Pop-tech performance queen Laurie Anderson returns to Madison on April 14 after a four-year hiatus. Her latest creation from the intersection of art, technology and politics, "Homeland," toured Europe last summer and launched its U.S. junket at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall last month. Whether or not you dig Anderson's outré mix of electronic sound and spoken word, the subversive stories she renders as art deserve your keen attention.
Anderson's childhood performances involved playing classical violin with the Chicago Youth Symphony. She went to art school in '60s New York, getting an MFA from Columbia University's School of the Arts. Musical chops plus exposure to poohbahs of '60s performance art like Adrian Piper, Vito Acconci and Yoko Ono led to life in the lofts and venues of lower Manhattan. Over the years she's composed scores for film and dance luminaries - Wim Wenders, Jonathan Demme, Bill T. Jones, Trisha Brown. She's written a half-dozen books and done installations at major museums.
But it's the brainy blend of X-ray social vision and sharp talent Anderson wields in her quirky live performances that draws loyal fans out of the woodwork. Her most famous piece is "O Superman," a disembodied echo chamber of a song written in the aftermath of the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1981. "O Superman," from a suite of early '80s performance works compiled and recorded under the name "United States," contains ominous lyrics about war for oil and American planes on an unstoppable mission. That makes Anderson at least a quasi-prophet, so "Homeland" may turn out to be prescient. It's a follow-up to "United States," from the far end of the Sept. 11 decade.
Anderson's scored funds from surprising sources. "End of the Moon" (at the Union Theater in November '04) was a final report on her stint as NASA's first and only artist in residence. Compared to "United States," "Moon" was disappointingly tame. Alone onstage, Anderson accompanied herself on electric violin, telling deconstructed stories about NASA, her dog, trees and models of time.
But one story stuck with me, about spacesuits designed for desert combat that practically turn soldiers into bionic warriors. "The desert's like the moon," she says, "so that was no surprise. The way NASA works, once they're geared up to make something they can't stop it. It's relentless."
Were NASA's honchos horrified to find this freaky secret revealed? Anderson says not. "NASA has a small budget for art, run by enormously interesting people," she says. "They have a very eclectic little collection ranging from Rockwell to Rauschenberg."
Branching out, they commissioned Anderson to execute a small performance project. "End of the Moon" was completed, she says, but before NASA could pick its next artist in residence, a whistle-blowing senator decided art funds were pork. "He goes 'hmmm, three trillion for spy things and $20,000 for an artist, that's outrageous.' And that was the end.
"I thought they should have kept the program going," Anderson continues. "The government has departments of war and commerce. It should have a department of art. Artists see the world differently - we could help reinvent this country. It's important to inspire people to live instead of submitting to being treated like drones or customers all the time."
The arched-eyebrow, antiwar, anticapitalist "Homeland" has another intriguing, though more comfortable, source of support - the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize Anderson won last year. It's a meaty sum from the silver-screen sisters' trust that's gone to other outside-the-box artists like Ornette Coleman, Bob Dylan, Bill T. Jones and Isabel Allende.
Kudos to the Gish girls. I'm thrilled to see works like "Homeland" on the city's main stage. Hooray for arthouse alt media telling truth to power.
"We live in this wired world where everybody knows what's going on, but nobody's talking about it," Anderson says. "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 supposed to be very observant. I can't avoid using those tools responsibly."
Anderson had been observing TV campaign speeches when I interviewed her, right before the Rev. Wright episode put Obama's karma on a slide.
"Health care, the environment and education are important," Anderson says, "but we have 750 military bases around the world and a huge military budget. We're monsters. The politicians and the TV cable news pundits are telling the same old stories, about how the people feel about women or blacks. It's like they're telling you their dream. Obama comes along and he's still telling a story, but it's a different one. Obama's campaign is phenomenal exactly because he's redefining what it means to be an American."
"Homeland" is Anderson's definition, and it's much darker than Obama's. The idea sparked five years ago in Japan, where she was working on a film.
"I kept having this sensation of wow, I've lost something. It's like you're not sure if it's your car keys or your mother died. Every time I write something new, it starts with where I am. I started writing little stories about losing things. I mentioned it to my translator, who wanted to know what I'd lost and where. I thought, oh my God, I'm being psychoanalyzed by my translator. But then I realized that what I'd lost was my country. The stories, all written on the road, are about trying to understand what losing your country means. They're about trying to define myself as an American."
Everybody's struggling with it, Anderson says. "We're in heavy media shock. We're primed to be paranoid and fearful. The government plays on some very negative ideas. We all feel our way along, making up stories. We work on intuitive levels - our minds jump from one idea to the next. So 'Homeland' is full of jump cuts meant to break the bonds. We plod along from one idea to the next, from A to B - come on, there are other ways to think about the world, to look at cause and effect."
Among the images in "Homeland"'s shifting tapestry is an apocalyptic vision that begins with Nixon taking the country off the gold standard. There are songs about suicide bombers and "experts" who invent political spin with what the New York Times reviewer who covered the show's Carnegie Hall debut called "Rumsfeldian cynicism."
"Homeland" isn't a multimedia show, but it's more musically complex than "End of the Moon." Anderson works with a stripped-down electronic ensemble - Peter Scherer on keys, Skulli Severrisson on bass, Okkyung Lee on cello. "It's fun to work with another string player," she says.
"Technically, it's not stripped down. There are a lot of pedals and things. I hope it doesn't feel too tech-y. I saw a show last night where the electronic treatments of the vocals were cold too much technology and not enough dreaminess. There's always a danger that the machines will take over, but I'm hoping that's not the case."
Our interview was cut short by the doorbell. It was one of Anderson's collaborators. She was working on a big antiwar bash for the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion. Called "Stand Up! A Benefit Concert for Peace in Iraq and Justice at Home," it occurred March 18 at St. Anne's Warehouse in Brooklyn. On the bill were Anderson and her partner, the ever-transforming Lou Reed, plus art rockers David Byrne and Moby, smooth jazz popstress Norah Jones, fearless choreographer Bill T. Jones and lefty celeb journalist Naomi Klein.
"We hope our grassroots event will start some real opposition," Anderson said before hanging up. "But activism's a complement, not a substitute for art. When Bush saber-rattles about Iran every few months, telling us to fear the evil dictator with hidden weapons, we have to stop and say, 'Wait a sec - this story works. It has a great evil guy, lots of intrigue and dangerous weapons.' The government really knows how to tell stories and manipulate public opinion.
"Stories are magic - you can start a war with a good story. Maybe you can stop a war with another one."