Laurie Anderson just returned from Moscow. The New York City-based performance artist visited Star City -- "their equivalent of Mission Control," she explains -- but the shakedown she encountered dominates her recollection of the trip.
Russian police threatened the driver in her party with a drunk driving charge, which would result in his passport being taken, unless he paid the police. "It was scary," she says by phone from her studio.
Anderson was invited to see Star City after serving as NASA's artist-in-residence in 2003, an invitation that led to The End of the Moon, which Anderson will perform at the Ferst Center on Friday. While in Russia, she spoke to a cosmonaut, who told her, "Twenty years ago, I was a military pilot and you were my enemy."
Anderson sees his story as indicative of something larger. "Now he has to adjust to a whole country wearing Armani -- well, not the 20 percent that are unemployed -- but it's this really wild reinvention of things," she says. "We don't feel that in such an extreme way, but many extreme things are happening in our own culture that aren't quite as stark as that, so they're hard for people to absorb."
The slow naturalizing of change is on Anderson's mind. She sees that theme in the conversation with the cosmonaut, and at home with the gradual increases in security forces in America. One passage in The End of the Moon tells the story of her street corner in New York City, which served as a security checkpoint after 9/11. Then again, observing connections between "progress" and change has been one of the hallmarks of Anderson's work since 1981, when "O Superman" became an unlikely pop hit in England. In the years between that and 1986's film Home of the Brave, she became something of a pop star in America. Her cute, razor-cut hair, dimples, deadpan delivery and use of voice-manipulation technology made her a natural for the moment.
The essence of her work hasn't changed that much since then. She is still primarily a storyteller who uses music and technology to tell her stories more completely. She writes, she says, with her violin in her hand. "It's always around and available to do stuff that can't be put into words that well," she says. But as technology has improved, the spectacle of technology has become less conspicuous in her performances. She hasn't given up the spectacle captured in Home of the Brave, but it isn't a part of The End of the Moon. She suspects those at NASA who offered her the artist-in-residence position wishes it were.
"I think they'd have liked it if I would have some big, sexy techno-project like bounce light from one satellite to another and light up the dark side of the moon," Anderson says. "When I told them I was going to do a poem, they were like, 'Why would you waste an opportunity like this?'"
Space and NASA provide The End of the Moon its ostensible subject matter, but as is the case with Anderson's other performances, The End of the Moon ultimately explores life in America. On this occasion, she uses as her starting place an iconic American agency that has endured long enough to inhabit a complex place in the American consciousness. As grand as those concepts are, Anderson approaches them through stories from daily life. She adopted a journalistic stance, but found that more difficult to maintain than she expected.
"I was trying to be as absolutely clear as I could," she says, "not saying what I thought should be there or what I hoped would be there, but what was there. I tried to make it as close as possible to what I saw, and that was amazingly difficult. You'd like to give them the little shape of dramatic narrative, but they don't always have that."