Making Art in the Age of Trump
The artist and musician Laurie Anderson reflects on the power of political rhetoric, why she voted for Hillary Clinton, and why she hated Hamilton.
Listening to Laurie Anderson’s debut record, 1982’s Big Science, today, is something like finding an old prophecy that perfectly explains the present day. The title track heralds sprawl and maybe geoengineering (“I think we should put some mountains here. Otherwise, what are the characters going to fall off of?”). “O Superman” warns of ever-present death from the air in an era of jingoism (“Here come the planes. They’re American planes. Made in America.”). Some of those lyrics, intoned drily over robotically menacing synths, seem to speak to the ongoing presidential election: “This is your Captain—and we are going down, we are all going down, together. And I said: Uh oh. This is gonna be some day.”
Anderson didn’t cease her political involvement with piquant critique of Reagan-era America. It’s been an ongoing theme in her work, through Homeland, a sardonic tour through George W. Bush’s security-obsessed society, and into her more recent projects, including an ever-changing set she calls The Language of the Future, a title she first used decades ago. Anderson performed a version at Moogfest, a music and tech festival in Durham, N.C., in May, the latest in a spring sprint. In April, she was at Big Ears, in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she performed her own work and also oversaw a drone-y installation of her late husband Lou Reed’s guitars and amplifiers. She spent much of May in England, where she was guest director of the Brighton Festival.
Her Moogfest set was a wide-ranging collection of “stories about storytelling,” as Jon Pareles aptly put it, heavily focused on political communication. She dissected Americans’ love of military jargon, mocked the “If you see something, say something” campaign, and delivered an extended analogy between Donald Trump’s plan for a border wall with Mexico and Aristophanes’s The Birds, in which a philosopher tries to convince avians to construct a sky barrier. She tells the bizarre tale of her correspondence with John F. Kennedy—when she was a 13-year-old student council candidate and he a presidential candidate—and her shock on receiving a book that included his quotations about the value of the arts. After the show, Anderson sipped a kolsch and talked about what makes Donald Trump such an effective communicator, why she voted for Hillary Clinton rather than Bernie Sanders, and why she hated Hamilton. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
David Graham: How many of the stories in your show should be taken to be literally true?
Laurie Anderson: They’re all literally true! The one about Kennedy was really strange. I hadn’t remembered that until I thought, what will I do at the Kennedy Center? You know, when they gave me that book of quotes, I had forgotten about him, and then I thought, what a great thing for a president to say. Nobody says that. He was probably the last president who said anything about culture. Bernie once in a while says something, but he doesn’t make it big at all. I mean it’s a huge industry. Music, movies, ballet … It’s like it’s erased from the picture. It’s deadly. Republicans completely go ballistic when you talk about this. The thing that’s safe to talk about is security and the military and that’s it. On the other hand, that is our biggest industry, is arms. That’s what we do, so.
Graham: Why do you think politicians don’t talk about it?
Anderson: Because they’d be killed! It’s just political death to talk about the arts. Then it’s the issue of funding for the arts and how unimportant they are. I think for some politicians it’s like, “Should we fund sports?” No! They can fund themselves. It would be ridiculous to have government fund sports. New York is a huge cultural hub, culture brings in a lot of money, so just on that basis alone, you’d think that they’d make a little bit of a nod to the cultural industry, which is huge. The film industry, the opera industry, the museum industry, the music industry, it’s all of these.
Graham: Are the arts in a more precarious position than in the past?
Anderson: Yeah. I think people will always make arts, but it’s harder now. I really think it is.
Graham: Because of fewer funding organizations? Fewer audiences?
Anderson: Mmm. Well, that’s hard to say, because there’s suddenly a much bigger audience for musicals and stuff.
Graham: Have you seen Hamilton?
Anderson: [Sighs] I saw half of Hamilton. I walked. I just, you know, I thought, “It will be an exception, it won’t be like a musical.” I love all music except musicals. They just make me crazy. I just had to leave. I went to one to see a production designer’s work—he was putting something down on this string, and he said, “You gotta see this, it looks so real.” And so I went and it was the musical Cats. I sat down and it starts out, “Da-da-da Cats! Da-da-da CATS!” I was like, “Oh my god, I’m gonna have a brain hemorrhage if I just stay here for 30 more seconds.” So we’re jammed in and I’m going, “Excuse me, excuse me.” People are like, “What? It just started?” I never saw the trick, and I just never saw more than like four bars of it. And Hamilton I left, you know, halfway. Did you see it?
Graham: No. But people keep telling me I need to.
Anderson: [shakes head] Do you like musicals?
Anderson: You won’t like it. That’s the thing.
Graham: That’s the the thing, they say, well, it’s different—
Anderson: It’s not that different. It’s not that different. It’s history lite, and musical lite, and it’s just … It’s horrible. [laughs] Maybe I should be more open-minded. I just hate it.
Graham: You’ve been recycling the title of this work, “The Language of the Future,” for decades. When you play this particular version of the show, how consistent is it from show to show?
Anderson: It’s not at all the same. In the last maybe 12 shows I’ve done, they’ve all been different. Some are all lullabies. At the Brighton Festival, one was a trio, with some really amazing musicians. And then I also did some concerts for dogs there, which was really strange. I love playing for dogs. The first time I did it, people said, “Oh, can you do that in our city?” I didn’t want to be the artist who was playing concerts for dogs. Now I am the artist who does the concerts for dogs.
Graham: What do you like about it?
Anderson: It started out as a fluke. I was about to give a talk at RISD, a commencement speech, and I was feeling guilty about it because I had to say things, to be encouraging to young artists. Like, why not? But it was saying things like, Don’t worry about your student loans. Don’t worry about getting a great job in the art world, the music world. Easy! I was thinking, Oh, I’m such a fraud. I was there with Yo-Yo Ma. It was so hot, we wearing these stupid mortarboards, and I said, “You know, I have this fantasy that I’m playing a concert and I look out and the audience is dogs.” And he said, “That’s my fantasy too.” I said, “Are you kidding?” So we said, well the first person who gets to do it has to invite the other person. I got to do it in Sydney, Australia. I got to invite all my favorite playwrights and poets and dancers, sculptors, musicians, tai chi people, really really fun. I told the producer, “I’m also gonna do a concert for dogs.” He didn’t say, “Concert for dogs?” He just writes down, “Concert for dogs.”
So we did the show and we thought a few hundred dogs would show up. Thousands. They were all up the steps to the Sydney Opera House. It was a really short show, like 20 minutes. It starts out in a lot of the frequencies that dogs like. I tried to avoid the really low rumbly things because a lot of dogs, whether they’re big or small, hate that stuff. Thunder, it’s like “Aaaah.” It’s not good. And there are a lot of Australian dogs who just. Want. To. Rooooock. They were all so well behaved. I love the droolers. The droolers were in the front row, just like [imitates a dog with its tongue hanging out]. They’re so sweet. So then, at the end since they were all so well-behaved, we said, “Okay, let’s make some sounds.” The little dogs come out, “arf arf,” these little yappy things. Then the middles come on, let’s go. Then the big ones [grunts]. For five minutes all of these dogs barked and howled. I’m telling you it was the most beautiful sound I ever heard because they were just doing it for the hell of it, because they could. It sounded good because they’re pack animals and they’re like “Yeahhhhhhh! Yeahhhh! Woo!” Now in Brighton I did it because I was the artistic director of the Brighton Festival, which again was—there I did a sort of stand-up thing, which was really fun. I’d never done stand-up. Because I’m the artistic director of the festival, no one could stop me! You know, there wouldn’t be someone to say, maybe, maybe you should try out your stand-up in a smaller venue, instead of at the Dome. But since I was the director I was like, “OKAAY!!”
Graham: How did you like it?
Anderson: I loved it. I just want to become a stand-up comedian.
Graham: Humor has always been an important part of your work, maybe more than some of your peers.
Anderson: Yeah, I had a bunch of, like, really gloomy peers! No, I didn’t. It makes people happy, it makes me happy, I like to laugh. I like absurd situations. We live in an incredibly, ridiculously absurd world. I mean, do you think Trump is going to be president?
Graham: That’s a funny question. I was going to ask you. I mostly write about politics and I moonlight as a music writer.
Anderson: Interesting! So what’s your take?
Graham: I don’t know. I look at the numbers and I read all the analyses that explain why because of the demographics and because of all these things it’s very hard for him to win. I go to his rallies and there’s—there’s an energy to them, and it’s a scary energy, but you can absolutely feel it. It’s like being in a mob.
Anderson: Whoooooa. Oh my god. Oh my god. On the other hand, I don’t blame them, because—did you know what the average American’s savings is?
Graham: Something terrifying.
Anderson: $500. That’s what people have put away for a bad day. That means you’re a flat tire or a broken limb away from the street. So they have every right to be furious. I mean, he’s the only one who’s saying it.
Graham: Well, and Bernie.
Anderson: Yeah, but … yeah.
Graham: What were you going to say?
Anderson: Yeah, but the one who’s appealing to people on a really gut level. Bernie is heavier, and sort of more reasonable, so he doesn’t do what you’re saying is the mob thing. Have you been to his rallies as well?
Anderson: Can you imagine him having a chance?
Graham: Initially I thought no, then maybe, and now no.
Anderson: Yeah, that’s pretty much what I think.
Graham: Do you think Trump could win?
Anderson: I didn’t think he could get past the first state! So, my opinion isn’t really worth that much. I’ve been wrong over and over. I do think he could, just on the basis that I didn’t think he could get anywhere and now he’s got a lot of traction.
Graham: You engage a lot with politics in your work.
Anderson: I do. It’s a tough thing talking to power. It’s very, very tricky without sounding very billboardy. You have to twine your opinion into the rhetoric. So, it’s really interesting challenge.
Graham: Do you think you’ve gotten better at doing that over time?
Anderson: I don’t know. It’s difficult. You want to be really clear who you’re talking to in something like that. So William Burroughs for example invented a very good way of using the word “you.” The word “you” meant you people in the audience, you Americans, you … He would speak to those people. And you would know who “you” was. Not many people are skilled at that. Don Trump is very skilled at that. That’s why he’s doing so well. He speaks right to those people. He’s not in the third-person kind of thing that Hillary, and Bernie too, are doing. They’re not going for the gut response. Don is.
Part of that is because it’s a demagogic thing to do. “You should do this.” “I will make you great.” It’s very personal. “You’re going to be great again. You used to be great, but now you’re going to be great again.” You’re like, this is such horseshit, you know? But he’s got a whole messianic thing going on. He’s good. He’s good. He’s really good. He understands language really well. As soon as he decided Marco was “Little Marco,” Little Marco was dead. He would never be just Marco, he’d be Little Marco, and that word “little” would be ringing in the back of everybody’s mind. “Lyin’ Ted,” same thing. Now he’s gonna go after Hillary. I think she’s a capable person. She’d probably do a pretty good job as a corporate president, but how exciting is that for people? Not very. I voted for her, by the way. I went in to vote for Bernie, and I just … I voted for Hillary because I want a woman president. It’s as simple as that. I just want a woman president.
Graham: What would art in the Trump era be like?
Anderson: You just saw it! It’s regretful right now. I have applied for an Australian visa. And I’m getting it, actually, as it turns out.
Anderson: I guess.
Graham: Would you move?
Anderson: I’m not someone to leave a sinking ship. But when the ship really does start sinking, I’m not sure what I would do. I like living. I need to be free. Just think of what would happen if some of Trump’s policies really go into effect. If he really tried to deport 11 million people? He’s going to have to—they are going to have to be checkpoints everywhere. For everyone. For you, for me. “Let me see your papers.” Otherwise he’s going to have to totally back off. If he really does it, that’s how you do it. And … that’s …. that’s a police state. So I’m a little on the pessimistic side. Are you?
Graham: It varies from day to day. I feel particularly pessimistic as a member of the media, that we are part of the problem.
Anderson: Oh, you are! Are you kidding? Part of the problem?
Graham: But I don’t know what to do about that.
Anderson: You gotta find another way. Like, instead of writing about—see that’s why I’m citing this Times article yesterday [in my show]. It’s really helpful to—like, walk through the wall. The wall is insane. That’s why I put this thing about Aristophanes in there. It’s insane. There are two major, gigantic rivers—the Rio Grande, have you seen the Rio Grande? It’s huge. It’s going to be going through the wall, and so is the Colorado. If you just think of how to write about the absurdity of that and let people kind of break it down for themselves and go, “Oh, wow, that’s actually crazy. That’s actually crazy!”
Graham: I suspect the people who are reading The New York Times, or The Atlantic, already get that—
Anderson: Right. So who are you writing for?
Graham: The Atlantic.
Anderson: Oh, gosh. Yeah.
Graham: Speaking of pessimism, I saw you perform Homeland in fall of 2008. That was a time when people were somewhat optimistic. Obama’s election was on the horizon. What’s your view on the last eight years?
Anderson: He had such a hard time. They gave him a really hard time. He’s treading water. He did some good things, but you know, it’s so touching to see someone who didn’t do what he said, and I can’t blame him, I mean, just the numbers are impossible to do. So, I feel—I mean, it’s not tragic, but it’s really disappointing. He tried. We should be proud of a lot of the things he did. It wasn’t a waste of time. But there are a lot of things that didn’t work out at all.
Graham: There’s a tech focus at the festival, and people talk about “the language of the future” in a techie way, but it seems like you mean it as a warning. During the show you talked about people getting distracted by gadgets like Google Glass. Do you think searching for a language of the future is dangerous?
Anderson: No, it’s a good thing to do. I think we’ll get over the really awkward hump of technology and be able to use more it more easily. Now it’s really—that’s why I brought up this thing about using military language. Like, [stentorian voice] “How is it on the ground?” You’re like, “What are you talking about? You’re in an office! Are you talking to your tanks out there? Your drone operators?” It’s so seductive, that everybody wants to use military lingo. [laughs] People in my—I have a small office in Manhattan, and whenever they do that I’m just like, “Grrrrr! Don’t say, ‘Copy that!’ Just say, ‘Okay, that sounds good.’ Don’t say, ‘Copy that.’ Grrr!”
Graham: I found myself thinking about how often I do that.
Anderson: Ahhh, you shouldn’t feel bad about that. It’s just the way people talk. We do absorb that, and language—words create the world. It can look so different depending on how you describe that sky and that light. It can either be really threatening, or neutral, or it can be beautiful. It can move between those things so fast. It can be lonely, it can look like a Hopper painting, or it can look like a warm sunset. Mood can shift like drr-drr-drr-drr! We have so much power, so language is how it gets built. So that’s why Trump, who’s tone deaf, is building something really alien, and very frightening, so … Oh god, I hope he doesn’t win.