Laurie Anderson, Homeland, 2004–. Performance views.


Many people came to know Laurie Anderson through her 1980 song “O Superman,” which rose to number two on the British pop charts. Anderson has had an eclectic and wide-ranging career as an artist, developing music and multimedia performance works for numerous venues and films. In 2002, she became NASA’s first artist-in-residence, and in 2007, she was the recipient of the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize. She will perform her latest work, Homeland, a “concert poem,” as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, July 22–26.

HOMELAND HAS TAKEN all sorts of guises. Most things you write in the studio, and then you go out and play them. Much of the material for this project, about forty songs, was developed on the road, and it keeps evolving. (There are about sixteen that I’ll use at Lincoln Center.) While it’s stabilized a bit, it’s not a final form; it’s really fun to do something that doesn’t have a final instance.

Homeland is one-third politics, one-third pure music, and one-third strange dreams. The project began while I was at the 2005 World Expo in Aichi, Japan. I was doing a film called Hidden Inside Mountains, a series of visual fables presented on a huge stage. They had written words—postcards of sorts. One of them had a story about the feeling of losing things, like when you’ve lost something and you’re trying to put your finger on what it was. And you think, what’s that thing you’ve lost? Car keys? Password? The Japanese translator was asking me, “What did you lose?” And I said, “No, it’s about the feeling of losing things, not the thing itself.” And she asked, “Well, when did you lose it?” And I thought, “Ah, now I’m being psychoanalyzed by the translator. How great.” But I really did try to think about when this happened, and I realized it was when we were invading Iraq, and that what I’d lost was my country. That was the moment I discovered I’d really like to write about this sensation. How does your sense of place affect who you are?

I was feeling very detached in a lot of ways. Homeland currently begins with a quote from Aristophanes’s The Birds. Last summer, I performed it at the Herod Atticus at the Acropolis; it was the most hallucinatory experience to be quoting an ancient Greek play in an ancient theater in Greece. The theater was full of birds, and the story was, of course, about birds. There’s a part of Aristophanes’s play that describes a time before the world began. Since there was no land, only air, the birds were constantly in flight. The first bird was a lark, and one day, her father died, which was a colossal problem. Burying your parents was a big deal in Greek tragedy. What do you do with their bodies? So the lark is panicking, wondering what to do, and she finally decides to bury her father in the back of her own head. I describe this act as the beginning of memory, and to me, it had a haunting connection to our century, in terms of groundlessness—how much we’re detached from a sense of place. It’s all very theoretical, very digital. A lot of the stories in Homeland are about the disappearance of things. Record stores, phone booths—what it means when things turn into numbers, and how you deal with that.

The war was the thing that inspired this. And since this is Artforum, I’ll say I was really surprised at how quiet artists and intellectuals were, after Susan Sontag stopped talking. When I say Homeland is political, it’s in a very loose sense—though some of the work is quite specific. I’m sure some people will find it didactic. And I can see that reaction; it’s actually my biggest fear. As an artist, I want to create something that’s very open-ended and that gives people, myself first of all, a feeling of freedom. Something people could use as a way to get out of traps. I’m always looking for that: How do I get out of the most recent trap I’ve built?

I wrote a song with a verse that goes, “Only an expert can deal with a problem.” It comes—like a lot of this stuff—from being annoyed at things, and one of the things that really annoys me is living in a culture that’s so much about therapy. We always assume there’s something wrong with us. I like to start from the opposite place, which is that there’s nothing wrong, you’re just trying to live. It’s hard to live. And so all of this stuff about “Ask your doctor . . .” seems preposterous to me. Of course, I’m not talking do-it-yourself brain surgery. I’m just saying, step up to the plate a little bit. That’s one of the things the Dalai Lama is always harping on. The news is about bad things, but those are exceptions. Look at how well behaved most people are all the time. You know, we should probably loosen up a bit, actually, not be quite so buttoned up. I like the world the way it is; I’m not really doing this to change anything. Art can change the world, but the relationship between art and politics is so problematic, and I’m careful to steer away from making art into propaganda. I just like to, as an artist, try to describe stuff in a way that maybe is a little bit different than it seems at a first look.

— As told to David Velasco