The Grand Dame


by Ted Grossman

Photograph by Suzanna Bierwirth

At 47, Laurie Anderson just might be the Grand Dame of Performance Art. But the age thing is irrelevant when it comes to invention. Ever since the early 70s when she froze her feet in blocks of ice and played the violin on the streets of New York, Anderson has pushed the boundaries of storytelling and performance. While she was relatively quiet in the first part of this decade, in the past year she unleashed an energetic flurry of work on the art world. First came the release of her book Stories from the Nerve Bible, a twenty-year artistic retrospective, and thenthe musical CD Bright Red (coproduced with Brian Eno), her most personal and disturbing album yet. After that came her spoken word CD, The Ugly One with the Jewels, and her debut CD-ROM, Puppet Motel. All these works were combined in her first multimedia tour of the 90s, "The Nerve Bible," (her metaphor for the body). The tour treated audiences around the nation to a one-woman opera scored with 11 computer languages, 35-plus tons of computer equipment, three 12-foot wide screens madly free-associating dreamy images, an electronic bodysuit that made percussive noises and her trademark neon violin. In addition to that she has set up a Web site called the Green Room and got a new boyfriend, named Lou Reed. Not bad for 47. But then again, Anderson has always been out there, doing what she does best: using the tools available to tell stories straight from the human soul. She's been called a lot of things: the high priestess of quirky performance art, America's most popular avant-garde performance artist, a clever, pertinent artist, not a radical visionary, the technological story-teller. But she keeps on experimenting, in the great American fashion, keeps on reinventing herself, seeking to find the forum and the arena for her messages. As technology seems to be catching up, Anderson seems to have shifted gears slightly: the themes of her latest works are more personal than ever. From reflections on her near death experience in Tibet, to the deaths of her grandmother and her father, in "The Nerve Bible" tour she mused on the importance of the human voice keeping us all connected. She is still concerned with geo-political issues-plagues from which there is no sanctuary, devastating floods, the firefly lights over Baghdad. It seems that the story of humanity, the story of human existence (which is so tenuous, she seems to be asserting) is counterpointed with the comic relief of technology (albeit an uneasy relief). With all her multimedia experience, she may just be one of the most essential souls of the new machine we have. We met in her Canal Street loft, two floors, down the spiral staircase into her studio. It's a bit messy, she says. At first I waited about twenty minutes; she was on the phone. Outside it's the noise of New York, trucks and the like. Her assistant pours me tap water and apologizes, thinks my name is Fred. Soon Anderson and I are in her practice room, sitting on small black leather chairs. It's not messy and cluttered the way so many New York art apartments seem; it's just a few computer and electronic devices on a card table and a large movie screen pulled down to the floor. In another room sits her sound board and a few guitars. She smokes, Marlboro Lights, but not heavily. In fact, during the interview she lit one, put it out, and then re-lit it. Her hair is the same as always, a cross between spiked 80s New Wave and just woken up. It's refreshing that someone's style can keep up without changing. And she's a talker-once she gets going it's hard to get another word in.
I've read that on your last tour you said you were going to look for sites of underground activity in America. What did you find?
I was looking for was some kind of alternative to what's known as mass culture, which doesn't really interest me that much. I mean it does as a sort of phenomenon, but not as something that I think is really giving me a lot of ideas or is interesting. It's not that interesting. The thing that is scaring me the most about the last few years is how incredibly corporate culture has become in this country. It's really, really frightening. As someone who came from the art world I thought, I wonder if there is an art world, or is it just one car crash movie and more Michael Jackson, do we all just go to the movies and listen to pop radio? That's it. And then you know, you have opera. There's got to be something else. I found a lot of stuff out there that was really really encouraging. I found people on the Net and I found people on the road. People just handing me these novels and these CDs. Unfortunately a lot of these things won't get out because the river of distribution here gets more and more narrow as it goes toward the top. And then only a few so called `major things' that get released. So I was looking for either an energetic club scene or theater scene or something. You know, I did find a lot of stuff, cyber cafés where people are hanging out and talking to each other. It's just amazing.
Is there anything about the Net that scares you?
I'm always trying to encourage people to do more social things with it. Now there's this guy at AT&T; who's working on something which would allow you to hear any piece of music that's ever been recorded in the whole world. I wish I had been at that planning meeting. "That's your plan, huh? You keep us posted on that okay, because that's ambitious." You have a lot of crazy dreamers like that and if you have a record library that is everything that has ever been recorded you have no chance of really listening to the stuff. Obviously it would take to the year 5000. So that I find exhilarating, but I hope there will be filters with this new world we are creating. What should movies look like, what should stories look like, what should conversation be like, you know you are reinventing communication. That's just unbelievable. We're reinventing education. It may seem a little clumsy now.
So, granted we are in a kind of Alexander Bell stage. In what sense do you see the Net and this technology including a larger group of people? If you don't have a computer, are you left out?
Not necessarily. Every place I go the social aspect of it is apparent . . . cyber cafés, multimedia centers, places where people go and use this stuff. It's like seventy years ago not everybody had a phone so they go down to the general store and use the phone and go hey, this could be good. So now everybody's got a mobile phone glued to the side of their head. So I think that we're in an interim stage, and I don't want to sound like a salesman, but it will all get faster and better and cheaper. We'll see. We don't really know what the Net is yet. We don't know if it's a book, a record, a movie or what it is. A letter? As more people experiment with it, it will develop a bigger vocabulary.
Even with all the technology in your work, the message has always been quite simple, trying to get to the back of the mind, some kind of silence people are not aware of in their lives.
All of my art has been about that. Trying to notice something small, not a big deal, something quite small, and just turn it ninety degrees or ask really simple, simple questions, like the images of how we perceive time. But it's not an investigation into that, it's stories that eventually make you feel like, "Well, what is it to have time expressed in a circle?" To see such a kind of illusion, where one day it's three o'clock and somehow tomorrow three o'clock will come again. So why are you using these shapes? Maybe you should use a spiral to show how time disintegrates or drops away. Or make it into something colorful. Because now time has been digitized, we have these incremental bits of time we are supposed to pay attention to-to become stylish, or 20th-century citizens, we're supposed to keep up.
Let's talk about government funding of the arts. How do you feel about the NEA losing its funding powers? What kind of ramifications will this have?
I wish I knew. I think first of all it's tragic. I've been trying to find a happy side to this. I think it's a really seriously bad move. I've seen the results of countries where the government has a huge commitment to the arts. I've spent a lot of time in Germany, and a lot of the places that I've worked in, the theaters, the tents, the media festivals, had huge government support. And what they can do then is put on these great events and present it in a way that lets a lot of people know what's going on. Here in New York we just put on this Apple/Macintosh event, which is a great thing, I'm really grateful that Apple did this. Now we'll see if Apple does it again or if it turns into just an Apple trade show. So this is an example of how corporate funding taking over can work in certain areas, but what about small dramatic theater companies in small towns, things like that? I think Philip Morris is an example. They've done a lot of amazing funding. However, when the cigarette ban was happening here in New York they wanted to have an event, they almost did. They were contacting artists to get them to say something like,"Freedom of Expression in Art is like Freedom of Expression of whether you'd like to smoke or not." Like they expected artists to rally around this cause. Fortunately we didn't have to do that.
So these companies will force allegiances upon artists?
They don't have to do that, it's usually for their corporate image. But we'll see how that brings itself out. Whether it's good enough for Philip Morris to say, "We did Bill T. Jones this year." The extreme example is Benetton. Photographs of ships with AIDS victims. Okay, we all agree that AIDS is bad so buy these pants. It makes most people wince. It doesn't work very well. In fact, Benetton got into a lot of trouble because a lot of people said, "We're not buying this." In fact, a lot of the Benetton outlets were saying, "Your campaign is working against us. They're boycotting us, saying how stupid do you think we are?" And of course, the opposite argument is you can always appeal to people's sense of style or you can appeal to their conscience. Remind them of something. I think people here are a little more media sophisticated than in France. They can say, "Okay, there is an AIDS ship, they are selling pants, I know the difference." Because everything is a multimedia show here. Car companies do them, fashion designers do them. And the relationship is: dazzle people with technology, and by the way, buy these shoes. What's the relationship between the shoe and the show? It's vague. It's about saying, "Let's all worship technology; because it's so powerful and because we don't understand it we have a ruling relationship to it." We give it moral power and we give it the power to say it's a great thing that's going to help us with our lives or it's an evil thing that will separate us more. We give it these moral dimensions it just doesn't have, it's just pieces of plastic. Obviously you'd never pick up a pencil and say "This is evil." But people say that about technology. It's going to separate us, it's going to turn us into nerds, we're all going to be in our houses, lonely, tapping on our computers. Or people who say computers are deeply antisocial-reading a book is antisocial, many things are antisocial. It's sort of an anti-intellectual movement that's going on here that is pretty powerful. As far as government sponsorship goes, I've watched it be run very, very well in other countries and watched it in other countries that value art and artists. They say, "This is part of our culture."
Should the government play a role in supporting the arts?
Is it the purpose of the government? No, of course not. Is it the obligation of the government to do that? No. Would it be a good thing for the government to do? Yes. It gives people something. What are we cooperating here for anyway? Just to protect ourselves, to huddle together to protect ourselves? Surely we've gotten beyond that in the 20th century. How about if we could give each other things. We get one chance to be alive here; why don't we celebrate that and look at the stuff other people make and get a chance to look at what's being made. For me, art is what gives meaning to my life, it's about being able to figure out why I'm here and how to relate to other people. Other people obviously don't feel that way. This is a democracy, art funding will be fought out that way, and I'm not going to stop working no matter what happens. And it won't change the fact that people will still make art. That's the government line anyway-you're free to make art, go ahead, on your time, your dime, go right ahead. I think it's very sad, that's all.
You've compared working with computer technol-ogy to a campfire. What do you mean by that?
Well, I know people who would say, "You've invented this art of storytelling," and I'd go, "What are you talking about, cave people invented storytelling." That's the first art form, I would imagine, or maybe grunting and dancing was, maybe painting. But stories were right up there as soon as we learned to talk. We started telling people about ourselves: Listen to what happened to me, or whatever. I guess I thought of the image because of electronics, which I think of as this modern fire. It has very much to do with the kind of power to attract and destroy, and hypnotize, the way you can just watch a fire do stuff. I think you can also watch the speed of electronics and have the same kind of "Ah, we made this fire, we invented it." Did we invent it? No, we found it, we harnessed it, we made it do other things. We turned it into sound, we made fire into pictures, we somehow made this amazing filter for it. So there is that hypnotic power.

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