Laurie Anderson: Clarity’s Angel

First, Laurie Anderson chronicled the United States of America. What’s next for the leading performance-person of our day?

‘Musician’ has never been an adequate description of Laurie Anderson. Her music’s been successful: she’s still mostly known here for 1981’s ‘O Superman’, which rose from John Peel cult favour to Number Two in the Hit Parade, complete with Top Of The Pops dancer cavorting in sub-Daliesque costumes. And it’s been taken seriously: John Rockwell includes Anderson in All American Music, his guide to the twenty most distinguished American composers of the late 20th century. But music’s just one string to Laurie Anderson’s bow.

When it was released, ‘O Superman’ was a fragment from a gargantuan work-in-progress, United States I-IV. This eight-hour long multi-media ‘solo opera’, eventually premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1983, was a category-shattering blend of live and pre-recorded music, stand-up comedy, schizo-soliloquies, treated vocals, gadgetry, special effects, slides, films and performance. The Brooklyn nights’ sonic document, United States Live, has just been issued on CD for the first time.

Anderson’s post-modern, polymath approach confounds genre and plays games with gender. Her (loaded word) ‘mastery’ of technology (computers, samplers, voice modulation techniques, MIDI systems), her boffin-like invention of new instruments (like her famous tape bow, where a tape loop is bowed across a violin which has cassette heads instead of strings) – challenges the idea (held by essentialist feminists as well as male chauvinists) that the mechanical/scientific realm is intrinsically masculine. Much of Anderson’s music, with its electronically generated and processed, denatured textures and its un-inflected minimalism, doesn’t sound ‘feminine’. Or does it? Hip musicologist Susan McClary, author of Feminine Endings: Music, Gender and Sexuality, has hailed the refusal of harmonic closure in ‘O Superman’ as a subversion of the phallocentric, triumphalist structures of Western classical music. Furthermore, says McClary, ‘Language D’Amour’, also from United States, shuns the bombastic narrative structures that underpin both classical and rock (tension leading to explosive release); the track’s proto-ambient house pulsations recreate in sound the undulating, non-linear, potentially inexhaustible economy of female jouissance.

“To tell you the truth, I’ve never been interested in plot,” says Laurie Anderson. We’re sitting in the breakfast room of her spotless, spacious SoHo apartment, which looks exactly how you’d imagine a New York performance artist’s loft to look. “I think plot is something that takes all the boring days out and leaves the exciting ones in. Most real things unravel in a much more textured way. But that’s not particularly feminine or masculine, I think. Maybe you could make a case for action-oriented being male, detail-oriented being female. But I’ve never been interested in these clichés, I don’t find it helpful to put that grid on what I do.”


IRONICALLY, ANDERSON’S LAST record, 1989’s Strange Angels, was both her most ‘feminine’-sounding and her most jouissance-free. A frilly, twittery affair, somewhere between Enya and early Kate Bush, the album was sabotaged by Anderson’s misguided attempts at proper singing. But all this is ancient history to the workaholic Anderson. Being a Warner Brothers recording artist is just one of many fronts of activity. This past year she’s been happy to let it recede into the background.

“It’s been a very intense year, and the little details I’ve always been interested in have been so eclipsed by whoever has been writing the script for this last year. Whoever’s writing the script has a great sense of humour. I’ve never had a more interesting time in my life. I never wanted to write those kind of songs that are, y’know, ‘I know who’s pulling the strings, the Big Boys’; there were aspects of that before, but as backgrounds for odder moments. But for the last year I‘ve been performing a three hour show called Voices From The Beyond, all over the country, every week. There’s one minute of music in it. Before I never had the sensation that what I do is useful. It’s shocking to me what’s happened in America. It’s totally out of control. And nobody’s really talking about it in ways that illuminate. When I do the show people say to me ‘are you allowed to go around saying things like this?’! In the talk, I try to follow threats, and particularly sexual threats, through the country, because I’m really trying to understand this blend of puritanism and violence. It’s mainly to do with words and images, the music in it is a sort of ‘pump up the volume’ adrenalin-boosting thing.”

Before, she was political with a small ‘p’. Now Anderson’s become an ‘engaged’ artist, if not quite a purveyor of agit-prop.

“I feel like I can irritate people. I was doing something in Miami last weekend. Miami’s starting to get an art scene. It’s not like New York, where you’re watching something die, it’s watching something come to life. But the directors of this sponsoring organisation brought some people down there who were terribly angry at what we were doing, because they saw thousands of people cheering for ideas that were total anathema to them. It deals with a lot of topics, beginning with the Gulf War and the threats that developed from that. Because that was the first time I felt a deep, deep alienation. Watching this country explode into a self-congratulatory orgy was when it really hit me. The Victory Parades. And bringing up the rear of the Parades, tagging along, were the Vietnam vets, wearing war-ton outfits and giving Huey Newton power salutes that no one had seen for 20 years. And then I read a fascinating statistic about how twice as many Viet vets had committed suicide than actually died during the war.

“The talk jumps very quickly from the War to the sex trials to my Grandmother’s missionary past to Bush’s use of sex, starting with his slogan ‘read my lips’, which meant that you actually had to look at his lips. Which is a very unpleasant experience. He could have said ‘take my word for it’ or ‘believe me’ but he established a very erotic relationship with his audience. For me, the sex trials have been the most amazing thing. The case a few years ago of the woman who was strangled by her boyfriend in Central Park (and the guy gets off), the Central Park jogger case, the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings, the William Kennedy-Smith trial. It’s the exact some thing every time, it’s like the woman is out of her mind, or lying. I’m finding that a lot of women are feeling the same way. There are lot of women who’ve been meeting in groups since the Anita Hill business. At the first meeting of this group of female artists called Women’s Action Coalition, someone said ‘are we going to have a policy decision to decide what we’re about, or are we just going to do something?’. Everybody goes: ‘we’re gonna do something’. So Monday morning we’re going out to stage a protest at another of these sex trials.

“The idea for the protest originally occurred to me in connection with a piece I’m working on for a benefit. I was very struck by the blue dot during the Kennedy trial, which is this TV effect that blocks out the faces of the rapist’s accuser when she’s on the stand. My idea was to get 50 women, a kind of Greek chorus, to hold up blue dots over their faces and testify. Then the protest at this rape trial arose, so I decided to use the blue dot idea then. Because then you get the image of the fan as well. There are numerous examples in American films of court rooms where Southern injustice is being achieved and the women are fanning themselves. On the black of the dots there’ll be slogans.

“At this meeting there were a lot of cross-the-board artists, painters, sculptors, film makers, and it was very thrilling to see the same kind of rage. I haven’t seen anything like this for many years. The last women’s artist political group I participated in was in the mid-70s. When I was at this meeting I decided to open up the piece of music I’m working on to other women artists. So we’re going to get Nona Hendryx to sing in this thing called The Supremes Court. The idea is, instead of male judges, it’s The Supremes sitting in judgement on us. And Karen Finley and Diamanda Galas might be involved in the piece.

“There are so many raw, personal things involved in sexual harassment and these rape trials. Half the women in America have been raped. I went out to the Lama Foundation, this Buddhist compound in New Mexico, to do a little storytelling workshop. And I got these women to tell stories, and you know. I was sorry I asked! These women started telling me stories about being sexually abused as children. And I was not prepared for this, I realised I had zero skills to help these people. I was horrified, I just began crying. Later I thought that maybe the kind of people who come to these workshops have stories weighing on their hearts, so maybe it attracted a disproportionate number of victims. Then I started reading real statistics, and found that 40 per cent of women were abused as children. Boys too. It was very deep shock to me. I thought ‘I’m an artist, I’m supposed to work with images and try to reach these emotional extremities’. At the same time, I’m also interested in the outside world. My real subject is the membrane between the personal and the political, how people use these war-torn backgrounds for the dramatisation of their relationships. The three-hour talk jumps back and forth between the personal and the political. Because politics is extremely personal. You feel strongly about certain issues, and it’s a question of what you’re afraid of. And now politics are getting extremely personal because, especially for women, it’s a question of getting crushed. And silenced.”


IN THE PAST, Anderson’s work has involved playing with and problematising the idea of America as the promised land, as utopia. United States is a kind of anthropological work on the folkways of American hyper-reality. Voices From The Beyond, on the other hand, marks a shift from such elliptical undoings. A lot of the talk is about “how to imagine the future. How to move towards the year 2000.”

“There never has been a utopia. It’s always been in your mind, an imaginary creation. So that’s the kind of thing I’m doing, trying to re-imagine utopia. America’s a country of Puritans, of extremely puritanical people. And I inherited that. My ancestors are Puritans who came over from England because the King of England would not allow them to punish people for playing games on Sunday. So they came here to exercise this precious right to punish people.”

Mind you, Utopia, as conceived by Thomas More, was no anarchic, free-loving commune but a legalistic, highly policed, socially-engineered society that wouldn’t seem very paradisical to us. So it’s probably true that America was founded to be a more congenial site for a totalitarian theocracy.

“Which is what I think they ended up creating. But you know, I always used to think, what would it have been like when Rome fell? And now you can see it. It is spectacular, these death throes. And they are death throes, believe me. But it’s a lot better than being asleep, which is what the 80s were about. The 80s was like being in a coma. I find the current situation breathtaking. But things happen so fast that people can’t adjust to it. For example, we lost our biggest enemy this year, after 25 years of being told the Russians were coming and constructing all these Doomsday scenarios with Americans wandering in tribes through the irradiated ruins of cities. Suddenly, the Russians are over there saying ‘Hi, we shop at the GAP, we wear jeans, we want to live like you’. Defining an enemy has always been a confusing thing in America, but necessary. It’s a cliché to say, but if you don’t have a ‘devil’ out there like Hussein, who do you hate?

“You can see this kind of demonisation on many different levels, from the obsession with abolishing abortion to the movie images that were invoked in these sex trials, extracted from films like Fatal Attraction, where the woman is the one who’s the killer. Now women don’t kill that many people, we really don’t. But in all these films, we’re vampires that are out of our minds and we’re coming for you with knives. Now who’s manufacturing this stuff? It’s deeply insane, and so totally interesting.”

With her topical, polemical concerns and busy schedule of protest, Anderson doesn’t have much time for frippery like the purely aesthetic activities of making music. “I’m working on stuff that I think will develop into music. But I’m very bad at predicting what stuff will turn into: it could start out as an opera and turn into a potato print!” Also in the pipeline is a book, an anthology of extracts from her entire 20-year career. “It sounds really pompous. But I feel more like a curator going through somebody else’s stuff. I’m continually surprised by stuff I’d forgotten about. It’s been really interesting, because I only have a dozen or so themes that I do over and over again, and one of them is utopia, as you mentioned. Others are issues of language, airplanes, dogs, angels, authority figures. Sometimes I wonder if it’s coherent, and then looking back I can see it’s quite a piece. This book is an overview of my entire oeuvre, and it feels like I’m writing my own obituary. It’s also a way to get this stuff out of my house. Because I never throw stuff away, I have thousands of slides and hundreds of films. I feel this real need to lighten up. What I’d really like to do is have a radio show, just to get this stuff out in a less ponderous and more timely way. At the same time, I’m not really a reporter, I like to chew on this stuff awhile, see what connections emerge.”

But the most interesting project Anderson’s involved in is a longstanding pipedream of Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno’s called Real World, a fantastical theme park in Barcelona that’s still in the planning stage.

“We’re trying to build a park that has no model. A park designed by artists. It’s a new way to put art in a public space without locking it into a museum. And I think it’s very thrilling. What makes it really fun is going to the meetings and Peter, Brian and I can just free-associate and people take us seriously. You can say something like ‘how about if a large black cloud hovers over the park and triggers a forest of talking trees’ and some guy actually writes down ‘research large, black cloud and talking trees’. So then you think ‘okay, that was much too easy, I’m going to give you guys something difficult’. There was an image in my previous performance, Empty Places, of a ferris wheel that’s half in and half out of the water. And we’re actually going to build this thing. So for me this is literally: your subconscious come true.”

© Simon ReynoldsThe Wire, March 1992

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