes and remembrances in "Happiness," expressed in her usual intimate, quirky voice and penchant for finding absurdities in ordinary moments, offer no resolution by the work's end. "It's more of an observational work that tries hard not to make conclusions," she admits readily. "We're trying to figure out how to think about a lot of things, not just the fallout from last year. ...What if I tried to open my eyes and look around like a journalist and really see things as they are, not as I hoped they would be, or what I thought they should be, or how they fit into my framework?" Her response to that question: "Happiness." S



rie Anderson performs "Happiness" at the University of Richmond's Alice Jepson Theatre Oct. 23-24 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $28. Call 289-8980.

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