FILM/LIVE: “The Films of Laurie Anderson” @ EMPAC at RPI, 5/2/13

Laurie Anderson
Laurie Anderson

Review by Greg Haymes
Photographs by Sara Ayers

Back in 1998, Laurie Anderson was headed into the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall – just down the hill a bit in Troy from EMPAC at RPI – to perform “The Speed of Darkness.”

“I guess you could say that it’s kind of my tirade about technology,” Anderson said in an interview at the time. “I was just feeling so frustrated with all of this equipment that I decided to write about it. It really is a situation where equipment and the technology tends to escalate. Not just for me, a `multimedia artist,’ but I think for everybody, and everybody feels this pressure.”

Chances are Anderson was feeling that same pressure earlier this month during the second half of her double-header, “The Films of Laurie Anderson” at EMPAC. The earlier 5pm screenings went off without a hitch, as she screened a wide variety of short films, including “What Do You Mean We?” (produced as a segment for the PBS-TV series “Alive From Off-Center”), “Drum Dance” (an excerpt from her 1986 concert film “Home of the Brave”), “O Superman” and “Beautiful Red Dress” (a pair of music videos), a captivating interpretation of “Carmen,” an excerpt from her 1994 CD-ROM “Puppet Motel,” a handful of decidedly left-of-center “Personal Service Announcements” (addressing the national debt and the national anthem, among other intriguing topics) and a strange promotional video for her 2010 album, Homeland.

“I kind of hesitate to refer to them as films because they’re all sorts of different media projects, she admitted, chatting with the audience between each “film.” Anderson has always been difficult to pigeon-hole regarding her art, and while she’s most often referred to as “a multi-media artist” or “a performance artist,” she considers herself to be a storyteller.

While the 5pm show went smoothly, Anderson ran smack into the brick wall of technology during the 8pm show. After screening the beautiful “Hidden Inside Mountains” – a film she created to be shown on the world’s largest high-definition screen during World Expo 2005 in Japan – and more of “Home of the Brave,” the evening was derailed when Anderson’s computer failed just as she was about to perform an improvised duet with accordionist Pauline Oliveros. She fidgeted around with it for a while, asking Oliveros to cover for her. Oliveros complied with a fascinating solo performance. But still, nothing was working on Anderson’s side of the stage. She continued to troubleshoot while conducting a short Q&A session with audience members. A technician helped out, but to no avail. More solo music from Oliveros. Anderson replaced her iPad and re-booted.

After a very long delay – which I’m sure seemed much longer to Anderson – she was finally back in business, and as it turned out, Oliveros and Anderson performed improvised soundtracks not to Anderson’s own films, but rather to a pair of experimental films by Ken Jacobs.

In the end, the Oliveros/Anderson duets seemed a bit anti-climactic, surprisingly enough. Maybe Anderson was still a bit flustered from the technological meltdown, but Oliveros seemed to dominate the music.

No matter, it was a wonderful evening and, in fact, a great double-header. It was also a reminder that sometimes even the best of artists are beset by the ongoing battle of man versus machine…

Sara Foss’ review of the 8pm screening at Foss Forward

Pauline Oliveros and Laurie Anderson
Pauline Oliveros and Laurie Anderson

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