“Look for the mechanism of the culture. What’s running things?” – Laurie Anderson in Athens

Laurie Anderson: Sound travels really nicely in this kind of thick air… there’s hardly any difference between your skin and the air, it’s an amazing, comforting kind of temperature.
Louise Gray: Did you see the swallows and the bats as you performed?
LA: [laughs] It’s amazing. Also, to play in a place like that, in a city which has the Parthenon as its touchstone… It’s amazing to have something so light, an icon that doesn’t mean something political or religious. It means mathematics and people going, ‘let’s build something like that’. I mean at the time I’m sure it was some other concoction of things…

LG: And Athens also has a resonance as the foundation city of Greek democracy. Ok, a limited democracy, not one that you or I might like, but democracy is a theme that runs through all your work

LA: And it invented that at that time! It was colossal what they did and that remains. People really feel that. Looking at the Parthenon is not like looking at the Eiffel Tower.

LG: Do you think that Euro audiences have a different reading to what you do to your home-grown ones?

LA: Sure, every city has a different reading.

LG: But considering the very vicious politics of recent years, especially with the war, and America almost as a pariah state…

LA: But that is not a new thing for Americans at all. And Americans have a zero sense of history so they do not realise that we’re fighting the war that was going on at the point I was doing Big Science.

LG: And one listens to later recordings, such as One Night in Baghdad…

LA: They are presented as separate events with their one soundtrack, their own logos and the way that they are covered, so Americans don’t connect that. But certainly, being in a situation where you are the humiliated superpower, or the universally hated country – it’s not new. I mean, wow, we’re really hated. When I was in Cuba a few months ago – I was just visiting, tagging along with some British friends because we’re not allowed to go in, used a transit point, used Santiago. And we had to fly over Guantenamo – coincidentally, the one song most Americans know, Guantanamera – it was just very chilling to go there. And very chilling to get glimpses of these transport planes that are carrying prisoners around the world, these unmarked big planes.

But it is a really dark moment right now. The frustrating thing is that if you poll people, nobody’s for the war. But how is that we’re doing it? 60 per cent of Americans do not know what continent Iraq is on. No idea where it is. But we’re fighting that war [her voice slides into a gung-ho mode] because it’s phantoms. It’s our fear.

LG: As you say in one of the Homeland pieces, if you enlist, if you come back, you get to go to college and you might even get some healthcare.

LA: I was on the last tour in Texas and the army had done this promotion with the high school football team. After the game, the entire team signed up. Enlisted. In the army. So this combination of sports and fighting really goes over in Texas. And techno stuff. It goes over in a lot of places.

The writer that explains most of this for me is this guy George Trow, who wrote one of the most interesting books I have ever read. Within The Context Of No Context (1997). An amazing book… a lot of things about techno-media culture snapped into focus for me. He describes Warhol’s world come to life – obsessions with fame, sex, death, violence. Look on the ‘net, there it is. Looming up. Trow describes these in terms of grids. There’s the individual grid and the grid of the media. Individuals are always comparing themselves to the grid of the media. So this middle distance, where you would normally develop your friends, your interests, whatever, this dropped away. So suddenly American Idol comes into focus, the army’s recruitment processes; Trow’s middle distance falls away. He says this middle distance is the place where celebrities stands, since there’s no room for celebrities to dance, other things develop. It’s fascinating. It starts with a very short chapter on ‘wonder’, I mean a paragraph, particularly about the US. A country built on wonder of size: the size of the country, the height of the buildings, the number of people there, the length of the highway. Trow asks also, ‘Could there be wonder in the size of the marketplace?’ and you think, where’s he going here? Then, the last sentence is: ‘Could there also be wonder in the size of the con?’ And you’re, fuck! This guy! He’s going to an interesting place. Because what do you want in all of this? [soft] What do people want? And what is the function of the marketplace and the media in this culture? How is it really changing people’s lives – not in a superficial way, but really what is that doing?

For example, I read an interview with this girl, she’s about 15, and she said, ‘I am really not interested in privacy. My generation doesn’t value that at all. My whole life is on the net. My diary is there, my sex life is there, my bank account is there, all my correspondence is there, I don’t want privacy.’ So when you think, ok, let’s analyse media techno culture, it’s not about speed or products or how much faster we can get stuff, it’s about stuff like that, how it’s really changing what you want.

LG: Whereas Big Science was arch, comic, human, poignant, Homeland seems to have a different voice coming out of it. It was one of anger and it is an emotion I hadn’t associated with your work so far. I am thinking of the eight-minute “Only An Expert”, which was incisive and strong and you ramp up the tempo and the volume and you treat the voice so it becomes harsher. It was shocking and stunning and arresting. Is there any accuracy in this? That maybe Big Science was a soft pedal, now is the time to be more emphatic?

LA: That strident note: I enjoy striking another one that isn’t my usual note. I’m also really angry. One of the things that angers me the most is that people don’t seem to be talking about stuff, or else if they do, they are silenced. Where are these American intellectuals who used to write about this stuff? Susan Sontag is now dead. It’s eerie. It’s a lot for people to try to absorb. There is also a huge amount of pressure that comes from this trumped-up fear-mongering. It’s really selling a product and of course, in a very American sentimentalised way that makes it somehow ok, so that makes me furious.

In the same way that 9/11 did. That New Yorkers (I was in Chicago at the time and came back three days later and of course couldn’t get into my studio because I live down there)… the point is that NYers are not good victims, it’s not a role they play well, but that was immediately the role that was forced on us, as it was turned into something patriotic and extremely sentimental. And yet at the same time, it changed things fundamentally in NY. In the way that you live in a city and wonder, if anything really bad happened, would anyone really help, or wouldn’t they? Would they just run away? We got a chance to see that people really did help each other and it created a tenderness there that has not evaporated.

LG: I saw you on the 2001 tour, very soon after 9/11. It felt very apt that you had a stripped-down band with no mounds of tech that came with Moby Dick. The line everyone waited for was ‘Here come the planes, they’re American planes.’ It must have been an odd thing for you.

LA: The strange thing for me was that people didn’t see it as one long conflict, frankly. The strange thing was that they were surprised, that suddenly that was somehow apt. The idea with the European release [of Big Science], which was yesterday, was the anniversary of Waterloo.

LG: Yes, I wondered what was that about?

LA: That’s about a losing battle. I chose the date really carefully. Somehow in the back of my mind, Waterloo has always been connected to Massenet, and it wasn’t really. It was a prayer of someone going into the battle that they know they’re going to lose, from Le Cid [‘O suverian, o pêre,’ etc]; a prayer that says my dreams of glory have come to nothing, to you I give everything. I always pictured Napoleon looking out onto these soggy tents and thousands of corpses and dying soldiers and bloated horses and thinking, “What the hell have I just done? Oh my God.”

That was the image of someone who realises that they have lost a huge thing. This was an image of war. This [Big Science] was written out of humiliation – one, the Iran-Contra affair, two, the kind of thing where we charge in with our helicopters and high-tech stuff and they crash and burn in the desert. It doesn’t work. A lot of American textbooks say that we won the Vietnam war. This is like Chinese revisionism, Seriously, or that it was a kind of a draw. We have absolute amnesia about it. It was a conflict that we kind of won. We prevailed, let’s say.

LG: I suppose many want to know if you now see Big Science [and United States I-IV] as a prescient album, but you are saying that it refers to one endless conflict.

LA: I do, I do. It intensifies at certain moments and it is a meeting of these two almost fanatic sides of the world, Western techno civilisation and the world of Islam and they are colliding in a big way. The second we step into Iran, it’s going to be another phase, but people absolutely don’t connect it, they just don’t.

LG: What does the word Homeland mean to you? Obviously, it’s a title of your new project work in progress, so what we heard yesterday is not what will necessarily be on the album. Bt the idea of home is a leitmotif that has come up in your work for many years.

LA: One of the reasons I started with this image of Aristophanes and The Birds, which was such a thrill to do at the Herodes Atticus Odeon, was this image of groundlessness,

LG: Metaphorical and literal?

LA: Yes, where do you live? How do you relate to that place? I think that people have a much looser connection to that now. We don’t live on land and dirt; we live in a much more headier place. So this idea… when you are involved in fighting a war when you don’t even know where the enemy is or a war that is protecting your homeland against terrorist events, there is no way to fight obviously – as we have found out, quite clearly. There is no country called Terror that you can invade their borders or protect their borders or cross their borders. It’s a war of phantoms and it will never go away. There is always going to be some big thing that is scaring everybody. And that is used to create a situation of control – and that combined with the absolute maniacal excess of late capitalism is very scary.

Our army is run by private companies who run it for a profit. The same with jails. Twenty years ago, there were 300,000 people in jail; now it is a privatised industry there are almost 3 million in jail. They’re customers, unique customers – and you need customers for your war, which is waged as a business, as is healthcare. Money is the bottom line. Look at record companies, what everybody wants is money and fame in Warhol’s world. It is truly a recipe for disaster, absolute disaster, when people no longer go, ‘Well, what about this guy? Let me see if that guy’s ok.’ That doesn’t exist; it doesn’t exist in our world.

LG: It’s been six or seven years since Life On A String, your last studio album. Why have you chosen this moment to go back to the studio?

LA: Back into the studio sounds like a really scary… that’s why I’m trying to work it out of the studio. Go on tour, play some things that I wrote, because my back can’t take it, sitting there in the studio going through it traaaack by traaaack by traaaack. But I know what you mean. I wanted to work on it in a different way. I wanted not to write it, record it, play it. This is more like write it, play it, record it, which is an interesting process and something that I haven’t done for a long, long time. This to me is much more fun because it changes all the time, the people playing change and I learn a lot about it that way.

LG: Do you see it turning into an opera, for want of a better term?

LA: Multimedia opera, no, no…. They’re hell to tour those kind of things. So my impulse isn’t to go that way at the moment. It’s more – and maybe it’s just a media burn-out, maybe it’s just walking down Madison Avenue and seeing enormous screens on all the buildings with images that look a lot like things from Big Science or United States, you know, the waves and things. Is there an image bank where everyone is getting things that look like they came from 25 years ago? I can’t say I have a strong impulse to do a multimedia show. In the last few years the things I’ve done have been solo shows and making a movie, doing those projects in Japan – these installations in this huge garden. It was called Hidden Inside Mountains, in Nagoya for Expo. At the same time I was… I really wanted to do work outside. I was doing the NASA project and I worked here in Athens a lot. I worked on the opening ceremony for the Olympics. I was the only American on that committee. I was here for like a year and a half. I’d come every month or so. That was an incredible experience. The way they could turn a problem and look at it from so many angles.

I also had a tutor here, a Greek tutor, who was the chief archaeologist for the Parthenon, the guy in charge of putting it back together. I said, I have a question for you that I have to ask and I felt confident in asking him because he looked like Socrates, or at least how we think Socrates looked, I said how could it be that this place with all of its amazing, this explosion of the mind, the sudden invention of geometry, tragedy, history, poetry, comedy – what happened? Why didn’t it just keep going? Why aren’t we all a thousand times smarter? He said, ‘I’ll tell you my theory’. He said people were coming to the Parthenon to worship Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom. They bring these kouri, these statues, and it gets more and more competitive, because Greeks are competitive, they invented the Olympics, they wanna be the winner, they don’t want to be number two, they want to be number one Ñ get the gold – so everyone is trying to build a more beautiful statue than before and they park them around the Acropolis. Pretty soon, people come up to pray to Athena, and he said a very interesting thing, ‘I can’t pray in an art museum’, so off they go to the places where the gods came from, the caves, the groves, the natural haunts. And so what happened then was that the whole thing fell apart, and at the bottom of that is this need to believe, trumping the need to know. And I thought, why does that sound so familiar? Why does that sound like America today? Instead of saying how does this work, you just have to believe in something. It’s a country where the language of therapy dominates. That’s why I dragged Oprah into it, because she just assumes there’s something wrong with you…. that’s the way Americans are treated by media, as hopeless idiots. Ask your doctor. You couldn’t know what your problem is… Or let me, Oprah, see what’s wrong.

LG: I’m interested in your work with Sophie Calle.

LA: I met her a Teluride festival in 92. In fact I met her in Venice, but I wasn’t aware that I’d met her. It’s a typical Calle story. She stepped into one of those art parties, 50 people strutting their egos… and was snubbed by museum director, who’s a jerk. The next day, he walks towards her… and walks right past her and says hello to me… So she hated me initially. I represented this place she was not invited to… Then, at the No Sex Last Night film screening, I was sitting next to her. We had a lot of fun. She is such an iconoclastic. This particular project [Take Good Care of Yourself] is a text that you’ve probably gotten and you’ve probably written; ‘it’s really my problem, I really do care for you and arrragh!’ Title is the gift-wrapped logo as Daniele Buren, the curator, described it. It was presented like movie, with 107 women analysing the letter. A psychoanalyst, a Talmudic scholar, a dancer, a signer, a clown… it was hilarious. The clown was hilarious. She was really moved by the punctuation. Something about brackets sent her into depths of emotion. It was beautifully presented. The writer of the letter faded away.

LG: Like the Alvin Lucier piece, the original disintegrates and makes something else.

LA: The other piece, in the Italian pavilion, was the death of her mother, which was very moving. Monique was an amazing character. She was our friend. The kind of person who’d be dancing on the table into the wee hours. This is a video of her death, literally of her last breath. At first, it’s kind of hideous, you’re not sure you want to participate, but because it’s Sophie…

LG: Do you see any other points of contact in your use of electronic media to record and publish?

LA: Yes, but I almost don’t think about that any more. It’s almost like turning on the lights and you [don’t] think, wow, I threw a switch and the lights came on. Media is so transparent to me now that I just don’t think about it. It’s so unimportant to what’s going on – and when it becomes an important thing like the big multimedia show where it really steps into the light I want it to go away.

LG: I think now of Marina Abramovic’s work. I know she’s a friend of yours and I don’t know if you’ve collaborated together but I know you went to the jungle together. Her durational performances, have this emphasis on the body in the here and now and for us, on witnessing. To be a witness is of fundamental importance.

LA: That’s a very good point.

[I wonder if we are your witnesses?]

Not in that way, I think. As a performer I self-consciously create those as part of something sometimes, but I’m more presentational. Standing on the stage and I’m going, right… hopefully, not to go look at me, what I’m doing, but as more of a narrative. So it a radically different way to relate to an audience, I think than what they’re doing. I think that you putting it as a witness is really, really interesting. I hadn’t thought of that role.

LG: eg the Spiral Jetty is live art. It comes and goes, it will go, we will go, all will change.

LA: I have to think about that. The witness aspect. Audiences, I think of them not so much as witnesses as collaborators. The best thing that can happen with an audience is for someone to say, I know what you mean, not so much, wow, I’m here looking at this.

LG: The difference between empathy and sympathy?

LA: Maybe…

LG: The Dream Book that you just did. The dream image is something which comes up in your writing often. I am curious to hear you talk about it.

LA: It came about from the situation of being on a solo tour [The Moon Tour]. A different theatre every night, different hotel room and nobody to talk to. I started getting quite weird. I would be on stage and couldn’t remember if I’d done that paragraph or not. It was a lot to get through so much text each night. My dream life went wild, out of control. I had never experienced that. I had a computer tablet and computer pen by the bed, I’d wake up and try to snatch it. You can’t draw dreams…

LG: …Though you did

LA: …Yes, totally out of revenge, to get some control. It was a project, something to do on the road. It helped with the loneliness to have this relationship to your mental life.

I became very interested in why you dream and no one really knows. There are so many theories. Is it the brain in idle mode? Is it processing material? Nobody knows. It is unbelievable how much we don’t know about how your mind works. I read many amazing theories along the way, like one book I read, the theory of the relationship between dreams and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)… the theory was that the babies are dreaming of life before birth and it’s so real they stop breathing, because that was what life was. I’m fascinated by it. It’s why I’m really interested in this book by Tibetan author, Mingyur Rinpoche, the Joy of Living, where he links meditation and brain states to neuroscience in a way that’s thrilling. Mingyur and a lot of Tibetans study minutely what happens as thoughts and sensations travel through your body.

It makes you remember that people literally don’t know how their minds, how their brains work. ‘Things are always going through my head.’ But they don’t know, they don’t have a clue what they’re doing or what they’ve been influenced by as well, so they are perfect targets for people coming along to tell them what to be afraid of or what to love or what to go for, how to be famous. For what? To what end? It’s just like demagoguery was invented here and you watch it in motion when there is a lot of corporate heft behind it and it’s powerful. And it can hypnotise people in poisonous ways, because people don’t know how to use their minds. They don’t know what they’re doing. This is supposed to be the age of information! It’s appalling!

It’s stories, too. It’s really just another story. That’s what I loved about NASA. The big story now is that the world will get hotter and it will get more dangerous and blow up or whatever. At NASA, there’s a project I just love. It’s on a 5,000 year timeline and the idea is to move manufacturing off the Earth. It’s an actual plan and it involves building a space elevator over the Pacific and hauling material up into space, back and forth. Yes, it’s real. The idea, along with extreme population control and pulling out toxic materials, the idea is to literally to create another garden of Eden. It’s another story. That’s what I love about a story. Let’s look at it from another point of view and what would the ramifications be. You are always telling yourself stories. It’s like Trow asking what runs the marketplace. That’s the connection between [Big Science and Homeland]. The mechanisms. Look for the mechanism of the culture. What’s running things?

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