Laurie Anderson’s Search for American Identity

And the North Pole.

Literally that moment setting down her bags in her New York City abode (which she shares with husband Lou Reed), the iconic 61-year-old musician, composer, and performance artist extraordinaire Laurie Anderson explains that she just returned from a two-week expedition to Disko Bay, off the coast of Greenland. On board with a crew of oceanographers, geographers, visual artists, filmmakers, and a gaggle of musicians (Leslie Feist, Jarvis Cocker, Vanessa Carlton, Robyn Hitchcock, and KT Tunstall among them), she made the trip to get a first-hand look at the effects of global warming and climate change, and to fulfill a mission she set out on many years ago. "For three months I hitchhiked to the North Pole a long time ago, back in the '70s, but I didn't make it," Anderson says, laughing. "This time it was different—we went on this big Russian trawler with a bunch of scientists that were doing experiments. I was just really dazzled by the place. We were supposed to do projects or something, which I just couldn't do. I was like, 'What do you mean, projects? Write a song on the spot about climate change?' So I was just one of the gawkers. To see glaciers and foxes and whales and polar bears, it was just so wild." But what exactly is the nature of the home she just came back to, the United States? That's the thrust of her latest piece, Homeland—a nearly two-hour rumination about the war in Iraq, issues of personal privacy, freedom, and security, media manipulation, rampant consumerism, environmental decay, and, ultimately, what it means to be an American in 2008. The most overtly political piece in her nearly four-decade performance career, Anderson says the genesis for the project occurred while she was in Japan four years ago crafting a series of short films. One of those pieces was about loss, and deeply troubled by the events in the Middle East, particularly allegations of U.S. torture and prisoner abuse, she conceived Homeland to examine how the America she loves seems to be slipping away. "I really wanted to try to write about what identity means—how much does where you live affect your self-image? You can call that national identity, but that kind of simplifies it, because really I think it does change who you think you are and what you're doing if suddenly you're living in a place that's kinda different than what you thought it was. I think a lot of Americans were suddenly in that place in the last few years, and they kinda went, 'Whaaat? If I'm not the good guy all the time, who am I? Can I be the bad guy? Whoa!?!' "And then you go out of this country and—whether it's the truth or not—the perception is that we're the bad guys, and that's really a shock," continues Anderson. "For people who don't travel a lot, people like Sarah Palin, they don't have this idea. And it's a wonderful fantasy to have, and it's an inspiring one, to think that you and your country have really high ideals—that's a fantastic thing and I would never try to make fun of that or her wanting that, for example. That's a really noble thing. But at the moment, that's not reality." Like so many of Anderson's earlier celebrated stage works—from her playful, irony-laden early-'80s United States pieces to 2004's The End of the Moon (born of her stint as NASA's first artist-in-residence)—Homeland blends storytelling, songs, film, poetry, high-tech gizmos, photography, and of course Anderson's signature electric violin, into a unique, moving whole. One notable switch this time is Anderson's embrace of improvisation, both musical and verbal; among the musicians in her current ensemble are Vashon Island violist Eyvind Kang and Korean-born avant-garde cellist Okkyung Lee (Reed has been making surprise appearances at various performances on the Homeland tour as well). Together they've been merging jazz, electronic, pop, classical, and noise textures into sonic collages that change nightly. She's also built in sections of the show that allow her to work in commentary based on the daily twists of the U.S. presidential campaign. But though the multimedia aspect of Homeland is essential to its emotional impact, it's not quite the sensory overload that some of Anderson's past productions were. "I've done shows where the technology was so out-there that it was like being a tech salesman or something: 'Look at how fast this stuff can go! Wow! How cool is that!'" she laughs. "I didn't mean to do that, but I'm enough of a geek that I can get into it. At one point [Homeland] did have a lot of visual things, and then I was looking at it and thinking, 'Why am I getting a brain hemorrhage? Too much stuff! Too many pictures!' And I didn't know what it was about, so I thought, 'Better pare it down.' You know, when you work on something for a long time and it took a big bite out of you, you don't just want to edit things out and throw them away. But I'm not really making this for myself—I'm making it for an audience, and if it doesn't work for people who are seeing it for the first time, it's not working, so I just simplified it." Homeland's been winning praise as one of Anderson's most incisive, affecting pieces yet, but its political stance has its detractors too. Several times from the stage she's witnessed walkouts, including at a show in Italy earlier this year attended by soldiers from a nearby U.S. military base unaware of Homeland's polarizing content. "It's not the show I would do if I were doing a USO tour," she says. "I'm going to do this show in Israel in November, and I was told by a journalist that I had to take out any antiwar material. He said, 'You know, we're for this war here in Israel...' 'I'm aware of that,' I said. 'Not everyone is, first of all. And are you really telling me I need to edit that stuff out?' And he said that yes, he was. I'm not going to do that. I don't think that what I am saying [in Homeland] is so controversial. But if people choose to see it that way, OK..." "A lot of things are complicated and have a lot of facets," Anderson concludes. "This is not a call to arms, either, because I don't know what to do. I think there are as many answers as there are people, but what you want to do about that—how you feel about who you are and where you live—those are things everybody has to do for themselves, really. I try to tell stories and make images that are really vivid, so people can use it however they want. And that isn't so specific that it just means one thing. I really love things that are open and unresolved and make people go, 'What do I think of that?' I think people know what I'm up to."

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