Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Laurie Anderson Uses Language to Look Through Time at the Wisconsin Union Theater

press photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Union Theater
Last time I wrote about Laurie Anderson, in 2008 (when she did a show she called “Homeland,” at Overture Hall), my piece ran in Isthmus, and my editor (who was much better at writing headlines than I am) titled it “Queen of Quirk.” “Quirk,” according to the dictionary, means “characterized by peculiar or unexpected traits.”  It’s true that Anderson is a master of the unexpected, but peculiar she’s not. In fact, what’s so unexpected about her, in today’s clown-ruled world, is that she rings so true, so human, so honest and sincere.  She’s also sensationally complex.  She’s an Artist, with a capital A.  Her powers of observation are uncommonly keen.  She’s a storyteller. A poet, a violinist, synth empress, composer, dog lover, world citizen. Chicago-born New Yorker. Buddhist. She gets her points across via many different media – electronic instrumentation, film, drawings, paintings. And words – always words. 
The Artist returns to Madison – to the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall – next Friday night, Feb. 9. Her performance is titled “Language of the Future.”  It’s a tag she’s used before, but it won’t be a show you’ve ever seen. Her titles are just frameworks for telling stories. On them she spins narratives from the ongoing rush of the universe. Threads from the past, plus riotous future colors, weave through the fabric.
She’s rushing through the universe right now, gathering material. 
“I’m on a retreat, doing a lot of writing,” she said from somewhere in California when I reached her by phone late last week.  “I have a lot of projects, an overwhelming number of projects.  For the last year, my reaction to what I see – it’s disaster – is to work as hard as I can, and I don’t know if that’s helping or not. I’m really not sure, but it means I’m doing too many things.  On the wall here I have notes for four essays to do by tomorrow. One’s about the Arctic, one’s a poetry project – it’s all unrelated stuff.”

CulturalOyster: But that’s what you do, weave unrelated stuff together...

Anderson:  Yes. I see things as moving pieces and see how they might relate, and a lot of them actually do pretty well. There are a lot of moving pieces in my life. I have a couple of things coming out that bring some of them together – a book called All the Things I Lost in the Flood [works from the archives of her four-decade career, annotated with her own recently written commentary] will be released on February 7, and a few days after that there’s a record I did with Kronos Quartet called Landfall, and there’s an album called Songs from the Bardo – it comes out later – that I did with a Tibetan singer, Tenzin Choegyal at the Rubin Museum [in Manhattan]. It’s texts from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which are so beautiful, done with a small ensemble.

CulturalOyster: Since this is a pre-show inverview for your Madison performance, I’m interested in your process, and what you might weave together for that.

Anderson:  “Language of the Future" is always changing.  I struggle with it a lot but it’s really fun to do because the way things are moving, it’s colossally crazy.  In a sense I’m trying to be a journalist – at least that’s part of the approach – so I need to update things really quickly.  Language is the future, and these days we haven’t the slightest idea of what’ll happen tomorrow.  The stress of that is really getting to me, I’m feeling the stress of living with it. I try not to get my sense of identity from my government but it kinda happens, and there’s a fair amount of that in “Language of the Future,” with stories and images about identity and national identity.  You can imagine, I rewrite every half-hour.

CulturalOyster: Some of your stories, like some of your titles, reappear in your works in different contexts — I remember you talking about taking your beloved rat terrier, Lolabelle, to California after 9/11 in “End of the Moon,” which you did here (at the Wisconsin Union Theater) in 2004, and that story appears again much later in your 2015 film Heart of a Dog.  Speaking of dogs and language and the future – I’ve had terriers all my life, and they actually communicate much better than most people, but – you’ve been kind of clairvoyant before, so in future, given how much new dog science is being done all the time now, will we be able to hold long, clear conversations with them about profound subjects?

Anderson:  I think we can do that now. Their words don’t sound like our vocabularies but their emotional range is huge – they don’t say “that is delicious,” or “hilarious,” or “sad,” but they have all of that.  As people get less skilled emotionally it’s more important than ever to spend time with animals.  Last weekend a friend of mine put her horse that she had for ten years out to pasture, he went lame.  He’d been ridden every day and had lots of horses and people and carrots in his life every day and he went to pasture with only minimal shelter from the weather, which the other horses wouldn’t let him into most of the time anyway, and no contact and no riding.  And we came to visit him and he was like “Oh, finally, you’re here! This is all a big mistake, get me outta here, let’s go home!” – and when we left him there my heart was completely broken.  I was horrified.  Sometimes when you don’t have language the emotional force of abandonment is so much stronger.  People aren’t as clear.  It’s not fair to say this, but you can leave your mom in a nursing home and she may be conflicted about the home, or have Alzheimers, and what’s going on with her can be opaque, but the signal from that horse about being abandoned was really clear. 
What you ask about animals and communication is really important.  I have to say in this last year I feel there’s a lot less civility.  There was a guy in a bike lane in New York who jumped out of the lane at high speed just to ram into me. The level of hostility is unbelievable.
My favorite sign from the women’s marches last weekend was “I hope you’ve noticed the lack of nazis on our march.” 

CulturalOyster: Going back to your storytelling technique, where I was asking about your frameworks – their boundaries are permeable, since stories like the one about Lolabelle in California cross from one to another. How porous is the line between memory and fiction?  

Anderson:  I think its really true that we’ve forgotten more things about life than the things we remember. The way our brains work, they match patterns and fill in the sensed information.  So I notice that and try to work with it as an idea. We’re often not that aware of what we’re seeing in front of us, but present experience is built on past experience – you use it to predict what’s going to happen so you can protect yourself.
On the subject of experience and the brain I have to mention David Eagleman’s book The Brain, in which he writes about how mental processing and story construction work.  I find it fascinating, but I don’t understand it at all. But in terms if frameworks, telling a story – like the dog story – in a film you tell it differently than in other media. There’ a picture so you don’t have to say what things look like – you can see the beauty of what’s going on.  And you don’t have to tell about time, or if something is really frightening you don’t need to repeat that it’s frightening. 
So it’s fun to experiment with telling stories in different forms. I’ve been experimenting with virtual reality.  It’s completely wild.  I love programming sound for it, you can make an earworm that’s looping around your head and then move out of that space and destroy it – it’s thrilling, and you have a really interesting competition with the senses.  Your feet say you’re standing in a room but your eyes say “I’m standing on a cliff over a raging sea and I’m about to fall” – and your eyes win.  But for me, it’s not about creating a scene and putting you in it – the work I’m doing is its about flying and words, it’s very different from what you think of as virtual reality.

CulturalOyster: I just interviewed Moses Pendleton, you know, the artistic director of Momix – and he was saying he thinks people will immerse themselves in virtual reality in the future instead of going to the theater, so maybe theater has no future.

Anderson:  I don’t know what people will do with virtual reality in the future, but I do know that because of technology people are becoming more introverted and less outgoing.  They just look at their devices nonstop and the level of pain involved in that is enormous.  It’s ridiculous that it’s called “social media.” 
A friend here was telling me about conversations he was having with people in Silicon Valley.  One of them said positive things about the opioid epidemic because people lose their jobs and they get angry and they’re out driving – so it’s better if they’re sedated instead. My friend says you can’t believe the entitlement of the people designing the tech stuff these days. 
I look at my own contributions and I’m horrified! 
The media keeps you trapped.  It really is true.  It’s not bad to use clichés sometimes and being trapped in the news cycles is the fate of most people I know.  That’s the great thing about the marches – they do get people out and then they’re wide awake.

CulturalOyster: I’m going to go back to your creative process one more time. Your stories are made up of threads that you weave together to make a whole that’s greater than its parts. You pull elements of your work from wakefulness, dreaming, and meditative state, and from music, painting, film, digital tech —  is this a big, unwieldy process that involves juggling divergent realities, or is it a harmonious process that takes the Buddhist idea of separation as mere illusion as starting point?  Or does the actual process fall somewhere in between those extremes?

Anderson: Nothing is harmonoius, not even Buddhism. People would prefer to think that meditation is about bliss, and my bottom line is I do believe we’re here to exist in bliss and not suffer, but along the way, in order to really experience what’s going on I think there’s a lot of suffering.  Writing isn’t easy, it’s torture.  I’ll never believe a writer who says “I sat down to write and it’s fun and I’m connecting all the threads.”
If I hear that I think “oh no you’re not, babe, you’re lyin’ to me.” 
To write you gotta take the white gloves off.  You’re ripping things – and yourself – apart, and trying to experience what you’re really feeling.  And that’s a mixture of things that includes failure and fear. I try to be open to those things and just notice what sticks out.  That’s the only way I can describe what interests me – it’s what sticks out. It has emotional punch if it’s good.  Sometimes ideas are nice and calm, but for me if it doesn’t have the emotion I have to look at it a little more or throw it away. We’re encouraged to ignore emotions more than we used to be, to try to sound clever and package ourselves as slick – but really you’re thinking “no, I’m not slick, I’m a complete mess, but I can’t represent myself on my Facebook page that way! Oh, wait...Facebook is the enemy...”

CulturalOyster: I don’t have a Facebook page.

Anderson:  I don’t have one either. With social media you’re getting robbed and they’re  selling you back your own information.  You’re getting stupider and poorer and lonelier and everything else.  But it’s in your pocket and it’s buzzing and you’ve gotta go “what is that?” and you think you better get it ‘cause it might be a nuclear alert like in Hawaii.  And then it’s too late, you tuned in and you can’t tune out.

CulturalOyster:  Last time I interviewed you – before “Homeland” – you said “I’m struck that so few artists, relatively speaking, are attracted to politics these days.  You can think about the color blue your whole career, but we have sharp tools and we’re suposed to be very observant.  I can’t help using those tools responsibly.”  
You’ve already told me that “Language of the Future” will be politically responsible.  Now I’m wondering about the other side of the coin.  In that 2008 interview you also said that whenever you write something new it starts with where you are at the time.  Your own life has changed a lot since 2008, and you lay a lot of that out in what’s probably your most personal story so far, Heart of a Dog.  In that movie you weave together internal and external strands — 9/11, Lolabelle, your mother, JFK, your husband Lou Reed – all of them gone now – to make a whole that’s much bigger than its parts.  Can we expect some “where you are now” threads in the upcoming performance?  

Anderson:  Yeah, it’s very true, that’s always part of what I do.  In the book I just wrote [All the Things I Lost in the Flood ] I could see that.  “I lived by the Hudson River” – a million things start that way.  I was able to go deeper into language in the book than I can in other ways.  I say language is a disease communicable by mouth – I’ve said that for decades – but wait, it’s not alive.  It’s right on the edge of life, but it works like a lifeform, it’s a set of rules and it can go viral in a second.  I began to really see what I could make of that, to move some of those ideas around – so the book is really a collection of essays about how language effects imagery.

CulturalOyster: Prosaic question — is this a solo performance?

Anderson:  Yes.

CulturalOyster: What sorts of instruments and technology are you using for this show?  Readers like to know.  

Anderson: With tech, I’m working on revisions to my rig – it’s a bunch of software and pedals and a viola – hopped up stuff.  I hope it works – sometimes I take it out too early and it doesn’t drive as well as it could.

CulturalOyster: I have no worries whatsoever about that!

 _______________________________________________ interview by SK

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