Laurie Anderson, a New York-based performance artist, has carved a unique niche for herself over the past three decades. Her multimedia stage shows often address big topics, such as war and nationality in “Homeland” (2008), space and time in “The End of the Moon” (2005), and feature dazzling video images, beautiful synthesised sonorities, her lullaby voice and trademark electronic violin. Her new show, “Delusion”, is a beguiling montage of largely personal stories—about her mother (who died last year), rat terrier Lolabelle, her hopes and dreams. The show premièred at the Vancouver Culture Olympiad in February, and is Anderson’s most poetic work to date.
Petite and spiky-haired at 62, Anderson is in meditative mood. Having shot to unexpected international fame in the early 1980s on the back of a hit single, “O Superman”, Anderson has followed her own lights and claims to have no interest in pop culture, despite being married to a giant of the genre, Lou Reed. They share a home in Manhattan, though rarely work together. This summer marks an exception, as they are co-curating a new arts festival called Vivid, which will take place in Sydney from May 27th to June 21st. Later in the year she will also be mounting an art show in Brazil. Anderson seems most comfortable when she is working. She often has half a dozen projects going at any given time.
More Intelligent Life caught up with her in Paris where, at the Cité de la musique, she performed the European première of “Delusion”. The show visits London’s Barbican Theatre on April 14th for four nights and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the autumn.
More Intelligent Life: How did you feel your performance of “Delusion” at Cité de la musique went?
Laurie Anderson: I don’t know it very well yet. I’m still just there on stage alone with it and my little console. But I learnt a lot from the first Paris performance. There were some errors: why was one pedal saying “19” instead of “30”? It’s a compact piece. I’ve worked on it a long time and there were a few jams when you saw it. It was something in my computer programme: I ran out of voices. There are a certain number of voices available and I’m always looking at a lot of things at the same time.
MIL: Is “Delusion” a work in progress?
LA: I guess all my things are works in progress. I certainly hope to know “Delusion” really well by the time it gets to the Barbican. And there’ll also have been some editing by then. Then there’s a break and it’ll be on in New York in the fall, so that’ll give me another chance to forget it all over again. So, what I know for sure is that I’ll have to keep learning this thing. I need to know it under my hands, as it were, more than I do, so I don’t have to think about it too much, so I don’t have to go “7-11-14-73-72-4” in my head—that’s just for me to learn it. If I don’t remember it automatically, I start to feel clumsy.
MIL: In “Delusion”, you tell a magical story about giving birth to your own dog, Lolabelle. Here in Paris, you told the story in French. Do you feel comfortable in French?
LA: Not really. I was reading that story. The day after, I have to say, I spent all morning in a studio recording some things because there’s going be a French version, at this year’s Paris Festival d’automne, of a show I did in 1979, a precursor of a big thing I did in the early 1980s, called “United States”. There was one small story in the 1979 show I originally did in French, and it really wasn’t so well-recorded, so I re-recorded it for a little record of that show that’s now going to come out in the fall. The people who are doing it are actually an interesting group, made up of architects and others, and they’ve decided, Let’s just put out records that we like, so they do.
MIL: You’ve another wonderful story in “Delusion” about, or a criticism of, a quarrel over ownership of the moon. Are those details factual?
LA: Yes, they are. It’s one of those weird lawsuits. I mean, there’s so much silliness surrounding moon real-estate between the Americans and the Russians, and others—yes, the Italians included—but there is an actual lawsuit, just as I tell it in the show. It’s fascinating and just so bizarre. I picked this up after my time at NASA [as the space agency’s first and so far only artist-in-residence, between 2004 and 2005], but I was kind of more tuned in to what was going on after working there, and I was certainly interested in following this particular thing up.
MIL: I hope I’m not alone in being curious, still, about “O Superman”. Have you ever done it live again, or years and years later re-performed it, by popular demand?
LA: Originally, it was part of the show I just mentioned, “United States”, which I performed in 1982-83. I don’t typically do older things. But in 2001 I did do a little tour, which was a retrospective with a band, and we played that song; and we played it right after September 11th: actually, at New York Town Hall, and it had a very interesting reverberation. People especially who didn’t know the song were going, “This is amazing, who wrote those words then”: “American planes”, “smoking or non-smoking”…? It all seemed to have to do with that moment. And it was a dream to be singing a song about that moment at that time, in that way. It was very intense. But no, generally, I don’t reprise things.
MIL: Was there in the early days a golden moment with computers when you said to yourself, “I can make this technology work for me?” What were the issues then?
LA: It was in 1982. I had a huge, huge synthesiser with a giant hard drive. Touring with it was colossally expensive. The company kept contacting me, hoping to sell me new parts, saying, “Dear Owner, We’d like to send you the additional hard-drive parts, which you know you would have ordered if only you had known, for $40,000”—and I said, Are you insane? So after I’d looked into that, I thought, Yes, it really is very, very impractical to tour with, because the hard drive would crash, and I’d have to call, and they’d ask, “Where are you?” And I’d say Denver, and they’d say, “OK, we’ll have to recalibrate for altitude.” But wait a second, I’d say, what are you telling me? How do I tour with it? “Well, we suggest we calibrate it first for a high-altitude tour, then we recalibrate for a low-altitude tour”—and I’d imagine trying to tell that to the booking agent: we’d be doing Holland, Illinois, southern California; then Geneva, Denver… It was crazy. But for all that, I loved the machine and did a lot of music with it. It lasted maybe two and a half years. It was very exciting.
MIL: And now?
LA: Technology is of course easier. It’s definitely smaller. It’s cheaper. I can really tour with it, but it’s begun to take up more and more of my mental life, which I resent. It really has. In a way, I’ve become so addicted to these things I haven’t been sure if I know how to get off the grid. It’s always my plan to get off the grid, but it’s now less and less likely, and that’s disturbing to me. Because I really like trees and I like being away from the buzz and the hum…
MIL: The crowds?
LA: No, not the crowds, I like crowds—but away from the constant stream of information.
MIL: How do you switch off?
LA: I don’t! I can’t see any break coming up in the immediate future. The new show could ricochet through the next 18 months or so, but I’ve got a lot of other projects on the go.
MIL: Including a big art exhibit in Brazil?
LA: Yes, it’ll be in both Rio and in São Paulo, at a space there called the CCBB, owned by a bank. There’ll be a lot of musical instruments in it and will focus on listening. That’s what I’d like to do, though it’ll be hard. It’ll probably be with headphones. That’s not ideal. Getting people to stop and listen for a while in this kind of context rarely works. I’ll try it do it through stories, spoken and written. They need to be short enough, and interesting enough spatially, to work as a headphone experience.
MIL: Do you know Brazil?
LA: Well, I do. I once got very sick in Rio, in 1986. It was from eating some fish in a beautiful restaurant. Everyone I was eating with got the same thing. One hour later, after eating the fish, we all had enormously high fevers, and at first I was wiped out for three days. I cancelled all concerts. Then, for two years, I often couldn’t stand up: my balance was gone, and I’d just sometimes fall over, inconveniently. It was an inner-ear parasite. I only recovered because I followed a very, very, very extreme treatment of chlorophyll water with a macrobiotic diet.
MIL: Has the prospect of going back there caused you problems?
LA: I swore at the time I’d never go back. Two years is a very long time. Some of those I was with still feel the effects, occurring in a malaria-like pattern, every six months. The worms, or whatever they are, hatch. It left me with an inability to drive at night—against headlights: there’s something about the way headlights or a colour spot, anything that tracks you, when you can’t get your eyes off their beams, which triggers an incredible dizziness. For about eight months, I had to go every day for two hours to have sessions to get Vitamin C intravenously; and I also had to have a chef, because macrobiotic food is really hard to cook. It takes all day to make it, to wash the whatever with the whatever. So now, when I return to Brazil, I’ll take just bottled water—and stacks of my own rice.
MIL: Haven’t you been tempted to work this into your art in some way?
LA: I’ve not written about it in any of my stuff, mainly, I guess, because I didn’t have any distance on it. Something like that, really inside your head, is hard to get perspective on. I still feel that way.
MIL: What about your life and work with Lou Reed? Do you and he collaborate?
LA: Not really, or not very well. I’m not a good collaborator, I’m too opinionated. I’m not a person who does that very well. Occasionally, I try.
MIL: But you’re working together on the Sydney Vivid festival …
LA: It’s only in its second year and it doesn’t really have a pattern yet. Lou and I have been given the opportunity to invite whoever we want, of any kind of thing. I have to say it is a little bit last minute, because it’s in May. This May. And we’ve only been doing it for about a month. So when we call people up, and say, “Come in May”, and they say, “Sure—you don’t mean this May, do you, by any chance?”—and we say, “Yeah”, they say, “Are you joking?” We do have a mixture of artists and musicians and theatre people. Brian Eno did it last year, so I called him up and he said his was really last minute, too, exactly the same. It’s about the funding coming in late, that’s the way it works. You have to call in a lot of favours, so you end up owing people. With longer planning, maybe it’d be a little different, but it is what it is. And I like Sydney. It’s a really gung-ho place. In New York, Lou and I see a lot of things. We love it. That’s why we live in the city. It’s not for the trees but for the plays. Lou, especially, loves plays. I see more concerts, but we mix things up. Lou also has a radio show he does every week [“New York Shuffle”, on Sirius, co-hosting with Hal Willner], and he features a lot of new bands, which he listens to constantly.
MIL: American bands above all?
LA: All sorts of bands, from everywhere. This’ll be reflected in Sydney. Lou really knows what’s going on. He and Hal have become the authorities on brand new music, and I admire that, because it’s a big effort to keep up with all of that turbulent scene. It takes a lot of love and effort to stay right in the middle of it.