Interview with Laurie Anderson (1998)

Laurie Anderson is tired of having her work boxed in. Literally.

“I’m working on a really big visual piece based on Moby Dick that will be opening in the spring,” notes the multimedia performer during a recent phone interview. “And one of the things that I’m taking into account in this piece is the fact that I am just so sick of looking at screens and rectangles all the time. Mostly rectangles, actually. So nothing in the new Moby Dick thing is rectangular at all, even though the kind of work that I’ve done in the past has tended to be within a kind of rectangular, screen-oriented medium–which ultimately made me start thinking about how that on-screen world links into our 3-D world. I keep feeling like people are just looking at screens and web sites all the time, but do they ever do anything? Or go out and say anything to anyone? I’m no so sure anymore.”

People’s relationships with their machines (and each other) have long served as fodder for Anderson’s genre-defying performances, installations, recordings and films. After graduating from Columbia University with a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1972, Anderson began collaborating with a loose group of pioneering New York artists and musicians, including Philip Glass, Keith Sonnier, Gordon Matta-Clark and Tina Girouard. Assisted by series of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts, Anderson spent most of the ’70s developing an increasingly challenging series of projects that blurred the distinctions between visual and musical arts, while also incorporating both her ever-growing technological expertise and her increasingly pointed social commentary. Anderson’s work began to cross over into the general public’s general consciousness in the early ’80s when she scored a surprise pop hit with “O Superman” while also taking her epic multi-media piece “United States” across its subject-named nation to rave reviews from critics and large, effusive audiences alike. While most of the American mass media attention paid to Anderson over the past few years has been focussed less on her work than on her personal relationship with rock & roll legend Lou Reed, she has continued to explore the hazy borders of art, music, communication, politics, love, longing and life.

Anderson will be bringing one of her latest multi-media observations, “The Speed of Darkness,” to the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall on Tuesday with a “meet the artist” session to be held at the Opus CafĂ© in Troy after her performance at the Bank. Be forewarned: you’d better not come expecting a technological love in. “‘The Speed of Darkness’ is a collection of stories and songs about technology . . . and it’s kind of a way for me to deal with my grudges about the whole thing,” Anderson explains. “The relentless optimism of technology these days just sort of obsesses me. Well, technology isn’t really optimistic, actually, but it’s the people who talk about it as though the digital age is just the most exciting thing and that everybody really needs to get up to speed or they’ll be lost. That’s just so tyrannical.

“And I also have a grudge with this whole new concept of form vs. content that [Internet worldwide] web technology seems to have inspired,” Anderson continues. “I mean, if you ask any artist in any medium about this, they’ll tell you that they don’t split up form and content, the whole point of making things is to make sure that you can’t easily pull them apart, that you can’t separate what you’re saying and how you’re saying it, that you can’t isolate your so-called message from the color blue. But the thing is that everything is so ugly on the web, all the images and the sound being compressed beyond belief, it sounds awful, it looks awful and so someone thought ‘Well, what this needs is content.’ So they try to pour something into something that’s really ugly and try to make it mean something. And the result is just incredibly non-sensuous and still ugly.”

Does Anderson see any irony in presenting this vaguely anti-technological work in Troy as part of RPI’s Electronic Arts Performance Series, which is designed expressly to present pioneering and emerging artists who explore the boundaries of electronic art? “I think it’s important in an academic or university setting or series like this to be as antagonistic as possible,” Anderson answers without pause. “I think it’s important to ask ‘Well, why do you have this kind of department? Why do you have this kind of series? What’s so great about it?’ And I consider it one of my jobs as an artist to do that, to ask those questions. I mean, yeah, I could make some nice electronic art with lots of cool systems, that would be fun . . . and I do that, actually . . . but I also like going ‘But why and for what?'”

One of Anderson’s most recent works, “Life,” attempted to define a space where that “nice electronic art with lots of cool systems” actually made viewers ask the “why and for what?” questions themselves. “‘Life’ involved so much technology, it was insane!” Anderson notes, laughing. “I had gone to Austria to do a piece, to this little perfect little town with churches and everything all nice and organized . . . but in the middle of the town was a maximum security prison! So I went up to the bell tower of this old church where I was supposed to be working and I was searching for an idea of something to do and I saw this guard tower that was so close to the bell tower. So I went downstairs and I said to the presenters ‘Okay, here’s what I want to do: have a camera in the prison and three times a day have it look at a seated prisoner live and then it will send a signal up to the guard tower then over to the bell tower down into the church and maps that live signal onto a full-size plaster cast of that prisoner, so it’s like a living statue.'”

“And keep in mind that I always think it’s important to be as outrageous as possible because it’s probably not gonna happen anyway, but they went ‘Great!’ So I was like ‘Oh, okay.’ And I went on to tell them that I was interested in how telecommunications is changing the world and how it changes our idea of what’s live and what isn’t and the attitudes of the church and the prison to the body, one being incarceration and one being incarnation, the being there and not being there thing. And again they said ‘Sure!’ And again I said, ‘Okay one more time: I’m gonna take this criminal and I’m gonna put him here in your church’ and they just went ‘Great!'”

As it turned out, Anderson was unable to produce ‘Life’ in Austria because that nation forbids its prisoners from being viewed by the public in any fashion. Anderson also attempted to develop the piece with New York City’s Whitney Museum and the infamous Sing Sing prison (“In New York, it became political in a different way: it was less about a church and a prison but more about guarded cultural institutions, guarded art museums, guarded prisons and what we care about here”) but ultimately ended up completing the project in Italy.

“It was a huge effort,” she continues. “Because we had to lay all these high-speed lines, dug up Milan, in the streets, everything. And when we finished the project it was just unbelievable. As you walked into this room with about 3000 square feet, dark, filled with gravel, really crunchy gravel and in the corner there’s this person sitting . . . but it’s actually a live feed of this person in prison mapped onto this statue. It was incredible!

“So my point here is to say that I don’t mind working with technological stuff when it’s useful. I just try not to use it so people are going ‘Oh gee, doesn’t that technology look great!’ I don’t worship the stuff, I just use it. And I make it work for me . . . because it’s stupid, actually. So when I’m talking about dangers of technology I’m not talking about the technology itself, ’cause that’s no more dangerous than a pencil. What’s dangerous is people worshipping it. I mean, people are tiptoeing around their computers like God is in there.

“But y’know, in a really funny way, God is in there . . . and you are in there too. And I’m in there–and somehow I’m indestructible because if I crash there are still remnants of me left, floating around there in a box. I find that kind of scary and amazing all at the same time.”

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