Laurie Anderson: More Blank Than Frank

AS SHE confides to us in her live show, Laurie Anderson was a bird in a previous incarnation.

What she doesn’t tell us is that, in fact, she was Howard The Duck.

But if you look closely you can still seethe resemblence to the unfortunate creature, the duck from another dimension, transported from a parallel universe where ducks are the ascendant species, to this one, where talking ducks are cartoon characters.

The signs are easy enough to spot – those huge eyes, wrinkled with amazement and amusement, that mouth with its fixed, bill-like smile, and a certain other-worldly charm.

How could you dislike anyone who used to be Howard The Duck?

It’s certainly difficult to dislike Laurie Anderson – throughout the interview, the huge eyes remain fixed attentively on mine, the smile pointed straight in my direction, while her answers bristle with flattering lines like “You, as a writer know…”.

If she can charm 4,000 people in the Hammersmith Odeon, what chance a solitary writer, however sceptical, however, well versed in the literary reference points with which Anderson scatters her work?

Still, I have my reservations. Four years ago, in the shadow of the awesome scope of United States, I would have been totally entranced by Laurie Anderson, just as I was fascinated by her simple melodies and vocal ciphers, suspended in an uneasy technological space. Now I’m not so sure. There was that album with Peter Gabriel, Mister Heartbreak which, despite some moments seemed to show a pandering to the rock mainstream. Then last week there were the new London shows, displaying Laurie as a technological song and dance man in a performance sadly lacking in any disturbing elements. A very comfortable evening with a charismatic performer, who looks more and more like the middle class liberal’s idea of the avant-garde.

Ian Penman once described Paris, Texas as being so blank as to allow the viewer to project on it what he or she wants. It’s an analogy that applies equally well to Laurie Anderson, but in the days of Big Science, it was a fragmented screen, lacerated by jagged textures, that sent off a series of glittering reflections. Now she seems to have cemented together a smooth, rock-moderne backdrop. Now that we see our own images reflected back so perfectly, the blankness of the screen is all the more obvious.

DOES IT in any way disturb you, the ease with which your material is assimilated?

“Well when I work, I work mainly for myself, the criteria for using something is whether it makes me laugh or makes me dream. I do like to do live shows as opposed to records or videos because then I can see the reaction, but I can only see the faces.”

Of course the total impasse for Laurie Anderson would be if her audience had nothing to project, just a row of blank faces staring at a blank art.

Is it your intention to alter your audience’s perception of the world?

“Well, if I had to sum up what I work with in terms of ideas, it’s illusion. I don’t write tracts of what I think and hand them out.

“I’m not going to use the word information, but the way that these things come into you is through your eyes and your ears, and you get it in a second or you just don’t get it. But hopefully it’s not just a sensual experience.”

Why not the word information?

“It has many connotations. Truthfulness, dryness.”

As well as being the primary concern of William Burroughs.

“Yeah, that language lies, however you use it. You’ve been a writer for long enough, you know how difficult it is to say what you really mean.”

The point is you have to mean something before you start talking. One of the problems with Laurie Anderson’s work, as opposed to say peak period Psychic TV, who work in equivalently post-Burroughsian multi-media areas, is that there is no information in it, no research behind it. It is simply an observation of the existence of technology. The one actual idea expressed – that technology is a parasite that is taking over its host – is a direct plagiarism of one of the many ideas in Burroughs The Job.

Neither is there any of the interruption of form that makes Burroughs so interesting. Burrough’s point, in fact, was that by abusing language you could show the way it lied, and possibly allow the truth to leak through. Apart from one clever device by which Laurie as a woman speaks with a man’s voice, there is nothing in the show that is enough of an interruption of the norm to raise a question mark.

OVER THE last few months I hear that you’ve become a frequent chat show guest in America, occupying the same sort of position as Warhol did in the ’60s as an art-world figure, now in a wider orbit of stardom.

“I think because I’m an artist that chooses to work in radio and television. One of the most important things about the media is that it’s insatiable. You’re right to mention Warhol, because he’s someone that uses and abuses media, and has commented on it in several interesting ways.

“It’s not a mistake to call something post-modern now, because there actually is no present. The media in New York will make some kid just out of art school an art world celebrity, before he’s had a chance to develop what he’s doing. It becomes very difficult to produce something which doesn’t immediately become the grist to the media mill.

“That’s one of the reasons I did the movie, because I work in such a transitory medium, the minute I do something it all disappears. Working in records is just not satisfactory because the images are so visually important. So I wanted to do something which would have a sense of performance about it, but would be visual.”

But before we return to the product, isn’t the best way to avoid the media milling process, to do something which in some way questions the very strong implicit morality of the media? You have been quoted as saying that you dislike television, but your show is quite frequently an imitation of television, rather than a deconstruction of it. You never show anything that could not acceptably be screened on TV proper.

“Well, there are certainly a lot of images on TV, but television deconstructs itself, or rather it deconstructs the viewer, because you can see the drool running down the faces after an hour of watching it. The cliche is that it’s a drug, it’s a drug store if you ask me, the intention is obviously to sell something. That’s another reason why there are lots of images of sales in the show. But the strongest way of confronting television is to do something that is live and that people can come and see. I’ve made a couple of videos, but I really hate it as a medium, because television is incredibly lonely.”

Is there necessarily any more social content in a concert? You may not talk to the person you’re sitting next to, your relation to what you’re watching is basically the same. There is the idea that there’s a real performer on the stage, but that is no more than an idea in the end.

“Well I don’t know whether it’s just an idea when I come out and step on people’s toes.

“I make a great effort to break down a lot of things that are the standard theatrical presentation. As the audience, one minute you’re ladies and gentlemen, the next you’re something else. I don’t think it has at all this relation of show to audience. I try to use language in many different ways, one minute my voice is like some two-bit biology teacher from some state university who’s telling you about sperm, the next it’s much more intimate. To me a rock and roll show is much more like television because the roles are established, and if I thought that was what I was doing, I’d quit instantly.”

But the question remains, if you hate television so much, how come so much of your imagery is of, rather than about television?

“Well that applies to technology too. If you hate technology so much then why are you using it? It’s a love/hate relationship for everyone. Technology makes your life easier, but it makes it hellish too, all the catchphrases of the machine era have a different meaning now than they did two weeks ago.”

That’s all very well it you’re thinking of ‘Oh Superman’, which is a brilliantly chilling evocation of the ghosts in an answer machine, but the later material seems to have lost that degree of observation and that haunting edge.

Don’t people learn as much about television from watching the ads on TV as from your songs?

“In many ways television has the same relationship to the real world as heaven does, it runs perfectly well without human help, which is what the construction is all about, but I really disagree with you that using these images is suggesting that the stage should be seen as TV. I think there are too many things in the show that say precisely the opposite.”

CUT FAST FORWARD STOP PLAY

“MY ORIGINAL idea with this show was just to come on stage and introduce the film of Home Of The Brave and say ‘This is a film I made, I hope you like it’.”

Would that not have been a complete contradiction of what you said about doing something which is live as opposed to television?

“Of course, the whole idea of doing the film is a complete contradiction.”

CUT FAST FORWARD PLAY

“When I was directing the movie I was in this schizophrenic role of acting out the conflict between the director and the star, meanwhile being both of them. There was one point at which I thought, If I see my own image once more, I’m going to scream!”

CUT INSERT

“Of the same order as the impossibility of rediscovering an absolute level of the real, is the impossibility of staging an illusion. Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible. It is the whole political problem of the parody, of hypersimulation or offensive simulation, which is posed here.”
(from Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations – Semiotexte, $2.95).

PLAY

“I really can’t see why you say that there’s nothing disturbing in the show, to a large extent my work is composed of things that disturb me.”

What disturbs you, Laurie?

“Right at the moment, what’s going on in the world.”

But there’s nothing about what’s going on in the world in the show, it seems to exist in some gravity-less vaccuum.

“Well look, I don’t have a sledge-hammer to pound people over the head with.”

It needn’t necessarily be pounding people over the head, you say what’s in the show is what shocks yourself and what shocks you is the world.

“I’m talking now about what I’m interested in now. Will I get more directly political, I don’t know. The best political artist as far as I’m concerned is Goya, as far as what I’ve seen in the last couple of months.”

What about Warhol, who brought politics into art in the shape of shock and atrocity, who said, exactly as you do, I am an artist all I do is reflect, and yet to the viewer it’s obvious that he reflects power structures, commodity violence, self-inflicted violence, violent violence.

“Well in terms of that most of the elements of the show I’ve just done deal with beginnings, from the sperm sequences, to the ‘I was just a Hershey bar in my father’s pocket’ to the nursery school beginnings of the Hansel and Gretel characters, following them through their lives to find them now in Berlin. One of the central things is this force that is pulling into the future, as in the Hansel and Gretel song, the angel who sees all history as garbage, and is facing the garbage pile but is being blown by the wind backwards. But it’s about beginning because it is literally beginnings, as all the performances I do lead into the next one.”

WHAT ABOUT your appropriation of Burroughs’ idea that languages is a virus from outer space?

“I think it’s perhaps fascination with the idea that a writer could say that, that language is a disease communicable by mouth. You and I have used a lot of heavy nouns, and I sort of regret that, because a lot of art communicates directly to the senses and can’t be reduced so easily, analytically to words.”

A-ha, the old final escape route. Of course Laurie Anderson is wrong in that everything can be examined by language, but she’s right in that nothing cannot be examined by language, and in a way her work is beyond words, because when you look closely at it, there’s simply nothing there.

William Burroughs saw language as a time-bomb, even if he was unsure whether to defuse it or to set it off. Laurie Anderson is less disposed to the explosive.

“Would you offer violence to a virus on its slow route to symbiosis?” asked Burroughs, provocatively. Laurie Anderson would not.

REWIND

“You could probably say better than me what effect the show had on the audience.”

Laurie Anderson’s audience headed home for a good night’s sleep, nothing troublesome was etched on their blank dreams.

© Don WatsonNew Musical Express, 7 June 1986

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