Plazm Magazine: Documenting Creative Culture Since 1991
Plazm is a magazine of design, art, and culture with worldwide distribution. Founded by artists as a creative resource, the magazine is now published by the nonprofit New Oregon Arts & Letters. Order Plazm #30 now.
Laurie Anderson is one of the few performance artists in recent memory to successfully tread the fine line between minimalism and the frenetic pace of the information age. Her perceptions of the symbiosis and disparity between high art and popular culture are rarely matched. Over the last two decades she has collaborated with a broad list of literary and musical luminaries that includes Lou Reed, Phillip Glass, William S. Burroughs, John Cage, and Peter Gabriel. Her work and ideas seem to permeate our world; borrowed structures from popular culture appear in her art and are then re-assimilated, appropriated, and returned in the form of a compliment by ad agencies and artists alike.
Since we’re talking on the telephone, I’d like to start by asking how you feel about human interaction and communication through machines?
I love machines. I have 11 computers, 18 phones. It’s frightening how many things are coming in and going out. Not that I care, but I do feel sort of self-conscious on the road with a show where there is quite a lot of equipment. We have 77,000 pounds of stuff rattling its way over the West Coast. I feel like some kind of electronic sales person saying “look at all this stuff, it all works! Isn’t it great.” And really so what? I think you can do amazing things with a pencil.
Do you whole-heartedly embrace technology? Where do you draw the line in terms of skepticism?
When it starts making my life way too complicated—it crashes too often—or when it starts taking over and I become unsure of what I’m doing with it. That happens fairly often, and I think “Wait a second I need to simplify this, try it another way,” because machines can take over. When I first got a computer it was just for music, and then I started using one for words, and then I got one for pictures. I would be sitting at a computer for months doing computer animation, and then friends, people that I’d contacted on the net, started going into it, and then I really started to get scared. I felt like everything was getting sucked in.
People used to play with toys, and now the toys play with us.
Do you see technology as a prop, and instrument, or as an extension of yourself?
Props have to be held and technology needs to be activated. So, when I think of computers, I think of them as musical instruments, as paint brushes, typewriters, telephones. They are all of those things. I figure, the better I know how to use them, the more I can get around their stiffness, because they really are stiff. They’re not natural. Imagine trying to paint with a mouse; dip the big brush into the big paint in a computer paint program.
It takes some getting used to, and it has the potential for making, of course, one big lonely country with everyone glued to their screens. Other dynamics interest me—the underground on the net, and how people are learning to use it better. The underground has in the past existed in alternative art spaces, but they have slowly been disappearing for one reason or another. Mostly because they can’t afford to stay open, or little magazines that used to have to put their stuff out and pay for printing, and now they can just use a desktop program. So, technology is reviving an underground as well. That’s the only aspect of the culture that I truly feel comfortable in. Just watch pop culture and official culture becoming more and more corporate… That’s another reason I’m doing this tour. I’m trying to go out and find these people in 3-D, not just on the net. I know they’re there, and I know there are a lot of people really interested in things other than what you can just buy off the rack and call culture.
Marshall McLuhan once said that “technology is the amputation of the physical body” and much of our technology appears to be going down this path. I’m wondering what direction do you see performance art going in relation to that statement?
Actually, I don’t believe in the evils of technology. I think that your physical body doesn’t have to be amputated for one to grow other kinds of extenders. I think technology is neutral. Obviously it’s just the way in which we use it. Nobody wants to amputate anything.
There is not an artist who doesn’t depend on the physical body—eyes and ears and nose—to make up art. Art is not a mental thing but rather a very physical and sensual thing. To the extent that technology can help you make those things, great, to the extent that it erases the ability to see, it’s a disaster. To say that technology amputates is very misleading.
Some people prefer to lead a very mental life. They can stay on the net and don’t have to show up—ever. They can have dates with people without ever presenting their physical body.
And hang up whenever they want to.
For some it can be a wonderful way to be with other people. For me, I would rather fill up small trucks and go on tour and actually see real people. Buy hey, call me silly.
Regarding gender roles and the male voices used in some of your performances: Do you see androgynous behavior as a way of breaking down gender barriers or equaling the scales?
I do it to poke fun at the wind bags and authority figures more than anything else. In some cases, it happens to be a male who’s trying to impress people or talk down to people. I don’t think I hesitate to do that with women either, but I think that my role is more as a narrator. I don’t really present myself as a typical pop culture woman in terms of wearing dresses or using the usual bait, but I don’t do that in my personal life either. I don’t feel I’m trying to deal directly with gender issues. I think of myself first as an artist, second as a New Yorker, and third as a woman. Gender is not a real giant issue for me. In most pop culture, it is already a major theme, because it is part of the act. It’s a girl group or the ma-cheese-mo male pop singer.
It’s not an attempt to raise awareness of certain issues?
Sure it is. But I try not to pound people over the head. In my performances it’s silly seeing a woman with a voice like that. So that’s part of it. Like a little Mozart gag, a farce where people have the wrong face, wrong voice, in the wrong room in the wrong city.
I’d like to discuss artists’ rights and how they manifest themselves within the digital age, how quickly things can be appropriated without any retribution or compensation. What are your feelings with regard to copyright laws, and how have you personally dealt with this issue?
I’m not a good person to ask, because I am not proprietary about things like that. I am incredibly flattered if someone takes an idea that I have and uses it. Usually it’s such a different application, even if I am identified with it, I don’t really care. For example, I’m working on a CD ROM, and the whole point of that is to give the user, it’s not a reader or a listener—it’s a user—a lot of material that is organized and is a work of art, but the person using it has the ability to make almost an infinite number of changes. As a writer, maybe you have one editor who says: “Take that sentence out,” and the writer says “Over my dead body.” But with a CD ROM you have thousands of editors with all sorts of changes. That’s the whole point.
I think of art in a way like information, that it’s free. I don’t really feel like jumping up and down and saying I have to protect that idea. I feel the opposite. I’m saying please take this. I wouldn’t be putting it out there unless I thought it was going to be useful to somebody. Otherwise, I would just stay here and entertain myself. I wouldn’t go out on tours or make records.
In an earlier interview, you had said that you weren’t sold on the interactive ability of the CD ROM format…
I have completely changed my mind. The images, the words, are something that is powerful. I’m not saying put a bunch of things and let people mix and remix your records or read documentaries about your stuff. This is about thinking. I feel like I finally found an art form that’s completely the way I think. It has nothing to do with narrative. You see, I never understood plots. To me, plots were when you took out all the boring days and what’s left is plot. When you take out the boring shots, it’s just a car chase. Well, I like action movies myself, but I find the boring days have all the texture. They hold all things I like, all the details. So, with something very non-plot driven like a CD ROM, I find it completely fascinating because it’s about association and that’s how my mind works. Not how does this story get driven to its conclusion.
Our culture, in many ways, is based on appropriation.
Yes, and I think that is very lively. I don’t mind that advertising agencies take artists’ work and turn them into shoe ads right away. I think it makes the shoe ads look better. If it makes the artist’s work look weaker, then it probably is not strong enough to begin with. Maybe it’s already like advertising to begin with.
Besides, they can only take the style. They can’t really take the context or the content. Maybe they will try. But in general, rather than feeling threatened, I feel it’s a positive thing. A lot of artists take things from pop culture. I don’t know why pop culture shouldn’t take things from artists. It’s this great, wild free-for-all.
1 / 2 /