OPPOSITE UNITED STATES
Many of us who saw Laurie Anderson United States at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York in 1983 knew that we had witnessed an event of historical significance. Visually startling, featuring an ingenious combination of sound and text, and pieced together with equal amounts of political commentary and intellectual inquiry, United States made it clear that Anderson's use of media and her analysis of its role and meaning in American culture would become a yardstick for measuring this debate in the future. Not only did she use a broad range of tools--some classical, like a violin, others custom-built, like a vocoder or a hologram--but the ways in which she single-handedly meshed almost eight hours of material into a large-scale portrait of a country were breathtaking and unforgettable. Most remarkable was the fact that the production was accessible to audiences. It was this achievement, of crossing from avant-garde obscurity into the so-called mainstream without compromising her ideas or aesthetic integrity, that would indelibly establish United States in the annals of art history.
Communicating with an audience was Anderson's goal from the start. "One of my jobs as an artist is to make contact with the audience, and it has to be immediate," she has said, an approach that, in the history of "live art," was a radical departure from past tactics. The Dadaists and Futurists in the 1920s and Fluxus artists in the 1960s intentionally provoked their audiences. Epater les bourgeois--to shock the middle classes--was an expression adopted to describe all sorts of actions intended to raise questions about the very meaning of art, and to force a reassessment of the practice of everyday life. In her work Anderson chose to affect viewers differently. Rather than shocking audiences to new levels of awareness, she took a far more subtle approach to change their minds. She floated pictures--thousands of them, in the form of film or slide projections--before their eyes and used streams of words, straightforwardly delivered but cleverly arranged and full of surprising observations. "You're walking, and you don't always realize it, but you're always falling," she sang in one song. She used music to stir her audiences viscerally; her melodies, which she found in the regular rhythms of ordinary conversations or in the to and fro of arguments, were matched with lyrics good enough to qualify as poetry. The result was a collection of songs that combined the complexity of abstract discourse--"History is an angel being blown backwards into the future"--with the 4/4 beat of rock 'n' roll.
In United States, Anderson transformed herself into a new kind of artist. She exploded the scale of her work by rising to the occasion presented by an opera house, adding technicians as needed to maintain the flow of slides, film, and lights on the giant backdrops behind her. She constructed photomontages of film and slides, collages of pictures and texts, and paintings made of light, in front of which she