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Laurie Anderson. Photo/Ebru Yildiz/Supplied

Why Laurie Anderson is bringing songs for dogs and Lou Reed’s guitars to the NZ Festival

The event’s guest curator talks about her programme and Don McGlashan pays tribute to the New York art-world renaissance woman.

The irony isn’t lost on us: Laurie Anderson, the American multimedia artist on the leading edge of innovative technology, can’t get cellphone coverage.

Admittedly, she’s on a construction site but all we have are bursts of static between yawning silences, with which she could doubtless do something provocatively creative. We postpone until she’s back in her Brooklyn studio.

“This is downtime,” says the perpetually busy 72-year-old the next day. “I’m painting big and pretty bad paintings, but I don’t worry if they’re bad. It’s just pure experimenting and really nice to do.”

However, even downtime is productive (she’ll probably exhibit the ones that aren’t horrible in the spring, she says) and the following day she’s giving a Sunday afternoon talk at the Brooklyn Public Library entitled The Size of the Con, a monologue-cum-discussion about preparing for the 2020 election.

Anderson in 1987. Photo/Getty Images

“It’s called that because the writer George Trow talked about the US being based on the idea that everything could be so big: the bridges, skyscrapers, the population …

“Then the question was, ‘What else is big?’ Well, there’s the marketplace, and the ultimate question to consider is ‘the size of the con’. I thought that was a good way to put it, people feel that.”

Then Anderson – a guest artist/curator alongside director/choreographer Lemi Ponifasio and actor/composer Bret McKenzie for next year’s New Zealand Festival of the Arts in Wellington – embarks on a digressive consideration of the American socio-political landscape and where artists fit in. Or fail to do so.

She speaks of widespread cynicism and people confronted by the constant white noise where “the media is entertainment”, each day delivering new drama.

An early stage performance. Photo/Getty Images

“It’s a wild time to be an artist, a wild time to be alive,” she laughs without discernible humour. “I never thought I’d see anything like this, ever. I’m trying to find new ways of expression rather than just saying, ‘Can you believe what he just said?’, because that’s getting boring.”

She admits she struggles with how artists should respond in such times, and notes some don’t feel they have more obligation to talk about it than any other citizen, “except we do have tools to talk about it”.

But many are tired (“there’s a lot of depression”), and despite her measured responses and penetratingly philosophical rather than directly political work, she says: “I’m not trying to pretend I’m reasonable and they’re insane because that’s the game, you make the other side into some weird cartoon.

“They’re not cartoons and neither are we. We have more in common than we might think.”

A conceptual artist, musician and monologuist, Anderson sprang to international attention beyond the US art world with her innovative, minimalist and beguiling performance piece O Superman in the early 80s. Marrying electronics and her cool delivery with an arrestingly spare video, it went to No 2 on the British singles charts and nearly cracked the top 20 in this country.
Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed spent 21 years together. Photo/Getty Images

She came here at the time, “masquerading as a pop star”, but wasn’t smitten by that world. “There was no danger I was going to do more of that,” she laughs.

“I was kind of happy about that [attention] but didn’t really believe it. I approached it like an anthropologist. I did get a little seduced, but for the most part was able to get through it.

“I have great sympathy for those who have to do that, because that’s not easy at all.”

Her creative world had already been very different from the culture of pop and, subsequently, she presented installations and multimedia programmes, invented characters as mouthpieces, decoded language with astute wry wit, worked with a roll-call of America’s avant-garde, was much fêted and frequently rewarded as a charming agent provocateur.

This year, her album Landfall, with the Kronos Quartet, based on her experiences during and after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, won the Grammy for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance.

With Patti Smith, who inducted Reed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. Photo/Getty Images

It is music and reflection on loss, something very familiar recently. Lou Reed, her husband whom she’d met in 1992 and married in 2008, died in October 2013.

A couple of times a year they have parties for him and at the most recent played many of his favourite soul songs.

“I made a really cool playlist and it was haunting what serious grooves [the soul songs] had, and how much we’ve given up by using technology in music. Algorithms just don’t swing.

“Not that I don’t like slick pop; I do, sometimes. But we’ve given up serious grooves and come up with fake ones that are so overcomplicated. And 19 people working on the song!”

But this is the woman who, in 2003, was the first artist-in-residence at Nasa and embraces high-end technology, as in her award-winning To the Moon work at next year’s festival, a collaboration with multimedia designer Hsin-Chien Huang.The 20-minute immersive virtual-reality piece combines film and music with visual art: “It’s addictive because it’s ‘real’ fantasy.”

With David Bowie. Photo/Getty Images

Technology has been a thread throughout her work and that Nasa experience reminded her of the human capacity for awe, something many have lost in the current barrage of information.

What she took from her time with Nasa scientists was “just how little we know”, and though it sounds mundane to observe the obvious, “it’s extremely hard getting to Mars, and I was watching scientists trying to figure that out when it is almost impossible”.

But there’s also ambivalence: “If we do manage that, then we’re going to be terra-forming Mars. Like, we know so much about taking care of a planet and we’re now going to take care of Mars? Really?”, she says with an infectious chuckle.

Her schedule for the Festival of the Arts includes a conversation session about close listening; the Lou Reed Drones installation, with his guitar technician, Stewart Hurwood, playing along with feedback loops; and the Anderson-Reed installation of sound, songs and visuals, Here Comes the Ocean, with her string ensemble, Hurwood and New Zealand taonga puoro player Horomona Horo.
With Debbie Harry early this year. Photo/Getty Images

Also on the bill is her popular Concert for Dogs. Dogs – on a leash “and that play well with others” – are invited to a 20-minute outdoor concert where she performs, sometimes using frequencies beyond human hearing. She first did it at the 2010 Vivid Festival in Sydney, where she and Reed were guest curators, and she “was hoping it was something other people would pick up”.

“There’s a future for interspecies music. Can you imagine what it would be like if we could communicate with another species? With mosquitoes we’d be, ‘Oh, they’re really cute’, instead of killing them.

“I’ve done it a few times and it’s always incredibly satisfying. I don’t know why I just don’t give up playing for humans completely!”

She’ll also perform The Calling, which has taken on a personal connection with this country, with her string ensemble, Horo and others. Three years ago, her niece, Thea, was killed in a car crash while working in Hawke’s Bay. “She was teaching dance to people who can’t dance. She was that kind of angel.” Anderson’s brother came to take his daughter’s body back to San Francisco and was struck by the kindness here. Since then, Anderson has felt New Zealand a special, faraway place. The festival invitation was “an additional motivation to come and make something for [Thea]”, she says gently.

With Andy Warhol. Photo/Getty Images

In conversation and her art practice, Anderson offers quiet and consideration in a world of haste and noise through her finely wrought but panoramic story maps. Her softly modulating voice is clear and often soothing, and her tone serious but not earnest. Does she consider the questions she poses at the interfaces of art and commentary, poetics and philosophy, to be provocative? “Yes, to say I’m quiet and calm so people can focus on the words is totally fair. I’m not an actress, I don’t have those emoting skills, which would get in the way of the text, so it’s good not to do that.”

But for all the control she exerts over the work, there’s still space for challenging improvisation, which Reed opened her up to.

“I’m beginning to trust it more. It used to feel incredibly risky, but it can be thrilling. Like building a big ship in the air that you can move around.”

The New Zealand Festival of the Arts, Wellington, February 21 to March 15, 2020.

Don McGlashan. Photo/Supplied

Don McGlashan on how Laurie Anderson changed his life

Long-time admirer Don McGlashan recalls a formative first encounter with the art of Laurie Anderson.

I was living in New York in the early 80s, working as a musician for the Laura Dean Dance Co. Laura kept being given extra tickets for shows, so she’d give them to me. I’d come all the way from New Zealand and therefore was, as she liked to say, “a dry sponge in water, culturally”.  She shouted me to Laurie Anderson’s United States at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). An eight-hour performance over two days, it featured her recent crossovers into pop success, such as O Superman, plus wry musings on that success, but it also unpacked years of spiky, low-tech loft-concert solo material.

There was a hilarious, deadpan depiction of her meeting with Warners – her saying she was glad to be accepted into a long line of American entertainment that included Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig, and the nervous record execs saying they were hoping for something a bit more adult. She performed a piece in which she swept her violin bow through projected text and a song called Closed Circuits, where the only accompaniment was her banging the mike stand. At one point the backdrop was a huge blow-up image of a US power socket: both everyday and monstrous.

At the end, we all stood. The cynical, seen-it-all New York arts crowd and me. I’ve never in my life stood and applauded for so long.

Leaving BAM in the freezing rain, I missed the RR local and took the R express by mistake, which rattled and screeched demonically through Lower Manhattan, blurring past both the lit stations and the magical, unlit, abandoned ones, until it dumped me in Times Square and I had to walk home to the East Village, soaked, down Broadway.

I didn’t care. I just wanted to look at and listen to the world as closely as Laurie Anderson did, and turn what I heard and saw into something. I didn’t know what. I just knew that was what I had to do. I couldn’t believe how she could capture the way technology talks to us, and then talk back to it; the way she could take the neutral, official voices that are all around us and make them seem like they’re carrying messages from beyond the grave; the way she could treat things we see and say every day as potentially imbued with supernatural power, like that wall socket. “Neither snow, nor rain, nor gloom of night shall stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” has biblical heft when intoned in a major-minor chant, but it’s really only a piece of text seen on US packages and post office documents.

Much later, I fell in love with her film Heart of a Dog, which I think I’ve seen three times now. It’s a meditation on, among other things, the death of her mother, the death of her dog, her illness as a child, 9/11 and, very obliquely, the death of her partner, Lou Reed – and it’s magnificent. The sequence when her dog, Lola-Belle, looks up at an eagle swooping high above and realises that she could be prey and that danger could come from the sky is one of the most profound pieces of art about 9/11 I’ve ever seen, and certainly the most deft.

Don McGlashan’s band the Mutton Birds are reuniting for the first time in eight years this summer, playing with Cold Chisel in Tauranga on February 5 and at the North West Wine, Beer & Food Festival, Waimauku, Auckland, on February 15.

This article was first published in the November 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.