On the closing weekend of Berlin's 30th Transmediale festival, the multimedia artist talks to The Wire's deputy editor about language, stories and the breakdown of democracy
Artist and musician Laurie Anderson could not have been a better choice to close the 30th anniversary of Transmediale, the Berlin based festival of multimedia arts. Not only had she performed at the festival in its early days (and her 1995 CD-ROM installation Puppet Motel was on display for visitors to explore on an aquarium-blue vintage iMac) but she was particularly suited to this year’s festival theme, “ever elusive”. Anderson’s work is hard to contain within any one genre or medium, but making connections through storytelling is at its core.
On the final afternoon of Transmediale, Anderson gave a talk, "Going Places With Stories", where she discussed working with NASA as artist-in-residence and the future of Mars exploration, and another project of hers that questioned the idea of borders and prisons by projecting prisoners’ images onto statues in gallery sites, allowing them to interact with gallery visitors and, as one of the prisoners put it, virtually escape. She also described an ongoing project to build a virtual environment for words, a sort of immersive, navigable story palace. Beforehand, the festival’s artistic director Kristoffer Gansing introduced her, saying “Laurie Anderson would make a great president of the US – for one thing, she tells the truth”. He got a round of applause. Anderson does tell the truth, but as the poet Emily Dickinson would have it, she tells it slant. In her songs and stories she plays with sly what-if suggestions taken to their most extreme extension to show the limits of metaphor. She invites audiences in to see how her stories, and by extension stories in general, are constructed.
Later that evening, her festival-closing performance was a meditation on the end of empire, and all shades of loss, from mourning loved ones and the unreliability of memory, to the end of expectations of American democracy and how the future will unfold. It was tempered with levity, curious wonderings, and a goofy sequence where she played/sang an electronic violin piece through a bit of electronics held in her mouth. It was a dark performance – but somehow, moments of hope shone through. She was interviewed by The Wire’s Deputy Editor Emily Bick.
Emily Bick: I noticed one thing about your performance, you were wearing a [US] flag pin. Those are usually worn by newscasters, or by politicians who want to side with the official version of events –especially now when that’s looking particularly dark and ominous. I just wanted to know why you chose to wear it.
Laurie Anderson: A friend of mine gave me that pin, last week. And, said, you know, “How do you feel about it, what’s going on here?” And I said, “Oh, probably about the way most people feel – very troubled”. At the same time it reminded me of the things I really admire about the American constitution. It’s really well written. Or I thought it was! No – it seems to be crumbling. So I suppose everyone tries to wait by and see they’re defending the real values of their country. I’m just one of those people that feels like celebrating what’s really quite remarkable about the constitution and the way that democracy is framed. I don’t know that it’s so much a flaw of the way that checks and balances work, because they have worked, to this point, and the judiciary has been able to push back Congress – but in the last ten years, government has been stalled, because really, there has been no cooperation. Zero. So we’re not able to push through things, and now it’s just real chaos. And why is it happening and how is it happening? Through language. It’s basically saying, “You’re wrong.” “No, I didn’t do that, I didn’t say that.” “You’re lying.” “No, you’re lying.” Whoa. “The law doesn’t relate to me.” The gloves are off.
You did talk about how one of the things that you always liked about language and stories was that they were ambiguous. This seems to be weaponising that ambiguity, by trying to fix meanings to things that are not connected to facts.
Yeah. Well, it was very clever, that Trump would like the FBI to investigate Obama’s relationship to Russia. It’s unbelievable. Unbelievable. This is exactly what bullies do. I mean, as a bully, you’re like, “Oh no, we’re talking about this other story, not that story.” No. We’re talking about that. I have to hand it to him, he’s a master of chaos creation. A master! There’s no one I could think of who’s so good at that, just distracting around anything, changing the rules of the story. Who does that? So, on that level, it’s completely fascinating for me to watch, and it is for most people; they’re just, like, “What? You can’t say that! Really?” Yes, you can. You can say it, you can put it in words, put it right out there.
You framed this as an existential crisis rather than as a political way of framing things, this chaos that is indescribable. How can we find a narrative to explain? You described Trump as a toddler in your performance, when you were talking about the Child Whisperer [a parenting expert who communicates with and calms unruly toddlers] – and how can you stop people who don’t respect conventions of storytelling, and logic, and time and things that actually happened?
You have to speak in their language, in the way that the Child Whisperer did, in the language of a child that wants something. You have to acknowledge what they’re telling you that they want. And so for example, after that temper tantrum, just to be a little bit supercilious about it, people didn’t appreciate his speech enough, and so he had a temper tantrum about that. I don’t want to be a psychologist with him – so I won’t say any more about what I think he wants, or doesn’t want, or is or isn’t. But it’s not a desire that will ever be satisfied. Ever. It’s insatiable. The way love is insatiable. And the way lack of love is like that too. It’s like one of the hungry ghosts of Tibet. They will wander forever, never having enough. I think that’s one thing that is really hitting people now: what is enough? What is it to see all of this; what do you need from it personally? Our constitution guarantees the pursuit of happiness, and for what, more stuff? I’m an artist who wants probably less, not more. I do not want to open a London office. I do not want to have lots of people coming around.
Wasn’t there an original constitutional debate about whether those words about the pursuit of happiness should be ‘pursuit of property’? And then ‘happiness’ won out?
Of course. This is now about your freedom to have a lot of things. I wish they had shaped that a little bit more. But they were property owners. And all this was written for them. And now all these guys are back. So, forget [Founding Father-themed musical] Hamilton. I mean, I’m one of the few people in the world who walked out on Hamilton. Because, first of all, I don’t know why I thought it wouldn’t be a musical. It was clearly advertised as a musical. And then I went there and I’m like, “I hate musicals!” and I really do. They just give me hives. And I thought this would be better because it was rapping, but it was just another musical, with people prancing around. I didn’t feel that I got a better idea of the people who wrote the constitution. Did they really do that much singing and dancing? I don’t think so. Do we need this set to music? I don’t know – probably not.
I like the idea of insatiability, and Trump being insatiable. Right now we have the insatiable news cycle and the Twitter stream. There’s no time to stop and reflect and think about things. And as that accelerates, there’s this parallel drive for chaos and tearing everything down, the Breitbart thing, which you spoke about in your talk in the afternoon. Are those two things interconnected?
It’s a time-honoured technique of takeover; use of chaos is a way to do that. People are kept very preoccupied, in a constant state of shock, and in a constant state of disequilibrium. And they own the chance to go way beyond the script, because they’re too preoccupied with these breaches of decorum and justice and civility. So meanwhile [the people] don’t see that the whole thing is being rewritten, and that it is now all one big corporation, and that’s it. It has no interest in your welfare. None. It would like to take what it can. And you can try to be happy, try to pretend it’s in your interest. But it is not. I think a lot of people didn’t see this coming as quickly. The escalation of it is really shocking. We kind of knew that business was running the show, for quite a while. We’ve been outsourcing everything. Healthcare, prisons, the army, science… everything. The government is not in charge, it hasn’t been involved. So this, whatever it is, takeover or whatever it is, I see it as a kind of corporate coup. I really do. It is the end of that social contract. I think Hamilton should just close shop right now.
Maybe Hamilton was a last gasp of the ideals of that are most celebrated at the end of an empire –because it’s dying, it’s symptomatic of that. I think a lot of people hoped Trump was a last gasp in the other direction.
No, he won. And some of the groups I move in – that is a really positive thing, there are a lot of groups now – but they are not effective, and they are being dismantled as well. I don’t want to be pessimistic, I mean to be realistic, and there is a resistance.
The very last phrase of your performance was “Now we can begin again”. Can we begin again, and what kinds of tools should we be looking for to tell new stories and start over?
Of course it isn’t really possible to begin – but we are seeing things breaking, so that’s pretty clear. This isn’t an answer, it’s more of a question. How can we begin again? So it’s a collaboration with the audience, hopefully... I think that the resistance will be in the language, and I think that it will be artists that do it.