The Speed of Darkness

Laurie Anderson

at the Park West, April 9

By Monica Kendrick

Technophiles have a remarkable capacity for optimism. The history of belief in progress is a history of boosterism, celebration, and tantalized delight at the vision of a custom-tailored future just around the corner, brought a little bit closer by each technological innovation. Artists are generally less giddy. Though there have been plenty of shiny, happy futurists who flirted with polished-chrome fascism, they’re outnumbered by paranoid science-fiction writers and painters of apocalyptic scenarios. There’s a reason for this. Worship of technology usually involves a craving for control–over competitors real and imagined, over problems, over human limitations–and art is about finding a balance between control and the uncontrollable. An artist must acknowledge the fears and hungers, the setbacks and accidents and failures that don’t jibe with utopian fantasies of a push-button universe; artists must acknowledge that such a universe can turn dystopian very quickly.

Laurie Anderson, who made her debut as a recording artist in the early 80s, has always addressed the uneasy symbiotic relationship between humans and gadgets. But the very novelty of her array of electronics and her mechanical persona frequently distracted audiences and press alike from the finer points of her occasionally dark material. To say that she was ahead of her time isn’t exactly accurate–she’s always been very much of her time, one of many artists fascinated by technology and many techies fascinated by art. As a result her current show, The Speed of Darkness (a “collection of stories and songs about the future of art and technology”), doesn’t seem like much of a creative stretch. But in this show she places at the forefront her growing skepticism about technology’s potential to save us. And who’s better qualified than Anderson to get at techno-queasiness from the inside?

There’s no doubt that this is an insider’s view, so it sounds a little disingenuous when Anderson says, “[The Internet] is really big and powerful. Not that many people understand it….So what do you do with something big and powerful? You worship it.” Maybe–or maybe you demonize it, as do those who believe the Internet is a den of cyber-iniquity populated at every click with stalkers, neo-Nazis, suicidal UFO cultists, and child pornographers. That’s an illusion harbored only by those who’ve never been on-line–Anderson the longtime technophile and her sophisticated audience would never take it seriously for a second. Those people shut out of the “digital revolution” won’t find a voice here. Anderson draws, for instance, on her own anxieties about being referred to at tech conferences as a “content provider.” This, she says, “sounds so practical…positive…inevitable,” and brings her to questions rarely asked amid all the boosterish babble: What exactly is the information we’ll have instant access to? What does a “content provider” provide? For whom? And since “content” implies a container, who’s shaping it? Who’s in control?

As if to compensate for her lack of instant answers, Anderson throws a lot of content at the audience very quickly in The Speed of Darkness, with ruminations on coffee; vaudeville; a faux moon voyage; sleep therapy; the Disneyfication of the world; the proliferation of Internet rumors (“like the AP press release about how the Vatican has been bought out by Microsoft”); the unveiling of a giant statue of Michael Jackson in a Zurich train station, which was accompanied by tape-recorded noises of a crowd rioting; a Web site that offers an electronic seance with Elvis–your usual post-Eco hyperreality stuff. Her approach seems rather like Web surfing, hitting a long string of sites intended to be more clever and innovative than they really are. But just when we’re starting to fidget, Anderson reels us back in with a moving song (“Muddy River,” a wistful tune about an apocalyptic flood from her 1994 album Bright Red) or story (the 52-year-old woman Anderson sat next to on a flight who’d never flown before but had been told by her son, “You’ve raised ten children–now it’s time for you to get on an airplane”).

Anderson’s stage for this show is remarkably stripped-down by her standards, just a medium-sized effects console and keyboard, two microphones, and a violin. There are no scrims, no big video screens, no huge banks of switchboards or blinking control panels. It’s as though impressive gadgetry were a vice Anderson was trying to renounce: interspersed throughout her monologues are hints of the technophile as control freak, would-be dominator, and laments over the mechanization of big theater and big Hollywood and the loss of vaudeville’s intimacy. She even points the finger at herself, relating the (true!) story of a proposed theme park that would have been collaboratively designed by Anderson, Peter Gabriel, and Brian Eno and might have featured rides like “The River of Life.” But after considering and eliminating several potential sites, she took a walk through the likeliest candidate–a “vacant” lot in Barcelona that turned out to be full of squatters and rich plant life, flowers surrounded by hordes of hummingbirds–and had a revelation: “Most theme parks are based on the assumption that people are so out of touch that they need to be spun around a few hundred times and dropped on their heads to feel anything at all.” Indeed, many people are that out of touch. But you have to wonder how they got that way. Could passively watching a constant barrage of information on flickering screens have anything to do with it? As the implications of Anderson’s anecdotes add up, as her repeated linkings of the theater, the mental hospital, and the control room start to accumulate, it’s clear that she thinks it does.

The next step for a renegade content provider is to ask what the theater show is about, who the doctors are in the mental hospital, who’s pushing the buttons in the control room. And, the real question, do we trust them? By way of an answer Anderson compares “two epic American stories”: Star Trek and Moby-Dick. Both are voyages into the unknown in the closed society of a ship, and both ships have captains who are in complete control. In the showbiz version, Star Trek, all the plots revolve around an alien force threatening the captain’s control, “and losing control is the worst thing that could happen, and the whole rest of the episode is about regaining control.” But in Moby-Dick the captain is insane and obsessed, and the expedition ends in death and disaster. It’s clear which picture Anderson thinks more accurately portrays reality, but when she growls “Call me Ishmael,” she also leaves herself a convenient way out–by analogy, she too alone escapes to tell thee, no matter how crazy the apocalypse around her gets. Which may well make her a captain of a different sort.

A content provider–pardon me, an artist–has to ride an edge, balancing the things that must be controlled (the medium, the pace and flow of language and ideas) and the things that can’t be (those things that make us human). While the “information arms race” is driven by a craving for control–over knowledge and content, not to mention the attention and credit card numbers of a worldful of passive but affluent spectators and mouse clickers–in Melville’s novel Ishmael has almost no control. He survives by hanging on to a beloved crewmate’s floating casket, saved by the shreds of good old-fashioned human interdependence and sheer dumb luck.

Anderson, who’s never allowed for much loss of control in her own performances, isn’t quite willing to float around on those churning waters, but she does wade around the edges in her articulate rant, allowing spaces for the audience’s minds to escape her, for the reflection that massive electronic hype never allows. Her gentle, subtle songs provide emotional pauses, with a simple romanticism and an aching simplicity that hark back to the show’s mournful opener, “World Without End.” Its pivotal line–“When my father died / It seemed like a whole library had burned down”–reveals one crux of digital fear: the idea that a lifetime’s information, stored in a terribly fragile vessel–a human mind or a hard drive–can be lost forever in a momentary crash. The fears and longings Anderson is talking about here are older than the simplest of tools–they revolve around mortality, human limitation, the uncontrollable and the unknown. The fact is, content of any real value tends to slip outside the walls of its container. It’s not surprising her musings don’t really fit on a Web page.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Laurie Anderson by Gert Krautbauer.