Vol 28 no. 2

Moonwalking with Laurie Anderson: The Implicit Feminism of The End of the Moon

by Vivian Appler
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 28, Number 2 (Spring 2016)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center


[T]aking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, and so means embracing the skillful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all our parts.

-Donna Haraway[1]


Imagination and Representation: Laurie Anderson and the Performance of Science

Science, a liberal cultural domain, carries certain gendered expectations with it.[2] Science disciplines such as physics, astronomy, and engineering tend to be the most heavily laden with prejudices that continue to manifest in unequal hiring practices and disparities in wages within those fields.[3] In this special issue of JADT dedicated to “Scientific Research and Inquiry in American Theatre,” it is important to recognize how theatre and other representational modes of performance impact a cultural imaginary that contains both the sciences and the arts, and that gender bias exists at all points of our social spectrum. This interdisciplinary perspective reveals that problems of inequality apply to the domain of science as well as other cultural and economic domains such as art, business, and education. Theatrical performance has long been a popular mode of social critique, and when science is understood as a part of culture, not apart from it, the potential arises for theatre’s critical pen to address science issues as social. Representation of women as contributors to knowledge production within the domain of science is an important part of the critical power of theatrical performance. The use of the theatre as a laboratory to extend and create new knowledge about science is an exceptional quality of Laurie Anderson’s performance of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in The End of the Moon (2004). In this article, I offer an explicitly feminist analysis of one high-profile piece of science-integrative performance art that is implicitly feminist in its deconstruction of science practices and transparent representation of science ideas within the community of a general theatre audience. This article contributes to a body of scholarship that is growing to match an increasing amount of science-integrative theater on the twenty-first century stage.

Laurie Anderson’s performance art tends to be critiqued within a non-representational framework. Moon is no exception: she embodies her own experience as a NASA resident-artist while performing science within the experiential context of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). However, the unfamiliar and unavoidably removed nature of the science objects central to her story must be considered within a somewhat representational context. The representational quality of her female body stepping into the domain of science onstage is a critical step towards expanding liberal notions of who has access to physics and astronomy careers. Her artist’s body is equally significant because it blurs the cultural boundaries that separate science discourse and practice from other cultural realms. Anderson’s embodied intervention into the arts-science divide suggests that science should be a part of a holistic cultural conversation, one that is equally accessible to all curious participants.

Interdisciplinarity is central to the realization of feminist scientific discourse. Twentieth century science writer C.P. Snow infamously observed a “two cultures” divide that has long defined interdisciplinary discourse as antagonistic. Snow’s philosophical intervention into this cultural schism often (although perhaps not intentionally) situates scientists as better culturally read than their literary and artistic peers.[4] Snow’s binary question of “arts versus science” oversimplifies a much larger issue of empathy among cultural domains which have unequal levels of inclusivity and access. Interdisciplinary performance research can disrupt this biased cultural scenario by examining science-oriented performance artists who work from a feminist perspective. Artists such as Laurie Anderson, Lauren Gunderson, and Critical Art Ensemble are informed by feminist theory even when their science-integrative performances explicitly address other socio-scientific issues. Overtly feminist analyses of such arts-science hybrid performances expose a cultural imbalance in access to fields such as astronomy and physics even as they suggest alternative pathways to these apparently elite jobs. Science-integrative performance can reveal practical and theoretical interdisciplinary commonalities among diverse cultural domains. NASA Art Program Curator Bertram Ulrich observes of Anderson’s process, “her mind works very much the same way a scientist’s would. They’re both reaching out to try to understand what’s unknown.”[5]

Moon was created as an outcome of Anderson’s arts residency at NASA; in it she uses performance art to invite the average theatre-goer into the space agency’s relatively closed ranks that she, an artist, has tenuously joined. Anderson shares her research with her audience, whom she imagines to be “a woman who would be sitting in Row K. I am trying to make her laugh.”[6] Randy Gener praises Anderson’s “faux-naif mutability, her techno-artist reputation and cross-wiring of art modes [that] are part of her idiosyncratic appeal—the reason she was selected by NASA’s Art Program.”[7] It may come as a surprise that NASA even has an art program, but artistic interpretation of the space agency has existed since its inception. The NASA Art Program was founded in 1962 as an attempt to make NASA’s enterprises more available to a popular American audience. The Program’s original director, James Webb, “wanted to convey to future generations the hope and sense of wonder that characterized the early days of space exploration.”[8] While many of the artists funded by NASA have been visual artists—alumni include Annie Leibovitz, Robert Rauschenberg, Terry Riley, and Norman Rockwell—Anderson was the first performance artist invited for a residency.[9] The selection of Anderson to participate in the Art Program reveals the agency’s desire for a more inclusive performance of science within traditional scientific spaces and an understanding that a theatrical performance artist is qualified to ease access to this elite domain in ways that other science outreach activities have been unable to do.

Yet, Moon, the second in a trilogy of performance pieces that Anderson has devised in response to the post-9/11 cultural climate in the U.S., is not uncritical of NASA.[10] Anderson endeavors to instill in her audiences a sense of wonder at the world while also encouraging active participation in the larger culture in which the domain of astronomy is embedded. She gives the audience glimpses into elements of the monolithic science institution through sparse verbal narration, lyrical soundscapes, and iconic images. Anderson fills the space between wonder at scientific achievement and an active engagement with the socio-political criticism of those achievements through embodied and technologically transductive performance techniques. Her position as a woman artist engaging with science issues models a culture in which all citizens are empowered to participate in disciplines that have historically, and habitually, been restricted to professional scientists that physically resemble hegemonic figures of scientific authority: white, able-bodied, Euro-American men. Anderson’s Moon intervenes into this perennial limitation of American imagination with regard to inclusive practices in astronomy. Her storytelling is a proposal for citizen engagement with the process of exploratory and experiential astronomy as it was being practiced by NASA in the mid-2000s. Anderson’s combination of the human, the technological, and the animal—represented onstage physically, imagistically, and textually—constitutes a cyborg system intent on subverting culturally accepted notions of science that have come to be, she implies, accessible only to those agents performing almost exclusively within the secret domain of the military.[11]

Anderson’s citizen-scientist performance opens with a pastiche of iconic twentieth century images that have come to define an American idea of the night sky. These images’ ubiquity in American pop culture contributes to an atmosphere of familiarity that enables an empathetic relationship between general audiences and science-oriented performance to transpire. The tableau is reminiscent of Clement Hurd’s illustration of the children’s book Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown. Anderson is seated in the downstage right chair (where Wise’s mother bunny sits), surrounded by stars—tea candles—scattered across the stage, and the moon in its upstage left corner. Anderson’s moon is a fragment, indicative of the partial relationship that a human has with any piece of the universe. This synecdochal moon is a reproduction of the well-known photograph of Neil Armstrong’s lunar footprint. Taken in 1969 and projected onto a classroom-sized screen, Anderson’s deconstructed moon is nonetheless familiar to a general American audience in 2004.

Anderson transduces NASA into a familiar object by isolating a sound that is a piece of a human: a voice. The tale begins with a description of a typical day in her studio in the company of her dog. The telephone rings. She describes the NASA representative on the other end of the line not as a person, but as a voice. “The voice said, ‘this is so and so and I’m from NASA and we’d like you to be the first artist-in-residence here.’ ‘You’re not from NASA,’ and I hung up the phone.”[12] Anderson continues to recount how the voice from NASA called back, and so her astronomy-integrative performance research began. Anderson’s choice to depict NASA as a voice renders the giant organization manageable. One voice can have a conversation with another voice on the telephone, but an individual might not as easily encounter a high-profile science institution such as NASA in its entirety.

Feminism and The End of The Moon

In this article, I draw primarily upon theories of the posthuman, performatics, and the cyborg in order to tease out the feminist aspects of Anderson’s performance of astronomy. N. Katherine Hayles’s[13] and Rosi Braidotti’s[14] approaches to posthuman theory help to articulate a line of thought that is at once socially aware and embodied. Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” playfully addresses the shifting roles of feminism, informatics, and hybridity within the domain of science even as she argues against notions of cultural boundaries. Diana Taylor’s use of performatics is also rooted in a desire to transcend geo-political borders. Taylor suggests the term “performatic” rather than “performative” when critiquing embodied performance, “to denote the adjectival form of the nondiscursive realm of performance… [b]ecause it is vital to signal the performatic, digital, and visual fields as separate from, though always embroiled with, the discursive one so privileged by Western logocentrism.”[15] Here, I extend Taylor’s term from its original “Americas” context and apply it to the analysis of performances that deliberately blend technics, politics, and informatics in order to disrupt liberal disciplinary boundaries. Jennifer Parker-Starbuck, whose performance theory in Cyborg Theatre is deeply inspired by Braidotti’s cultural criticism, asserts that, “arguments for alternate subjectivities—nomadic, non-unitary, hybrid, cyborgean—permeate a theoretical technological landscape reflecting a need for radical rethinking about human positioning in the world.”[16]  Anderson’s performatic intervention into the problem of inclusive science access alters the positionality of critique—from without—that is vital if change in a cultural imagination of science and scientists is to transpire.

Anderson’s narrative is overtly cosmopolitan and science-driven, but feminist principles are implicit to the science-integrative framework that makes her global critique possible. A feminist approach to the performance of science might include the identification of the following qualities:

Transparency. As hybrid technologies make more of the universe detectable to the human, so the social machine that makes these new technologies possible must maintain open and inclusive environments.

Hybridity. Feminist performances of science might acknowledge the networks over which the knowledge-productive elements of socio-scientific labor are distributed.

Alignment with post-colonialist and post-human “insights about the importance of the politics of location and careful grounding in geo-political terms.”[17] Cultural position in relationship to access and authority within the domain of science is directly related to the liberal, humanist social contract of the West that post-colonialist and post-human theories seek to dismantle.

Performances of science that transparently enact hybrid and inclusive knowledge production practices are a step towards the realization of an equitable culture across multiple disciplinary domains. Analyses that elucidate these qualities go hand-in-hand with the realization of theory as practice.

Transduction—the communication of information across different media—is caught up in the feminist analysis of the performance of science because of its potential to equalize access to disciplinary-specific information. Citing James Berkley’s analysis of Edgar Allan Poe, Hayles invokes the power of mimesis to communicate data while also providing a framework for the transfer of power from one performing agent to another through mediated interactions: “Mimesis, in [Berkley’s] account, becomes a transducer transferring the power to evoke wonder and terror from one site to another, while the sublime sets up the transfer by presupposing that a connection exists between environment and system, stimulus and affect, externalized object and internalized subject.”[18] In a broad theatrical context, the performance process begins with information found in the world and that information is transduced through the dynamic body of a performing agent. Mimetic transduction moves information from one medium (the page) to another (the stage, screen, or other performance venue) so that audiences might understand that information differently than they would were they to encounter the same information via a different medium. Embodied transduction that occurs in a science-oriented theatrical context can empower audience members to participate in science concepts even when liberal social norms deny the non-scientist easy access to the domain of science. Theatrical transduction can encourage an empathetic audience response and therefore often results in the creation of an array of culturally imaginative possibilities for audiences of science-oriented performance.

Anderson’s position as both resident of NASA and science-outsider allows her to empathize with NASA scientists as well as with general audiences. She establishes herself as an artist who is qualified to comment on science issues through her performed encounter with contemporary astronomy. Her feminist intervention is implicit; she, a woman artist performing science, is also fluent in scientific discourse and therefore challenges astronomy’s habitually exclusive practices. The kind of science mastery that Anderson exhibits falls into a category that philosophers of science Kyle Powys Whyte and Robert P. Crease, citing H.M. Collins’s and R. Evans’s 2007 study, refer to as “interactional expertise,” in which a non-scientist achieves “knowledge of a scientific field that is sufficiently advanced to understand and communicate within the discourse yet unable to contribute to research.”[19] But Anderson’s work is research. She uses her “interactional” expert position to conduct performance research that endeavors, at least in part, to discover what may be missing from the domain-specific attempts to diversify the laboratory. Anderson’s passion for astronomy and cosmology is infectious, and her performance craft transduces not only science concepts but also her enthusiasm for the subject. Her knowledge of NASA’s scientific processes grew through her residency, but her status as an outsider remains and necessitates the empathetic bridge-building of her science-integrative performance. Such interdisciplinary connections are needed if NASA and other physics and astronomy laboratories are to achieve the inclusive atmosphere that they purport to desire. Yet Anderson’s stakes are higher than the interests of a single government agency. The empathetic bridges she builds are also necessary for our society to function as a whole.

Anderson and the Hubble Space Telescope[20]

Historically, many scientists who began as astronomy outsiders made their most remarkable discoveries, in part, because of the field’s non-normative worldview that restricted outsiders’ access to mainstream spaces in which astronomy research had been conducted. These scientists were forced to introduce a new perspective if they were to perform science at all. American women such as Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921) and Vera Rubin (b. 1928) made remarkable discoveries about the cosmos that were directly connected to their limited access to traditional methods of astronomical research and experiment. Like the introduction of women and other socially excluded groups to the observatory, the addition of each new component—including machines—to the hybrid project of knowing outer-space holds the capacity to radically alter conventionally held notions of humanity’s place in the world. This was the case with the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), which produces breathtaking images of the universe that are now readily available in a variety of contemporary media.[21] Anderson’s performance renders the HST’s process at once transparent and curious.

History, astronomy, and technology are necessarily entwined enterprises because of astronomy’s methodological reliance upon the reference to and manipulation of many different visual representations of individual astronomical objects captured over long periods of time.[22] HST images add to an archive of telescopically transduced celestial imagery that has been accumulating around the globe for centuries. HST images have become a popular way for astronomers and curious amateurs to get an idea of the appearance and composition of objects in outer-space. In Moon, Anderson speaks for the non-expert as she performs her curiosity about the way that HST engineers manipulate images of celestial objects. She explores the knowledge-generative labor performed by the HST (and its team of astronomers, technicians, and astronauts) with her audience. Her performance of HST image transduction systems creates a metaenvironmental space in which spectators participate in NASA’s transductive processes.

HST images are developed through networked transduction systems in a cyborgean enterprise designed to bring previously undetectable information about deep space objects into the optical spectrum.[23] Anderson illuminates this esoteric process for her audience, but she also indicates that the process is imperfect in its ability to align perception of distant objects with the spectral truth of those objects. In astrophotography, the distant celestial body may really exist, but it is also a product of the technology that detects it, the telescopic camera that captures previously unknowable information, and a transductive process that involves choices made by intentional human agents.[24] The original object—the Andromeda Galaxy, a mountain on the moon, the Great Nebula of Orion—disappears even as it is created for observation by a general, earthbound audience, and this presents a problem for Anderson. She voices a discrepancy between how celestial objects exist in their original environments and how those objects are represented to consumer-audiences of science media. Anderson brings her critique of technologically mediated images back to the human body: “We’re always fixing up photographs,” she remarks as she compares the work of HST engineers to photoshopping a “miserable family Christmas” photo.[25] “One of the things that really bothers me about photography,” she continues, “is that you never know how hot it is in the photograph.”[26]

Anderson’s problem with photoshopped family pictures analogically grounds her critique of heavily mediatized HST images. Both types of images are fragmented, removed from first-hand experience, and therefore indicative of the posthuman condition necessary to the performance of astronomy. Mary Thomas Crane points out in her examination of early modern science that much of the experience of the laboratory (and, by extension, the observatory) counters “basic sensorimotor experience.”[27] Anderson describes her frustration with astrophotography’s incapacity to accurately convey the environment of a star or a galaxy in a two-dimensional image. HST pictures, she argues, are simply archives of data that document conditions that remain forever outside the experiential grasp of the human observer. A family photograph’s observer cannot distinguish the difference between the photographic subject’s embodied experience and the record of that experience.[28] The photograph is an index of original environmental conditions; the colors, texture, and size of the sweater, and who was wearing it are indicated by the photograph, but the embodied experience of wearing the sweater, as well as the circumstances surrounding the photographic event, is a much trickier experience to share with an observing agent across distances of time and space. For consumers of HST media images, this translates to an inability to sense data that does not normally appear on the human visual spectrum, such as ultra-violet rays and x-rays. Meanwhile, these inexact documents become iconic in their representation of events in cultural memory.

Colorization is one way that HST engineers attempt to transduce spectrally invisible information collected by the HST into images that are meaningful for popular audiences and astronomy experts alike. Art historian Shana Cooperstein explains that colorization “encourages people to imagine links between photography and vision, as well as between ‘truth’ and visional perception.”[29] Elizabeth A. Kessler finds that ascriptions of authenticity and authority to colorized HST images depends “on a definition of truth that rests on human perception; but color carries a greater range of meanings. . . . [C]olor can be used to label, to measure, to represent or imitate reality, or to enliven or decorate. Furthermore, it incorporates both objective and subjective elements.”[30] Kessler describes the process of colorization as one that depends upon the variability of human perception as well as a number of possible choices that might be made by individual imagists working across history. Kessler discusses “false color” as “hues” that

need not have any relationship to the visual appearance of the phenomena or the wavelengths of light registered by the instrument. Instead, different colors might indicate another dimension of the data….In addition to what the color indicates, false color has come to describe a particular color palette—flat, garish hues that do not resemble natural phenomena in our world.[31]

A colorized image emotionally engages a general audience because of that audience’s memory of the familiar icon and subjective associations with the colors in the image. The process is creative in that some personal choice is involved on the part of the HST engineer, but these choices are constrained due to the indexical ends of the photography experiment.

Such images are breathtaking, but Anderson is unsatisfied because of the HST’s inability to transduce celestial objects in their complete spectral splendor. She describes an encounter with some of the scientists who work on HST transduction. She performs the kind of expectation that the woman in “Row K” with a casual interest in science might share by asking NASA scientists, “Could you have used a whole different color range…. How did you arrive at these colors?”[32] By “these colors” she means pinks and blues instead of her suggested alternatives of brown and gray. The answer the scientists offer is simple: “We thought people would like them.”[33] She pauses as the audience laughs at the arbitrariness of human choice involved in the transduction of information that comes to us via the space telescope, is interpreted by human engineers who manipulate that data, and manifests in journalistic media images detectable on the visual spectrum.  Anderson’s tone waxes lyrical and her text shifts back to the sublime as she muses, “It looks like a painting of heaven.”[34]

Colorized HST photographs affect science media viewers in a manner similar to that of acting technique with regard to audiences of realist theatre: both are capable of engendering simultaneous states of curiosity and familiarity on the part of the spectator towards the observational object. Creators of HST outreach images must weigh factors of emotional connectivity, scientific objectivity, and personal memory in the subjunctive work of representing truthful information while also stimulating popular imagination towards distant celestial phenomena. Much like the unnatural techniques that actors deploy to convey a sense of realism in representational theatrical genres, HST astronomers isolate wavelengths that are not on the visible spectrum and ascribe an unrealistic color to them. The effect is a fantastic image that the unaided human eye could never see, but that nevertheless registers as realistic and familiar in the imagination of the observer. Neither realist acting techniques nor HST image manipulation replicate identical copies of the original object of observation, be it a fictional character or a distant star. In theatrical and photographic forms, a sense of familiarity with a scenario or an image is essential for spectators to empathetically engage with the representation of a novel object. Ultimately, it is the creative agency of the individual scientist that determines how distant astronomical events appear to a general public. The subjective memory of the scientist affects the color choices made, even when those color choices don’t represent the “true” color that the human eye would see.

Cognitive theatre scholar Amy Cook claims, “[t]o represent the previously invisible, to perform the seemingly impossible, is vitally important to creating the visible and the possible.”[35] Such imagination is necessary each time astronomers reinvent a familiar celestial object with a new technology. In a similar way, Anderson reinvents the domain of astronomy through her critique of HST. Astrophotography distorts the truth while representing reality; it encourages audiences to learn something new about celestial objects through the process of composite imaging.[36] A composite photographic image is created by layering several negatives and thereby blending information of each to create a single image that represents the idea of a photographic object but does not reproduce visual information in a one-to-one manner. HST images are not only colorized, but composite, consisting of layers of captured spectra that have each been assigned colors representative of different aspects of the object’s qualia.  Through HST composite, colorized imaging, astronomers create new pictures of familiar objects that index more information than ever before, but that continue to resemble the iconic images captured by earlier astronomers. Visual reference to earlier astronomical icons encourages non-scientist viewers of these images to access any memory they may have about what they already know of these objects, and thus to cognitively build upon previous memories in a continuous development of learning about the objects in question.

In Anderson’s composite performance of NASA, she doesn’t work simply with color, but she blends cultural memories and impressions of NASA in order to elicit a simultaneously curious and critical audience response. While her inclusion of Armstrong’s footprint brings to mind a familiar moment in the history of science, it also conjures the Cold War context surrounding the space race. As discussed above, her female artist’s body might trigger a number of associations from different audience members. For those who work within the science industry, Anderson’s performance might signal the disciplinary exclusion of certain social groups from the field. Other audience members who remember Anderson’s previous performances as works of cultural critique may expect an unsubtle criticism of NASA’s affiliations with the military. Still others who have come to expect a spectacular array of high-tech gadgetry from a Laurie Anderson production might be disappointed by the apparently simple stage technology in a piece that deals with technics that are off-limits to the average American citizen.[37] In Moon, Anderson’s trademark electric violin solos create time and space for viewers to process her performatic transduction of NASA as it mingles with subjective associations among the audience.

Defying Gravity (And Other Socio-Scientific Forces)

In the midst of the multi-layered web of cultural memories that individual audience members experience when faced with the iconography embedded in Moon, Anderson deconstructs NASA even as she composes it.  She questions whose bodies have the authority to occupy the subject position in a national conversation about science through her cyborgean relationship to culturally familiar objects that are commonly associated with Americans in space. Parker-Starbuck, in her discussion of the fragmentation of multimedia performance, states, “[a]bject and object bodies are both bodies at a distance, bodies outside of our ‘selves.’ These bodies triangulate around the ‘subject’ as those who are refused, rejected, desired, critiqued, or negotiated with. These are the bodies that reiterate who we think we are and where we fit in the world.”[38] On Anderson’s stage, Neil Armstrong’s body, invisible save for his footprint projected on the small screen, is at once abject and object. Anderson is the subject performing astronomy “in play with” the abjected object of the first man on the moon.[39] The physical and technological space created on her cyborg stage makes room not only for her, but for the witnesses to this feminist comment on representation and authority in the domain of astronomy, to join the cultural conversation. Further altering the triangular relationship she has established among herself as subject, audience as participatory witness, and abjected icons of American space exploration, Anderson playfully manipulates simple video technology in order to defy notions of a familiar physics concept: gravity. Her challenge to physics provokes audience members to increase their engagement with socio-scientific government actions. Towards this end, she performs a spacewalk that introduces NASA’s innovative space suits as war machines.

In this sequence, Anderson uses a live-feed video camera to create a performance of weightlessness. She makes her illusory technics transparent to her audience by exposing her stagecraft even as she performs it, letting spectators in on the joke. “Our moon is just the moon,” she muses as she switches the camera on and focuses it toward herself, the audience visible within the camera’s frame.[40] The image of Armstrong’s historic footprint on the upstage left screen is replaced with a live projection stream from Anderson’s camera; now she occupies both subject and object positions on her cyborg stage. She holds the camera upside-down so that her projected image appears to be floating on the space of the stage, also upside-down, with a stage light shining like a sun behind her disembodied head, which bobs gently in accord with the movement of her live body. The camera captures some of the tea candle stars on the stage, and in an instant doubles the amount of “space” represented through the handheld projection device. Through this fragmented stage presence, Anderson raises the issue of gravity, verbally reflects on the experience of seeing old photographs of astronauts “suspended, floating in space” during her residency at NASA, and imagines what it must be like to walk on the moon.[41]

As she begins to perform her spacewalk, Anderson describes the technology built into NASA’s new spacesuits that will, according to Anderson, “increase your strength, say, forty times.”[42] The suits contain all kinds of “liquids” and “entry points for medicine.”[43] Just as the audience starts to dream about space suits capable of transforming the human into the superhuman (posthuman?), she disrupts the audience’s reverie with news about the grim reality of war times. The super-suit project’s contract has been transferred from NASA to a “new joint team” between MIT and the U.S. Army.[44] The suits will not be worn by astronauts but will be sent “out into the desert. Out into the world.”[45] Like the touched-up family portrait and HST photographs, no matter how much a person learns about a thing—a physical force, a moon, a space agency—there is always something that remains outside the realm of immediate experience. What remains outside the grasp of the everyday American, Anderson suggests, is the end to which NASA puts its ingenious inventions. Her criticism resonates with Parker-Starbuck’s assertion that “how bodies are modified and by whom are the ethical concerns that surround what already is, and will continue to shape both humans and non-humans alike.”[46] Parker-Starbuck’s theatrical cyborg ethic echoes Haraway’s late twentieth century cyborg provocation: “Might there be ways of developing feminist science/technology politics in alliance with anti-military science facility conversion action groups?”[47] Anderson’s performatics model an alternative way of doing science—in public—that resists traditional power structures hidden within the practice of space exploration.

While the spacesuits that Anderson describes resemble more conventional popular imaginations of the cyborg in their immediate melding of human body with technology, Anderson’s “reliance on corporeal-technological relationship” in performance is also cyborg in its technics and its critique.[48] She weaves her criticism into the fabric of transparent video-play about gravity, made strange within the space of the theatre. She proclaims, “Gravity is an illusion, a trick of the eye, not a force.”[49] In the metaenvironment of Anderson’s science-integrated theatre, imagination and illusion enable non-astronaut humans to participate in this rare aspect of the human experience and critique the politics within the institution that makes such experiences possible for a select few Americans. Saying “Excuse me, can you tell me where I am?”[50] she segues into a musical interlude that provides the reflective space for her audience to ponder the experience of weightlessness and the role of the individual in the socio-technological tangle of post-9/11 culture. She raises her electric violin and now the image on the screen takes the perspective of the bow as it meets the instrument’s strings. The illusion of space persists as the audience is presented with the live Anderson playing her violin beside the projected, more intimate, close-up image of her face. Quantum Anderson twins are separated by the space of the stage and connected by the electromagnetic force that powers her performance technologies, all in support of the artist’s efforts to transduce the hidden nature of NASA for the general audience assembled at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Anderson’s performatics encourage her audiences to engage with the domain of science in order to stay informed and active in a culture that would apply detection-related technologies developed in the domain of science to the art of global warfare. She presents herself as a science outsider, shares her socio-political performance response in an empathetic manner, and thus multiplies the number of non-scientists participant to the process of astronomy in the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, Moon can seem to be internally contradictory—should the non-scientist viewer love NASA or fear it? Seen as parts of a cultural whole, the balance between science and art, fear and wonder, becomes evident. This ability to isolate individual components in order to realize a whole system is integral to Anderson’s posthuman stage presence. Her doubled image—on the stage as well as on the projection screen—is an embodied metaphor for the ways that humans can hold contradictory opinions about one subject. She raises the social stases of war and peace as poignant examples for 2005. “Yes,” she says, “you can keep two things in mind.…[W]e can hold both at once without dropping.”[51]

The show closes with a monologue in which Anderson imagines the end of time with a mixture of theories of quantum physics, dream sequences, and, of course, the haunting musical accompaniment of her electric violin. She offers a parting comment on the hybrid nature of human cognition at the dawn of the quantum age: “Sometimes, I think I can smell light,” a suspicion that resonates with her earlier human frustration with the inadequacy of transductive technologies to replicate original conditions of deep-space phenomena.[52] Here, she suggests that such previously undetectable information is accessible by means of our extended and imaginative posthuman state. Access to the previously inaccessible becomes a matter of a change in critical, embodied, and disciplinary perspectives. Feminist, posthuman, and cyborg criticisms of the domain of science in the space of the theatre model possibilities for non-traditional bodies to participate in interdisciplinary actions and conversations having to do with science. The representation of women performing scientist roles in performance is a critical move towards a culture that might imagine, accept, allow, and encourage the female body as normative for the task of practicing physics and astronomy. Anderson is transparent in her own creative process that also renders NASA a bit less opaque for non-scientists. Her presence as a woman onstage, performing science from the perspective of an artist, offers an empathetic bridge for other curious science-outsiders to critically participate in the experience of astronomy.

Vivian Appler is an Assistant Professor of Theatre at the College of Charleston. Her writing has been published in Theatre Survey, Theatre Journal, and the forthcoming Routledge Companion to Jacques Lecoq. A former Fulbright fellow, her current research focus is on feminist performances of science.

[1] Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London: Free Association Books, 1991), 181.

[2] This article was written, in part, during a Dibner Research Fellowship in the History of Science and Technology at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California in 2015. Thanks also to the New York Public Library Performing Arts Research Collections for granting me access to review the archival footage of The End of the Moon.

[3] The 2013 National Science Foundation (NSF) found that “the proportion of [science and engineering] degrees awarded to women has risen since 1993. The proportion of women is lowest in engineering, computer sciences, and physics.” National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2015, accessed October 20, 2015, http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2015/nsf15311/digest/. There is much action that is currently being performed within astronomy in particular to emend these disparities. Blogs such as Women in Astronomy and Astronomy in Color are evidence of actions performed by women and racial minorities who work within the discipline of astronomy towards the end of equalizing access to astronomy. Women in Astronomy, accessed 14 November 2015, womeninastronomy.blogspot.com. Astronomy in Color, accessed 14 November 2015, astronomyincolor.blogspot.com.

[4] “They [literary intellectuals] still like to pretend that the traditional culture is the whole of ‘culture,’ as though the natural order didn’t exist. As though the exploration of the natural order was of no interest either in its own value or its consequences. As though the scientific edifice of the physical world was not, in its intellectual depth, complexity and articulation, the most beautiful and wonderful collective work of the mind of man. Yet most non-scientists have no conception of that edifice at all.” C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures: and A Second Look: An Expanded Version of the Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 14.

[5] Ulrich in Grossnov, Michael Joseph, “Inviting the Cosmos Onto the Stage,” The New York Times, 11 November 2004, http://www.nytimes.com, accessed 1 March 2016.

[6] Anderson in Solomon, Deborah, “Post-Lunarism,” The New York Times Magazine, 30 January 2005, http://www.nytimes.com, accessed 1 March 2016.

[7] Gener, Randy, “Fly her to the moon: what’s art got to do with NASA? Laurie Anderson listens to the cosmic pulse,” American Theatre 22, no. 3 (2005): 26+, accessed 2 December 2014, http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA130570546&v=2.1&u=upitt_main&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&asid=1d8012ba9f173f1b83d9bc51f4d0ad28.

[8] NASA ArtSpace, accessed 6 December 2014, http://www.nasa.gov/connect/artspace/.

[9] The Smithsonian recently curated an exhibit dedicated to the NASA Art Program’s history, documented in the book, NASA/ART—50 Years of Exploration. Selections from it may be seen on NASA’s website, https://www.nasa.gov.

[10] Other pieces of the trilogy include Happiness (2001) and Dirtday! (2012).

[11] Anderson has a history of connecting the dots between the domains of science, technology, and the military. Friedrich Kittler points out that she adapts the military technology of the vocoder for her representation of the voice of a pilot announcing a crash landing in the song, “From the Air” on the record Big Science (1982), also featured in the live performance, United States (1983). Mara Mills, “Media and Prosthesis: the Vocoder, the Artificial Larynx, and the History of Signal Processing,” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences 21, no 1 (2012): 110, accessed 19 October 2015, http://muse.jhu.edu/article/491050.

[12] Laurie Anderson, The End of the Moon (New York: Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Theatre, February 27, 2005), videocassette, New York Public Library, Performing Arts Research Collections, Theatre on Film and Tape.

[13] N. Katherine Hayles, “Refiguring the Posthuman,” Comparative Literature Studies 41, no.3 (2004), accessed 11 May 2014, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40247415.

[14] Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013).

[15] Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 6.

[16] Jennifer Parker-Starbuck, Cyborg Theatre: Corporeal/Technological Intersections in Multimedia Performance (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 14.

[17] Braidotti, The Posthuman, 39.

[18] Hayles, “Refiguring the Posthuman,” 313.

[19] Kyle Powys White and Robert P. Crease, “Trust, Expertise, and the Philosophy of Science,” Synthese 177, no. 3 (December 2010), 411-25, accessed 26 July 2015, 417.

[20] The HST is a 2.4m-wide reflective telescope that is situated three-hundred and eighty-one miles above the Earth’s surface. On 24 April 1990 it was carried in the cargo bay of the space shuttle Discovery and placed into orbit. Its “improved wavelength coverage,” will come to bear on this article’s examination of the HST role in detecting invisible spectra in the accessible performance of astronomy as it appears in The End of the Moon. Robert W Smith, “Introduction: The Power of an Idea,” Hubble’s Legacy: Reflections by Those Who Dreamed It, Built It, and Observed the Universe with It, ed. Roger D. Launius and David H. DeVorkin (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2014), 3.

[21] HST has its own website that is operated by NASA. Hubblesite, accessed 19 October 2015, http://hubblesite.org.

[22] Repeated observations and visual documentations of celestial objects like stars and galaxies allow astronomers to track changes in an object’s location and appearance over time and therefore learn about the object’s distance, heat, and movement.

[23] The visual spectrum refers to the small portion of the energy, emitted by all objects to some degree, detectable to the human eye.

[24] In a discussion of mid-late nineteenth century photographs that contain extra-visual data, art historian Josh Ellenbogen states, “[p]hotography does not reproduce data in such images, but instead it produces them.” Josh Ellenbogen, Reasoned and Unreasoned Images: The Photography of Bertillon, Galton, and Maray (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010), 6.

[25] Anderson, The End of the Moon.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Mary Thomas Crane, “Analogy, Metaphor, and the New Science: Cognitive Science and Early Modern Epistemology,” Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies, ed. Lisa Zunshine (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 107.

[28] The relationship of experience to the documentation of experience is a recurrent trope in Anderson’s lifelong explorations of the connections that exist between science, culture, and the military: “Stand by. This is the time. And this is the record of the time.” Laurie Anderson, “From the Air,” in RoseLee Goldberg, Laurie Anderson (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000), 96.

[29] Cooperstein’s case study is of the imagistic history of the Orion Nebula in which she compares nineteenth century astrophotography and the photography techniques used by turn-of-the-millennium astronomers. Shana Cooperstein, “Imagery and Astronomy: Visual Antecedents Informing Non-Reproductive Depictions of the Orion Nebula,” Leonardo 47, no. 2 (2014), 133, accessed 27 May 2015, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/len/summary/v047/47.2.cooperstein.html.

[30]Elizabeth A. Kessler, Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 154.

[31] Ibid., 157.

[32] Anderson, The End of the Moon.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Amy Cook, “If: Lear’s Feather and the Staging of Science,” The Return of Theory in Early Modern English Studies: Tarrying with the Subjunctive,” ed. Paul Cefalu and Bryan Reynolds (Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 59.

[36] Ellenbogen defines the composite image as “a synthesis of data—a condensed, abbreviative representation of the kinds of information one might otherwise derive from a binomial curve, or better, a series of binomial curves that measured the particular features a given composite shows” (Ellenbogen, 9).

[37] Most reviews remark upon the pared-down technology of Moon, when compared to the technological complexity of her earlier work.

[38] Parker-Starbuck, Cyborg Theatre, 95.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Anderson, The End of the Moon.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Parker-Starbuck, Cyborg Theatre, 194.

[47] Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, 169.

[48] Parker-Starbuck, Cyborg Theatre, 101.

[49] Ibid. Gravity is (probably) a force, but one that physicists are still seeking to adequately explain. See Lisa Randall, Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions (HarperCollins ebooks, 2009).

[50] Anderson, The End of the Moon.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.


“Moonwalking with Laurie Anderson: The Implicit Feminism of The End of the Moon” by Vivian Appler

ISNN 2376-4236

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 28, Number 2 (Spring 2016)
©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

Editorial Board:

Co-Editors: Naomi J. Stubbs and James F. Wilson
Advisory Editor: David Savran
Founding Editors: Vera Mowry Roberts and Walter Meserve

Editorial Staff:

Managing Editor: James Armstrong
Editorial Assistant: Kyueun Kim

Advisory Board:

Michael Y. Bennett
Kevin Byrne
Bill Demastes
Jorge Huerta
Amy E. Hughes
Esther Kim Lee
Kim Marra
Beth Osborne
Jordan Schildcrout
Robert Vorlicky
Maurya Wickstrom
Stacy Wolf

Table of Contents:

  • “This In-Between Life: Disability, Trans-Corporeality, and Radioactive Half-Life in D. W. Gregory’s Radium Girls” by Bradley Stephenson
  • “Moonwalking with Laurie Anderson: The Implicit Feminism of The End of the Moon” by Vivian Appler
  • iDream: Addressing the Gender Imbalance in STEM through Research-Informed Theatre for Social Change” by Eileen Trauth, Karen Keifer-Boyd and Suzanne Trauth
  • “Setting the Stage for Science Communication: Improvisation in an Undergraduate Life Science Curriculum” by Cindy L. Duckert and Elizabeth A. De Stasio
  • “Playing Sick: Training Actors for High Fidelity Simulated Patient Encounters” by George Pate and Libby Ricardo


Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
The Graduate Center CUNY Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue
New York NY 10016

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