As a performance artist landing in New York City during the 1970s, Laurie Anderson was broke, like many of her colleagues — no huge surprise there — and the grimy, new neighborhood they haunted was called SoHo. It’s a small but important context for Anderson’s music, even now.
Many people had been producing electronic music when Anderson released “Big Science” in 1982, an album propelled by the hit that made it to No. 2 on the British charts, “O Superman.” But no one had ever quite presented it the way she did, as multimedia performance art. Fans, critics and record labels may have eventually preferred she emphasize music or art as her dominant form of expression, but for Anderson, the two never engaged in any competition.
Anderson’s art installations and music have been featured around the world, including at the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art. In 2007, she was awarded the Gish Prize for “outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world,” and last year received the Academy of Arts Lifetime Achievement Award. We spoke with Anderson recently in advance of her performance at the Boulder Theater on Wednesday, as part of this week’s Communikey Festival.
What are the differences, if any, between what you do and what a strict entertainer does when he or she performs?
I don’t sprint out for encores but I do play for laughs sometimes, I have to say. But it’s important to me that there is coordination between what I think is humorous, serious or sad, and what the audience thinks is humorous, serious or sad. I went to see Kraftwerk last night and didn’t enjoy it much, actually — it was too militaristic for me. That lack of connection between performer and audience, I’ve kind of had it with that aesthetic. But they are responsible for so much, the creation of the DJ, an influence over so much music, and, when I don’t like something I always explore it more, so I’m sure I’ll be listening to a lot of Kraftwerk again now (laughs).
You’ll be bringing a show called “Dirtday” to Boulder this week. Without spoiling too much of the surprise, what type of show is it?
It’s stories, it’s one long story. I just rewrote it in the last couple of weeks so it’ll be new for me, too. It’s not that I have no idea what I’m saying, but my mind will be split in different pieces, and this is where I’ll need to be a good editor. I never know exactly what it’s going to be in the beginning of things, but it’s about a kind of rage, and my inability to accept that people aren’t out in the streets protesting what is happening to them. I’ve been thinking of Carl Sagan lately, and of how he said everything is a created reality, so if you don’t like it, you can change it. I don’t want people to look back in 50 years and say, “Gee, I remember when there weren’t police on every corner.”
It seems like quasi-performances are going on around us all the time now, everywhere we look — how does that affect performance art?
Our fractured attention makes it hard to do something that lasts for longer than 30 seconds, so, I may have had more time in the ‘70s to follow an idea through. But back to the genius of John Cage, it’s how you put a frame around it — art is not the stuff we make, it’s the way we pay attention to the world. And, in a way it always comes down to, “Is it a good story?”
Your music always seems to have spaces and openings in it, these entrances for listeners to come in and create a bit of the song for themselves, so to speak. Is that something you try to do?
I really try to do that. Dirtday especially is a big mental movie, this huge room for people to make their own trails. I’m trying to make it possible for people to paint a bunch of different images for themselves. When you say a word like “dog,” everyone has a different dog coming to mind, and that’s just a simple thing. I try to the keep the stories concrete but also packed with a lot — politics, theories of evolution, the places I’ve seen. For example, I’ve been visiting tent cities lately, places where people have lost their jobs and homes and are dispossessed. I’ve been visiting the one in Lakewood, New Jersey, but there are many, many of these places.
Regardless of the medium, almost all of your work involves telling stories. Why do we still need stories, and, can we fit them into 140 characters?
We can. You can fit them into 10 (characters) and have a pretty good story. But, we need stories in order to understand the past and move into the future; otherwise, we’d only live in the land of sensation. Stories give us the sense of possibility, and what’s powerful about making up stories is if you don’t like one, you can make up another. We’re born with certain personality traits, but we make up a lot of who we are. So, to be able to question your story is really being free. That’s why I became an artist, to be free.
Denver-based writer Sam DeLeo is a published poet, has seen two of his plays produced and recently completed his novel, “As We Used to Sing.” His selected work can be read at samdeleo.com