She came from outer space

Laurie Anderson has beamed down to take the controls of this year's Meltdown festival and sets her phaser to stun Phil Johnson
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The Independent Culture
Talking to Laurie Anderson feels slightly strange, just as you expect it might. Though she's surprisingly normal, wonderfully funny and charming, and she talks brilliantly about all kinds of things, at the back of your mind there's always the feeling that the fashionably dressed woman in her forties sitting next to you in a room at the South Bank might just be some kind of an alien. Of course, her disguise - black leather jacket, designer scarf and elegantly tailored trousers - is impeccable, but that only serves to heighten your suspicions. As she sits on a sofa drinking her coffee and smoking her cigarettes, the famous elfin haircut and puckish grin might well conceal, you think, a little green woman from Mars.

To see her as an alien isn't being wilfully flippant or demeaning to Anderson, who is the most famous performance artist in the world. Rather it represents a view based on good old English empiricism. For what on earth, you want to know, is she on about? Since she first came to prominence in this country via her surprising pop hit of the early Eighties, "O Superman", Anderson has seemed to personify the successful face of the New York avant- garde through richly textured performances that blend high-art content with satisfyingly showbiz stage-values. What they actually mean, however, is often blindingly unclear. They may be litmus readings of our alienation, but you can't read the readings, and though to look for answers might be considered unforgivably gauche, it doesn't stop you wanting them.

Other alien presences also intrude, both in her conversation and in the broader frame of reference. Lou (Reed), Peter (Gabriel), Brian (Eno), the Davids (Bowie and Byrne) seem to be fellow occupants of her conceptual spaceship, though they are hardly any more substantial themselves. Much of the Zeit's Geist, and the cutting edge of contemporary culture, appears to be the property of people who you just can't imagine putting the cat or the milk bottles out, other than, perhaps, as an ironic assemblage, with one inside the other.

Whatever, there's a serious alien invasion orchestrated by Anderson going on in London at the moment, and it will last until July. She is very big in the area of SE1, particularly. Dancing in the Moonlight with her Wigwam Hair, an exhibition curated originally for New York's Guggenheim Museum, opened yesterday at the Royal Festival Hall; an installation for the window of Hugo Boss's shop at 184 Regent Street was unveiled last week; and for two weeks beginning on Saturday 21 June, Anderson is directing the latest Meltdown concert series at the South Bank, to which she has invited a whole crew of fellow aliens to beam themselves down. Lou Reed, Brian Eno, Robert Wilson and Spalding Gray are just a few of those due to perform, along with violinist Gidon Kremer, jazz spieler Ken Nordine, one-woman soap opera Heather Woodbury, avant-garde theatre director Richard Foreman, art-rocker Arto Lindsay and our own much-loved man who fell to earth, Ivor Cutler.

There's also the requisite website of Meltdown on-line (http://www.meltdown.co.uk), a special listening room for audio work, and scheduled talks by the participating artists. On the final day, Saturday 5 July, there will be a gala performance in aid of Warchild on the theme of rescue, dedicated to the work of the Red Cross, which will feature Reed, Wilson, dancer Bill T Jones, composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and Anderson herself, who will also appear in four other concerts. It's a stunningly conceived programme and, on paper at least, Anderson has picked a top-class team for her season. So, as the song goes, what's it all about, Laurie?

"There are two main themes," she says. "Stringed instruments and the voice, though there are exceptions to this. I tried to think of people who use their voice in interesting ways and it's like, what can you do with very little material, what are artists doing, what can you do? And, in terms of economics, it's really nice to see people not spending a lot of money. After all, Broadway does that very well. There's also going to be several things that I'm doing myself. Actually, every time I come to London or have a meeting somebody says, `Hey, how about another evening?'."

Both in the direction of the series generally, and in her own contributions, Anderson seems to have dropped the hi-tech trappings of her recent concerts in favour of a newly conceived poverty of means. When she last appeared here in 1995, her solo show was a technological feast of cunningly contrived digital imagery, which climaxed in a multi-screen scroll of Internet codes. It didn't as much embrace the future as roll around on the floor with it in a total, cyberspace-style coupling, though it remained typically cold and objectified at the same time. "After that tour," she says, "I had a severe reaction and I thought, `What do you need all this stuff for?' When I started off working in multi-media all you needed to know was a few things about a film projector and a little bit about audio and slides. Now you've got to fill your brain with all this useless crud, and the escalation just scares me. I was in Italy and these people from MIT had just come over and they were saying to the Italians, `You know, unless you really get hooked up and get up to speed, you're going to be one of the digitally homeless' - a promise that becomes kinda threatening. It's like they're left saying, `Well, we can cook!'

"It's quite weird, this pressure to stay up to speed, to get on line, get more memory, more everything, and it's like bankruptcy. For a lot of people I know it's like they're serious speed-freaks and it's torturing them to keep up. It's the most amazing marketing scheme of the century to say to people that they'll be left in the dust, which in the US is their worst fear, truly - that they won't be hip or they'll be out of the loop. Where people once wanted bigger cars and bigger offices, now they want smaller, tinier things. The aesthetic of the small is very interesting: the tiniest chip, the smallest watch or car-phone, and it's truly one of my worst fears that I'm a kind of electronic salesperson, like in the last show where I was going, `Look at this, it all works don't it?' You can do that at a trade show. The new show I'll be doing in Meltdown, Speed of Darkness, is a very dark look at technology, and it's just me, playing violin, mixing with my left hand, kinda DJing, and you can see all the strings."

The closing Warchild gala results, says Anderson, from her work preparing a film on the Red Cross for which she has watched hours and hours of disaster footage. "Most Hollywood films are 95 per cent people blowing each other up," she says, "and while I don't think that art should be instructional I'm getting a little bit sick about seeing so many bloody stumps. So, I thought, how about a film about rescue and repair?" The idea of the piece is that Brian Eno will be involved somewhere and that the opening sequence will be an orchestration of a dance by Bill T Jones. "But in a festival like this there's no time to rehearse," she says. "It will be the last evening and it's making me incredibly nervous. I think Lou Reed will probably do the vocals and that musicians will come and go, but it has all the makings of one of the great disasters and it could last for four hours. I keep saying, `Keep it simple, keep it simple', and then I do this! But it will be fun."

On non-Meltdown matters, Anderson says that the much-trumpeted conceptual theme-park in Barcelona that she and Peter Gabriel were to design is, evidently, no nearer to completion. "I see Peter once in a while in New York," she says, "but I don't know if it will ever happen, or if Peter would really like to build it. The closer it gets to being real the more he likes to re-think the basic issues. I think it's a wonderful dream but actually to build it would be an anti-climax." Anderson, however, still loves theme parks. "My favourite is Dollywood in Nashville. I was thinking about it because when the sheep was cloned they called it Dolly, and everyone who works there looks suspiciously alike, all with the same kind of Smokey-Mountain features, and when you read a list of the credits for the park you realise that they're all Dolly Parton's relatives. So when I think of the sheep I think of the Partons. Also, when Dolly's in residence, she flies a flag which is this giant bra, and the cloning element becomes the mammary element, like art imitating life."

At the close of the interview there's a sudden whoosh and an enormous mothership breaks through the Royal Festival Hall's ceiling, entrapping Anderson in a translucent beam that carries her up into the spacecraft's capacious belly. From a balcony on the side little green men wave their goodbyes to me and the PR woman, and then turn to embrace Laurie in an intimate but somehow sexless embrace. Only joking.

Meltdown runs from 30 May to 6 July, at the SBC, London SE1. Booking and information: 0171-960 4242

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