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27 avril 2008

Laurie Anderson's new show Homeland raises ideas

For an artist impatient with black-and-white thinking, Laurie Anderson certainly knows a lot about badgers

If Laurie Anderson didn’t already exist, some New York novelist would have to invent her. Artist, musician, singer, storyteller,intellectual, inventor and one-time pop star, she lives with a real-life rock god – Lou Reed – and works from an almost parodically perfect loft in the TriBeCa area of Manhattan. She’s four decades of downtown art scene in a lullaby voice.

At her front door, the yellowed, typewritten nametag “Anderson” gives a clue that she’s been here since 1975, when the area was mangy and the apartment lacked water, electricity or even a roof. Now there are chichi art galleries and a 24-hour pet grooming parlour around the block. Inside, it’s all ergonomic furniture, framed photographs on the walls – there’s one of Reed, another of Lolabelle, her rat terrier – and well-drilled filing cabinets and bookcases.

Trying to break the ice, I compliment Anderson on her bookcases – after all, shelves are what separate us from the beasts. She looks at me steadily, her big eyes glowing under her trademark spiky hair. “Badgers,” she replies. I’m sorry? “Badgers,” she says again. “They have shelves too.”

Anderson studied medicine and then sculpture before her performance career took off, and decades later she remains the eternal student. Steady in tone, wide of eye, she is fascinating because she is fascinated. You may or may not be seduced by the stripped-back staging of her new show, Homeland, when it comes to the Barbican this week. You may or may not fall for her undulent performing voice – slightly heightened from her everyday cadences – or for the manicured electronica of her music. But as she speaks and sings and speak-sings about the images that burrow their way into our brain, from Aristophanes to underwear models, from presidents to terrorists, there’s no denying she’s an American determined to look beyond her own backyard.

Homeland is a different caper to her previous shows, though. The journalistic Happiness (2003) saw her telling stories, from behind her keyboard, about working at McDonald’s, about how she broke her back when she was 11. The End of the Moon (2005) covered her stint as Nasa’s artist in residence. This time there’s no reportage, just new songs. And while her impatience with black-and-white thinking is a theme bubbling under, she’s raising ideas rather than investigating them. “I don’t really have a message,” she shrugs, “and if I had one I wouldn’t try to force it on people. I hate it when people do that, hate it.”

Anderson grew up in a small town outside Chicago before going to New York in 1967 because it looked to her like it would be the centre of the world. “I got to college and it was turmoil,” she says. “It was fantastic. A wonderful time to be a kid.”

Within two years she was performing her first symphony – on car horns. A few years after that, she was performing performance art pieces such as Duets on Ice – in which she played her violin while standing in ice skates on a block of ice. The performance ended when the ice melted. Hey, only in New York. Was downtown in the Seventies really the boho playground it has been painted?

“It really was,” she coos. “The city back then, it was dark, dirty, exciting, you could eat, drink, dance and smoke in the same place. No longer possible! And I was just part of this whole wonderful arts scene where people helped each other. There were no stakes then. Nobody did art to make money. Rent was low, we had the run of lower Manhattan, we were conscious that we were making a scene. Then in the Eighties what happened was, like jazz musicians before us, we went where the work was. Which was Europe.”

And in Europe Anderson became – briefly, bizarrely – a pop star. Her seven-minute single O Superman reached No 2 in Britain in 1981. Sounding both electronic and maternal, like a voicemail message from robot heaven, its success surprised everyone. “Somebody called and said ‘You’re in the charts in England’,” she says. “I didn’t even know what the charts were.”

Her success was too freakish to turn her head. “When you get something that you didn’t work for, and you don’t really know what it is anyway, then you have a very different attitude than if you’ve been scrabbling for it. Plus I was, and still am, a snob. Pop culture is not of interest to me, except as a source of material. I tend to think the more that people like something, the worse it is.”

She continued touring and recording for the next two decades. But she barely troubled the mainstream again, save for co-writing a song on Peter Gabriel’s squillion-selling album So (This is the Picture), and playing now and then with Reed, whom she moved in with in 1995. She has never scrambled for success, she says.

Being from a family that had money, I knew that money wasn’t going to solve anything,” she says. “People with money weren’t happier, they weren’t having a better time, they weren’t laughing more. It was the biggest advantage I was given as a kid. You don’t have to scramble and get rich, you don’t have to do that.

“I have two younger brothers who are identical twins. They are really happy, they live together, they have matching cars, matching birds. They are not married. Just live with each other. We have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy in our family: ‘Go ahead, you have never had girlfriends, go ahead, you don’t see us asking us, do you?’ They are happy. They are great conversationalists. It makes you think, what do you want in life, what are you really doing this for? The money mill, the fame mill, they grind people out. There’s a quote from Balzac, ‘Fame is the sunshine of the dead.’ And that about sums it up.”

But, like it or not, Anderson is pretty rich and fairly famous. She shares a home with Reed a few blocks north, returning to her loft when he’s on tour. Does she ever feel that other people envy her and Reed’s lives? “I try not to look in the world in those ways,” she says carefully, “I really do. I don’t mean to retreat from things, I like to be part of things, but I try not to be part of other people’s negative scenarios.” She pauses, then giggles. “That sounds a very self-help way to put it, doesn’t it? Very Oprah.”

Still, if you did want to steal someone’s artistic life, you’d do well to make it Anderson’s. She’s still gleeful about the time she and her band jammed with some Tuvan throat singers recently: “Just these downtown New York cats and these Mongolian nomads! Beautiful. Wow. Fantastic.” She refers, in passing, to the talks she’s giving, including one for the Smithsonian Institute on Warhol, and one for the Museum of Modern Art on “can you collect performance art?” (“Nooo!”). She’s working on an installation for a new museum of Jewish Thought in San Francisco, which involves beaming some spoken Hebrew direct into people’s heads: she discovered the technology that makes that possible, hypersonics, on a fact-finding trip to the Massachussetts Institute of Technology. Next year, she’ll finally turn Homeland into her first album since 2001.

She’s 61 and still fearsomely cool, daddio – or, in her own words from one of the new songs, “a self-motivated spy who lives by the river”. But with this life, how much self-motivating does she need to get up in the morning? Does she have a routine, is she disciplined? “I just love learning stuff,” she says, “that’s my only discipline. And it doesn’t feel like work, it really doesn’t – I’ve managed to make my hobbies my work.” One of her art projects was walking around California with her dog. “Yeah, stretching it, I know! But, you know, why not? I don’t think we’re here to suffer.”

“My dream,” she says, “is that one day everyone would be an artist. We’d all learn how to pay attention. And no one would have to work any more.” Does she recommend it? “I do,” she says, her wide eyes twinkling. “It’s total fun. It’s just a blast!”

Homeland, Barbican Theatre, London EC2 (020-7638 8891, Wed-May 3, then Norwich Theatre Royal (01603 766400), May 5, 2008

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