Part Garrison Keillor, part cyberbabe: an interview with Laurie Anderson

Edited version. Full article appears in Graphis 329.

Laurie Anderson achieved celebrity rare for a performance artist in 1981 with the unlikely hit, O Superman. The eight-minute single chronicled life with her telephone-answering machine. The song was a fragment of a four-part work spread over two evenings, United States, a kind of multimedia version of Wagner's Ring Cycle, dealing not with love, money and redemption, but more modern American themes: democracy, (in)security, technology.

But it was done with a humorous touch and a battery of high-tech gadgetry which provided a distancing effect that was sometimes ironic, sometimes alienating.

This opus established Anderson as a digital diva, part Garrison Keillor, part cyberbabe. Her songs may veer towards the pretentious—one sets the words of the philosopher, Walter Benjamin; O Superman was dedicated to the French composer, Jules Massenet. But they have a mesmeric beauty and they tell stories. People worry that Anderson the multimedia artist is neither fish nor fowl. But a storyteller is a storyteller for all time and all media.

In her latest stage work, debuted at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1999, Anderson has taken on one of the greatest stories—Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Melville’s dense tapestry of spirituality, obsession and whaling is unpicked and reassembled in a compact 90 minutes of sound and light for Songs and Stories from Moby Dick. The tale is about god and freedom, about life, liberty and the pursuit of unhappiness. It is about America itself. Like Anderson, Melville once sailed aboard a ship called the United States. Songs and Stories may be her greatest work so far—certainly it is tighter and more theatrical, more allusive and less didactic than previous performance pieces.

In a way, technology is Anderson’s white whale. She and we are unsure whether we are chasing it, or if in fact it is hunting us down. In conversation, she reveals her deep ambivalence to its onward march. But although she is a committed participant in the development of new electronic tools—more out of fear of how they might come out otherwise, she insists—technology is not her only concern. She is also committed to helping others unleash their own creativity.

Moby Dick ranges over the world’s oceans, but we began in New York, the city for which Anderson has been writing the new entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Graphis: Tell me about this discursive tradition in looking at America that is present in United States I-IV and in Moby Dick and many great American novels. Is there something intrinsically American about this, or is it just that it’s subjects are so huge and nebulous as to demand it?

Anderson: I think he could have treated it many different ways. In the first draft, there was no Ahab, and you can imagine the editor’s reaction: “Uh, it’s a very nice sea story you’ve got there, but don’t you think you need something like an engine?” His answer to that structurally was to make a kind of American leader, which didn’t, I don’t think, come off, frankly. It isn’t the characters in Moby Dick that interest me. It’s the way he approaches telling a story. It’s very, very cut up. Very post-modern. Take what Melville did: I love this jump cut. Ishmael’s saying why do we go to sea? He’s saying shall I go as an officer, or maybe as a cook. Well, cooks are—you know, there’s nothing like a really great broiled chicken, and you know, the Egyptians were also very fond of them as you can tell by the mummies of broiled ibises that they left “in their huge bake-houses the pyramids”—and that’s on page four! Wow! This is going to be great fun, someone whose mind can jump around. I didn’t ever feel he was being wilfully strange, I just thought this is a playful mind that I’m really going to enjoy.

Graphis: This idea of weaving encyclopedia and story-telling, grand themes and daily minutiae, does continue more strongly in America when British and American writing went their separate ways. British writers haven’t looked at the national condition in this grand, discursive, all-embracing, multi-disciplinary way, mixing fiction and non-fiction and fragmentary stories and so on. I wonder if all this isn’t also something of long way round of looking at things, an artificial distancing, finding things stranger than they really are. One of your narratives talks of the weird people out west who cook possum, yet there is a recipe for it in The Joy of Cooking. Perhaps it’s not as strange as you make it seem in re-presenting it in the way that you’ve done. That’s your business: you’re making America seem even stranger than it is.

Anderson: I think that would be hard. I think it’s really strange.

Graphis: How important is the scale of works like this, or United States I-IV, in capturing the United States at all. You have trimmed Songs and Stories to 90 minutes or so, but have said that you’re dissatisfied with it.

Anderson: Oh, no. I did the best I could. It was the most overwhelming thing I ever decided to do, and part of it was that it was someone else’s text. I was really afraid he was going to come and get me, that his ghost would come and say, what right do you have to make my book into a multimedia show? What is wrong with you? I really had that fear until I met someone who was one of his descendants. She came to a show. After the show, she said, Herman would have loved this! It just gave me the creeps. What are we? At his funeral? And how would you know what Herman would love? But I was so desperate for any approval, it was pathetic.

Graphis: This is your first work treating an entire long text, but you’ve always used fragments, from philosophical aphorisms to the words on the US Post Office portico. You paint, sculpt and write music too, so why are words so important to you?

Anderson: It’s not always the way I start, but it’s often the way I start. Just because I’m interested in different kinds of story structure and different ways of telling stories, and that seems to be what I respond to the most. Simply, words are what mean the most to me. If I do an instrumental piece, even if it’s the most heart-achingly beautiful melody, I will always miss the word. What are the words?

Graphis: Your feeling for words, as Melville’s, is clearly bound up with the Bible. Your parents were pretty secular and bohemian, but your grandparents were Baptists.

Anderson: I found that much more interesting than the pastel series of beliefs that my parents happened to have. As a child, in my parent’s church I was introduced to what I thought of as the talking Jesus, someone who spoke in parables and was saying very sensible things, like do unto others and be kind, and, yes, he did a few miracles along the way—people rose from the dead—so, a little magic never hurt. But basically it was about being reasonable and very mild. The more Old Testament approach in the Baptist church involved people howling, and going, Lord, take me! I thought, wow, that’s where I want to go. I don’t want to be this reasonable thing. The Baptist Jehovah is the same God which Moby Dick breaks out, one who does things without reason, kills everyone without reason. Melville’s reading Jonah and he’s reading Job and he’s reading Isaiah while he’s writing Moby Dick. He’s not reading the Sermon on the Mount.

Graphis: That’s the sort of irrational God which comes out of Darwin too. Moby Dick appeared while Darwin was writing the Origin of Species which gave Fundamentalist Christianity such problems. And you single out that question of all questions of Melville’s in your performance: “What is a man if he outlive the lifetime of his God?” I wonder why religion is still so important in America today. Maybe the word “still” shouldn’t be in there, I don’t know.

Anderson: I have a theory. This is really off the wall. It has to do with invisibility. It’s transcendentalist history and writers and thinkers like Emerson were quite capable of believing in invisible worlds. Now, there’s a very interesting book I’ve been reading on the discovery of germs and their effect on various people. Germs went over very well in the United States. People really believed that there were germs, and there was a huge hygienic movement—drinking fountains, people scrubbing their hands all the time, and women shortening their skirts, not to show more leg, but so they wouldn’t drag more germs into the house. Germs did not take on as well in France and Germany and Italy. But Americans were completely willing and happy to believe that there were little tiny things that could kill them. So there’s this legacy of the invisible. I think also it’s why Americans are attracted to the internet. It’s not a tangible culture that we’re living in over here. It is a very, very intangible one, and we believe in invisible things.

Graphis: You mentioned the internet, and I want to talk about technology. You have the same sort of arm’s-length relationship with that in your work that you do with America, and yet you’re clearly committed to the technology and you’re pushing it. RoseLee Goldberg says you’re fearless about technology which certainly doesn’t reflect my state of mind about it.

Anderson: It isn’t mine either. I’m not fearless. I’m very, very afraid of technology. I don’t know how I got a reputation for being fearless.

Graphis: What frightens you about it?

Anderson: I think it’s completely frightening for artists and a lot of people because we all use these same tools. I don’t know how great a situation that is. The learning curve is very steep. It’s harder for people to come up with something original in the midst of it all.

Graphis: But you’re erecting learning curves where there’s still flat ground. You’ve worked with Interval Research, this company that’s solving problems I don’t even know I have yet.

Anderson: It’s more than that. They are inventing things that you will eventually use, but that they will of course own. That is their purpose. They’re not just sitting around there having fun. The dark side of all of this is ownership. Melville writes about that as well. He was very aware about how the world works in terms of that, of who owns who.

Graphis: Between Melville and Microsoft, those sorts of forces were represented by what we used to call the military-industrial complex, and here you are in bed with it. How is your involvement helping to make their stuff less sinister than it would otherwise be?

Anderson: I take back what I said about owning the world. The thing is there are a lot of designers there who really do care about making things that are easier for people to use. It’s not like digital stuff is going to go away. It is not going to disappear. And unless people figure out how to make it more human, it will certainly control it. And I’m very, very interested in being part of that group of people who think about that, and try to do something about, rather than just sit around and go, uh, digital technology, really scary!

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