"What You Mean We?": Video-Cloning Laurie Anderson

Curator's Note

For four decades, Laurie Anderson's multimedia performances have utilized special effects to dissolve boundaries between the live and the mediatized, between perception and reality, and between the human and the inhuman.  Technological interactions transform her storytelling spectacles from monologues into dialogues; "I" easily becomes "we" through the introduction of composited duplicates or electronic prostheses.  This excerpt from “What You Mean We” (1987) originally aired on PBS television’s Alive from Off Center, a series that featured weekly installments of short experimental films.  Here Anderson costars with one of her alter egos, a video clone, to reflect on cinematic simulations of “reality.”  

Subverting the clichéd claim “the camera never lies” with the assertion “the camera is a great liar,” Anderson's clone draws a curious parallel between contemporary photographic special effects and an earlier 20th century cinema of attractions. The clone cites the famous Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin, a scene in which Sergei Eisenstein’s dialectical montage synthesizes events that have never occurred (“lies”) upon the colossal staircase in Odessa.  The clone points out that Potemkin has convinced scores of spectators of the massacre's historical authenticity--despite the fact that it never took place at this or any other Ukranian landmark.1

Since the artist's clone delivers this monologue as a technologically altered and composited image, this sequence offers an ironic, reflexive meditation on special effects.  The clone is a botched techno-genetic replica of Anderson; its distorted speech is a manifestation of the “voice drag” the artist dons to transform into other alter egos (especially her “Fenway Bergamot”).  This hypermediatized masculine register represents what Anderson refers to as the "voice of authority" in a world "commandeered by technology."2  This convention, with the anecdotal metacinematic commentary offered by this clip, illustrates how emergent technologies continually propel us toward a postgendered future that is cyborg-like, fluid, indefinable.  Anderson’s dialoguing double suggests the power of technology to both connect and disconnect individuals from the societies of “special effects” in which we have come to exist.


1 Ironically, the Odessa Steps themselves were constructed to produce an optical illusion.

Roselee Goldberg, Laurie Anderson (New York: Henry N. Abrams, 2000), 13.



As a fan of Laurie Anderson going back to O Superman, I really appreciated your bringing this clip to light, Kimberly. Anderson's stage shows were -- still are? -- legendary for their multimediation, a tradition drawing equally on prog rock, performance art, and opera. What jumps out at me in your curation is Anderson's "avowal" of what Christian Metz called "avowed machinations," that is, trucage that announces itself as such. Falling outside the binary of noticeable vs unnoticeable effects that has for so long been used to taxonomize special-effects phenomenology, your example points us in the direction of effects that work in much more explicit, rhetorical, or critical registers. Even television commercials do this, showcasing special effects "concepts" as expressive (if revenue-centered) artifacts that don't pretend to fit some narrative diegesis.

Kimberly -- thanks for bringing this fascinating clip to our attention -- as only a 'casual' fan of Anderson's (or perhaps, someone who has always wanted to become more of a "real" one, pun intended), I have only been tagentially aware of her work.  This short piece and your 'take' on it throws up all sorts of questions for me, including reminders of artists who have played with similar ideas of 'doubling' and 'acting' and gender-manipulation in years since -- I'm thinking of David Bowie in his early years, but particularly his Outside project from the mid-1990s, in which he performed various roles not only in song and interstitial audio text, but also in electronically/digitally-manipulated stills for the album art, and even a bit in the music videos which accompanied the album (though I think these were much less ambitous then they could have been, considering the album's creative neo-noir/steam-punk world given life by the different "characters" Bowie played in the album's loose narrative).  While film and media studies scholars have frequently interrogated the idea of so-called "reality" and its possible constitutions and contradictions, Anderson's point here about Potemkin is a good one, I think -- utilizing one of the most celebrated editing showcases in cinematic history to point out that what filmmakers and audiences both claim to "want" and what they ultimately "get" are at two very different ends of the theoretical spectrum of "filmic reality."  (Bowie himself titled a later 2003 album "Reality")

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