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Laurie Anderson

Interview by Joy Williams
published in Artist Magazine (U.S.)


Laurie Anderson/Artist Magazine © Chester Simpson/Artist Publications

Laurie Anderson

© Chester Simpson/Artist Publications



“They thought I'd invented this art form because they had no idea what the avant garde had been doing for the last 50 years.

--Laurie Anderson

Growing up in the American Midwest, New York seemed like a promised land to Laurie Anderson: "It was always an hour later, darker, and somehow more alive. Things were always coming to you 'Live from New York!'" She reached the city at the end of the '60s to study at Columbia University, graduating in 1972 with a Masters in Fine Arts degree in sculpture, and an involvement in the so-called Downtown scene in Soho, where she numbered Philip Glass among her associates.

Anderson had been engaged in various performance art works while at college and, remaining in New York, embarked on a new series of creations: a self-playing violin, a pillow which sang to the sleeper, music for dance groups, a musical book, a concerto for automobiles, and several short film and video works. One notable piece involved her playing violin on street corners, accompanying a tape of herself concealed inside the instrument while wearing ice skates embedded in a block of ice, playing until the ice melted. She took these events and many others on a near-constant tour of the alternative art spaces of America and Europe throughout the early '70s, making a name for herself on the flourishing avant garde scene.

Having worked with a number of electronic musicians and designed the tape-bow violin (an instrument with magnetic tape instead of a bow, and a playback head instead of strings), Laurie Anderson began to perform and record as a musician with her United States I-IV series of works. From these, a single, "O Superman," was issued on the small New York label 110 Records in 1981. Only a thousand copies were pressed to be sold via mail order but the record, with its beguiling but accessible electronic minimalism, was picked up for radio play in the , where a distributor ordered 40,000 copies. Before long it had reached #2 in the charts. Its surprise success secured Anderson a distribution deal with Warner Bros Records who released her 1982 album, Big Science.

Big Science featured an extended version of the single, together with pieces such as "Born, Never Asked" and "From the Air" from the United States set, along with newer songs, all on the general theme of alienation in the post-industrial, technology-dominated world. This was a relatively fresh area for popular culture, and Laurie Anderson became one of the most prominent investigators of the junction of culture and technology. With backing from Warners and grants from various foundations her stage shows increased in size, eventually allowing eight-hour performances of United States in New York, London and Zurich during 1983.

--Rock: The Rough Guide

The following interview was conducted with Laurie Anderson on June 5, 1984, in San Francisco, when she was at the height of her popularity, even gracing the cover of Musician magazine. I sat in the hotel room of the Warner Brothers A&R man, who was along on the tour to make sure all necessary things were being taken care of, waiting for Laurie to come in. It was still early for someone who works so late, so I had a few moments to ponder, to anticipate. Laurie Anderson, I expected, was going to be a complex person. As I was to learn, that is true; however, she is, like her work, also pure and simple and blindingly honest and straightforward.

She entered the room, a slight, pale lady. She was polite and charming, speaking in a calm, quiet voice sparkling with interest and imagination and intelligence, just like her art, her life work.

Q: So many people who think of themselves as artists define themselves only in terms of one artistic area. Doesn't one lose a great deal with such a narrow view?

LAURIE: Well, you can gain things, too. I don't have any objections to anyone who calls himself a painter and makes paintings. I don't think that's limiting at all. It depends on how good the painting is.

Q: But what you are doing is very immediate, very experimental, complicated and multidimensional; it's not just one thing. It very much challenges the viewer/ participant.

LAURIE: The way things are set up in this country, we're programmed for what we're going to do on a Friday night. If you're a movie buff, you'll go to the movies; if you're a rock'n'roll fan, you'll go to a show; if you're an opera fan, you'll go to the opera. Very rarely do you get out of your little rut. It's different in Europe. You might have a festival that presents all kinds of things within the same context. They will have opera, rock'n'roll bands on the lawn, theater, etc. And they make all the ticket prices reasonable, and they advertise it so that you don't feel like an oaf going there, feeling out of place. You can go there and be enjoying an avant-garde show and suddenly encounter opera; you might think you hate opera and suddenly find it in front of you and find it so moving that you become an instant fan. That's what real presentation is about—trying to open up people a little bit to something that they normally wouldn't see. If you want to go to an opera in New York, you pay $45 for a couple, and few people can afford to do that; you really have to be an opera fan. It makes it really, really hard to get out of your hole. So, I think one of the reasons I've tried to do things in different contexts is because it is so limiting to always perform for the same group of people in the same kind of place. As a performer, you get into a rut, too.

Q: Often, an artist who stays wholly within one medium becomes so isolated that he loses the inspiration that comes from outside input. Where does your inspiration come from?

Laurie Anderson c Chester Simpson/Artist Publications

Photo © Chester Simpson/Artist Publications
San Francisco, 1984
digital effects © Joy Williams/Artist Publications

LAURIE: From within you, yes, but an artist also takes in what's out there, runs it through the internal filters, mixes in his/her own inner impulses and visions, and sends it back out to the world as something distinct, something new, bearing a new message.

Q: You, now, are synthesizing a lot of elements, using the latest technology—even a Synclavier (the first really digital synthesizer). And you just visited the Lucas multimedia setup in Marin yesterday.

LAURIE: Yes. Their setup makes my computer look like a 2B pencil! It really was very inspiring to watch that stuff being done, particularly the way the films are knocked out by the computer. The way information is organized is just really so much more efficient than pieces of paper or a script that tries to tell you what is actually happening. What's been eerie about working with my computer is this: If you erase an audio cassette, there are still little molecules of sound desperately clinging to the tape, but if you tell a computer to forget something, and you try to get it back, it doesn't know what you're talking about. It's as though that never happened. Digital sound and digital information is so different from any other kind of sound. It is a unique way of structuring things and, in that sense, it doesn't have that much to do with the brain. And now machines are learning, and when they crash or when they learn something wrong, everything they learn from then on is slightly skewed. You can't just take it to a repair shop; it's more like you'll have to take it to a psychiatrist.

Q: How did you move from the more traditional art background and training you have into computers and computer art?

LAURIE: It's because of where I was in New York. It's really junk street, electronic junk street, with all kinds of antique electronics.

Q: And it was your curiosity?

LAURIE: Well, I like electronics because it's fast. There were machines I would take apart and when I couldn't figure out how to put them back together, I'd use them for something else. And in a very straightforward way, as well. One of the first things I did was to strip out some little speakers and then put them in cases so that I could sing like a violin. It was pre-recorded violin and a little speaker, which I put in my mouth. It gives you a number of elements to work with. But working with that equipment, as it got more sophisticated a couple of things happened. One is that the sound tends to get simpler. When you use something like a bird call, even with all the density that sound has—the timbre and waves—it suggests a kind of simplicity. When it's recorded digitally it's very, very simple, so it's very clean. That affects your music in many ways. In effect, it makes it simpler because you can use simpler structures and have denser timbres within the structure. That bird call is used on every song on the Mr. Heartbreak album, except sometimes it's mixed way up, as on "Excellent Birds," or, as in "Blue Lagoon," it's way back behind the palm trees. The second thing is that I've really tried to be very conscious about only using the kind of equipment that I can actually work with, rather than dreaming of working with (what they've got at] Lucas Films. When you get out of your range, it becomes impossible—I mean, it feels like that. The equipment teaches you things, but you need to know how it works. You need to work with it rather than just putting electronics on top of some music.

Q: How do you know where that line is? Because you've got to keep pushing yourself….

LAURIE: Yeah, you do, and so I gradually tried to learn new systems. And at one point I thought, "Well, I can take three years off and learn some things about electronics," and I was really afraid to do that; maybe I wouldn't remember why I was there in the first place. So, I learn what I need to know at the moment to do what I want to do, and then try to expand from there.

Q: When you're comfortable with your tools, your medium, you can free your mind because you no longer have to think about the actual mechanics of what you are doing. You can combine your understanding of your medium and means of expression with the outside world and your relationship to those elements you're using to see the world.

LAURIE: Yes, although my goal is not direct imitation of this world. One is enough of this particular world! George Lucas showed me an image of a kind of forest scene that, really, made an odd attempt to duplicate a normal scene. He didn't measure it against how close it came to the real world, it was instead measured against complexity. So, that image that was complex enough to keep your attention didn't necessarily have to remind you of a real forest.

Q: It is exciting to see that an artist like you is using the latest technology and relating to the world in a way that the rest of the public doesn't know already. In that way the artist is predicting and teaching and influencing a new way of people to relating to their world.

Laurie Anderson

LAURIE: What I like about clichés is that they're true, but you forget about how true they are because they're so boring. But, there's so much emphasis on originality now, how to say something in a new and different way, that sometimes it becomes so new and different that you don't even know what the person's talking about anymore. Sometimes that's wonderful, it's surrealistic and it shakes you up. But other times, you just don't know what they're doing at all. You can't feel it, you can't understand it, you can't relate to it. That's disgraceful; I'm not interested. With clichés, if you can invent a way to see it in a new light, then you can understand why it's a cliché.

Q: You once said that art can get you to accept things; it sort of sneaks in under the surface, past your guard, and it can take you somewhere, it can teach you things that you can't accept directly. Somebody gives it to you in a lecture, it doesn't work….

LAURIE: You're liable to say, "You're crazy!" But I also think that's a potentially dangerous situation. You really need to be careful about what you're doing.

Q: There is an attendant responsibility….

LAURIE: And also respect for the audience. There should be some basic ideas, so that you leave room for people to make up their own endings or beginnings or middles. A writer, for instance, like Thomas Pynchon—who wrote the book "Gravity's Rainbow"—he took this amazing diagram, which is just this giant arc of what happens when things go up and then come down and over and over again. You feel the motion of his arc of gravity with that diagram on every level; mood swings that come up and go down and rockets that come up and go down….

Q: That's the repetitive element, the cliché, if you will. Without a structure nothing will work. How is it that you were able to move from the classically trained avant-garde art world onto a rock'n'roll stage?

LAURIE: I think a lot of artists began working like that because New York (City] is so small; everybody knows each other. So, you get a chance to come out of your chosen path. Still, it certainly wasn't like that in the '60s; there were really distinctly professional painters, professional sculptors. It was around the time that I began to work, that people…. Well, in the first place, things had become so specialized, artists were basically talking about "this edge here" and that one color, and the light reflection on the monochromatic brush strokes. People would come into the museums and say, "Am I supposed to care about that!?!"Then, along came participatory art. You would come into a room and you would see all these big block pieces of wood all sort of randomly sitting around, with a bicycle in the middle. And you'd get on the bike, and as you pedalled, you realized that all these blocks are attached to wires and the more you pedalled, a house assembled around you, the doors opened and closed and the windows formed….

Q: It would give you a way to see how you affect your environment and how your environment affects you.

LAURIE: It's a good metaphor.

Q: As an artist, you're doing something that's coming from within you. You know that you're a human being and this is just one aspect of yourself, but the world at large tends to see artists, performers and other celebrities as not quite human.

LAURIE: Yes-particularly on tour, or just standing in line somewhere, like in the bank. Someone will do this double take, like they've realized they'd seen my picture before. What I realize is that I've become one of the two-dimensional people.

Q: This is "a Laurie Anderson…"

LAURIE: ….clone (laughing). But I think that's one of the things that's not so bad about video, because as more people use it, they realize, "I can be on TV, too; I'll just make a tape of myself and I'll watch it."

Q: Artists often have a very distinctive relationship to the outer world. Most people are very much in and of the world, to the extent that they never really see themselves in a separate way. For some of us, though, there's this whole other consciousness, and though the world is out there and we're aware of it, inside….

LAURIE: Yes! I think of myself strongly as a voyeur, an observer. But I think if I had to define myself, it would be first as an artist, second probably as a New Yorker, and third as a woman. As a woman you're in a good position to be good social critics. We don't have anything to lose!

Q: This culture often has a difficult time accepting anything new. Look at the position of funk in America, where it was invented. Because of the barriers here it had to go to England, become sanitized as it were, and then come back over here in a more "acceptable" form.

LAURIE: You're right, new ideas often have to loop around. And that is one of the reasons Americans are closer to Russians than anybody else-because we're both so insecure. We haven't figure it out.

Q: Which also leaves a lot of opportunities open….

LAURIE: Sure! When you don't know who you are, you can be anybody. It's just that I hope we find who we are before it's too late. Preferably, something that doesn't immediately turn into plastic. There are no models, so we use movie stars, rock stars. The day that I think will really be interesting is the day I see a 65-year-old woman newscaster on TV and America will say, "Hmmm, I wonder what she has to say."

Q: Larry's over there making signs he'll chop my head off if we don't wind up here, so one last question: You define yourself first as an artist, just what does that mean to you?

LAURIE: I certainly don't feel that I know anything that resembles The Truth; and I'm really not that interested in it, anyway. My first job as an artist is to make images. If I have a choice, I'll always choose something that is beautiful over something that is practical.

  

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