Where art, politics and communication collide

Featured guest at the 2013 Adelaide Festival, Laurie Anderson appears with Kronos Quartet in the Festival Theatre, gives her solo show Dirtday! at the Dunstan Playhouse, and exhibits selected works at the Anne & Gordon Samstag Art Museum. The Adelaide Review was granted a rare chance to speak with the avant-garde musical star.


A pioneer of performance art and one of the true originals of the experimental arts scene, Laurie Anderson became a pop icon in the 1980s with that extraordinary hit, O Superman. Minimalism’s first chart success, this song’s obscure, breathy vocals and mesmeric oscillating harmonies immediately elevated her to cult status. And in one of the Adelaide Festival’s more adroit moves, she was snaffled up in 1986 in what became one of the event’s most impressive multimedia shows. 

Now she is back, more politically charged than ever, and wanting to tell the world what is wrong with society, technology, and hamburger chains. A modern-day troubadour with her finger on the pulse of contemporary life, she belongs to the Dylan-esque school that observes the world from a street corner: she critiques consumerist society by holding a mirror up to us all. 

Anderson’s solo Festival show, Dirtday! had its genesis in New York’s Occupy Wall Street protest movement a year ago. It is a series of monologues combining song and poetry laced with pesky, angst-ridden social invective decrying corporate greed. She describes it as a “movie-like” show that catapults the listener into a hallucinatory, future-is-now depiction of modern society. 

Dirtday! started up as a solo violin thing, with all sorts of scraping and crunching noises,” Anderson says. “Then it turned into a Wall Street, Occupier Art kind of statement. Wall Street was about doing things your own way, with altruism at its core – cooperation not competition. Words started drifting in and it became increasingly word-orientated. I also wanted to analyse social and political situations, which I find fascinating. From this idea of word, all sorts of stories came into the work – dreams, ideas about evolution, cities and portraits of people. Music is still there, but it became more supportive.” 

Disdainful of technology but paradoxically one who has utilised it heavily throughout her career, she says audiences won’t see stacks of black boxes on stage. “You won’t see that, just a laptop here or there. It’s been exciting to get this show down to a few foot pedals. I’m tired of being a roadie; I’d rather play music than lug boxes.” 

On the Festival’s opening day, Anderson will perform Duets on Ice, an avant-gardist work for which she was best known in the early days of New York’s experimental scene. For this she dons ice skates and stands on two blocks of ice while she plays altered violin. The piece ends when the ice melts. “It’s a very old work from the 70s,” explains Anderson. “The violin has a speaker inside it, although this time it will be a digital descendant of that. The concept will be the same though – loop-based and spanning a long timeframe. One never knows when is it over since it doesn’t have a beginning, middle or end.” 

What happens if we have a hot March in Adelaide? “I’ll compensate if the ice melts too fast,” she whimsically replies. “Maybe I’ll use some roller skates.” 

If Anderson’s idiosyncrasies have forced her down a narrow path of eclecticism, they have also seen her team up with an extraordinary range of collaborators, from novelist William S. Burroughs to Jonathan Demme, Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel. Next is Kronos Quartet: the fruits of these pioneering experimentalists collaborating for the first time will be seen on March 2. 

Anderson will play keyboard, loaded with stored sounds, and recite a lot of rapidly spoken text. “It will be a combination of things: improvisations, words, stories,” she says. “I’ll try something that tells real stories, but really fast, and they’ll play. So far we’ve tried lots of things and have found ourselves in a really interesting place. I’ve found I can read faster than I ever thought, using alphabets of your own, symbols and contexts, not necessarily individual words. It’s just how we might walk down the street and see a panoply of signs, lights and people. We see how things resonate. This work does not have a lot of meaning inside; listeners will wrap their own meaning over it. We find it has some resonance for my life, your life. We realise one is looking for something. We’ll see.” 

“Kronos are also great improvisers, which means they come up with beautiful things. I’ll sing a little something and I find they’ve already arranged it. They know how a string quartet should sound.” 

Is it harder these days for artists to pursue an eclectic path? “Yes,” she replies. “But there is no reason why one can’t go back and forth in one’s ideas. Staying in one’s own group is not good. It would be like debating whether Starbucks or McDonald’s coffee is better. One realises one is such a sucker thinking like this. It’s like the record companies insisting you’re supposed to be an electro-acoustic musician, an experimentalist, a minimalist, a postmodernist or whatever else. I’m not trying to mourn the death of the artist, but I do think it is tougher today to get it out there.” 

Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet, Festival Theatre, Saturday, March 2; Dirtday! at the Dunstan Playhouse, Sunday, March 3; The Language of the Future, at the Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art, Friday, March 1 to Friday, April 19



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