The tinkerer and performance artist gives us insight into her own Big Science. Laurie Anderson will be performing at Volksbühne on May 17 supporting her new album Delusion.
Laurie Anderson is inarguably the world’s most famous performance artist – and the evidence of this would be that so many people who are familiar with her work don’t really think of her as one. Since she shuffled out of the SoHo loft scene at the turn of the 1970s, she’s had hit records, made movies, toured multimedia events, written, drawn – and talked and talked and talked. She’ll be talking some more (and then some) when she shows up at the Universität der Künste on May 5 for her Burning Leaves Tour, which incorporates, among much else, some material from her long-delayed album Homeland. EXBERLINER spoke with her by phone as she rode a cab to Princeton University at the behest of Toni Morrison.
It’s not so hot in the NYC art world these days.
[thoughtfully] I think it’s gonna be a good thing. It was crazy what was going on the last few years. Nobody really cared about the art, it was all about investments and kind of a crapshoot. I didn’t think that was interesting at all. I didn’t like the work that was being made.
What were the general aesthetic trends that you weren’t particularly thrilled about?
[bemused] What were they? What were the trends? Um, you know, huge splashy shows that either featured technology itself or some really lame idea overblown into some giant production. I’m not really gonna say any names …
As someone who has been using and interrogating technology for most of your career, would you say that these artists aren’t giving a proper critique? That it was tech for tech’s sake?
I’ve done that as well. I mean, everyone who’s worked with it gets carried away like that and then you just feel like: “Wow, am I just some sort of tech salesman? All I’m doing is pushing a button and going ‘Look how fast that goes.'” Imagine people getting that excited about turning on a light switch. “I flipped the switch and lights came on, wow!” It’s not that it’s not a thrill that technology is fast and accurate, but to what end are you doing that, really? One of the thrills of working at NASA was that all of that was there, and they were making really great stuff, and it was like giant artworks in a way.
NASA hasn’t had another artist-in-residence since your stint in 2003 and 2004.
I was the first and I was the last.
Are you still in contact?
Yeah, I love some of their projects: they have an amazing number of very, very long term projects, like their 10,000-year timeline with Mars. They have a 5,000-year timeline for another project that involves moving all the manufacturing off the Earth. And also removing all the toxic and radioactive materials, moving them off the planet. Letting the Earth return to, well, for lack of a better word, its natural state.
The economic collapse might do that for them.
Well, I think it’s a lot of work to clean things up, I think the collapse is just gonna add another layer of junk on top of the junk, you know? Their plan was very expensive, very ambitious: I mean imagine shipping everything off of here (laughs). But while the economic collapse might be kinda good for the art world and the music world – to get people to try to think about what they want – I think in other ways it’s an absolute disaster. People won’t be able to live or eat. You know, I just came back from Cleveland and it’s, it’s a ghost town. It’s boarded up. People are in lines for food. It’s horrible. It’s not a joke. You know, it’s the first time I realized: “Wow. I’m living a bubble.” We’re just talking about it and I had never actually seen it. They’re destroying the abandoned houses and they’re just living in camps, in tents. It’s really gonna be something to see it play out. I don’t know what it will be like.
As for its effect on art …
I think it might be an interesting thing.
But also, when I started out as an artist, it was really – in the 1970s, the background was the 1960s, in which being poor, the whole idea of being poor, was supported by an enormous culture that celebrated that. The whole culture of music, food, drugs: everything was about not having very much. There was no other world for an artist to live in. Counterculture or nothing – it was an amazingly huge world of … you didn’t really have to leave it (laughs). It was everywhere. And the people we knew, in school for example, who wanted to make money, we just thought they were idiots.
We really felt sorry for them, that they had those kinds of goals. So now having no money is different from that, because it’s not coming out of any kind of culture.
Perhaps that’s why you’re so hands-on in the creation of your instruments.
I am a tinkerer. I am always tearing stuff apart and trying to build – in this case, my goal has been to build a show in a briefcase. Something that five years ago would have been half a truck.
And then, the last year was five cases. And now I’m trying to get it into a briefcase, eventually. And my goal is just to think “oh, I’ll do a show” and it’s in my pocket.
I can just imagine you in a workshop with a soldering iron and goggles on.
That’s what it is! That’s what it is (laughs). Part of it. A big extent. That’s how I put these things together. They don’t just jump into place. I’m not using off-the-rack stuff. I have to build it. I don’t build everything – I want eventually to build paper keyboards. I don’t think I’ll be able to build a paper violin, but that would be really nice.
How long have you been working on that?
All my life. Every show has been some smaller, speedier version.
But I’m doing it to tell the stories better. And not to just go (mockingly): “Check this out! Really fast!” I secretly like that, though.
LAURIE ANDERSON Sun, Apr 17 | Volksbühne
Originally published in May 2009