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Laurie Anderson: Stories from the Never-Ending War

By Philip Bither

Amid the clamor of Super PAC–powered politicians duking it out on a whole new level this election season, Laurie Anderson offers a timely, quietly powerful rejoinder with a new work, Dirtday! An artist who normally steers clear of directly addressing politics in her work, Anderson recently talked with Philip Bither, McGuire Senior Curator of Performing Arts, about her motivations in applying the “sharp tools” of her art to the topic. Continuing our series Lowercase P: Artists & Politics, she discusses storytelling and the way one of her seminal works seems prescient, if only because it addresses a war that never ends.

Philip Bither

Let’s start with the question of the hour: your new work, Dirtday!, or more specifically, what that title relates to.

Laurie Anderson

Well, I love exclamation points, [laughs] and I’ve never put one in [a title]. Titles are the worst part of any project. I just have no idea what to call them and it’s always very, very last minute. But in this case, the piece started out as being almost all music. Then I suppose it was because of all of the Occupy stuff that I started thinking, “Well, I’m just going to say one thing about what’s going on politically” and then it expanded. Because it’s hard to say something political without being didactic, I had to talk around things, which I’m pretty good at. There were a lot of stories that began to be about how stories are constructed and about how you make a story up about what the world is like and then you try to live the story and what kind of problems happen because of that.

Bither

Do you mean “live the story” in performance or in life?

Anderson

In life. It’s the way you tell yourself, “I’m a person who has this job and drives this car and has this kind of relationship with people and talks this way.” That’s your story and you stick to it and you design it. Of course we inherit tons of things, but we also design a lot of stuff about who we are. So when you get a glimpse into the design structure, sometimes it’s really exciting. You go, “I put that there, it’s pretty arbitrary. I could change that because I made it up, this version of who I am.” It’s so transparent when politicians are doing it: telling stories about how they see the world, what it could be in the future, what it was like in the past, and people go, “Yeah, he’s right,” or “He’s crazy,” or whatever. But they evaluate it on what basis? As if they’re hearing about a movie? I’m trying to go back and forth between this dream world that we live in, and then this world of politics and so-called reality. It’s still amazing how easy it is to manipulate with misinformation. I think that people go in and out, in terms of being aware of it.

Bither

Performing Dirtday! here three days before election day—in some ways it may give people a bit of a chance to step back, a way to perceive politics in different ways than through the PAC-funded ads they’ve been battered with.

Anderson

No, I’m basing my story on PAC-fund regulations [laughs]—but really, those ads are so effective! I work on an emotional level, not on an analytical one, and so do PAC-fund people. When I’m working with political material, I’m very aware that I have to be careful. Artists have sharp tools, and are capable of doing things that advanced PR does.

Bither

Meaning that there could be a danger of doing just what some politicians do—using the art to manipulate in some way?

Anderson

And using emotion, and color, and sound. What I’m trying to do is create awareness, so that you catch yourself in the middle [of the piece], analyzing: “How am I reacting to that thing?” What I’m going for is not so much telling people anything, but creating a situation where they can watch themselves suddenly thinking about it.

Bither

In a recent interview you questioned the need to “provide context,” which is now considered essential in the arts presenting world. People in my field believe that if we just give people enough context, they’ll understand and appreciate challenging work. But you have referenced context almost as an excuse.

Anderson

Yes. It allows you to put a work conveniently into your frame, and you understand it within that, but it doesn’t change you for one second. It’s like saying, “It’s a secret goal that I have.” Wait a second! What kind of secret is it if I am telling you? [laughs]

Bither

So Dirtday! is the third part of a trilogy. The first part, Happiness, was the last work you did at the Walker, almost 10 years ago. You made these three pieces partly as a response to something big nationally or globally. For instance, Dirtday! looks at the way fear is driving the country in some ways right now. Does fear ever play a good role?

Anderson

I regret saying that there’s so much fear going on, because in a way, it’s been so managed in this country that you don’t even recognize it as fear anymore. It’s almost like preoccupation. People just don’t even have time to look at things. One of the biggest motivations for Dirtday!, which kicked off the year and which I found so shocking, was the NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act, signed into US law December 31, 2011]. On some level I just couldn’t believe there wasn’t a revolution in every single American city, when the government says, “Hey, we can arrest anyone we feel like with no charge, and detain them indefinitely. Period.”

Bither

There really was a lack of public discussion around it.

Anderson

Zero, zero. Absolutely silent. It’s not fear. Actually, what makes me afraid is this silence. And then it keeps expanding: “Yes, and then we can assassinate any American citizen with a drone and not inform anyone.” I think, OK, now everyone is going to revolt! Again, silence. I was so shocked by that. I’m merrily going along writing a music piece, and I’m thinking “Wait a second. This is just so beyond weird.” And there are other eerie things, like, in 10 years, there will be 30,000 drones patrolling the United States. I think of us looking back 10 years from now and going, “I remember when there weren’t police on every corner. What happened?” Then all of these Occupy movements gradually, basically, again were silenced and crushed in a way that seemed as if everyone’s agreeing, “Oh, it’s just the way we do things. We don’t want to really rock these boats, we’re trying to make this a secure and happy country.” It’s so disturbing to me. My response is—I don’t know, there’s nothing you can say to that. I don’t trust shrill, because if you scream it louder, it doesn’t make any dent. I suppose the thing that made the biggest impression about the Occupy movement was that there was no agenda. I found that exciting. I know a lot of people found that very difficult. Like, “They don’t even know I’m not asking for something.” I thought, it’s so wonderful that it’s not confrontational in that way: “Oh, you rich people, please give me this.” It’s much more like, “Well, what do you think of this? Good with you, or not?” That is a much more challenging and difficult message than “The world is wrong, and here’s what you do to fix it.” Nobody knows how to fix this. Nobody does. But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t stop asking how it’s working, and what it’s doing, and all of that. Anyway, I’m afraid of this polemical stuff, so it got buried in Dirtday! in a way. It took many turns. I’ve never been able to map out a piece and then stick to it.

Bither

Do you start with a main idea that’s fully baked in some way, or at least a rough outline?

Anderson

Not at all, because it’s not a writing project, and it’s not based on logic. So it doesn’t make the same sense that it would if you were trying to make a statement. It’s based on the materials of art, which are sound and colors, and suddenly you realize, “That’s blue. I don’t have to say that word, because that’s blue.” [laughs] The magic of how things get created is an odd mixture.

Bither

As someone who is often held up as the archetypal interdisciplinary artist, do you find that the definition of that kind of art is narrower these days? In your practice, I see it going way beyond the mix of artistic mediums, to embrace a sense of curiosity about how we live as humans on this planet—and that brings forth its own version of interdisciplinarity, because you’re approaching so many different subjects with fresh eyes.

Anderson

That’s exactly it. To be called a multimedia artist, to me, was always so odd. It’s like being told you’re a pencil artist. The stuff you’re using is of the least amount of interest. What are you doing with the stuff that you’re using? What’s different for me, in terms of doing interdisciplinary work, is that I’m not really into the language and history of form. I’m much more interested in how scary it can be to be a human being. I’m trying not to follow the …

Bither

Art-historical development?

Anderson

Yeah—it’s development into the invisible. By that I mean that right now “stuff” is considered historically a little bit gauche and that the more theoretical the work can be, and made of almost nothing, the better it is.

Bither

When you say “stuff,” you mean actual objects, art objects?

Anderson

Actual objects, yes. For example, last year I did a bunch of giant paintings.

Bither

Yeah, your gallery exhibition Boat. Are you considering that as your own return to the object in some way?

Anderson

I don’t think of it as a return or departure because I don’t want to be in that flow of where things are supposedly going and how things are supposedly becoming more invisible. Beginning a century ago with Duchamp and all these ways to trace the history of objects—I find it interesting, but I’m trying to work on a more emotional level and also a sensual one because, like I said, I’m not doing essays. I’m an artist who works with sound, color, sensuality, emotion.

Bither

Do you feel like the art world tends to view emotion with suspicion?

Anderson

They have no idea what it’s about! Almost nothing. I left the art world many years ago largely for two things. One was there was no emotion; it was this language of form. That plays into my intellectual pretension too easily, so I just went screaming away. The second was money. One of my favorite things right now is a great Fran Lebowitz video where she’s holding forth about how absolutely everything now [in New York] is about money. Ever since I saw that little clip I was like, “She’s right. What happened here?”

Bither

You hear how the art world creates a demand for these very expensive works that are hardly ever seen, which seems to divorce art from any true relationship with the public.

Anderson

And from any rationale for making them. They’re treated exactly like money: traded, invested in, collected. That was one of my big motivations for leaving that world, but it didn’t make me not love things. The reason I’m an artist is that it doesn’t really make sense; it works on so many different levels than just an intellectual exercise. In much of the visual art world, I find that that coldness is partly coming from this history of form and what’s the next logical step and what’s the rule-breaking step that you could make. That is a fun and interesting game. But the work that I like the best in terms of all the history of music or visual things, the work that means the most to me as an artist, is heartbreaking. When I look at a work of art I want to be changed and have my heart broken, not just go “Clever! Really exciting, interesting! Good move!” I don’t want to be in a giant chess game around the evaporation of objects.

Bither

Storytelling is an ancient form and some very traditional aspects of it are at the heart of your work. On the other hand, your innovations with that form have had such an influence on the worlds of performance and art.

Anderson

Storytelling is at the root of everything I do. It might look like giant paintings, but they’re stories. It might seem like a symphonic work, but it has this narrative. My experiments in Dirtday! are about ways to break the narrative and play around with it; there are several sections in the jump-cut style. And I guess Jean-Luc Godard is the master of that. He said every story has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but just not necessarily in that order.

Bither

My last question goes back 11 years. You were performing at Park West in Chicago on the night of 9/11. Your home was just blocks away from the World Trade Center, which was at that moment in ruins. Eight days later you performed at a now-historic concert at Town Hall in midtown Manhattan. At that time a song like “O Superman,” made in the late ’70s, felt oracular, making allusions to something horrible that just happened. What was that like at the time, and is there a lingering influence from 9/11 on you as an artist?

Anderson

People did say, “Wow, it’s so prescient!” and they didn’t realize that it wasn’t me being ahead or behind. It was that we’re all stuck in a war that’s the same war. [laughs] It’s not something new. It’s presented, of course, in a very PR way, with its theme music and so on, as the Gulf War or the Iraq War or the Syrian War or whatever war. But it’s the same war. People are shocked at how “O Superman” makes its points in such a dynamic, contemporary way, but they don’t realize that we’re just replaying this over and over again. That aspect of people being extremely unaware of what’s going on makes me want to occasionally do things that have to do with politics and the way that we see the world, because I just feel like we’re in this weird deep sleep. And once in a while, you go, “Whoa! That’s so much like the last war!” But this is one long war, and we just keep doing it.

Bither:

So you would say it was less prescient and more observant about where we are as a culture, or as a country, or as a world?

Anderson

Yeah. And I don’t think that we’re much more awake than we were then. Now, is it my job to wake people up? Mmm, no. I don’t think that artists have more of a responsibility to do that than postmen, or people selling greeting cards, or people doing software. We all have a responsibility to understand what we’re doing and who we are, as much as we can.

Bither

But wouldn’t you say that artists’ work offers an opportunity for people to understand their world in different ways, or to be more observant?

Anderson

That’s certainly true. Whether my work changes [ideas] is up to the person who’s going to the show. Otherwise, artists would just be a different type of politician and/or missionary, which we’re not—hopefully.

Conversations in an Election Year

Based on the belief that artists’ voices are vital in the conversation about creating a better society, this series of discussions is interested in politics with a lowercase p—concerns about power, inequality, and participation—and ways that artists’ personal values interface with it.

Laurie Anderson

Self-portrait, November 2006 © Laurie Anderson

Laurie Anderson, Delusion, 2010

Courtesy the artist

Laurie Anderson, Boat, 2012

Photo courtesy Vito Schnabel

Cover for Big Science, Anderson’s 1982 album, which included “O Superman”

In “O Superman (For Massenet),” Andseron sings (in part):

This is the hand, the hand that takes.
Here come the planes.
They’re American planes.  Made in America.
Smoking or non-smoking?
And the voice said: Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night shall stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

Still from the video for “O Superman (For Massenet),” 1981