Thursday, October 18, 2007

Laurie Anderson Interview With Drum



Mention the name Laurie Anderson and you almost always get one of two reactions. People either think she is an awesome artist and love everything she has done, or they ask, “Laurie who?” Those familiar with her work generally find it hard to believe the latter types exist, but astonishingly, there are quite a few of them. This says a lot about the nature of the artist’s work: she’s a truly unique artist who has achieved world-wide critical and commercial success whilst maintaining an artistic integrity that ensures she will remain outside the vision of those focused solely on mainstream pop culture.

A New York-based performance artist, Laurie Anderson’s career took off in the early ‘80s with the success of the unlikely hit O Superman (“Oh that Laurie Anderson,” the Laurie Who’s will be saying right about now). A strange, hypnotic and ominous anthem of anti-Americana, it reached a huge audience thanks largely to the support of Brit DJ John Peel. A genuinely original and quite brave track, O Superman was the launch of a remarkable career that shows no signs of slowing down, nor does it show any signs of artistic fatigue.

Currently touring her latest project Homeland, I was lucky enough to catch up with the artist over the phone during her stopover in Mexico where she is taking part in the Monterrey Forum, a three-month long meeting and discussion of worldwide cultural and artistic diversity. It seems perfectly fitting that this observer of both the wonder and tragedy of humanity should be taking part in such an event, and she sounds excited to be there – albeit it her measured and quietly intelligent way.

“The context is quite interesting. It’s a big forum about culture and technology and politics, and so for three months all these people come to Monterrey to talk about all this kind of stuff. It’s great because we don’t have anything like this in The States... where everyone kind of drops things and says, ‘well you know, where are we going here?’ We have a lot of those high tech events where we’re supposed to be talking about things like that, but people just talk about the new iPod.”

It’s a modest conversation opener but from what I can gather, it’s pure Laurie Anderson. She’s a political artist with a human heart and the cold eye of the observer. She loves New York but doesn’t think twice about telling things as they are, so if something is done better outside America, that’s just the way it is. No blind patriotism here, it would seem. Quite the opposite.

While much of the former NASA Writer In Residence’s work is filled with off-kilter whimsy and even occasional heartache, it is also laced with scathing irony and hard-hitting political and social commentary. She is quite appalled with America’s obsession with money and laments where the hunger for the dollar is taking society.

“The amount of privatisation and the role of corporations has really changed everything in the sense that the war in Iraq is being run by companies who have zero interest in stopping it. I think the best example of how corporations have changed things is prisons. 10 years ago there were something like 350,000 people in prison. Then they were privatised and now there’s 3 million people in prison.” Point being – it’s in a private prison’s interest for laws to be as absurdly tight as possible.

These criticisms of American politics and economics flow as freely in conversation as they do lyrically in music. Check out the film clip of Only An Expert – dark, almost savage humour swirls with lacerating commentary on the discussion of climate change and the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It pours scorn on the cult of The Expert, as well as our willingness or even eagerness to always seek out the opinion of an expert when maybe – just maybe – we don’t really need an expert’s version of what’s going on. We’re not that stupid... are we?

Laurie Anderson is a political artist and a social commentator, no question. But she is also a pure artist in that she understands that joy and tenderness and anger and sadness and tragedy and harmony and discordance are all part of the human experience.

It’s such a fleeting conversation in which we touch on such topics as the nature of story telling; optimism versus pessimism; the inevitable fall of empires; NASA stories; the repugnance of the recent APEC meeting; the garden of Eden; the human tenderness that emerged from 911; the current court battle over who owns the moon...

“Okay... they are coming to pick me up,” I’m told as reception starts to waver and fade. “I’m going to take my cell phone with me and hope I don’t lose you in the elevator. Is there a final question you’d like to finish with?”

Erm... there are thousands.

“Um – Homeland,” I say, wondering why I left it so late. “What’s it going to be like? What are we in for?”

“Well... it’s... show... ut... and kind of... on... and... you know?”

I want to shout into the phone, “Laurie you’re breaking up - please get back out of the elevator before it’s too late...”

But with that she is gone. The line is quiet. But I think I know. Her shows – her projects – are always dazzling multi-media affairs incorporating the electric hum of technology with the warmth of human story-telling; the punch of politics with sensual musical delight; gentle anger with wry humour.

And unlike her angels being blown backwards into the future, she doesn’t look back at her past work very much. We probably won’t see Homeland in Sydney again.

WHO: Laurie Anderson.
WHEN & WHERE: Sydney Opera House 21 & 22 October.


bohémienne said...

Well written and very interesting.

quick said...

Why thank you.

It gets better. I met Laurie last night. My God... what a gorgeous human she is.

Anonymous said...

My wife (a talented music teacher) and I saw the show in Sydney on SAT night and were VERY disappointed, the sound quality was very poor such that it was difficult to hear the wording and therefore understand the content of her messages/songs. 90min of this along with a violinist with a "pain" pedal - everytime he touched it it was painful to listen to, a comment was heard "the loonies are out tonight" and I could only agree, I'm sure Lauri is very talented, but should the patrons have to put up with un-intelligble noise ? A Refund is in order. (P.S I tried to look for positives but ....found few) I look forward to others comments - did we get her on a bad night? We would actually like to hear her message, but to pay $200 NZ to hear noise pollution , you might say we feel like we've been fleeced.

quick said...

Oh God... hello anonymous.

I'd say that it was not even a Laurie Anderson performance you were watching (or being subjected to by the sounds of it) because she did not play in Sydney on Saturday night.

Given that the pristine sound was as much talked about as the near sublime performance itself after the show, I really doubt you were present on either of the two nights she actually did perform.

And given the rapturous applause and standing ovation at the close of the show I attended, I'd say the "loonies are out" comment was probably directed at you and your hearing impaired spouse.

In fact I'm going to hazard a guess and say that you are not enough of a Laurie Anderson fan to have forked out money for trans-Tasman flights to see her perform and that you were in fact safely holed up in New Zealand for the entire weekend. The fact that you found this post via the link someone posted on the Laurie Anderson website forum makes me think that you get your jollies by trying to get a rise out of Laurie fans, you sad and sorry little sheep poker. (That is what you meant by feeling fleeced, isn't it?).

Thanks for dropping by. Very amusing.