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Technology Scares Her?

Laurie Anderson's latest work explores the effects--and dangers--of high tech.

September 24, 1998|RICHARD CROMELIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Wow, whaddya think?!"

Awash in the implications of the newly released Starr report, which has just boosted the Internet into the front ranks of media, Laurie Anderson at first sounds more like a coffee-shop waitress shooting the breeze than a high-technology guru--one of the many terms in the train of hyphenates attached to her name (artist-performance artist-musician-philosopher-curator-author, etc.).

But when Anderson, 51, starts talking about what she thinks, it's clear that she's uniquely equipped to be doing the kind of performance she'll present at UCLA's Royce Hall on Friday. "The Speed of Darkness" returns to what might be seen as the central theme of her work.

"I'm fascinated by the effects of technology," she says. "That's why I'm doing this show, because I realized I have a whole lot to say about that. And some of it is sort of bitter. . . .

"Speed results in a glut of stuff, You can get a 451-page report out to everybody in the world and they can read it simultaneously. Is that great? Well, we're gonna see. I don't know, it makes me incredibly nervous.

"What's gonna happen is we'll learn to use it better, or worse. Or start to be literally slaves to it. . . . I mean, just trying to struggle to answer all my e-mail every day--do I need this other layer of communication? Not really. So I guess I'm trying to look at the stress that adds to people's lives.

"I really do think the biggest issue is going to be privacy rather than speed, because they're so interrelated. If anyone can get into your computer . . . it's almost like getting into your mind.

"That's way too much to say, but, you know, my hard drive is called 'Laurie's Hard Drive.' And it's like I'm in there. . . . There's something immortal about being in that box, and something in the way you identify with it that makes it even spookier when it's invaded."

"The Speed of Darkness" will be Anderson's first Los Angeles performance in more than three years, and she hasn't released an album of new material since 1994's "Bright Red." While she remains a fiercely active force in the art world, her profile has diminished in the mainstream since the '80s, when she put out a series of ambitious, acclaimed albums on Warner Bros. Records. "Mister Heartbreak," a 1984 collaboration with Peter Gabriel, became her highest-charting collection, reaching No. 60.

Anderson is a musician, among her many roles, but she calls that whole flirtation with the pop mainstream "a fluke." Anderson had recorded a haunting song called "O Superman" at home in New York for $500 on an NEA grant, and she was selling it by mail order when she got a call from England asking for 40,000 copies (it eventually reached No. 2 on the British charts).

That led her to sign a contract with Warner Bros., whom she had previously rebuffed.

"I think I was just a snob," she says. "It was not my design to be in that world in the first place. I didn't think about it and it wasn't my goal, it was something that happened.

"It was very interesting. I enjoyed working with the people at Warners for a long time, and then there started to be fewer and fewer people that I could really talk to there. . . . I think it's a great label for certain kinds of pop music now, but not for me. . . . I have to like the people I'm working with and not feel like I'm in some big product-making machine."

Anderson records now for the small specialty label Nonesuch, which will release her next project, "Songs and Stories From Moby Dick," next summer. Her ambitious stage production of the work will premiere in spring in the Northeast, with Los Angeles and New York runs in the fall.

The current "Speed of Darkness," in contrast, is a relatively modest, "unplugged" show ("For me that's just 50 plugs," she jokes), a series of songs and stories that comments on technology while serving an ulterior motive for the artist.

"One of the reasons I tour the smaller pieces . . . is to see who's there, and what they think is interesting and funny and stupid or whatever else. Otherwise the concept of audience is too abstract for me. I literally don't know who I'm talking to unless I see them. . . . I like to know who would actually buy a ticket and show up at this thing.

"My goal is never to get as big an audience as possible. I never thought that the more records you sell the better the music is. It always seemed inverse to that. So how can that be my goal? My goal I guess was just to make something I like and that makes me happy."

BE THERE

Laurie Anderson, Royce Hall, UCLA, 8 p.m. $24 and $30 ($19 for UCLA students). (310) 825-2101.

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