Q&A With Laurie Anderson

Laurie Anderson remains one of the most intriguing performance artists in these United States – a social commentator whose creative toolbox contains music, spoken word, visuals and electronics. In a conversation with Westword captured in the following Q&A, she talks at length about her current project, Homeland, which makes its Colorado debut on April 12 (click here for details), and plenty more.

The chat begins with a dissection of the word “homeland,” which provides a glimpse into Anderson’s love of wordplay. From there, she touches on the politics of her works, and her attempts to avoid polemics; the increasing power of corporations in American life; her use of voice filters to enliven her presentations; the impact technological advances have had on human interaction; her eagerness to participate in a show marking the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war (the event, featuring Anderson’s paramour, Lou Reed, and speakers such as Naomi Klein, took place approximately two weeks after the early March interview); her brief foray into pop stardom, which resulted from the success of the track “O Superman”; and her approach to storytelling.

It’s quite a tale.

Westword (Michael Roberts): One of the things I’ve always liked best about your work is the way you give us an opportunity to look at words we use every day from a different perspective – and I’m guessing that’s the case with your latest project, Homeland. What does the word “homeland” mean to you, and has its meaning changed in recent years?

Laurie Anderson: It kind of changes every hour, with the election campaign going on. That’s why it’s such an incredible time to do something like this – to work with language like this. Because everybody’s trying to figure out what words mean. “When he says ‘hope,’ what is he really talking about?” “When she says ‘change,’ what does she really mean?” It stops being about the words and much more about context and how it’s delivered. And as an artist, I’ve really figured out – well, a lot of people have figured out – that you can say things that are really harsh, but if you just whisper them, there’s a much different thing going on. That’s one of the reasons I really love filters, voice filters – although this show isn’t going to be heavy on that. There’ll be a few cases of audio drag, but not that many. I suppose, though, that “homeland” now has so many quotation marks around it that nobody really knows what it means anymore. It’s such a tender phrase, really. And I tend to realize more things about phrases like that when I work with translators. English is so flexible. One word can mean 700 things. Like the word “set,” which has the longest definition in the O.E.D. It could mean a million things, from mathematics to the sun setting to set the table to whatever. But it took one guy like a year to write that definition. Anyway, I made a film in Japan a few years ago, and I was working on the translation. It was like a series of visual fables and little short stories, and one was about the feeling of losing things. You feel like, wow, I’ve lost something, but it’s an impression: You don’t actually know whether you lost your house keys or your car or your wife or your dead father. You don’t know what it’s about. It’s just a feeling of loss, losing things. So I was working with this translator, and she said, “What did you lose?” And I said, “No, no – it’s a feeling of losing things.” And she was like, “When did you lose it?” And I went, “Oh my God. I’m being psychoanalyzed by the translator.” And I started to think back about this sense of losing things, and I realized that I wrote that story when we were beginning the Iraq war. And what I’d lost, really, was my country. In the film, I had put this little story about losing something next to an image of Mount Fuji, the most iconic image of place or homeland you can imagine – where you come from. So in a lot of ways, I don’t know what I’m talking about. It takes a translator to let me know what I’m talking about – like when she said, “What do you mean by that? What do you mean? What do you mean?” But I also think words work very well in terms of more telegraphic stuff, too. Because if I’d put an American flag there and talked about losing something, it starts to be propaganda. It starts to be something else; it starts to be really shrill, and I can’t really get into people’s minds like that. And I like words that can creep into your mind and wander around, where they can mean one thing or they can mean another. And the thing about “homeland” is that it can means so many conflicting things. It also means this high-security state we live in now…

WW: Right. “Homeland” used to be a word that felt uncomplicated to me – a warm word. And “security” is a word that struck me in the same way. But putting those two words together has created an entirely different feeling in recent years.

LA: Yes, “security” has come to mean fear. And I think that’s what’s been so amazing about the campaigns. I don’t think Americans ever really bought this whole image of a fearful people – cringing in fear and needing a lot of guarantees for our safety, and we’re going to do just anything to get that. And when candidates start talking about that and give people another self-image, people are desperate for that, I think. Nobody wants to be cringing. So it’s kind of a fascinating moments to be tossing words like that around There are a lot of other issues that are a part of this show, but who really wants to hear somebody else’s political opinion? It’s like, “I have my own, thank you.” To turn it into art is kind of risky, but my only kind of explanation for that, really, is that so much stuff is going on that it’s just a subject matter for me. It’s just really interesting.

WW: You’ve touched on something I wanted to ask you about – the specificity of the politics in the piece. I understand that the recording of Homeland won’t be out until 2009, and by that time, the political landscape will certainly have changed one way or the other. So do you try to talk about current events and other things that are on your mind these days in more of an abstract way?

LA: I’ve always tried to look at American culture, and it doesn’t so much change to the left or the right with elections, unfortunately. Somewhat, of course. But one of the things about the direction that we’re going that seems inevitable is really just becoming this big corporate entity, and that’s the thing I focus on more than whether there are Democrats or Republicans. And that’s something that seems unstoppable. We actually did vote a bunch of Democrats in to end the war and they couldn’t. So you stop and think, wait a minute. Government isn’t running this war. When corporate America does something, it’s another situation. The example I always think about is prisons. Maybe fifteen years ago, there was something like 350,000 people in prison, and then they were privatized – and now there’s almost three million people in prison.

WW: They need to keep manufacturing new customers.

LA: Yeah. Keep the customers coming and fill those places. One in a hundred people in the United States is in prison; I just read that statistics. It’s like, wow. We have more prisoners than anywhere else in the world. And it’s not because we’re such bad people, and it’s not because we’re so afraid of criminals, but because it’s a business. And as that happens with the rest of the country with education and health care and so on, it’s a pretty chilly place to be living when you think, I’m no longer a citizen. I’m a customer. It’s that kind of stuff that really fascinates me. It’s an overall direction that things are going in, and when I try to put that into work, I also try to put it into a context of seeing it in a different way, rather than haranguing people about some sort of social science lesson. Although that could be fun (laughs).

WW: You mentioned that there are fewer filters on Homeland than on some of your previous pieces, but one of the samples of the work I’ve heard includes one; it’s called “Pictures and Things.” Is the appeal of that technique the way it allows you to go beyond your own physical characteristics to essentially portray an entire cast?

LA: Not an entire cast, but maybe a different voice. Just another point of view. The next thing I’m going to be working on is some plays for two people, and it kind of comes out of my frustration of being a monologue person. Just using the word “I” all the time. Even when I use “I” in this project, it doesn’t always specifically refer to me. I’m not the kind of person who’s always going, “Look at me! Here I am! ‘I’ always means ‘me’! Check me out!” I use “you” probably as much as the word “I” in this one. I’m not trying to say I’m not egocentric, by the way.

WW: I’ve certainly gotten the sense that you want the work to speak for itself – that you don’t want to get in the way of it…

LA: I think of myself as a narrator – somebody who points at something and says, “Look at that.” That’s kind of how I see what I do.

WW: In “Pictures and Things,” you speak in a Walter Cronkite-type voice about how records disappeared, and then record stores, and then phone booths. In some ways, those changes may struck many people as unimportant. But are they emblematic of bigger changes that are taking place that perhaps we’re not noticing?

LA: I think so. When you say a word like “homeland” and it means “place,” I think we’re making a shift to more of a mental place. Just the way you can twirl around on the web and go a lot of places, but you never actually go there, so you don’t get the feel of how they smell – you don’t get a lot of the sensuous things attached to place, even though a lot of the language on the web has to do with place, like home pages. The idea that you have some base in this absolutely huge sea of information. I think the sensuality of things is disappearing, and icons and symbols are replacing them. That’s what I was trying to get at with this, and I think it really does have a huge effect, and we don’t really know what that is. This mental landscape that we’re all going to be dealing with, and the one you walk out into. I love technology, but the projects I’ve been doing recently have been very anti-technology, because I want scale. I want to go outside and do things that just don’t fit on that screen. That screen is so tyrannical. I use the Internet all the time, because it’s super-easy to find things – but it’s really easy to drown in there.

WW: And that’s going to have untold repercussions down the line. For an entire generations – for many generations – that’s going to be their version of human interaction, or inhuman interaction…

LA: Well, I think you can get something like that on the web – use it as a way to do stuff. But I’m really shocked at the number of places that have closed in New York recently, particularly clubs. Not that I love going to clubs, but I do like live music. And restaurants are closed on Sundays now, and when I ask people, “What do you think is going on?,” they go, “Well, people are home on their computers.” And I think, “That can’t be true.” What do you think? Do you think that can be true?

WW: I think that absolutely can be true, even though it seems very strange.

LA: Yeah. Addiction is really amazing. It works really, really well, because it leads you on and on and on. But one of the things that’s scary about this so-called information age is that we know so little about certain things. One of the things we’ve been planning for a couple of months: I was sitting around with Lou and Antony of Antony and the Johnsons, and we were talking about the war and thinking, how come no American artists are doing anything about that, or mentioning that? We start wondering about that, because it’s so bizarre. So we got a bunch of people together, and we decided to do a kind of information thing/concert. We’re actually doing this, which is unbelievably satisfying. It’s going to happen at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.

WW: I was going to ask you about that. It’s March 18?

LA: Yes, and it’s called “Speak Up!” The original reason for doing that was really thinking about what the dialogue is. When people talk about the elections or the state of the union, nobody’s really talking about the war. It’s like, why not? We have 750 military bases all around the world, in 130 of the available 160 countries. Our military budget is bigger than the rest of the world combined, and none of the candidates are talking about that. Not that health care and the environment aren’t super-important issues. But the war machine we run – we’re monsters. It’s totally out of control what we’re doing. We could maybe do something about those other things if we weren’t spending it all on bombs, more or less. And why is that such a taboo? It’s really, really eerie.

WW: In fact, in recent days, I’ve heard commentators say that the Democratic candidates are making a mistake talking about the war as much as they are – as if that’s going to somehow make them seem weak on defense or anti-military.

LA: Oh my God. So when you live in an information society, be careful. Are you really getting everything? What are you getting? Anyway, we’re hoping this will inspire people in other places to do grassroots things. Not just another anti-war show where there are more people singing, “Hey, what was that about?” But to combine with different groups. We’re going to have vets, and people like Naomi Klein is going to speak. Really across the board things, with people exchanging opinions. I’m really looking forward to it. I’m really proud we put it together. You think, “What can I do?” But then you think, I’m living in New York. It’s supposed to be one of the media capitals of the world, and yet everyone is completely silent about this. Why?

WW: The five-year anniversary of the war is coming up, and dates like those are the kinds of things the media generally understands. Hooks for stories.

LA: Right. But then you’ve got one of the candidates saying, “We could be at war for the rest of your lifetime.” That’s an astounding thing to say. Why aren’t people just up in arms about that? I just don’t understand why that doesn’t make people insane. The rest of your life? What are you talking about?

WW: You mentioned Lou Reed, and I wanted to ask about the film of his performance of Berlin by Julian Schnabel. Is that still seeking distribution?

LA: I think it found it. It’s going to be out and about, which is really great.

WW: That’s good to know. It seemed strange that a concert film by a major music figure directed by someone who’s just been nominated for an Oscar couldn’t find distribution…

LA: Well, it found it. It’s found justice.

WW: So justice is available?

LA: It is! Sometimes it is.

WW: When you look back on your own career, does the period of time around O Superman, when you were almost something of a pop star, seem like another lifetime ago?

LA: Even last year seems like another lifetime ago. Things happen so fast. I just try to keep stacking up those lifetimes and hope that they kind of relate to each other. I try to have a good time, no matter what. That’s one of my goals. It sounds pretty shallow, probably. But I don’t think we’re here to suffer. I try to think how I can do something – no matter what project it is – that I can’t wait to do every day. That’s kind of my way of dealing with time, really. I don’t really try to draw a time back into time through different lifetimes, or different phases of my life. That feels sort of like inventing your own little story that you’re starring in. And I just don’t see it that way. I see it like moving through a lot of different things. It’s one of the reasons why I never wanted to write an autobiography. Then I knew I would have to start telling lies. To see your life as a story, and to see yourself as the star in your story – and often you’re not. It’s often the other people around you who are moving and pushing. But in order to tell that story, you have to make yourself the star. I noticed when Bush was rattling the Iran sabers – the we’ve-got-to-go-into-Iran sort of thing – I realized he was talking about the weapons he had and the evil dictator. All the parts of the story were in place. And I was thinking, I’ve heard this story before. I’ve heard this exact same story about the evil leader and the hidden weapons. I thought, he started a war with that, and he’s going to start another one with the same story. It’s like, wow, stories are so powerful. You really can start a war with them. And it doesn’t even have to be a true story. As long as it’s a good story, and since people do really like evil dictators and colorful stuff like that, they’re more prone to get into the story. Anyway, I think when you live in a country like we do, where media is super-story-savvy, you have to take that into account. All of life is just stories.

WW: Do you see yourself telling alternative stories?

LA: No, just more stories. Different stories. Maybe more stories about stories. That’s what I’m hoping it can be, somewhat. Where I can occasionally make people go, “Wait a second? What kind of a story is that? Is that my story or your story? Whose story is that?” Anyway, that’s my medium. It’s the most powerful thing I can think of, because the stories you tell yourself are the stories that allow you to go on in your life. Maybe they’re stories about what you’re going to do or how you’re going to do it or what you did, and they give you a frame for the absolutely wild and unintelligible stuff that’s happening around you. If you can be part of the story, then you can maybe deal with it. If it’s just stuff that’s thrown at you, one thing after another, like a script that never got written, it becomes intolerable for people. So I think stories are really important. But which are the good ones? I love what Godard said about stories. He said his favorite stories had a beginning, a middle and an end – just not in that order. So I love planning with ideas like that.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts