In her more than two decades as the high priestess of performance art, Laurie Anderson has used music, narrative and technology to explore Big Subjects, from America's economic and military dominance over the rest of the world (in her epic "United States," which also produced the surprise techno-hit "O Superman") to Herman Melville's allegorical great white whale in Songs and Stories for Moby Dick. For her new work, Happiness, which she'll perform twice this week at the Edison Theatre, Anderson's research led her on a series of small journeys to what she calls "uncomfortable places," even requiring her to face one of the more familiar questions of our modern age: "Do you want fries with that?"
"I was feeling kind of frustrated with the way things were going in my life and my work," Anderson explains. "I feel like I know how to do a lot of things, and the next thing I would do would be kind of like the last thing. So I tried to put myself in situations where I don't really know what to do, what to say or how to act. That was the idea. So I just did a lot of things and went on some strange trips just to see if I could shake myself out of my preconceptions about things." Those places included a Zen retreat, an Amish village and, perhaps most unexpectedly for someone with Anderson's postmodern credentials, the counter of a Manhattan McDonald's, where Anderson donned the familiar cap and uniform and learned the skills of the fryer and the soda fountain.
"I only really did two weeks at McDonald's, knowing that I would go back to what I was doing," she recalls. "I wanted to see what you can learn in a couple of weeks. In fact, it was a lot. I was pretty surprised."
Surprisingly, Anderson says she wasn't trying to "go undercover" but found that the McDonald's uniform brought her a kind of anonymity. Acquaintances who dropped into the restaurant failed to recognize her. Instead of being offended, Anderson seems to have found it stimulating, describing herself to a New York Times reporter as a "cultural spy."
Says Anderson, "I stayed long enough to get to know the job and get a feel for what was going on there. It was really not at all what I thought. I was expecting exploited workers. In fact, I had a really great time. I kind of went in with a chip on my shoulder, thinking, 'I'm gonna see how mass production works and see what it's like to make something that everybody likes.' Whether you're making CDs or making hamburgers, there's something interesting about that."
Unlike the elaborate multimedia displays of Anderson's past work, Happiness has Anderson working in a streamlined format with no other musicians and a minimum of gadgetry, relying on her violin, her voice and her storytelling skills, augmented by only a few electronic effects. "The idea was to make something simple," she says. "It becomes increasingly difficult to say, 'What would it look like if I just started over with nothing?' This show is very stripped-down. It has no computers or images. It's really just stories.
"There's also music, but I'm not really sure if I should call it music or not. What I have in the show is a keyboard and a violin and some digital processors, and I DJ it. It's more like pulses and glitches than what I'd call music. Initially the music was quite complicated, and I thought, 'What's wrong here?' I realized that it was bending my brain in too many directions, trying to listen to the chord changes and the stories. So I took a step backwards. I like a lot of stuff going on, but it was too much even for me."
In Anderson's "Language Is a Virus," she recalls being interrupted by a friend who asks her in midconversation, "Are you talking to me or just practicing for one of those performances of yours?" Anderson uses her own life and observations as a starting point for some of her finest insights into our culture, though she confesses that she often can't distinguish between her life and her art. The simple staging and intimate stories of Happiness produce what she calls her most personal work. "It's the first time I felt that close to an audience," she says. "It's very collaborative. The stories are all linked, but they're linked by wide jump cuts. In the very first part, you hear about Andy Warhol, the Dalai Lama and Paul Revere. Where is this going? It really is about a situation that isn't quite laid out as a typical story. It requires the audience to make a lot of challenging connections."
Just don't go in expecting a kind of greatest-hits performance. Though she's not averse to performing older material (her recent live album, recorded in New York just days after the World Trade Center bombing, features haunting performances of "O Superman," "Let X = X" and other earlier pieces, some of which she hadn't performed in nearly twenty years), Anderson resists repeating herself: "Somebody asked me to restage United States recently, and I thought, 'What a nightmare!' I actually do have all the pieces strewn all over the place. But it would take such a long time to redo it. The amount of time would be crazy, and then what would you have? Something that you already did."
Defining herself as an experimental artist, Anderson seems cautious about walking the aesthetic tightrope between artistic achievement and wide popularity. "I'm a snob," she jokes. "I think the more people like something, the worse it is. I'm sure I'm wrong about that in many cases, but overall I've never thought, 'Wow, I really want to bring my message to the world and have everybody listening to it.' I'm really happy that some people like it. That's enough for me."
This attitude may account for Anderson's longevity in the still-misunderstood and marginalized field of performance art. Ignoring the pull of mainstream success, pursuing her own ideas even when they lead her through Amish farmhouses or behind the cash register of a fast-food joint, Anderson continues to stake her own claim on artistic happiness.