Laurie Anderson Media Manipulator

SHE’S A MULTI-MEDIA story-teller, spinning yarns around the flickering campfire of technology. Her songs are swathes of hypnotic synthesised tones, with eerie voice filters focussing the half-sung words of her thoughts and dreams. She’s a poet who makes records; a musical ideas-juggler; a stand-up philosopher.

In fact, Laurie Anderson doesn’t mind being called a performance artist. She is, after all, both artist and performer. But “Performance Art” too easily brings to mind unfathomable displays of weirdness, where all that gets communicated is the gulf between art (and the artist) and the real world. Anderson’s work, on the other hand, has a direct link to her audience and their lives. It’s about sharing things with them; about illustrating thoughts and ideas, rather than hiding them behind a barrier of conceptual nonsense.

Her shows are intense evenings of deeply personal recollections, spun together with political musings and magical fantasies. Sometimes she is joined onstage by truckloads of equipment: orchestras, TVs, projectors, and a myriad of homemade electronic gadgets. At other times she chooses to tell her tales under a single spotlight with nothing more than a keyboard and a MIDI violin. Onstage she draws you in with the intimacy of a fireside conversation. She describes her role as that of a guide giving directions.

“I would be a voice in the dark, pointing at something over there, saying ‘look behind you.’” Like your favourite teacher, she doesn’t preach, but crystallises latent thoughts, guiding you with inexorable logic toward your own (her own?) conclusions. She once planned to be a librarian, and you can imagine her, in spectacles and cardigan, gleefully directing people to her favourite books; finding satisfaction in leading them to exciting and dangerous ideas.

In the sleepy light of a London Monday morning, her fluffed shock of hair seems to have a punky hint of indigo. It adds to an intriguing air of agelessness, complementing her eyes of crystal and her ivory skin. Once you’ve been snared by her voracious intelligence, you realise that she has been protected (in her late forties) from the ageing ravages of stress, by a stillness of thought; a calm, child-like appetite for life’s mysteries. She breaks off the filter from a morning Marlboro, lights it; pours the first of several coffees, and tells some tales.

“The first stories I heard were Bible stories: strange stories about oceans opening up and snakes that talked. And the people around me would talk about these stories as if they really happened. This caused me a lot of confusion.”

Stories are both her medium and her subject. They are even, she insists, a matter of identity: “If someone asks us who we are, we tell them some stories about ourselves.”

“You can write your life as you go along. Most people do: they’ve written a fairly coherent script. And when you tell the story, say, of the worst day of your life, you become in control – because you become the narrator. You then tell what happened to this guy. But really you’re the subject.”

However, she argues, most peoples’ scripts are largely written for them. Our identities are constrained by the stereotypes, the permissable models, society offers us. “We have really crummy models in the United states,” she laments, “For men there are only two models: a salesman and a cowboy.”

EVEN IF YOU only know Laurie Anderson from her 1980 hit ‘O Superman’, a warm glow of mesmeric vocal loops, you will have heard her voice. It’s this, after all, which is the key to her art. On record and in performance her lilting American accent, imbued with a calm, seductive clarity, draws you into her poetry.

Her new album, her sixth, is called Bright Red. Co-produced by ambient electronics pioneer Brian Eno, it is the precurser to a future full-scale collaboration. She describes the record as “by far the most personal thing I’ve ever written,” and relates how its minimalism makes it closest to her earliest recordings. “Sometimes you just want the important things to be in a song. And when you’re mixing, a giant production number can come out as just two people singing and some drums. The only way that I know if it’s working is when I hear something and my hair stands on end. If I don’t feel like that about it, I just erase it. Off the tape.”

Her record company are happiest thinking of her as just another musician. They get very excited, she says, whenever she writes a song with anything resembling a beat. “Unless you really try to guide what they’re going to do with this stuff, they really will put it out in a way that distorts it.”

Despite being a Warner Brothers recording artist, her relationship to popular culture is far from comfortable.

“I am snobbish in a way about pop culture,” she admits. “It’s pretty much of a snooze, generally. It’s made to just more or less get you through that day. The second I feel myself being pulled into it I feel there’s something really wrong here.”

But she does think culture should be more popular.

“Too often, in the United States at least, culture is put away in museums, in giant store houses. And it’s treated like money: it’s traded like money, it’s valued like money. It’s not allowed to hit people, change people, and make them afraid. And that’s the kind of Art that I personally like the most: stuff that really scares me.”

A large-scale project coming to fruition in Barcelona springs from these ideals of democratic access to Art; from the idea that an artistic experience needn’t be inside a hushed museum. With Peter Gabriel and numerous other artists, she has long had the dream of creating an artistic theme park, ‘Real World’, containing a radio and TV station, theatrical venues, rides, video games, and temporary and permanent installations.

“I love the idea of making a place that isn’t about waiting in long lines for a cheap thrill. One of the ideas is sort of a music ride, where you move through the stages of life. We have various artists design the different stages. We asked John Waters to design adolescence, so it would be like being inside a John Waters movie.”

This brings us to the tornadoes. The park is to have a pair of 60 foot tornadoes flanking its entrance. “A friend, Ned Kahn is a weather artist,” Laurie explains, “He makes tornadoes. He made one for my last performance, a 12-foot one, freestanding.”

But how do you make a tornado? She makes a ‘listen carefully kids’ face and explains how four columns, releasing jets of air rotate a hollow of condensed air to create a vortex…. usually! “Maybe ten percent of the time you switch it on and you get a [ineffectual whirring noise] and the light would go back down on it. Unpredictable!”

TECHNOLOGY PLAYS a large part in her storytelling. A violin which plays a two foot section of magnetic tape stretched across its bow; a table which lets you hear speech silently through your bones, a suit which turns your movements into patterns on a drum machine: Laurie Anderson is a relentless gadget-maker. Despite this she expresses a mistrust of technology. The gadgets, she says, are a means to an expressive end, and on a stage full of such things she feels like she’s conducting a bizarre trade show. Her attitude is perhaps best described as enthusiastic cynicism.

This extends even to such a democratic, progressive gadget as the Internet. While she accepts that it is a great means of communication, and perhaps a way of creating a true artistic underground, she is still reluctant to fully embrace the Information Superhighway. “Only because I think ‘Wait a second. Why are they suddenly interested in everyone being able to tap into the Library Of Congress?’ Why this sudden interest in our education when they can’t even afford to get kids through school. Something’s fishy here. Many folks have made the point, which I totally agree with, that the point of all this is to keep track of you.”

Much of Anderson’s commentary is similarly political. This is inevitable considering the things that interest her: language, technology, power. Like all the best spies and voyeurs, she is deeply fascinated by the things she criticises most. One enduring subject is the distortion of reality engineered during the Gulf War. With the American government exercising unprecedented control of how their war was reported, truth went out of the window, and the whole event, as far as the CNN-viewing masses were concerned, became entertainment. This subject led her to a meditation about censorship, freedom and the good old US of A.

“For example, my puritan ancestors came from England because the King of England wouldn’t allow them to punish people who played games on Sunday. So they came to America to exercise that precious right: to punish people who didn’t agree with them. Welcome to America!”

Her attitude to her motherland has often put her at odds with the ruling powers; even to the extent that one event, the Anti-Inaugeral Ball (Where she joined other artistic dissidents performing songs about authority, including ‘I Dreamt I Was Ronald Reagan’s Lover’) attracted a large number of gentlemen in skinny ties, suits and dark glasses. So is the US government monitoring her as a dangerous subversive? “I certainly hope so,” she says, with genuine glee, “I know that I am on a list. And I’m incredibly proud of that.”

SHE DESCRIBES her new book, Stories From The Nerve Bible, as her autobiography as an artist. The ‘Nerve Bible’, she explains, is the body: the stories created from its senses. Spanning her career from 1972 to 1992, the book is a catalogue of an amazing creativity, a collection of the words, images, constructions and ideas which have made up her readings and performances.

Exploring the book, as in talking to her, you are struck by Laurie Anderson’s honesty, humanity and openness. She insists that there is a boundary between her life and her work, but it’s hard to believe. Especially when she admits, “Some of the most intimate things I’ve ever said are to large groups of strangers.” And when you ask about relaxation, about the antidote to her work, she tells you her favourite activities are… listening and talking – eavesdropping and telling stories.

© Frank Broughtoni-D, August 1994

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