- 05 Jun 19
To ring in the Grammy Award-winning musician and multimedia artist's 72nd birthday, we’re revisiting her interview with Peter Murphy, originally published in Hot Press in 2003.
It’s probably the least cheery thing you’ve ever seen called Happiness. I chose it because it’s such a mysterious word.”
New York performance artist and musician Laurie Anderson is talking about her latest show Happiness, a production she says will be more stripped down and flexible than some of the complex multimedia extravaganzas she has put on in the past. In the publicity blurb for the show, Anderson states that, “for the past year I have been looking for ways to escape my own perspective by putting myself in weird situations. But shock in the form of terrorism propelled me into a different place. I imagine it is like this for a lot of people now, in uncertain times we find ourselves living more intensely in the present and asking the questions that have been lurking uncomfortably in the background, like what do we really believe in after all?”
Shades of the questions that plagued the Beats and the abstract expressionists in the post-bomb climate of the 1950s. Does she think 9/11 terrorist anxiety has had a comparable effect on modern art forms, and indeed the human nervous system?
“Well, I think it took a new direction when people suddenly realised it could happen here, and in fact was happening here,” she considers. “It was a watermark, and things will never ever be the same, never. Suddenly Americans are waving the flag in our city and I’m thinking, ‘We’re not even Americans particularly’, y’know? New Yorkers are not good victims, that’s for sure, we’re too proud. And the sentimentality that gets attached to that kinda stuff I find really maudlin. It’s really changed the feeling of living in New York, people no longer feel at all safe, and that had a lot of positive effects as well.”
If Anderson was looking for ways to escape her own perspective, a sort of Rimbaudian disordering of the senses, the changes that took place in her city’s psyche over the last two years provided her with more than enough feelings of dislocation, making her feel like a an alien observer of her own reality.
“That’s really a perfect description of it,” she says. “I really don’t recognise this place, and that’s very, very scary, ’cos I consider myself like a cultural commentator, I think I know what I’m talking about. It’s a joke. I no longer know. And that really frightens me.”
Does she think it’s a good time for art?
“I think it’s the best time for art, I really do. It’s a great time to try to make something really beautiful, and that energy is really, really important because there’s a lot of energy in the other direction as well. It’s also why I was using less and less technology, because I just feel like technology had a big role in this. It just makes me very afraid, so I’ve just kind of toned down my whole thing with that.”
All of which brings to mind Wim Wenders’ flawed but visionary Until The End Of The World, a film with some haunting themes, not least the idea of people becoming addicted to viewing recordings of their own dreams, set against the apocalyptic backdrop of a rogue satellite knocking out the planet’s communications systems. Stranded in the Martian sands of Aboriginal Darwin where dreamtime is as present as conscious time, Sam Neill’s novelist character gets through all this by battering out stories on an old acoustic typewriter. But in addition to rejecting technology in Happiness, Anderson also discards linear storytelling, instead favouring the more impressionistic rhythm of the mind, citing Godard’s dictum that every story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but “not necessarily in that order.”
“I think of something like a song line,” she explains. “Just because you’re mentioning Australia and Aborigines, I’m thinking of Bruce Chatwin – do you know that book The Songlines? It’s a beautiful book in which Aborigines believe that the stories live in the ground and then they have to walk them and they come out of the ground as they follow this path, and it is a very linear thing, although it’s not linear in the way that maybe some westerners would think of linear storytelling because it wanders about, it’s a meander through it rather than a beginning, middle and end, which is one of the things I’m completely rebelling against. I think it’s just that I never want stories to end ’cos I like them so much.”
Laurie Anderson is set to play two unique concerts as part of the National Concert Hall's Perspectives series in March 2020. For more details, see here.