Laurie Anderson: Rebel from Decade of Greed

Laurie Anderson’s first big work since United States, the two-part, eight-hour show she took on the road in 1983, is Empty Places. Shorter (ninety minutes long) and more political, it includes songs along with familiar visual images, monologues and music, and was premiered last June at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, Virginia. She had planned to bring it to Europe in June but, “the soccer matches got in the way. A lot of the shows were to take place in Italy.”

Anderson is a compelling performer, seducing audiences into her arguments through a deceptively gentle speaking voice and then applying armlocks of logic. She mixes her media, but never as a gratuitous exercise. She simply picks the best medium for the mood. For Empty Places she is using six screens and a computerised system which can project up to thirty still and moving images simultaneously. She plays keyboards and synthesised violin, and alters the sound of her voice through use of a harmoniser.

“It’s a very political show,” she says, “although I have taken out some of the things that I thought would be interesting to Americans but not too fascinating to Europeans. A lot of the things that have been going on here, like the continued swing to the Right, have parallels elsewhere, and so some of it will translate anyway.

“I suppose it’s really about living through the Reagan years. Like a lot of people, I kind of slept through that era, politically. The political content of my work was not very evident. But this is about a decade of greed and what it does to people and values.”

Anderson, now 43, arrived in New York in the mid-1960s, and involved herself in performance art in the 1970s. She would probably have remained unknown if it had not been for ‘ Superman’, her 1980 hit single. Since then, she has recorded five albums.

She is still happy to be described as a performance artist, particularly now that American performance artists have become targets of anti-obscenity campaigners, but she recognises that she is too accessible to be considered part of the avant-garde which initially spawned her. “I tried calling myself a storyteller for a while,” she explains, “but I think you have to have a banjo and a front porch to do that. Performance artist is okay. It’s a catch-all kind of description.”

Anderson comes to London from Berlin, where she has spent a lot of time during the past two years. “When the pictures started coming last November everyone wanted to interpret the expression on the faces of the East Germans as a reaction to fresh air,” she said. “It was the reaction of people who were desperate — to shop. This is what we were giving them.

“That’s why I don’t think a show about the culture of greed is too late in the 1990s. It may even be too early.”

© Steve TurnerThe Times, 22 November 1990

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