||S Y C A M O R E||T H E L E G A C Y O F I N V E N T I O N||
Sing the Body Electronic:
American Invention in Contemporary Performance
in United States: Part One (1979-83), tells a horrifying story about Thomas Edison.1
The inventor was upset over the work of his ex-employee, Nicolai Tesla,2
promoting mass application of AC electrical current (in opposition to Edison's
espousal of DC current). Edison ventured onto the lecture circuit preaching the
awful dangers of AC power. As the climax of his presentation, Edison attached a
live AC wire to a dog, causing it to writhe about in agony until it dropped dead.
Anderson's Edison story is grounded in the understanding that electricity (both in
its AC and Edison's preferred DC forms) can be harmful to bodies, an idea Anderson
herself develops in her performance. The Edison anecdote serves as a prelude to a
"Dance of Electricity," a dance which she says mimics the movements one makes when
one's finger gets "wedged in a live socket and your arms start pumping up and down
and your mouth is slowly opening and closing and you feel the power but no words
come out" (United States, n.p.; Stories from the Nerve Bible 175).
The potential physical dangers of electric current were even more
graphically explored about a decade before Anderson's performance in
the early work of body artist Chris
In "Prelude to 220" (also
known as "110," 1971), Burden was strapped to a concrete floor in close
proximity to a pair of water-filled buckets with submerged live electric
wires; had the buckets been tipped over (which, obviously, didn't happen),
electrical current might have traveled through the spilled water to Burden's
body. In "220" (1971) Burden and three of his friends spent the night atop
wooden step-ladders which were sitting in a pool of water containing a live
electrical wire; had the participants fallen off the ladders (again, none did),
they would have been electrocuted. Two years later Burden stood in the doorway
of his Venice studio and gouged two live electrical wires into his chest, a
performance he titled "Doorway to Heaven" (1973); Burden survived the performance
to say, "the wires crossed and exploded, burning me but saving me from
electrocution" (Burden and Butterfield 223). These three "danger"
performances only deserve that adjective because both the performers and
the audience knew what Edison showed almost a century earlier, that large
doses of electricity can have harmful effects on the body.4
But the work of Bob Flanagan, a contemporary performance artist and poet whose career
reached its apogee a decade following Anderson's "United States," suggests (through an
equally extreme example) a positive effect of electricity. Before his death from cystic
fibrosis early in 1996, Flanagan and his partner, Sheree Rose, performed S&M routines in
which Rose was the S and Flanagan the M.5
The performances tested the limits of actions the
body could endure (including, at times, the voyeuristic bodies of audience members), with
events ranging from flogging to strangulation; one event climaxed with Flanagan driving a
nail through his penis.6
Flanagan, however, did not use electricity as a torture device,
but rather channelled it through electronic devices (VCRs and television monitors) to
record and replay his performances. Flanagan acknowledged that one can hammer a nail
through one's penis only so many times before it ceases to function effectively as an
organ of (masochistic) pleasure. Videotaping the performance once provided Flanagan
with a means to present and re-present his action (even without Flanagan present), yet
still provides almost the same level of shock value as seeing Flanagan and his hammer
live. Thus Flanagan used electricity, channeled through electronic devices, to preserve
his body by providing representations of it.7
Electronic Gadgets and Anderson's Body of Work
live/hate relationship toward electrical technology, this contrast between Burden's
threat of electrical harm and Flanagan's effort to preserve himself (via electronics)
from his self-inflicted harm, is equally present throughout Anderson's work.8 As she
herself frequently mentions in interviews, stories such as her tale of the Edison/Tesla
controversy, which can be read as feminist critique of violent patriarchal competition
surrounding technology, are presented in performance via electronic amplification, as well
as stored electronically for later reproduction. Anderson's use of technology has been
identified by Vicki Wylder as a "neither love it nor leave it" attitude.
9 While critiquing
electronic technologies (and those who design, manufacture, market, and consume them),
Anderson herself participates in those projects of designing, manufacturing, marketing
and producing; in doing so she also is a significant consumer of electronic products,
referring to herself, for example, as "pretty addicted" to computers (Holthouse)10. Anderson
claims her "personal aesthetic" can be reduced to "the more things that plug in, the
better. . . . I'm never as happy," she adds, "as when I'm surrounded by blinking
lights and dials" (Spurlock 22).11
Yet Anderson's fame as a performance artists rests not only on her mastery of technology,
but also on the use of her body as a primary medium for, or at least element within, her work.
Anderson's rise to popularity in the 1980s coincided with a new interest in the body in
performance, not as a ground for the performance event, but as "a matrix in social space"
(Export). The conjunction of electricity and the body in Anderson's performances allows
an examination of the impact of those devices on the body, as it is reconfigured away from
a unified and unique repository for identity. Much recent theoretical work has focused on
"cutting edge" technologies, such as Virtual Reality and the resulting "virtual body" (see,
for example, Arthur Kroker's The Possessed Individual)12, ostensibly producing an "immaterial
society" (Diani; Moles). However, the effects of already-existing wide-spread electronic
technologies on bodies have not yet been fully documented. This is due in part to the
preference exhibited by most critical studies of electronic technologies to explore their
impact on society at large13,
while ignoring individuals within that society. A study of
the use of conventional electronic devices within the work of Anderson and other
performers, conjoined with a historical analysis of the invention of those devices,
emphasizes the extent to which electronics function as "tricksters." Electronic
devices reconfigure our perceptions of the human body and its capabilities
(Birringer Ch. 5), making more permeable the spatial and temporal boundaries which
have traditionally been thought to form the body's limits. Electronics, in other
words, changes the body by changing the way we see it, hear it, and think about it.
A series of three related Anderson performances illustrates the reconfiguration
of the body within Anderson's work. In "Reverb" (from "United States: Part Two")14
Anderson embedded a contact microphone into the bridge of a pair of glasses. With
the glasses in place, Anderson clicked her teeth together and knocked on her skull
with her knuckles. Vibrations from these two actions traveled through her skull and
were picked up by the microphone, then amplified and processed with heavy reverberation.
The resulting art work had a startling effect on audiences, since one does not normally
consider sounds resulting from contact with one's skull as source material for a musical
composition. Indeed the effect comes as much from seeing the source of the sounds, as
it does from the sounds themselves. By transforming her head into a musical instrument,
Anderson objectified it, an ironic gesture since the head is traditionally viewed as the
site of one's subjective being and consciousness. "Playing" her head caused audiences to
see it differently. Only the electronic sensing and processing, however, made her "head
music" accessible to an audience.
Anderson expanded this idea for "Drum Dance" in Home of the Brave. For this piece,
Anderson attached the triggers from electronic percussion instruments to a costume.
By touching those triggers while wearing the costume, Anderson could generate percussion
sounds; tapping her left upper chest produced a bass drum sound, her right knee caused a
snare drum noise, and the fingers of her left hand played a "high-hat" cymbal. To
appropriately match the loud drum sounds produced, however, Anderson developed a wild,
Just as "Reverb" transformed Anderson's head into a percussion instrument,
"Drum Dance" transformed Anderson's entire body into a trap set. These pieces references
two directions simultaneously. First they point toward the non- Western traditions of body
music, using parts of the body to produce percussive sounds (most typically as accompaniment
for singing); the "Drum Dance" interconnects with those traditions, and therefore with
cultures already accustomed to viewing the body as a playable instrument.16 Body music,
however, is "natural"; Anderson's adaptation and updating of that tradition into an
electronic form merges the non-traditional view of the body with digital sound production.
Anderson's body percussion involves sounds which the body is incapable of producing, at a
volume it is incapable of producing. It combines the natural with the unnatural.
By the early 1990s, Anderson had further adapted this technique using technology
called the "Bodysynth."17
This device uses electronic triggers (similar to those
adapted from electronic percussion and used in the "Drum Dance") connected via "MIDI,"
the Musical Instrument Digital Interface, to computers so that any digitally stored sound
can be "played" by touch. Thus in the opening of the "Nerve Bible" performance, Anderson's
hand gestures produce sounds of a heart beat, a heavy breath, a wolf howl, a fire alarm,
and a wrist-watch alarm. Again Anderson merges the natural and the unnatural, directly
associating both with her body. Yet even in producing natural sounds (as when she touches
her left chest to trigger the heart beat sound), the result is nonnatural; through the
Bodysynth technology, Anderson produces on demand a natural human sound which normally
remains hidden, and over which bodies have relatively little control. While Anderson has
electronically reproduced digitally-stored sounds of fire alarms, wolf howls and heartbeats
within her performances since the early 1980s, she has normally triggered those sounds from
a conventional musical source (such as a keyboard or a violin); with the Bodysynth device
Anderson can trick the imagination into associating those sounds with her own physical being.
Anderson uses technology to do the impossible with her body.
While drum machines and the Bodysynth are both available commercially, neither is part
of the common experience of individuals produced by Western industrialized nations.
More common electronic technologies, however, are equally fascinating in their ability
to re-wire the human body, and figure just as prominently within Anderson's oeuvre.
Anderson's use of electronic devices within her work foregrounds the sense that they
accomplish the impossible; this foregrounding illustrates the extent of transformation
which the body has undergone in the century since electronic devices began to form a
significant presence within Western culture. As we grow accustomed to the trickery of
these devices, we see the body in a new light.
Let There Be (Electric) Light
lighting, one of the earliest wide-spread electronic technologies, was one of
Anderson's first performance tools. Given Anderson's decision to perform in galleries,
theaters and concert halls, electric light is essential to allow her work, including her
body, to be seen. Illuminating darkness has been the primary purpose of this technology
since Joseph Swan18
created the first electric filament lamp in 1860, based on an 1845
patent by J. W. Starr ("Modern Inventions" 1335). Unfortunately, Swan's device had a
life of only a few minutes (even less if it were jiggled or bumped). Initial applications
of electric lights used the arc lamp, first installed by Charles F. Brush
19 in the home of
a Cincinnati physician in 1877; arc lamps, however, proved more suitable for commercial
applications, as John Wanamaker20
realized when he installed arc lamps in his Philadelphia
store in 1878 (Oliver 347-348). To improve Swan's lamp as an inexpensive, long-lasting
electric light source for practical use, Thomas Edison ("whose name will always be
synonymous with the electric light," according to one historian of
technology [Oliver 349]) had to develop a carbon filament for incandescent bulbs.21
Edison's electric light makes life easier for bodies, since illumination can
spare bodies from bumps and bruises while attempting, for example, to traverse
around furniture in darkened rooms. Electric light especially aids the eyes,
which no longer have to strain to see in the dark. This factor makes less
fatiguing certain activities such as reading at night, which in turn makes
staying up late more interesting. Anderson, for example, describes the pleasure
of working in her studio late at night illuminated only by the dials of her
electronic equipment. Man-made illumination, however, has both positive and
negative effects on the body; as Verena Conley points out regarding technology
in general, devices provide an opportunity to free the body, yet remain intricately
connected to capitalism. This dual potential was not unnoticed in the earliest
days of electric lighting. John Wanamaker's arc lamps within his department store
highlight the body's involvement with commerce. Crowds reportedly gathered on the
evening of December 26, 1878 to view the 20 burning bulbs in his store; perhaps
some of those persons chose to buy things which they otherwise might not have
purchased at that hour of the evening. Other department stores copied Wanamaker
which produced the trend of night-time window shopping. Besides impacting
consumption of goods, the electric light also affected production. In the
early 1880s factories introduced the night shift, since bodies could now see
to perform their duties indoors even though the outdoors was dark (Oliver 347).
Thanks to this technology, employers have even more opportunity to exploit workers'
bodies. Thus electric light illumines the contradictory nature of a technological
effects. The ability to see well at night frees bodies from "natural" constraints;
yet it may also interrupt the body's natural sleep/work pattern (sleeping whenever
it's dark out, working whenever it's light) through economic restrictions.
Anderson's late-night work by the light of her electronic devices illustrates
the change in work habits made possible by electricity (though in contrast with
many who work industrial night shifts22, Anderson considers her opportunity to work
through the night a positive experience).
Besides using electric light in the production of her work, Anderson controls light in her
performances in association with her body, illustrating its ability to increase awareness
of various body parts and functions. For "This is the Picture" (Home of the Brave, 1985),23
Anderson tapes small light bulbs to her hands. The bulbs are activated as the stage darkens,
so that her hand movements are emphasized. The rest of her body is deemphasized, except when
she moves her hands closer to her face; at that time her face takes on an eery glow, an
appearance which would only be achievable through weak lighting in close proximity to her.24
Anderson has also internalized electric light. Much as a physician might use a lighted otoscope
to better examine a patient's bodily orifice, Anderson has illuminated the "empty space"
(or "volume," to borrow a term employed by Luce Irigaray) of one body cavity by placing a
small light bulb in her mouth, causing her lips and cheeks to glow red ("Odd Objects," from
"United States: Part III," 1983).25
Anderson uses bright red light in another performance
("Beautiful Red Dress" from "Empty Places," 1989) to reference another bodily volume; the
lights bathe her body (and the entire stage) in red to reinforce the song's menstrual
theme. Anderson's use of red lighting should be seen as a political gesture, foregrounding
the traditional disdain exhibited among many cultures for women's menstrual blood.26 Diamanda
similarly relies on red lighting in her "Plague Mass"; rather than emphasize
menstruation, Galas's red light conjoins the liquid-red substance covering her face and torso
to highlight the AIDS awareness and anti-homophobic themes of her work. Both performers use
this light to celebrate blood as an essential bodily element and experience, but also as
political gestures critical of conventional assumptions regarding the body (or at least
regarding certain bodies).28
Not only does Anderson use electric light to illumine her body, she also uses projected
light to impact the bodies of her viewers. Her "Quartet for Four (Subsequent) Listeners"
(1978, also titled "Note/Tone" in Stories from the Nerve Bible ) was an installation
in a gallery, empty except for a band of light extending diagonally across the floor.
When a viewer stepped into the band of light an electronic sensor triggered one of four
sounds. This structure allowed Anderson's viewers to become composer/performers,
triggering sounds by interacting bodily with beams of light.
29 Projected light also figures
prominently in Anderson's performances. She speaks of lighting the stage in such a way
that she can see her audience, and of modifying her performance as it progresses, based
on the audience's reaction. On some occasions Anderson places her audience directly in
the spotlight. In "Lighting Out for the Territories" (from United States: Part IV, 1983)
Anderson reverses the Lacanian notion of a point of light substituting for "the gaze";
Anderson wears "headlamp goggles" which have small headlight beams emanating out from
her eyes (Anderson Stories 143).30
Her audience during this concluding piece of "United
States" has little sense of Anderson's body, except in a general sense as the origin of
the parallel points of light. The headlights randomly project upon members of the
audience, foregrounding them while not recognizing them. Placing audience members
in the spotlight transforms them into (unwilling) performers,31
while Anderson speaks
in second person: "You're driving and it's dark and it's raining. . . . Hello.
Excuse me. Can you tell me where I am?"
Effects such as these could only be accomplished using electronic technology; they would not be
possible using, say, a candle32
or sunlight. Electronic devices provide the special effects of
Anderson's art. Yet the special effects, illuminating the inside of Anderson's mouth, or
making beams of light emanate out from her eyes, reconfigure our perception of Anderson's body.
Her mouth is no longer simply a sound-producing opening, but a space which can glow blood-red.
Her eyes, metaphorically like Superman's, can pierce through the darkness to illumine those of
us in the audience who normally remain hidden; the performer's gaze, metaphorically presented
via the beams of light, produces an effect in her audience, but it is the technology which
performs the trickery.
Bell(')s Ringing and Boys' Bodies: The Telephone
telephone, as one of the few electronic devices which large numbers of humans
have mastered, has formed a very visible theme within Anderson's work. One of
Anderson's most comic pieces, "New York Social Life," illustrates the frequency with
which the telephone prevents rather than aids communication.33 A 1978 installation,
"Numbers Runners," is a standard-looking phone booth which plays Anderson stories
when the receiver is picked up; the listener, prompted to respond to questions, hears
her or his own voice a fraction of a second after speaking (via tape delay).34 In Home
of the Brave telephones and telephone images appear on several occasions. This is in
part a reflection of the thoroughness with which telephones have infiltrated society
since Alexander Graham Bell first patented the device on March 7, 1876 (Dummer 62),
three days before Bell spoke his famous first telephoned words: "Watson, come here;
I want you!" (Oliver 437).35
Bell's device wasn't practical, however, since its method
of transducing sound waves into electrical signals made human speech sound like
gobbledy-gook. This gave an opportunity for Thomas Edison (assisted by Emile
to develop an improved microphone for telephony a year later, just two
years before he improved Swan's light bulb (Dummer 63). The device allows real-time
oral communication at distances greater than those over which the human voice can
Since its inception, the telephone has impacted bodies, making feasible, for example, the
skyscraper as well as a new career option for women. Tall buildings would be impractical
without the telephone because businesses within those buildings would not be able to
communicate rapidly with one another. The primary method of achieving inter-business
communications in the urban centers of the late 1800s was via human messenger. Such
messengers, usually young boys, would physically carry written messages from one place
of business to another; a very tall building could not contain enough elevators to provide
for the number of messenger boys which companies would require. The telephone, therefore,
not only made skyscrapers possible, it also made turn-of-the-century businesses less inclined
to exploit the bodies of young boys. Or to say this another way, after the telephone, boys
could no longer find gainful employment as messengers. Some of those boys were put to work
as telephone operators, but they proved unreliable for such positions, tending to explore the
boundaries of the new technology by engaging in prank phone calls involving foul language.
This gave an opportunity for women's bodies to be exploited as operators (since, phone
companies presumed, the work was not strenuous enough to require men's bodies), creating
a profession which remained "women's work" for decades.
Two obvious effects of Bell's device are an apparent overcoming of distances between
bodies and an increased sense of bodily presence in long- distance communication. In
rural America of the late 1800s, grown children might move as little as 20-30 miles
away from home yet still be seen only rarely by their parents. Direct family contact
would seldom occur; communication would be infrequent, primarily in writing. Letters,
while of course they contain personal characteristics of the writer (handwriting traits,
preferred cliches, and style of expression, for example), are visual representations of what
a person might physically speak if that person were present; because the telephone allows one
to hear a person actually speak, the person seems more present than if he or she were to
"speak" through a letter. The telephone, in other words, allows distances to be bridged in
a matter of a few seconds, making another body sound as if it were in the same room. The
telephone simulates one aspect of bodily presence, allowing a person to "be" in two places
at once (Kern 188). Anderson highlights this phenomenon during Home of the Brave by telephoning,
on stage, Joy Askew, her keyboard player, who is also present on stage. Rather than simply
walking across the stage to speak, or even more simply yelling across the stage, Anderson
phones Askew to converse about a specific audience member sitting in the balcony; the conversation
is amplified so that the audience can conveniently eavesdrop. The absurdity of the situation
(especially as Askew makes clear from her tone of voice that Anderson's call is an unwelcome
interruption) demands the question, "why didn't Anderson simply go talk to Askew, without
electronic mediation?" For the situation to seem like a telephone call, however, the two
performers must act as if they are not physically present on the same stage (which they
accomplish by not making eye contact). Their bodies must seem in some way physically
absent (from one another) for their virtual, telephonic presences to be meaningful.37
As Anderson illustrates, to communicate via the telephone, one need not physically walk a
distance to "see" someone. Nor is the less vigorous yet still kinesthetic activity of
writing a letter required. Those physical activities are replaced by an even less
physically demanding action: picking up a telephone receiver and dialing (or punching)
a series of numbers. The body is less engaged in dialing a telephone, in initiating
the communication experience, though it is also more free to assume a variety of positions
and activities while communicating; because a person with whom a telephone voice is present
can't be seen by the body from which the voice emanates, a person may feel free to engage
in bodily activities (lying down, picking one's nose, masturbating, etc.) which typically
would not be practiced while communicating in person.38
Thus talking on the phone is primarily a thing to do by oneself, alone with one's body and
a disembodied voice. Even when using a public, glass-box pay phone, one shuts the glass
door for "privacy." Watching someone else speak on the phone (particularly when the person's
voice cannot be heard) becomes a remarkably voyeuristic activity; it is gazing at something
which one generally feels to be private and hidden. Anderson makes this apparent when, on stage,
she (appears to) make a phone call to someone off stage. In "Telephone Song" (from United States:
Part IV, 1983) she places a call to suggest that a friend catch a taxi to come to her performance
(of course, we don't know if she "really" phones a friend or if she just "acts" like she does; we
are equally voyeurs either way). Her body assumes a relaxed, lounging position which contrasts
with her typical controlled persona, reinforcing the "private" nature of her action; her voice
similarly sounds more relaxed, and less practiced. Anderson's bringing the telephone conversation
out of the closet (or perhaps out of the booth) foregrounds for her audience how bodies look and
sound different while using the telephone.
The ability to dial seven numbers also gives one the power to cause another person to stop
whatever activity she or he is engaged in, move rapidly to her or his telephone, pick it
up and speak. This was the goal underlying the much publicized moment in the U2 "Zoo TV"
when Bono placed a call to the White House (or alternatively 10 Downing Street or The
Vatican or some other ostensible site of world power). The fact that Bono never got through
to the President (in more ways than one) points out that if one is important (and wealthy)
enough, one can hire a body (or bodies) to take one's phone calls; this means an important
person need only be troubled by other important people who make important phone calls,
rather than deal with some young hoodlum's prank.
Of course, most people can't afford to hire another person to answer one's phone. Instead,
some will purchase an answering machine, an electronic device which can save one the trouble
of physically interacting with the telephone merely because it happens to ring. Thus one
labor-saving device (the telephone) can decrease one's efficiency (by constantly interrupting),
producing the need for another labor-saving device (the answering machine) to mitigate the
adverse consequences of the first device. Anderson appears to have in mind phenomena such
as this when she expresses interest in a theory espoused by Wubbo Oechels (whom Anderson
refers to as "the Dutch Astronaut")40
that technology is a new parasite gradually taking
over its human hosts (Anderson Stories 239).41
Anderson's willing participation with
technology suggests such a take-over may not be exclusively bad. Yet the answering machine
(to preview the upcoming section on the phonograph) serves as another electronic trick; as a
line from Anderson's "O Superman" illustrates ("Please leave a message at the sound of the
tone"), an answering machine suggests the person you are trying to reach is not at home,
though his or her voice in some way is.
Morse's Finger: The Telegraph
telegraph no longer directly impacts most humans (and plays at most a minor role within
contemporary performance), yet still deserves a brief reference for its intriguing relationship
to the body. While message boys were used in the late 1800s for short-distance message delivery,
long distance messages were already being delivered at that time via Samuel Morse's telegraph.42
Morse patented his device in 1837, though it was later perfected to allow multiple simultaneous
bidirectional messages by, who else, Thomas Edison in 1873 ("Inventions" 1333). The telegraph
was the first wide-spread application of electricity because the technology required very low
levels of power, suppliable by batteries (Pacey 168).
The telegraph provided the same sense of immediacy (though a somewhat slow-motion immediacy,
since the message had to be specially coded and decoded) as the telephone, but even less sense
of presence than the written letter. Telegraphic messages were first written down, then
translated into Morse code, then transmitted, then decoded back into print by the receiver,
providing none of the bodily effects (handwriting traits) of personal letters; in fact, the
technology gave the final received message the hand-writing (or typing) traits of someone
else's body. Furthermore, because customers paid by the word, they tended to use very
concise "telegraph syntax" which dropped articles and subjects, masking the sender's
personality even more than letter writing would.
The telegraph was available only as a service, not as a technology most people would operate
themselves. This means the telegraph's primary impact on bodies was restricted to those of
the telegraph operators. Operators' bodies would develop a new muscle skill. Rather than
the three dimensional movements combining hand, wrist and arm muscle movements (and finger
muscle rigidity) required for writing, the telegraph required a still hand, wrist and arm,
but two- dimensional movement (up and down) of just one or two fingers (to tap the telegraph
key, an electronic switch).43
In the present context, two connections between the telegraph
and the present day should be noted. First, the action of playing a note on an electronic
keyboard is essentially the same physical action as hitting a telegraph key; in both cases
the body is interacting with a springed, digital (on/off) switch (and in fact Anderson's
"Smoke Rings" from Home of the Brave includes a moment when a keyboard musician plays Morse code).
In addition, the hand movement required to operate the telegraph is also similar to the action
of punching buttons on a TV or VCR remote control unit. While the telegraph is essentially
dead, the body movement associated with telegraphers lives on as an integral element in the
cultural lives of industrialized nations.
Caruso's Throat and His Master's Voice: The Phonograph
the telegraph is at most peripheral to Anderson's work, audio recording is central to it.
Audio recording has made possible the scope and direction of Anderson's career since 1981 and the
surprise commercial success of "O Superman."44
Much of Anderson's reputation is based on the
audio documents she has produced as well as the resulting "cross-over" success those audio
documents have allowed within popular culture.45
Thus while Anderson depicts Edison as an
absurd villain, she is quite indebted to one of his best known products. In 1877, four
years after Edison improved someone else's telegraph, and about the same time he was improving
someone else's telephone, he developed on his own the phonograph.46
Edison called the
phonograph a discovery rather than an invention because he was actually trying to create
an automated telegraph at the time; the fact that the sound his device made roughly resembled
the sound of human speech was a fortuitous accident (Millard 63). Edison's first recorded
message was "Mary had a little lamb,"47
scratched onto a piece of tin foil wrapped around a
His technology was improved in 1885 by Chichester Bell
("Inventions" 1329) (an associate of Alexander Graham Bell; Alexander almost invented
the phonograph concept himself in 1874 [Millard 64]). It was improved again in 1887 by
(the man who at the time Edison was first inventing this technology was
assisting him in improving Bell's telephone). Berliner's improvement
used a flat disk, capable of being mass duplicated in shellac form (Dummer 15). The
phonograph and its progeny allow sounds to be translated into mechanical (later magnetic
and more recently digital) representations of those sounds, and then translated back
into more-or-less exact reproductions of the original sounds (thus the image on early
RCA Victor recordings of a dog [Edison's?] hearing "His Master's Voice" from a phonograph
The invention of the phonograph marked the first time in history that a human could leave for
posterity simulations of non-visual bodily residue. Artists, sculptors, and builders have
left evidence of their 'hand'iwork for millennia, while writers and composers have left
marks on the page, only representations of their thought, but still evidence of actual
physical movement. The phonograph gave aural evidence of orality, providing opportunities
for humans to leave sonic images of their ideas, not just visual or verbal images. Just as
people still look at ancient cave drawings and still read
, people still enjoy recordings
by opera tenor Enrico Caruso52
(the man credited with making the Berliner gramophones [as further
improved by Eldridge Johnson,53
creator of the Victrola] worth buying, and the first performer
to sell one million copies of a recording [Millard 208-210]), even though the cave men,
Homer, and Caruso are all dead. The phonograph adds sound to the panoply of means by which
humans can extend evidence of bodily activity post death.
As both Anderson and Caruso illustrate, sound recording has significant business applications.
Not everyone could travel to Milan to hear Caruso sing at La Scala, but for a price a person
could purchase a wax-tube gramophone recording of Caruso's voice which, when combined with the
appropriate reproduction technology (also available at a price), could allow one to hear the
tenor perform the "Vesti la giubba" aria from I Pagliacci (one of Caruso's trademark roles).
This meant Caruso had a greater range of opportunities to make money by using the parts of his
body he had spent years training and developing (in fact, he was paid $500 for his first Victor
recordings of 10 arias), which meant the Victor Talking Machine Company could also benefit
financially, ultimately in the seven digit range, from Caruso's throat and lungs (Millard 209).54
Thus not only does the phonograph allow simulations of a body's sounds even after the body is
dead, it allows other living bodies to make money from that dead body's simulated sounds.
Anderson openly acknowledges the importance of sound recordings as commercial objects for
furthering her career. As a performance artist of the conceptualist 1970s, Anderson claims
she was loathe to produce art objects, which had the potential of taking on fetishistic
qualities upon entering the art market. This rejection of the art object, however,
contradicted her desire to share her temporal-based art in a tangible form. Thus she
pursued audio recording as a means of inexpensively distributing her art to the masses.
One of her earliest explorations of the technology was "Jukebox" (1977), an installation
containing twenty-five 45 rpm records of Anderson
The installation gave bodies
convenient access to her songs (for twenty-five cents, and only if they happened to be in
the same room as the device). Nowadays one can purchase a Laurie Anderson CD for about $16,
and her recording contract with Warner Bros.57
will allow her to provide food, clothing, and
shelter for her body at least into the early years of the coming millenium. For Anderson,
sound recording technology increases her opportunities to distribute her work, and her fans'
opportunities to experience that work, while also earning her a living. At the same time,
experiencing Anderson's work on CD is most often an isolated experience. Prior to audio
recordings hearing music would require the bodily presence of the performer(s). The
phonograph brought about a change in bodily experience of music, transforming it from a
collective to an individual experience (Battcock).
Another business application of sound recording is the dictating machine (which Edison
vigorously promoted in the 1880s and again beginning in 1905, rather unsuccessfully both
times [Millard 253, 257]). Dictation centers around the phenomenon of one person (the
higher paid, more important person) speaking documents for another person (the lower
paid, less important person) to transcribe into print. The dictating machine allows the
more important person to speak his or her (traditionally just his) documents without the
presence of the lesser important person (traditionally
a her58), and conversely the lesser
important person to transcribe from only aural residue of the more important person. The
dictating machine, much like Anderson's "art" recordings, increases the opportunities of
workers to get their work done without requiring an "in-the-flesh" encounter; the "dictatee"
has more freedom from the "dictator" (and vice versa). Yet at the same time, the two
employees will have less direct (visual) contact with one another, much as the purchasers
of Anderson's recordings will be distanced visually from Anderson. Audio recording allows
sound to be separated from sight; while it provides a sense of aural presence, it joins
the telephone in separating the aural from the visual presence. Human sound can now be a
discrete element, completely cut off from an actual body.
Les Paul's Singer's Voice's Voices and Milli Vanilli: Audio Tape
cut off from the body, the sound source of a vocalist such as Anderson or Caruso appears
to be a CD, cassette tape, or album (or the stereo speakers from which the sound emerges).
Yet a substantial change has taken place between Caruso's time and Anderson's which affects
the purpose of audio recording and the storage of human sound. Recording Caruso meant
trying to capture his performance onto disk. But Caruso's work, developing and training
his voice and lungs, all took place before the recording, which was merely capturing the
end product of that process. By the 1950s musicians were recorded on audio tape (magnetic
particles attached to a plastic backing) rather than directly to disks (McNeil 722); because
a given piece of audio tape could be divided into narrow bands or strips, sounds from two or
more separate microphones could be recorded simultaneously but stored separately on the tape,
making possible stereophonic (and quadraphonic) listening. Guitarist Les Paul, fiddling
around with the wires on his four-channel tape recorder, discovered that its record head
could function as a playback head on channel one while still functioning as a record head
on channel two. This meant he could record his guitar on channel one, then playback channel
one while simultaneously recording his singer, Mary Ford, on channel two (Arger 250). So if
Paul "got it right" the first time, his singer could keep trying until she finally "got it
right" too, but they wouldn't both have to keep performing together.
This possibility has had a wide variety of effects on the recording industry and
bodies of persons associated with that industry. Paul, for example, could record
his guitar part in Nashville and then ship the tape to New York where the singer
could go into a studio, listen to Paul's recording and sing along on another channel.59
Two persons recording a duet would not need to be physically present with one another to
make the recording; in fact, they would not even need to meet (such was rumored to be the
case with Sinatra's60
duet albums). Not only could spatial distances be crossed in this way,
so could temporal distances (think of Natalie
album of duets with her long-dead
father). Furthermore, it would now become possible for a musician to perform a duet
with him or her self, by first recording on one track, then on another. The possibility
of one recognizable voice performing both lines of a duet expands the perception of the
singer; he or she may not be two persons, but he or she appears to be more than one person.
A more significant change in recording strategy due to multi-channel recording, however, is
that the goal is no longer to record, reproduce, and simulate a pre-existing performance.
Now a recording can be constructed in the studio layer by layer (perhaps with one person doing
all the performance work, as with Mike Oldfield's ground-breaking "Tubular
from 1973, or
even earlier with Walter [now Wendy] Carlos's63
1968 "Switched-On Bach"64). Such a recording is a
"simulation" of a non-pre-existent "original" (Poster
Because live performance is still
intimately tied to the body, performers will attempt to re- create on stage their recordings,
which were only simulations of a non-existent performance; the live version very likely won't
be as good as the (original) simulation. This fact might motivate a musician to merely
perform visually on stage in sync with a sound recording. As the infamous Milli Vanilli66
fiasco reveals, contemporary recording technology can manipulate performing musicians into
Anderson's work is exemplary of the potential of electronic recording technology and the
resulting methods of sound manipulation. On stage she sings into a microphone and channels
the sound into her keyboard so that her voice will sound at any of the pitches represented
by the keys. In other words, she processes her voice into a chord while she sings; Anderson
then appears to be singing several notes at once, generally considered impossible. Anderson
applies this technique in several of her works, notably "O Superman" (United States: Part II,
1981, and Big Science, 1982) which also incorporates a brief sung syllable captured via her
technology and perpetually repeated throughout the song, forming the obligato rhythm track
which underscores her sung chords; the result is a bodily impossibility, since the
repeated "ah-ah-ah" perpetually exhales for eight minutes, never taking an opportunity
to breathe in. Multi-channel recording and its more recent sound-processing descendants
(such as the Vocoder and harmonizer) allow Anderson to make more of herself on stage,
expanding her body's capabilities.
Anderson has further complicated the relationship between the body and electronics, using
the medium of audio tape adapted for her "tape-bow violin." For this invention (created
with collaborator Bob Bielecki), Anderson replaced the horse hairs of her violin bow with
audio tape. Anderson "played" the tape by rubbing it across a tape-recorder playback
transducer attached to her violin. With spoken messages recorded on the tape, Anderson
can make her violin "talk"; since the tape can be rubbed either direction across the tape
transducer, the violin can speak messages both backwards and forwards
(Anderson Stories 36, 120). The result is not only remarkable for apparently allowing
her violin to, literally, talk, but also because using this technique allows human speech
to create two separate meaningful messages (when played forwards and then backwards).
Opera Singers' Lungs and Paula Abdul's Waistline: Sound Amplification
hile audio recordings allow an intimate aural contact between a musician and an audience without requiring the bodily presence of that musician, it often produces a correlating problem for singers such as Anderson. Not only must they attempt to match in performance the quality of their recordings, they must also simulate the intimate quality of their voice while still being heard by tens of thousands of audience members. For Enrico Caruso this was not a problem, due both to his training and his body. While generally considered a good-looking fellow, by today's standards Caruso had several extra pounds of flesh on his body (certainly more than what one finds on either member of Milli Vanilli). In fact, opera singers67 are generally expected to weigh above average; the added body weight is thought to add resonance to the voice and power to its projection. The opera singer traditionally has needed a powerful voice to propel sound through an 800-seat opera house, especially while competing with an 80- instrument Wagnerian orchestra playing full blast from the pit.
This became unnecessary, however, with the invention of the loudspeaker, first designed by E. W.
of Germany in 1877 (Edison was busy with the phonograph just at that moment, or he surely
would have gotten involved) but perfected by C. W. Rice and E. W. Kellog in 1925, and further by
P. J. Walker in 1957 (Dummer 63, 151). The loudspeaker allows electronics to propel a voice,
even one in a body which has not developed its voice for projection purposes. This means a
performing body no longer needs to train its voice to perform in a large space and be heard
by large numbers of people. A person's voice can sound bigger just by applying electronics.
In other words, electronics makes Paula Abdul's voice possible as a live-performance instrument.69
Because Abdul does not need 100 "extra" pounds of body weight to add power to her relatively weak
voice, she can remain slim and "healthy" looking. Or to put this another way, Abdul has no excuse
for gaining weight; she can now be coerced by societal standards to mimic an idealized body shape,
and can even contribute to maintaining those standards so that masses of other men and women who
don't have the opportunity to earn millions of dollars by having electronics project their voices
into large spaces can feel compelled to make their bodies look like hers.
The loudspeaker not only makes a voice louder, it also allows the voice to be heard from further
away, creating a disjunction between the body one sees in the distance and the voice one hears
close up. Of course, combining the loudspeaker with Edison's telephone microphone resulted in
the intercom, which allows a body to make its voice present from a distance, without the body
itself being visible. This gives important persons (again, historically, primarily men)
access to and power over the bodies of certain less important persons (again, primarily
women) just by touching a button (and thus perpetually mimicking Bell's first telephoned
message: "Miss Watson, come here; I want you").
Anderson's "Stephen Weed" (United States: Part III, 1983) illustrates the impact such voice
displacement has on the body. The piece is about Weed's interrogation by two FBI agents who
sat opposite one another and alternated asking questions while he sat between the two. Weed's
head was constantly swiveling back and forth to respond to his questioners. As a result of his
head mimicking the motion associated with "no," all of his responses began to sound like "no,"
While she tells this story, Anderson swivels her head back and forth, mimicking
Weed's head, between two microphones which are channeled to speakers on opposite sides of the
stage. Her voice alternately appears to shift from one side of the stage to another; although
Anderson's only physical movement in the performance is her swiveling head, it is difficult not
to imagine that her body is somehow accompanying her voice back and forth across the stage.
Intercom technology allows greater levels of control over underlings within a business, yet
also provides Anderson with a broader means of artistic expression. The specific context
within which Anderson applies intercom technology, however, emphasizes the role of electronics
in teasing out a new understanding of the body's capabilities.71
Anderson has examined the more subtle applications of this technology via her
"Talking Pillows" (1977). Anderson used commercially available "pillow speakers,"72
ostensibly designed to allow a sleeper to hear and learn verbal material (such as a
foreign language) as it plays subliminally into a pillow. Anderson, of course,
replaced the educational material with some of her own stories, then placed the
pillows on stands in a gallery so visitors can rest their hands and enjoy the narrative.
Perhaps the most direct link Anderson has forged between the sound amplification systems
and the body is her "Handphone Table," a 1978 installation. Anderson hid tape decks
below a standard wooden table. Instead of using a loudspeaker, however, Anderson
channeled sound from the decks through amplification systems connected to steel rods,
which themselves connected to wooden plugs embedded within the table. Gallery visitors
were invited to rest their arms on the table and, copying a photographic image of
Anderson positioned near the table, place their hands tightly against their ears.
Vibrations from the steel rods and wooden plugs transferred the sounds from the tape
decks directly to visitors' skulls in a process Anderson has labeled "bone conduction";
their skulls functioned as amplifiers and speakers, playing a message from a George
Herbert poem, "Now I in you without a body move" (Stories from the Nerve Bible 47- 48).73
Rather than relying on electro-mechanical vibrations produced by speakers for the benefit
of the ear, Anderson used electro-mechanical vibrations to trick portions of the viewers'
bodies into functioning as speakers.
When You Can't See Dummies Talk: Radio and Charley McCarthy
part of her early 1990s "Nerve Bible" tours, Anderson developed a ventriloquist's
dummy which greatly resembled Anderson herself. Anderson placed electronic components
inside its body so the Anderson dummy could move and talk on its own, and then later
developed a computerized version, a "virtual dummy," for use on the internet and her
Puppet Motel CD-ROM (1995);74
the dummy deserves notice within this paper if only as an
intriguing example of an electronic simulation of a mechanical simulation of a human
body. Despite Anderson's technological updating of a traditional form of entertainment,
her puppet immediately calls to mind the purely mechanical contraptions popularized by
ventriloquists such as Edgar Burgen,75
whose life and work illustrate the impact of
another electronic technology, radio, on the body. Bergen's talent lay in making people
feel as if a clothed device of wood and wires had the characteristics of a living body.
Burgen's device, Charley McCarthy, relied on a two-aspect specialized body talent. The
first aspect of Burgen's talent was that he could make himself speak in a voice which
sounded other than his normal one; the second aspect, and the one which seemed physically
more difficult and therefore more amazing, was that he could speak distinctly while
maintaining a fairly immobile facial expression with a relatively closed mouth. This
skill earned Burgen both a reputation and a living on the vaudeville stage as a ventriloquist.
In the late 1930s the work of Guglielmo Marconi caught up with Burgen. Marconi had
patented in 1896 a device which broadcast the first telegraph message without wires.
This device, when combined with Edison's microphone and Siemens's loudspeaker, resulted
Some histories of radio place Edison at its beginning with his 1883 discovery
of an electrical force in incandescent bulbs which could detect high-frequency radio waves,
a phenomenon called the "Edison effect." Interestingly enough, however, Edison opposed radio,
assuming that it had no commercial future, until the late 1920s, when he made a disastrous
attempt to produce and market a high-quality receiver (Millard 301-303, 309). In 1920 KDKA
(owned by Edison's arch-enemy, Westinghouse77) became the first licensed radio broadcasting
station (McNeil 726- 7). This sound broadcasting technology affected Burgen by allowing him
to perform without being seen. Therefore, he no longer needed his McCarthy contraption,
and in fact no longer needed to use the body skill which had been the primary facet of
his performances; his listeners could no longer tell what an amazing job he was doing of
projecting his voice, they only assumed he was still doing that amazing job (Slide 10).
In fact Burgen's radio experience significantly affected his ability to exercise the
bodily skill, ventriloquism, which had first gained him a reputation; as his films
subsequent to his radio career illustrate, Bergen seemed unable to keep his lips
motionless when Charlie McCarthy spoke [Slide 9]).
As Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy illustrate, radio was the first wide- spread invisible
entertainment. It is thus credited with making bodies less dependant on interacting with
other bodies for entertainment. While urban America entertained itself by visiting the
music hall where bodies would be seen performing a relatively few feet away, and while
rural America entertained itself by visiting neighbor bodies and speaking, listening,
and performing with them, post-radio America entertained itself by staying at home and
focusing attention on the radio (Campbell 31), which did all the disseminating of information
and entertainment via a disembodied voice.78
With Edgar Burgen (and, one imagines, Charley
McCarthy) telling new jokes at 7:30, why walk all the way to the neighbor's just to hear
the same repeated stories. Radio joined the telephone in lessening the physical effort
required (at least of rural Americans) in hearing someone else speak. Thus radio separated
and distanced people who might otherwise have taken the effort to visit one another in
person; at the same time, individuals unable to visit in person could now feel the reassuring
contact of another human being through his or her broadcast voice.
The resulting influence of radio on American culture has not been a happy consequence for
Anderson, though it serves to illustrate once again her technological ambivalence. Anderson
has spoken deprecatingly of American civilization as "absolutely AM pop culture, period"
(Furlong Laurie Side 2), implying a qualitative difference between mass entertainment and
art, positioning her own work in the latter category. Yet about the same time as the
success of "O Superman," Anderson affirmed that "it's always been my fantasy of sorts
to do something within the AM pop culture" (Smith and Harris). In fact, Anderson's first
commercial success, "O Superman," gained momentum due to its promotion by BBC disk jockey
John Peel (Smagula 258), resulting in its eventual rise to the number two position on the
British pop charts (Frank "Artists" 74). The Warner Bros. recording contract, credited
earlier with feeding and clothing Anderson's body over the past fifteen years, only
occurred subsequent to and as a result of Anderson's surprise radio success in Britain.
Anderson owes much to radio's apparent ability to pull unseen voices out of the air.
Al Jolson's Moving, Talking (non-)Black Body: The Movies
experimenting with sound recording technology, Anderson had taken on the role of
film maker. She credits this technology (and her inability to finish editing and creating a
soundtrack in time for film premieres) with inspiring her interest in multi-media performances.
This itself impacted Anderson's use of her body in performance, since throughout the 1970s she most
often wore white while performing, so that her body could function as a film screen. Film combines
the chemical technology of photography with precise electric motors and Edison's light bulb
(modified, no doubt by someone else, for rapid-flash "strobe"
Because this technology
allows rapid-fire projection of photographic images showing variation over time, it seems to
mimic movement, and has thus been given the colloquial name "movies." When Edison's audio
recording technology was adapted to coordinate with a movie system in 1913, movies began to
incorporate sound, resulting in a device called the Vitaphone. By 1927 similar technology
allowed audiences not just to see but hear as Al
mimicked an African-American body
in one of the first widely- released "talkies," The Jazz
Singer81 (Wolf and Wolf 54).
The odd thing about these terms, "movies" and "talkies," is that etiquette for experiencing
film technology demands that viewers neither move nor talk during a film presentation.
Instead, bodies (eyes and ears) are to be passive receptors of light and sound phenomena
while maintaining a sitting position.82
Furthermore, prior similar entertainments (the theater,
ballet, and music hall) connected the viewer with human bodies at all times; before the
presentation, the viewer saw, heard and interacted with fellow audience members, while after
the lights went down she or he at least saw and heard the bodies of performers. With the movies,
after the lights go down, the viewer is primarily connected with simulations of bodies.
Film provides visual and aural evidence of bodies and their activities, through both space
and time. Much as audio recording allowed a singer to "sing along" with him or herself,
film special effects allow an actor to interact with his or her own representation (as seen
in film roles as diverse as Michael Keaton's in
and Hailey Mills's in The Parent
Many of Anderson's earlier performances involved film projections of herself with which
she interacted live, confusing the connection between film's simulation of a body and the
Toward the end of Anderson's "Talk Normal" (1986), Anderson appears on stage
along with a big-screen projection of her head. Because the head simulation is so huge and
because it looks down on Anderson's "real" body, it seems equally present with Anderson, and
perhaps god-like and more powerful than Anderson's body (see Stories 224). "Talk Normal,"
however, is only available to mass audiences on Anderson's film, Home of the Brave; thus
"Talk Normal" is actually a film simulating Anderson's body as it performs with a film
simulation of her body. The apparent real/representation dichotomy is actually just
(PeeWee Herman and) "I Dream of Jeannie's" Body: Television
Anderson is not known as a TV personality, television has impacted her body of
work in a variety of ways. She has produced works for PBS, even acting as host for the
third season of its late-1980s "Alive from Off Center" series. She has also performed
on Saturday Night Live and appeared as a performer/guest with David Letterman and Jay
Television has affected her on-stage performances as well; in a portion of Home
of the Brave the giant screen at the back of the stage is framed to represent a
television set (Stories 116), while early 1990s "Nerve Bible" performances included
a row of television monitors across the front of the stage. Art critics often assume,
however, that Anderson was most affected by television by being among the first
generation of artists to grow up with television (an observation which remains accurate
despite Anderson's assertion that her family did not have television while she was a
child). The seamless flow of television, its merger of programming, commercials, news,
and movies in a never-finished continuation is mimicked in her own use of unrelated
anecdotes and songs in a segmented, variety format (see Auslander chapter 4). Such
has been television's use of time since it emerged in the early 1950s. While the
earliest television broadcasts had actually occurred in the late 1920s (Edison in
his old age appears to have shown no interest in video broadcasting), the Depression
and World War II delayed commercial development of TV into a source for entertainment
and news until 1947.88
Within a decade of that date, 85% of all U.S. homes had
televisions (McNeil 746).
TV provides almost all the "benefits" to the body that movies do, except that it is more
available (conveniently located as the focal point of one's living room) and that it does
not require any interaction whatsoever with another body. Furthermore, one has greater
options as to positioning the body while viewing television; one might sit, recline, pace,
or do aerobics while viewing. As with the telephone, one can do things with one's body
while watching television that society tends to suggest should not be done at the movie
theater (the case of PeeWee Herman's visit to a Florida "adult" theater comes to mind).
At the same time, at the end of a movie one is generally expected to stand up and exit the
theater; at home, TV just keeps going, and a person's body could (at least in theory)
remain more or less immobile for hours on end.
The movies had already set in place a system which used bodies. Some faces and bodies
portrayed in movies became recognized and adored by movie fans, particularly since the
cinema, in contrast with the theater, relied heavily on close-ups, adding new importance
to the actors' facial expressions (Carpenter 25). The studios could assure that they
would make money on a given movie merely by incorporating a well-known face. At the
same time, studios were always in search of new bodies for fans to fall in love with
(Hampton 88). TV simply made this worse; now with multiple channels operating 24
hours per day, TV production organizations are always searching for new, unrecognized
bodies and faces which, interestingly enough, generally end up looking very much like
the previous bodies and faces shown on TV, and which, hopefully, the viewers will
idolize regularly so that the production organizations will make money from using and
simulating bodies. The on-again/off-again careers of actors and actresses such as Barbara
Eden89 illustrate television's use of bodies; those bodies and faces which are no longer
making producers money will simply be unemployed.90
Even news and politics are affected,
with television favoring newscasters and politicians who
look attractive (Stephens 241).91
Anderson's relationship to television parallels her contradictory attitudes toward radio.
Though she has participated in the late-night talk-show circuit to further her own career,
she has spoken disparagingly of television. In one piece Anderson describes an early morning
small-town program (school lunch menus scrolling over mindlessly happy music) as "television
at its best" (Collected Videos).92
In fact Anderson's uses and promotion of electronic devices
are often for purposes other than those intended by the manufacturers. Yet Anderson's
description of the scrolling lunch menus takes the form of a "Personal Service Announcement,"
a video piece designed for television use. As such, Anderson presents her body for the viewing
pleasure of our bodies to deliver a message suggesting that since television affects our bodies,
it might be used to affect our bodies in more useful ways.
Baby's First Step and Performance Art Documentation: Portable Video Recording
television work was made possible by video recording technology, introduced
in 1956 by the Ampex company93
(Dummer 154). (Thomas Edison had died in 1931; one need not
mention his name in connection with this device except to point out that one need not
mention it.) The purpose of this device is to translate visual imagery into magnetic
(later digital) representations of that imagery. This allowed the first electro-magnetically
stored visual simulations of the human body (one must remember that movies and photography
stored images via a chemical process). The technology was combined with the audio tape
recorder so that it can simultaneously record sound and video.
Video recording technology represents the body in a manner parallel to that of motion picture
technology: as two-dimensional light projections. The main new effects of video recording
technology on the body exist primarily because the technology has been made more commercially
viable for mass marketing (less expensive and more portable) than film technology. This means
that video recorders can be carried by bodies just about anywhere and used to capture images of
bodies, whether those bodies know they are being recorded or not, and whether they give their
permission to have their images recorded.94
This allows the technology to record everything from
baby's first halting step to the police beating of Rodney King. Video recording functions as an
alternative to memory,95
further drawing bodies toward the television to allow accurate reproduction
of what otherwise would be inadvertently transformed in the brain's memory banks.
As Anderson's work shows, sound and video recordings complicate the work of a performance artist.
As noted earlier, an appropriate (though oversimplified) generalization of the goals of 1970s
performance art is that artists engaged in performance to move away from the art object,
seeking instead to ground performance in the body of the artist. Performance, therefore,
involved ephemeral qualities such as time, event, and motion. Such a performance leaves
behind no documents. Unless, of course, someone punches play and record on a VCR, something
performance artists themselves tended to do since they had gone to all that trouble to create
an ephemeral, non-object oriented event. Such recordings, however, became art objects
(despite their often blurry, amateurish qualities [Zelevansky 38]), played, re-played,
studied, and analyzed, and thus became available for study (or sale) long after the
death of the performance artist (Pontbriand refers to these objects as "deferred performances").
Anderson as a performance artist has attempted to use this phenomenon to her advantage. She has,
for example, packaged her song "Language is a Virus (from Outer Space)" into several different
versions: a studio audio recording (with a hip-hop beat), a live audio recording, a film/video
simulation of a live performance, and a studio-produced music video based on the studio audio
version with juxtaposed video clips taken from the film/video simulation of a live performance.
Another "live" performance of the song would very likely differ significantly from all of these
recorded versions. Anderson's alternate versions compete with one another, therefor fighting
against the art object as a monolithic unity, while still allowing her performances to be documented.
Just as importantly, the different versions (and contemporary video processing technology) allow
her body to be presented in alternative styles and forms. The Home of the Brave version of
foregrounds Anderson's body, making visible her interactions with other
performers; this version is very much dependent on Anderson's presence. But Anderson
selected "Sharkey's Day"97
for one of her earliest experiments with advanced video processing
technology. In her highly acclaimed "Sharkey's Day" video, Anderson's body disappears,
leaving only a Cheshire Cat-like disembodied smile (along with two disembodied hands).
At one point while her body shape is clearly outlined, its content is only smoke or fog.
In this version, Anderson's body is most remarkable, not through its interactions with other
bodies, but through its absence. Within "Sharkey's Day" Anderson's body is indeed virtual,
in that it is implied as representation rather than physically presented. As noted earlier
in connection with Anderson's "Talk Normal," however, even when Anderson is "physically
present" in Home of the Brave, she is an electronic effect, a video representation of herself.
A later video, "What You Mean, We?," portrays two images of Anderson on screen simultaneously.
One of the images is cross-dressed as a male, an impression re-enforced by a false mustache.
This image is heightened, however, by electronic processing which makes the "male" Anderson
appear like a dwarf.98
This process is similar to the more recent "morphing" technique
popularized though a Michael Jackson99
video and now standard fare for television commercials.
Morphing makes that which appears as one body also appear as multiplicity. Yet one remarkable
aspect of this effect as employed both in Anderson's "What You Mean, We?" and Jackson's
"Black and White" is the implication of gendered bodies undergoing morphic transformation.
The bodily progress through a variety of genders (and races) in the Jackson video parallels
Anderson's transformation into a male clone, complete with her instantly recognizable
male-sounding Voice of Authority. Because multiple identities (as Judith Butler100 argues)
question the fixity of gender, the electronic technologies which support such identity
transformations operate to suggest the boundary of gender is not the most fundamental
mark signifying bodily difference, and should be seen instead as fluid rather than static.
Anderson's Healing Horn
figures prominently in another Anderson story, "The Healing Horn," in which
Anderson describes the head of the Universalist Life Church in Los Angeles as a combination
preacher/showman. Observers at the preacher's presentations are invited to take part in
experiencing a sacred relic, The Healing Horn, from which they receive a remarkable emanation
of power, "about fifty volts," Anderson says, when they stand on "the metal plate embedded in
the alter" (Stories 207). Electricity, then, at times may be neither harmful nor helpful, but
simply tricky. It can produce an effect of power which appears metaphysical, expanding the
range of the sense of touch. The power of the healing horn flows through a body, creating
another of those moments Anderson described in her "Dance of Electricity" when "you feel the
power but no words come out." The Horn, as an electrical contact, produces an experience not
otherwise available to a body from a non-electric external stimulus. While Anderson's comic
delivery conveys skepticism as to The Horn's ability to produce physiologic transformation,
Anderson does not deny its ability to produce an apparently magical effect of power.
Her emphasis on the use of The Horn within a public spectacle parallels her own use of
electricity to form a multi-media experience for her audience. The story of The Healing
Horn foregrounds the importance of electricity in producing impossible effects, both those
of her own and those of the showman/evangelist.
This is in fact a crucial aspect of electronic devices in general, that they provide the capacity
to experience the impossible. The electric light makes an environment appear lit (that is,
suggests something akin to "natural" sunlight). The telephone transmits a distant person's
voice such that it sounds near. Audio and video recordings present the sights and sounds
of the bodies of distant or even dead people, or allow one person to speak multiple voices
at once or display forms of the body never before seen. Specifically what are being tricked,
however, are traditional assumptions about the body, particularly the location of the boundary
lines which contain the body as a site within space and time. These technologies show that
the body is not as easily contained as society had earlier believed. One might argue that
postmodern notions of human subjectivity as multiplicity rather than unity are possible
because electronic technology produces
Electronic technologies, therefore,
have wide ranging possibilities for re-defining what the body is, and for extending and
controlling the body. We have yet to imagine what the long-term effects of such devices will be.
copyright © 1997 Sycamore