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Friday, February 3, 2012

This Week in BAM History: Laurie Anderson’s United States

Laurie Anderson is an artist with a lifelong obsession with the history and fate of her native country. Since the late 1970s, when she began presenting sections of her magnum opus, United States, Anderson has been preoccupied with capturing all varieties of the American experience. And since United States (including her many subsequent shows at BAM), it seems that Anderson has taken literally Walt Whitman’s injunction that the American poet must walk among the common people of the country.

In fact, Anderson may well be our era’s Whitman. Just as Whitman endeavored to embody what he taught in his writings by serving as a nurse in the Civil War, Anderson has worked both on an Amish farm and at a McDonald’s in Chinatown, and more recently she has been heavily involved in the Occupy movement. She often refers to herself as an anthropologist, and undoubtedly these experiences enrich the American narratives Anderson has been spinning for the past four decades.

Laurie Anderson in United States
United States was the first major articulation by Anderson on the contemporary American experience. Its centerpiece—the single “O Superman”—became a surprise hit in Britain in 1981, pushing Anderson to widespread fame. When the entirety of United States was ready to be performed, BAM had the honor of presenting its world premiere over the course of the week of February 3rd, 1983. In the program notes, Anderson wrote:
“When I began to write United States I thought of it as a portrait of a country. Gradually I realized it was really a description of any technological society and of peoples' attempts to live in an electronic world.

“Like the work of many Americans—Melville, Hemingway, Mark Twain—much of it happens off shore. For perspective. Or on the roads: those moving diagrams of progress, Utopia, and the passage of time.”
Spoken like a true American artist, Anderson here emphasizes not the geographical borders but the perceptual borders that determine These States. In other words, Anderson’s America is not a shape on a map, but an expansion through physical and digital space. If we want to know the answer to the questions Whitman posed to himself in his poem “Salut au Monde”—“What widens within you Walt Whitman? / What waves and soils exuding?”—we need look no further than Laurie Anderson.

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