Sunday, June 22, 2008

Conceptual Art

Laurie Anderson at the Hollywood Palace, 1984.

Photo by Mike Maginot

I can thank my friend, Terence, for introducing me to the sound of Laurie Anderson.

In the sixties, he introduced me to Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and we used their recording of "The Return of the Son of the Monster Magnet" as the soundtrack to our 8mm experimental film Intolerable.

In the seventies, Terence was house-sitting for a friend and he invited me to come along. The trip to a house in the middle of nowhere was made memorable when Terence introduced me to the music of Randy Newman.

In the eighties, I moved to Los Angeles and Terence was there before me doing a variety of odd jobs, from carpentry to driving a cab. He had a cassette tape of Laurie Anderson that he must have dubbed off the radio. It was material from her show, United States of America, but the performance wasn't yet available on record. I liked what I heard and when the album, Big Science, became available, I bought it.

By the time, Mister Heartbreak came out in 1984, I was working at two jobs, a photo lab in Westwood and the mailroom of the American Society of Cinematographers, which was the home of American Cinematographer Magazine. I was spending my Friday and Saturday nights at a downtown club called the Variety Arts and writing material for a young comedienne named Diane Dunnie who was the MC at the Variety Art's Ed Wynn Lounge where performers did their stand-up routines on a huge drum that was once used by Eleanor Powell in her Las Vegas nightclub act. What does this have to do with conceptual art? I'm getting there.

Diane and I had talked about doing a take-off on Laurie Anderson's "Big Science" called "Big Dentist", but we never really got around to it. When Laurie Anderson's album, Mister Heartbreak came out, she was doing a record signing at Tower Records in
Westwood with Adrian Belew, who was with the British band King Crimson. I stood in line with my copy of the album and Laurie and Adrian both signed it. I told them about "Big Dentist", so Laurie drew a gaping mouth and Adrian drew a hamburger.

Back Cover: Mister Heartbreak.

Autographes and artwork, Laurie Anderson & Adrian Belew.

Laurie and Adrian had a show coming up at the Hollywood Palace and I told them that I planned to be there. I didn't know what the picture taking policy was at "The Palace", but I took my camera in the hopes of getting a few good shots of what promised to be an intimate performance. As it turned out, this was probably one of my best concert shoots. At one point, I even climbed a stack of amplifiers to get a shot and nobody stopped me. In some ways, I actually felt as if I was a part of the performance.

Laurie Anderson has always used technology in her work and used her work to explore how human beings interact with technology. Her concerts are often multimedia experiences. She used to refer to herself as a storyteller, but her current official biography calls her "one of today's premier performance artists." Her other roles include, "visual artist, composer, poet, photographer, filmmaker, electronic whiz, vocalist and instrumentalist." The Wikipedia website devotes space to two of her inventions that she uses in performance; the Tape Bow Violin and the Talking Stick. The Tape-bow Violin "uses recorded magnetic tape in place of the traditional bow, and a magnetic tape head in the bridge."

According to program notes, written by Anderson, the Talking Stick "is a wireless instrument that can access and replicate any sound." It isn't surprising to find out that in 2003, Anderson became NASA's first artist in residence. Big science indeed.

I've chosen four examples of Laurie Anderson's work to share. Two are from her film Home of the Brave, which documents one of her stage performance. The other two are music videos that were specifically made to promote her record albums, Big Science (1981) and Mister Heartbreak (1984), both hold up pretty well as artistic works as well as commercial endeavors.

As you can see from these samples, Anderson uses film, video, stagecraft, music, dance, and graphic arts to explore how humans interact with technology.


1. In "Language Is a Virus", from the film Home of the Brave, Anderson questions basic communication skills.

2. "Sharkey's Day" is a track from the Mister Heartbreak album. It tells the story of Sharkey who can't decide whether to experience life first hand or experience it through the filter of television.

3. "Zero and One" are the building blocks of digital technology. For this piece, Anderson wears a mask and speaks in an electronically enhanced voice of authority about the personality of binary code. This is from Home of the Brave.

4. In "Oh, Superman", Anderson talks to mom. Perhaps, the mom she is speaking to is the mother of invention. (Not to be confused with Frank Zappa's band that I mentioned at the beginning.) This is a track from the album Big Science.

Video Samples

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