Reflecting on existence
Laurie Anderson is returning to Australia with an absorbing line-up of new and progressive works. The artist talks with Alison Veness.
Yes to screaming,” Laurie Anderson writes in an email after our phone call drops out (more on the screaming later). Technology is a bitch. We are talking on the eve of her inaugural artist in residence shows at the newly rebranded Home of the Arts (HOTA) on the Gold Coast, where she will be performing over four days this month. Every single part of Anderson’s residency will be unique.
The American artist, and wife of the late Lou Reed, is quite incredible; an unstoppable powerhouse of ongoing ideas and passion, all syncopated to create the richness of her multimedia work. She is provocative: rip it apart, look at things anew, believe, play, chew it up, spit it out, entertain. Think. Feel. She will be inspiring audiences with, among other works, SOL, a 30-minute reworking of the 1972 composition inspired by her teacher and artist Sol LeWitt, which will be followed by Stories in the Dark, performed, as the title suggests, in darkness. There will be Concert for Dogs, which she debuted in 2010 on the steps of the Sydney Opera House in the upper registers of dog sound, to total canine delight, and The Language of the Future, a collection of songs and stories. We talk about what might be the language of the now and the future. Anderson is at times frustrated, despairing, and yet she is emphatically getting on with it.
“I try to be flexible; I don’t really care about being completely topical and up to date, because it’s not a new show: the performance is about stories and what they are.
It’s an amazing time to be thinking about that, because everyone is making up stories right now,” she says.
“It’s a very amazing moment. I’m very, very happy about that. I was talking to some young women, art students, like, [aged] 16, recently; they are so optimistic and it’s really inspiring. But in the middle of what they were talking about I was thinking: ‘Wait a second, didn’t we do that, like, 30 years ago? Didn’t we fight that fight three decades ago for equal rights for women, and equal pay, and all sorts of things, and just a basic level of respect?’ So I really have to think about my idea of progress. Of course, we are making slow progress, and I have to be optimistic, but sometimes I look at what’s going on and it’s agonisingly slow. It’s probably several million years of programming to what men and women do, so we are trying to do some major reorganisation here.”
We talk about the #MeToo movement. “I did an event at the Town Hall in New York recently and it made me think about something I’d done also at the Town Hall in 1992, an event for the Women’s Action Coalition. It was surrounding the Supreme Court nomination of a justice named Clarence Thomas; it was a very controversial one, as he had made his secretary read pornography. It was really one of the first kinds of trials in the United States where we thought: ‘Wow, we are really talking about pornography in public.’ So from that standpoint, of all the work we did in the early 90s, here we are at #MeToo, which is a really similar situation, so I get a little discouraged, I have to admit. I’m trying not to say that kind of thing, because it’s important to be positive, but realistically this is very, very difficult to do. You can’t just sweep in and change it in a couple of weeks.”
Anderson has been examining and challenging the status quo all her life. Her performance United States in 1982 (and subsequent United States Live album, released in 1984) was an ongoing dialogue about the state of the union, which I suggest is much like The Language of the Future.
“United States was pretty general, too. It really was about trying to live in a technological society. I always like what Gertrude Stein said about that – America is the oldest country in the world, because it’s lived in the 20th century the longest – and I always appreciated that. You know it really is and it still feels like an experiment here, and how do people really continue to talk to each other and cooperate? At the moment it’s not an experiment that’s working out very well.”
The Language of the Future allows Anderson “to look at how things are changing, not just in the States, but particularly [how we’re] influenced by technology, because there is so much. And even though I use a lot of technology, I’ve always been critical of it. More and more, I’m kind of regretting my industry. You kind of look around and wonder if it’s making things that much easier for us. I see more stressed-out people than I’ve seen before, I see people who are very anxious, constantly consulting their phones and not having as much fun. You love the convenience, but you hate the cost.”
I ask Anderson about her earliest memory of performing pre-technotakeover? “I think it probably had a lot of anxiety in it. It was probably something like a violin recital; they were very competitive and I was always very nervous. As an adult I never have been, as a kid it was tough.”
I think of Landfall, an album released earlier this year with San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet, which captures a soaring mournfulness with Hurricane Sandy as the basis for its soundscape. It is heart-andsoul violin, and the rest an aftermath of sadness. Expect nothing less. Anderson is the definition of nowness with all its thorny contradictions: cheer and wearying disappointment.
As for that screaming, it was about Yoko Ono and her 19-second protest on the first anniversary of Donald Trump’s presidency. Yes, Laurie is screaming. And we are screaming in appreciation.
Laurie Anderson is artist in residence at HOTA from June 20. Go to hota.com.au.
“WE THOUGHT: ‘WOW, WE ARE REALLY TALKING ABOUT PORNOGRAPHY IN PUBLIC’”