"Is there anyone driving?" A conversation with Laurie Anderson

The veteran multimedia artist performs February 9 at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

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As a multimedia artist, Laurie Anderson has operated on a number of platforms for a disparate spread of audiences. Anderson broke through to a wider audience with her 1982 debut album, Big Science, but that followed several years of performance-based projects and a large collaborative release with William S. Burroughs and poet John Giorno. It is interesting (albeit, perhaps appropriate for the time) that a counterculture figure like Anderson achieved commercial success with Big Science—the single "O Superman" hit #2 on the UK charts—an album that critically observes the consumerism and authoritarianism of Western culture.

Since Big Science, Anderson has released a number of records, collaborated with artists from Peter Gabriel to Colin Stetson to Kronos Quartet, became NASA's first artist-in-residence, and directed a film. Anderson will be returning to Madison with a February 9 performance at the Wisconsin Union Theater, showcasing her latest project. (Full disclosure: I served on the Union Theater's Performing Arts Committee from fall 2016 through spring 2017; the decision to feature this event was between myself and Tone Madison's editors.) In Language Of The Future, which is about as elusive as most of her work, Anderson connects the national conversation to her personal stories, performing mostly solo, though her endless collaborative work still informs the show. (Anderson's comments below, and her current promo materials, kind of make it unclear where collaboration ends and solo work begins for her, which is likely intentional.)

It is one thing to try to communicate the meaning, significance, and possibilities of the future. Trying to do so with language—especially once Anderson takes that concept and breaks it down over 40 years of multimedia communication and expression—is that much more ambitious. Perhaps that is why Anderson does so using stories, original invention, and the timelessness of conversation and narrative. Anderson spoke with me by phone in January, ahead of her visit to Madison.

Tone Madison: I wanted to talk a little about the Nova Convention. Robert Palmer of The New York Times wrote in 1978 that as a young performance artist, you gave a "delightful presentation on the future using weird electronic distortion on (your) voice." Now, 40 years later, you have this project, Language Of The Future...what exactly are you trying to communicate about "the Future" all these years later?

Laurie Anderson: Well I use it as a kind of catch phrase to talk about how things are changing and how people are always so focussed on the future without actually arriving there. Language Of The Future is trying to be kind of on current events, but when I look back on some of those things that I wrote at that time—and that's one of them, it's a story about being on a plane, a very weird kind of crash, which was actually a real event in my life—and in working on this book that I just finished, All The Things I Lost In The Flood, I realized that a lot of the stories have been about authority and who's in charge, which is probably one of the biggest themes at the moment. Though, I'm kind of going back to some of those ideas of, is there anyone driving? So, that was one of the things that I discovered in putting this book together, which is kind of a series of essays about how language affects, let's say, images in film or sculpture or painting or songs, you know...and how it works in this various media. Because I work in a lot of different things, but basically what this work is about is stories. It's funny to hear that quote from so long ago.

Tone Madison: You mentioned authority, and that makes me wonder about your voice filters. What, or who, are some of those filters? Is the lower voice supposed to be a voice of authority? What kind of characters are those playing?

Laurie Anderson: It began as a kind of commentary on a real guy who is kind of full of himself and who is sort of a blowhard. You know, the kind of person who just loves to hear themselves talk. And then later, as I worked on it through the years, it acquired a sense of melancholy that I hadn't really counted on. And then this person—because the filter became a kind of person—was almost like a melancholy poet, social commentator. And my husband, Lou Reed gave him a name of "Finley Bergamont." He said, "What would Finley have to say about that?" and I said, "What do you mean, 'Finley'?" And he said, "I think that's a good name for it, for that voice you use." So, once the voice had a name, I just realized that he had a lot of other things he could say that weren't necessarily about this kind of power structure.

Tone Madison: So it was very much a separate character, and not necessarily you.

Laurie Anderson: Oh no, it was definitely a way to get away from myself. You know, you can just bore yourself to death listening to your own voice and your own opinions. And so that's why I made these filters, to just see if I could get away from them.

Tone Madison: Does the violin play a certain character for you? It's an interesting dichotomy, as you affect and manipulate the instrument, but also have the unaffected, folky, raw violin at times.

Laurie Anderson: You know, it does sound folky at times but other times it sounds very electronic and manipulated. So it does a lot of different things, but it is a sort of different kind of sidekick. I used to think of it as a kind of ventriloquist dummy, and that it would say the things that I couldn't say. In other words, I could talk and it could cry.

Tone Madison: You've talked before about young artists and how they should be loose and not try to brand or pigeonhole themselves, and that an artist does not have to use their art as a way of personal expression—such as your voice filters playing a different character from yourself. So then, what exactly is art for you if it's not necessarily personal expression? And do you find yourself trying to find ways to avoid pigeonholing yourself, or did it come easy for you?

Laurie Anderson: I was never somebody who wanted to say, "Look at me, look who I am, look at what my hair looks like," you know, whatever, trying to say, "look at me, copy me," sort of pop star stuff that now, kind of everybody is getting into. And it's not just the pop stars—everyone has to do their own branding, and it's tiring. So, I'm going into it for something that...you know, frankly just to find something that makes me laugh, or something that makes me go "Oh, woah, I understand that now!" and I don't know if that's self-expression or not. I think it's just kind of...finding stuff, is how I think about it. Like, finding the connection between...for example, I was often asked about (William S.) Burroughs. I wrote a song for him called "Language Is A Virus (From Outer Space)." And when people would ask me about that song, my stock answer was "Well, isn't it a strange thing for a writer to say?"—that language is a disease communicable by mouth. And yet I thought, when I wrote this book, which is coming out on February 6 through Rizzoli, I started thinking about it and I realized, wait a second, a virus isn't even bacteria, it's not alive. It's one of these really weird things that's on the edge of life...and that is completely fascinating to me, how that works. So, it had even more to do with language than I thought because both virus and language can totally go viral and now we're seeing how that works in our world, and how that can get out of hand so quickly and also how stories are built and how they land and how they can start wars.

Tone Madison: So then do you feel like you have a certain responsibility as a storyteller?

Laurie Anderson: It's a thing to kind of keep going back and forth to some of these ideas and then realize, oh, I see what I was talking about there, or what I was trying to get at.

Tone Madison: I do want to touch on some of the commercial success you attained with "O Superman" in 1981. As we're talking about the power of language, I wonder—with your work being played on the radio where so many people can hear you, how did that time in your life sort of open up a new responsibility on how you could communicate to your expanded audience?

Laurie Anderson: It did affect me, and probably more than I realized, because I did suddenly get a platform. And I like being part of the national conversation, so that's been something really important to me as things go on. I've been looking at these things for many years—the United States and power—to be able to continue to do that is really interesting because I could not have imagined this. This is just really wild—the current state of affairs. I really couldn't tell.

Tone Madison: So then in Language Of The Future, how much of the current affairs are you communicating, or are you kind of talking about it more in a timeless way?

Laurie Anderson: Well, both. When people say, "Wow, you seem to predict so many things, the war, blah blah blah," I think, wait a second, I didn't predict anything. It's just the same war that we've been in for decades. Nothing has changed about this, very little has changed about it. So predicting the future is not that hard when it's not changing very much.

Tone Madison: Are you able to share any specifics on collaborations involved in this particular project?

Laurie Anderson: Well, this is going to be a solo show, but they really are all collaborations in a sense. I talk to so many people and really try to be involved in things, so I guess it's not really solo anything—which you have to say about all of life. You can't come up with this yourself.

Tone Madison: My last question kind of goes back to how you try to communicate issues regarding America and Western culture and consumerism. And since you are using different characters in your work, do you feel like when you're talking about issues in the world, do you take the perspective of somebody inside this world describing what's around them, or do you try to take an outside-looking-in perspective?

Laurie Anderson: I try to shift perspectives, I really try to shift. I try to use third person, second person, first person, all sorts of ways of trying to look at a situation. Because it changes the situation when you're the main narrator or if you're off in the corner kind of going "what's that over there?" So it's a really intense character shift.