Laurie Anderson’s very first Berlin performance took place at a jazz festival and it left some members of the audience rather unsatisfied. In the middle of her eclectic mixture of pop music, lecture and performance, one of the spectators seized an arising moment of silence to yell “play some jazz”. This incident left the young artist shocked because although the noisy audience member’s demand for jazz music was certainly justified at a jazz festival, Anderson didn’t know how to play any.
On the occasion of the 30th transmediale, Anderson retold the anecdote to a booked-out auditorium. People of all ages descended to Haus der Kulturen der Welt to watch the multimedia and performance art legend sing, play music and talk – about childhood memories, philosophical tales and the downfalls of American politics. Anderson is a pioneer in bridging high art and pop long before it was fashionable to do so, and whose electronic new wave masterpiece “O Superman” managed to reach #2 in the UK charts in 1892, long before it became seemingly impossible for experimental music to do so.
Accompanied by visuals ranging from Super-8 recordings of forest trees to animated unicorns, Anderson talked about politics, the construction of memories and the notion of home. “Some say your empire is passing as all empires do”, the screen behind her reads as she started talking about the United States. “I don’t recognise my home anymore“, she says. Given the current political situation, she had anticipated to turn her show “The Language of the Future”, into a stand-up comedy. The project failed, however, due to the fact that she only knows two jokes. Instead, Anderson opted for a different kind of stand-up, replacing the jokes with her peculiar style of multimedia storytelling.
On stage she recalled her own advances into politics which took place when she was a youngster, running for the title of school president. Eager to win, she wrote a letter to John F. Kennedy, who was himself running for office at the time, asking him for advice on how to pursue her classmates. The soon-to-be president promptly responded, telling her to spend a lot of time with her potential voters, pay attention to what they want and then give it to them. Following his advice, Laurie got elected a few weeks later. Anderson weaves anecdotes like these together with reflections on literary stories and figures, occasionally lifting up her violin to play a song that feels like an electronically amplified embrace. At one point, she gave a synopsis of “the Birds”. In the play written by the greek poet Aristophanes, a philosopher advises the king of the birds to construct a wall between the sky and the earth and to demand a fee from every God and every human that wants to pass it. While in this story, the reference to Donald Trump’s wall is uncanny, Anderson also evokes more abstract reflections on the nature of politics and ideology as a whole.
In one of the most sombre moments of the evening, she told the story of the time she spent in the hospital as a little girl. When attempting to do a backflip off a springboard, she had fallen onto the bare concrete floor of a swimming pool, suffering severe injuries from the crash. The memories of the weeks spent in the hospital that followed, she said, changed severely as she grew older. Over time, she displaced the voices of the many other injured kids whom she heard crying at night and the smell of their burnt flesh when they arrived at the hospital, altering the story into her very own version of reality. Every politician, she seemed to propose, alters their memory in a similar way, basing their beliefs and their actions on a worldview that is moulded by a distorted perception of reality.
The second deeply heart-wrenching moment of the evening occurred shortly after, and this time, it had nothing to do with politics. Anderson played a record of her husband Lou Reed, who died in 2013, accompanying his vocals with her violin. Just like on her 2015 album “Heart of A Dog”, Anderson presented her mourning in a deeply relatable and inclusive manner. The surrealist storytelling album, accompanied by an eponymous movie, tells the lifetime story of Anderson’s dog Lolabelle. Describing the moment of giving birth to the dog after having it sewn into her own stomach and telling anecdotes about Lolabelle’s artisanal and musical talents, Anderson created a narrative which blurred the lines between reality and fiction. The differentiation between the two became secondary to the reflections on life and death that Lolabelle’s story evokes. The question whether Lolabelle really did create a large number of ceramic sculptures by pressing her paws into wet clay or whether Kennedy really did help young Laurie achieve school-political success becomes secondary to the morals these stories hold and the emotions they evoke: Anderson practices post-factual philosophy in the best sense of the word.
As her last piece, Anderson performed something that she likes to refer to as Audio Drag. By using a voice emulator that she places inside of her mouth, she makes her voice sound deeper and manly, taking on the role of a male persona which she took on for the cover of her 2010 album “Homeland”. Repeatedly quoting from the album’s most sociocritical song “Another Day in America”, she takes on a tone of conscience and reflection that could, within the context of the evening, be seen as the voice of a more reasonable political spokesperson to come.
After the show had ended the audience slowly left the room. But when she unexpectedly returned, everyone froze in awe, waiting for the final coup to come. A moment of silence arose, and one of the spectators acted out on the joke that was on everyone’s minds: “play some jazz!”, he shouted, and everyone laughed at the inside joke. Another violin piece followed leaving the audience with the feeling of having witnessed the unifying and earnestly emotional work of one of the strongest experimental performers of our time.