In the second of two exclusive performances for Brighton Festival, Laurie Anderson presents Slideshow, a specially created performance monologue about place and places. Review by Liz Porter
I’ve long respected the work of Laurie Anderson. She is a consummate storyteller, passionate about people, places and language. Renowned for her innovative technical approaches, for creating tapestries; interweaving words effortlessly, within often multi-media layered textures of musical and distorted soundscapes, evocative and provocative, yet often playful and funny – always human and always humane.
I was delighted that she’d been invited to be the guest Curator of the Brighton Festival. Amongst her festival contributions (which had included a concert for dogs – yes for dogs who could only go with their owners…’) she presented two evenings in performance. I caught the premiere performance Slideshow, a montage of monologues that captured adventure tales from five decades of the life and work of this extraordinary American woman.
She took the audience on a journey through some of her personal childhood stories and a series of projects where something could have gone wrong (flagging a need for a plan B) often (like in traditional stories) with an unexpected happening. She played with story motifs, archetypes using the structure of tradtional storytelling to tell her life story with powerful imagery of vivid pictures floating behind her on a huge screen and perhaps a slight over use of stage smoke to build the atmosphere. There’s the usual Laurie Anderson chair. But much less musicality than usual and far less technical wizardry – in fact what you get is Laurie. The audience mostly captivated for almost two hours non-stop.
You might say this show was like a sequence of unfortunate events, or a bit like the storytelling game when you go round a circle telling a story, each person starting their section with the words ‘fortunately’ or ‘unfortunately’. We were taken from an unexpected arts residency with NASA, which awakened her technical curiosity, to a ridiculous episode in which she taught herself to play a violin using a mouth speaker (which then got stuck inside her mouth and necessitated a visit to A&E).
It didn’t always connect and I don’t think she’d performed it much before, clearly making choices around material had been difficult (in fact, at the end, she said she’d only got through half of what she’d planned). When you’re working with personal material it’s hard to know when to draw the line. She talked about the value of language and the way the brain can connect in so many ways to it and the power of silence. It is musically sparse and on the whole accessible as she paints such vivid pictures. I wondered whether she’s ever worked with British Sign Language interpreters or captions, I’m sure she’d come up with some innovative approaches.
The construct of family location and what home might mean reverberated through the piece, as did a need for identity and acceptance. I’ve known for a while that Laurie had an understanding of disability in particular mental health issues, I hadn’t realised till this show that her relationship with impairment goes much deeper and is intrinsically linked with her identity. After our encounter with NASA and Mars, she referenced a time in her 20s when she was in deep depression, alluding to a mental breakdown, only able to stay mostly in bed staring up at the ceiling, working as a supply art historian teacher at night, but not really delivering, just getting through and fabricating the reality of the mummies encased in the Egyptian pyramids.
A swift talk about her father, and Sweden, one of seven children, Anderson recalls a time when she found a box of old photos and cine film in her parents’ attic and delved in to discover pictures of herself pushing her two younger brothers in a buggy across a frozen lake (I wasn’t sure here if the images she showed were real or invented for storytelling purposes but the story was true.) She pushed them across the frozen lake when suddenly a huge crack appeared and the two toddlers fell into freezing water. She acted quickly diving down, saving them. Returning home, she thought she was going to get a massive telling off for being so incredibly stupid. Instead, after some moments of silence, her mother’s response was for her to be told that her mother didn’t realise what a great swimmer and diver she was.
Flushed with the success of being a great swimmer, we then had an account of the ‘unfortunate episode’. A showing off Laurie aged around 12 went to dive off a high diving-board, missed and landed face down on concrete. Paralysed for months in a coma, she eventually came round to do-gooding volunteers telling her baby stories about bouncy rabbits, when her most recent reading matter had been Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
Why do we do patronise children? She reflected on the story and what she’d chosen to tell, saying she left out the real memory of the hospital ward filled with screaming children at night, images of flesh burns and the stench of death.
Recurring throughout the show were Anderson’s reflections on the current political situation in America run through with her sense of social injustice. She used examples of projects she’s done with prisoners to illustrate points, but it wasn’t always easy to follow the narratives – perhaps too many layers to think about.
It was amazing to hear about the incredible range of her work and, for me, she used a dynamic approach for an artist’s lecture. I’d go again.