“Oh weird, I’m a pop star!” Laurie Anderson laughed when I asked her if she was surprised by her mainstream success in the ’80s with her hit song “O Superman.”
“When something happens that you didn’t want or dream of, I approach it like an anthropologist. I thought it was silly. But it was also a huge amount of fun,” she explained. As an experimental performance artist, it gave Anderson the opportunity to “look into another world. But I’m always very aware of the temporary nature of life, and I always appreciate what I have at that moment.”
Anderson, born in Illinois, studied art history and received her MFA in sculpture from Columbia University. She now lives in Manhattan and has a home in East Hampton, and will be performing at Guild Hall on August 17 and is looking forward to it. She noted that the name of the performance—”An Evening With Laurie Anderson”—was intentionally vague. “I left [the theme] open because it’s going to be a combination of several things. It’s a hybrid,” Anderson says. “It’s going to be a series of linked stories, and this is my favorite form of working. A lot of times I do things with big projections, but this has not very much imagery. It’s mostly stories that are journalistic; some are about neuroscience and some are about dreams…in the center, there’s a long section about going to a tent city in New Jersey.”
Sensing that her last statement required a little more explanation, Anderson elaborated. “I went to this city in Jersey where people lost their jobs and are living in tents. I tried to be a good journalist in that case. I really think some stories are already so astounding, and you have to describe how they are, not how you think they should be. Trying to describe it really well is very important. We all have complicated situations. So when you try to write that way, I find that I never stop being challenged by that. It’s a great way to work.”
Another project Anderson is looking forward to is a “personal essay piece” for a French television series. Anderson viewed some of the other episodes of the series and found them “beyond tedious. People would talk about French philosophers. They asked me to do a film about my philosophy of life, and I said, ‘I don’t really have one!’” Instead, Anderson will bring her signature style and themes to the piece. “Every time I do a project, it turns into something else. I don’t know why that is; maybe it’s because I don’t have a set ‘thing.’ I kind of like stepping out of borders,” she muses. “One of the reasons I became an artist is because it’s one of the things you do that are free but lately I’m revising that opinion—there’s something I think of as the ‘Art Police,’ that say, for example, ‘you’re a painter, you can’t do music’ and that’s unfortunate.”
But it’s clear by experiencing Anderson’s work that the “Art Police” have yet to get to her. Recently, Anderson performed in Toronto and did a duet with Chinese artist Al Weiwei via Skype. Weiwei, who was commissioned to consult on design the stadium for the 2008 Summer Olympics, is currently under house arrest due to his controversial criticism of the Chinese government. “[Weiwei] wrote to me to write some music together, and I was going to be doing a concert in Toronto in June. I said, ‘Why don’t you Skype into this?’ and he could do a rave on China and I could do one on the United States, and it was really fun! We Skyped in and his face appeared huge on these screens [in the theater], and we did this duet. Of course, it didn’t work any better than Skype at home, where someone’s grimace is frozen on the screen,” Anderson laughs.
Anderson is currently working on several other projects, as well. “United States 5, it’s going to be kind of an update on the work I did in the ’80s called United States 1 through 4. That was kind of a big multimedia show. Using the technologies that are available now is going to be fun,” she says. “It seems like a great time to write about the United States. I really find it to be unrecognizable from even a few years ago. The surveillance things….It’s hard to believe. The TSA [Transportation Security Administration]… it’s already horrible and embarrassing for people, and now we’re actually getting used to that kind of presence?” Anderson is also highly critical of what she sees happening to New York. “Bloomberg’s [stance on] surveillance drones…the idea that flying drones can have weapons. I have to control my natural paranoia [laughs], but I do worry about that. The film that I’m making now, we shot some of it with drones and it was fun to see how their mechanical eye works. And flying them around the city is great because there’s no rules! Police walk right by us and don’t ask any questions! If you’re not a good drone pilot, you could fly it into someone’s face, fly into people’s faces…but then in airports, you have to do whatever the TSA people ask you and you had better not laugh!” Anderson says with an exasperated sigh. Anderson also notes that the construction and technology being built in the city is making it “really different than it used to be,” saying that her river view is disappearing due to construction.
The Hamptons, then, are a great escape for Anderson and husband Lou Reed. “I love it here, even when it’s really crowded, like it is now, with people who don’t live there,” she says. Like many Hamptons residents, though, Anderson thinks the traffic situation is out of control. “We stay away from Route 27. Our friends’ young daughter was killed riding her bike a few months ago, and we’re all chalking it up to the traffic,” she sighs. The young girl Anderson is referring to is Anna Lytton, 14, who was killed riding her bicycle on Montauk Highway across from the East Hampton Post Office in June.
But Anderson still loves being out here. “I love it so much. That stretch to Montauk could easily be [commercialized] like Vegas, and it’s not. It’s beautiful…incredible places to hike. It’s a natural treasure, that place. I love the ocean. Being there is beyond great.”
Laurie Anderson will be at Guild Hall on Aug. 17. For info and tickets, visit guildhall.org.