sun 05/12/2021

Breakfast with Laurie Anderson | reviews, news & interviews

Breakfast with Laurie Anderson

Breakfast with Laurie Anderson

In conversation with the multimedia poet and performer

Laurie Anderson's new show Delusion opens at the Barbican in London next week. Since the late 1960s she has been at the forefront of artistic innovation. From early pieces where she appeared in art galleries (wearing ice-skates in a block of ice that slowly melted), to her epic opera United States I-IV, she has carved out a niche as something between a poet, artist, technician, humourist, pop star and magician. We chatted over a coffee for breakfast in Paris last week, after I had seen Delusion the previous night.

Anderson's last show, Homeland, was partly a response to the fact that "as journalists have become entertainers, entertainers have to become journalists", and contained many barbed references to the role of America in the era of George W Bush. Her new show, the first of the Obama era, is more poetic, even elegiac. It is "A Diamond Sutra: a heartfelt meditation on the ephemeral pleasures and lasting pains of this existence", as one commentator wrote on its premiere in Vancouver as part of the Winter Olympics. The show deals with how the mind works, ideas of time, the twilight of the American Dream, and the death of the artist's mother. But with her particular, off-kilter humour as well, it manages to be hugely entertaining, as well as deeply moving and thoughtful.

PETER CULSHAW: We did meet 20 years ago, on my first day in New York. [Laurie claims to have remembered.] We haven’t got too much time, so I may have to do a vertical take-off into the Death of the American Empire from standing still.  So you were just in Vancouver for the Olympics (where Delusion was premiered). Did you do any curling, or going down the mountain on a metal tea tray or anything?

LAURIE ANDERSON: Skiing while shooting, where they barrel down a hill and they shoot something. That’s an interesting sport.

I like the furry skis they have in Norway that you can go uphill with.

That’s sounds silly.

Sounds like a surrealist thing – like the the furry tea cups?

Who did the furry tea cups?

We’ve only just woken up. We’ll remember later. Man Ray?

It’s a woman. She lived in Switzerland for a while.

When I met you, in the 1980s, it seemed that every night in New York there was a new hip-hop artist, a new salsa band, a Mapplethorpe exhibition, stuff that was about to go round the world. New York isn’t like that any more, exactly, is it?

Maybe it’s like that in Berlin. It’s shifted, it's gone to Berlin. If I were that age now I wouldn’t like it in New York. Most of the art students are headed out that way.

What are you reading at the moment?

I just finished this book Solar yesterday. Ian McEwan. As soon as I started reading I couldn’t  stop, it’s very addictive that way. He mentions these Arctic expeditions David Buckland organises, which I’ve been on. 

Didn’t you try to hitchhike to the North Pole once?

That was long ago.

There was a theme on the blackboard, and a phrase which repeated “ A new kind of north” in the show last night, which was a kind of alternative title. It could be another title.

I like the title, Delusion. I like one-word titles. Any time you use the word ''New'' in a title, you could get the response ''New to you''. You’d think there would be a movie called Delusion from the Thirties.

Would it be fair to say that with the Bush years, you moved into the political arena, and now post-Bush, you’ve moved into a more poetic terrain?

I‘ve always done that. In the Eighties when Reagan was there I did [the opera] United States. In the Nineties I didn’t bother with politics at all.

You were taking on a more journalistic role with Homeland. Now Obama’s in, do you think you are able to move away from politics?

The politics still drift in and out, quite a bit, actually. In a darker way than you might think with Obama being our hero. And he is our hero. He is changing things. The health-care system for one thing. No one has done that. He didn’t do it how everyone wanted, but he finished it. And that’s saying a lot.

Talking of the blurring of entertainment and politics - in a way, Obama got himself elected as a rock star, with stadiums of fans. That may open the way to Sarah Palin, who is another rock star.

She’s got the bomber jacket in her closet and she’s ready to go. I would not be surprised if she is the next president.

Which would be even more scary than Bush. Even if she is kind of fascinating.

Oh, she’s a moron.

The image is strong - shooting things in Alaska. But let’s not waste time on Palin. Let’s talk about your show.

In London there will be other musicians, as there were in Vancouver. When there are other musicians it changes the dynamics. For the solo version, people were saying, “But it’s so sad”. It’s not a feel-good Broadway show, anyway.

I didn’t come out skipping down the street and whistling the tunes.

There are some good tunes in there.

But the feeling is rather bleak and elegiac, I’d say.

You can feel sad, without being sad. I’m not sad at all.

Maybe you are deluding yourself and you are sad.

That’s very possible. [Laughs]

You’re American – you have to appear to be positive.

I didn’t read that rule. And what about the English?

English is stiff upper lip. Muddle on through. Lot of denial. Of death, especially. You are confronting your mother’s death onstage in the show very directly.

But also there’s a taboo about money. How many people say how much money do you have? Money and death are still there as taboos.

When your parents die, is that finally the end of your adolescence? Did you realise you are next in the firing line. What does that change? That seems to be a key element of the show.

My adolescence is long gone. I didn’t say this to anybody, but this started out as a two-person play. It was going to be me and another person who had really opposing points of view. It was going to be the Devil and his advocate with absolutely no resolution. A bunch of stories that never resolve. Two completely opposite points of view. That was to be the core. It was also a lot more of a conversation between Fenway Bergamot [her long-time alter ego] and myself.

He is your Frankenstein.

In a way, but also my best friend. Having an alter ego is a wonderful thing. To be the straight person. Silly, in a way, but I’ve come to terms with it.

There’s also a sense of the end of New York or America. It’s autumnal. It’s not that Wordsworthian “Bliss was it that dawn to be alive” which you had in the 1970s there.

But I’ve always been autumnal, on the gloomy side of things.

It could be your Swedish genes.

The first Swedish word I learned was ingenting – the most-used word in Bergman’s movies, which means nothingness.

There’s quite a Zen feeling in your show at times. Do you have a teacher?

I did find one, yes. Not Zen, he’s a Tibetan actually. It’s the High Catholic version of Buddhism. I like the Buddhist aesthetic in certain ways, as it evades symmetry, which I’m happy about. They seem to think that symmetry is idiotic. Symmetry is like Moon and June, it doesn’t satisfy me.

In the show you have these lines with instructions, “Let the mind follow the noise”, and also “Don’t let the mind follow the noise”. Deliberately contradictory and funny. It’s a spiritual comedy

There are a lot of jokes in this show too. When there are other musicians, people do have a different reaction.

I like the fact there is more poetry in this show. And even the funny bits have poetry. Like when you say about how you can look everything up now: “You can look up Swedish adjectives or the consistency of snow.” It could be an e.e. cummings poem.

The images give it another element - a dreaminess that just words don’t have.

It’s a non-psychedelic psychedelic experience. Like De Quincy without the opium. A kind of gloomy, Swedish psychedelia.

It’s a floating thing. You are able to disconnect a little bit, and use more broken phrases. “I was thinking of you”, short things about how the mind works. That was what the show was originally going to be. I’m 62, which means I have spent - if I’m an average sleeper - 20 years asleep. That’s longer than most people have been alive. Doing what? What is my mind up to? That is why there is a lot of dream stuff in the show.

Do you keep a dream diary by your bed?

I don’t need to, unfortunately. Last night I was in the show, with thousands of people. It was exhausting. And then I’ll go months without remembering anything.

Do you get visits from dead people? Sometimes it’s so strong you start to believe maybe there is an after-life.

I find dead people in dreams look like they have been walking through puddles. Damp. As though the paint hasn’t really dried on them. They don’t exist. We are the gods ourselves - we can paint pictures and animate the pictures. I’ve had better conversations with my parents in my dreams than I ever had when they were alive. Best personal conversations I ever had with my mother.

You had a near-death experience in the Himalayas once, I remember. How was that? I seem to recall you said it was liberating.

It was.

You didn’t have lots of regrets?

Of course. You wouldn’t write songs without regrets. They’d be just like marching songs. But then I am attracted to the gloom. So what do I know?

A problem with multimedia shows is that they have too much information. In your show the leaves work, the rain works, you've managed to get a balance. It's quite meditative.

Also a lot of them have rectangular screens. It’s a tyranny. I spend my life looking at rectangular screens. I’m tired of it, so I wanted to have other shapes. Crumpled paper, a corner of a room. You can wander around the stage.

Twenty years ago, when we first met, the internet didn’t exist. Now a million people a minute upload their videos on to YouTube.

Great[she says sceptically]. It’s a nightmare. It’s great that everyone’s an artist.

The difference is, also, that you spent months crafting the piece. Most people don’t have the time.

Everyone has plenty of time. Do you think that’s true?

People seem to have less time. But it’s a good aphorism.

I’m not so busy. I spend a lot of time looking after my dog, I’m pretty busy with that. She had a cancer. She's been having experimental treatment - you cut off the blood supply to the cancer. It looks like it works for humans too. There’s a place in Austin, if you know anyone that needs it. Now she plays the piano. She should have her own website. Most people’s websites on Facebook seem to be a desperate need to please people they don’t know. People run out of time because they are maintaining their web reputation. It’s hard enough to do it in your 3D normal life.

I haven’t got any friends. They are all virtual.

I’ll be your friend.

Thanks, Laurie.

Of course, I don’t have a lot of time, though. [Laughs.] And I just remembered - it was Meret Oppenheim who did the furry tea cup.

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Delightful interview of Laurie Anderson by Peter Culshaw...made one want to be there having coffee with them.

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