"I wanted to do a standup comedy show," Laurie Anderson said, as she took to the stage in Berlin last Saturday. The crowd burst into laughter without her having to tell any jokes. All she had to do was talk about American politics.
It was a performance at Transmediale, an annual digital art festival where the iconic artist, filmmaker, and musician performed an updated version of her 1984 piece, The Language of the Future. Like much of Laurie's work, the piece is an avant-garde masterpiece that brings together fragments of storytelling, projected photographs, interludes of violin and eerie keyboards alongside tales from her personal life.
Last night's performance was the Trump-era edition.
Anderson seems to be everywhere right now, she just donated her late husband Lou Reed's personal archive to the New York Public Library, is featured on Blondie's forthcoming album and is gearing up for an artist residency at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. She'll also be performing at the Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall in London with Philip Glass on May 18. Her 1981 magnum opus, United States Live -and it's surprising hit single O Superman-feel as politically potent and prescient as ever.
But in the Language of the Future, with its atmospheric music, a fog machine and red spotlights, Laurie uses political satire to disarm an audience living in dire political times. Her interest in politics dates back to her days in high school. In 1960, she wrote future President John F. Kennedy a letter. "Dear Senator Kennedy, I'm running for president of my student council, can you send me some tips?" she wrote. Kennedy replied, offering ways she could connect with her fellow students. When Laurie won her student election, Kennedy mailed her a dozen roses, making her a local celebrity.
At times, Laurie's piece was like an internal dialogue read aloud. She talked about the time she broke her back in a poolside accident, which left her bedridden for months. She also talked about the Mexican border wall Trump is planning to build and compared it to the barrier between heaven and earth, segueing into a song about paying money to get into heaven.
Anderson also used the stage to premiere new software she created that syncs up her words with randomly-selected phrases projected on the wall behind her. It showed how non-linear communication can be. "I love to do things with language because it's so imprecise," she said, before the show, explaining her approach. "Most things we know as humans can't be expressed as words."
Despite bringing political elements into her work, this pioneering electronic musician and artist doesn't aim to make art to change the world. "I'm not necessarily into doing new and shocking things or political things. As an artist, I want to be free," Laurie continued. "I work in imagery and sound to give you that feeling. But trying to predict and calculate how to change people's minds, I don't know how to do that."
I love to do things with language because it's so imprecise. Most things we know as humans can't be expressed as words.
She can't help but mention politics as a New Yorker, as many artists and writers in her community feel off-balance at the moment. "The technique is to throw things off balance, it's working quite well," she said. "It's an important step for everyone to analyse the chaos. I try to be a sharp observer by this. The silence of artists and writers is troubling. We're hoping something else will grow out of it."
Politics still do influence her practice, mostly because of its omnipresence. "I feel privileged to see the breakdown of culture before my own eyes," Laurie said. "Trump said, 'The press is the enemy of the American people.' That's so Stalinist a phrase, but a
s a human experience, it's one of the most amazing things I've ever seen."
But is the ascent of Trump really so surprising? She recalls a conversation she had in Copenhagen right after the election, where she was in town to perform a concert with Brian Eno. "I was told by a friend 'When you see a culture running on money and fame, you got the president you deserved,'" she said. "That hurt. It's really something, to look at what's fuelling this." Not a dispassionate observer of the Trump phenomenon, Anderson is affected by his comments. "I feel socked in the body when I hear the things Trump says. Language can hurt you physically."
In parts of her performance, she used a male voice filter and read what sounded like an open letter to Trump. She also put a pillow speaker (a bedside gadget that plays soothing music), in her mouth to create beautiful musical drones. She shared a story about the time she got a pillow speaker stuck in the roof of her mouth while rehearsing at a hotel for another performance. It leaked battery acid in her mouth, causing her to run to a late-night pharmacy, where the pharmacist pronged it out.
While technology has been a huge part of her practice, she does not define herself by it. "I'm not a salesman of technology, even though I like all this stuff," Laurie said. "I don't have this messianic idea that technology is good."
That could be because of how we communicate, as well as receive news in the era of the smartphone. "Everyone is glued to their phones and waiting for the next announcement," said Anderson. "The screen-based culture we've created is horrible, all you're doing is looking into a screen with crappy graphics, it's not a window to the world, it's somebody else's version of the world. It prevents you from going out from your front door."
It makes sense then, that these days, Anderson finds herself attracted to painting "and other things that don't plug in," she said, rather than being a screen zombie. "Do things on paper—drawings, stories—paper is great."
Text Nadja Sayej
Courtesy of Transmediale