Laurie Anderson


14 Monday 14th February 2011

O Superman, the song that made Anderson famous (later wonderfully reworked by Booka Shade)

So, the upcoming exhibit at the Barbican looks at the art scene in New York in the 1970s – focusing on your work as well as Gordon Matta-Clark and Trisha Brown. Do you think there are parallels between that period and this one?

Not very many – it was so different in terms of what people wanted or expected. First of all, the economic realities were that no artists were going to make money from their work – period. Money and goals were considered sort of pathetic. People who wanted to make money and achieve things – we felt sorry for them. It was also a very communal time. We saw each other every day, and had pick-up trucks and were hands-on artists. The physicality of things was completely different.  We also had this romantic idea of being art workers. Not that we weren’t extremely ambitious – we were very self-consciously crating a new scene, which I think is not the case now. There’s a huge amount of pressure on [young artists] to succeed and to carve out their territory. For us the boundaries were kind of nonexistent.

Laurie with one of her inventions, the Viophonograph.

There's a growing sense of anger in my generation, which is coming of age now, towards our parents' generation, who came of age in the seventies. Does that anger resonate with you?

Sure. We were angry at our parents too – it’s no big deal. It’s part of how you make new work. I think it’s probably a good thing. Art comes from anger, comes from love, it comes from a lot of different places. Now, there’s so much frustration – that’s what I feel makes it really difficult. Not that we weren’t frustrated – also, I don’t want to overemphasize how great some of the art was in the seventies. They say ‘Let’s have an art of the seventies show!’, and I look at it and think it’s terrible! It didn’t improve in the can, you know what I mean? There was good and bad stuff then, like any time.

Whenever someone is in love with something, you kind of go, ‘Why? What is that?’ And you kind of fall in love too. You realize that you can fall in love with anything. It’s not about making a beautiful art product, necessarily. I don’t think it’s the obligation of art to make the world a better place. At all. Because you have to ask, ‘Better for who? For you, for me?’

Well, what is the obligation of art?

I don’t think it has one. I think it has to be anarchistic. If it has an obligation, then it looks and acts like propaganda, telling you what to do, be, and buy. Once it has rules, then – I can’t say I know what art is, I know what I think is beautiful, and what I think is beautiful often makes me really uncomfortable – I look at it and think, why is that getting to me? And if it is too polite, too styley, too much like absolutely everything else, I see the impulse and I don’t care.

It’s funny that you say anarchic and uncomfortable, because with the exception of ‘Only an Expert’, there’s an enormous amount of tenderness and compassion [on your album], a kind of quietness. The stereotype is that anarchy and that kind of tenderness are incompatible.

If anarchy is beating a drum and saying, ‘let’s change everything’, then that’s the culture we already live in, like ‘let’s change everything every single day!’ That’s just consumerism. ‘Let’s do it a different way – not a dangerous different way, but a different way, so we can sell it in a different package.’ I don’t think anarchy needs to be angry. In fact, I think tender anarchy is a great goal. It is what makes things a little different from the clamor of cultural products being hyped and bought and sold. I’m not saying anything is wrong with buying and selling stuff, my father was a salesman, and I sell stuff – people just sell stuff. It’s not some kind of crime. It’s just when we start doing that with each other, putting the dollar sign on somebody’s head, and when you start being for sale, that’s it.


There will be daily performances, including one by Anderson, at the Barbican exhibition – you can find the events leaflet at

The exhibition catalogue, Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970s, is published by Prestel and available to purchase via all good bookshops RRP £35 (ISBN 9783 7913 5112 3)

Don't Panic attempt to credit photographers and content owners wherever possible, however due to the sheer size and nature of the internet this is sometimes impractical or impossible. If you see any images on our site which you believe belong to yourself or another and we have incorrectly used it please let us know at and we will respond asap.