Laurie Anderson Gets Political

Concern with poverty and homelessness has invaded the work of the popular performance artist, who commands a stage for 2 hours in her new `Empty Places'

`IF I had to sum it up in one word,'' says Laurie Anderson about her latest show, ``I'd have to say it's really about suffering. And that's a scary thing for me to say and write about. Because it's not clever - you know?'' Cleverness is one of many qualities Ms. Anderson has been credited with during her career as a musician, songwriter, storyteller, sculptor, director, and all-around ``performance artist'' with a widespread following. In her six-hour stage work ``United States,'' her musical film ``Home of the Brave,'' and pieces for various other media, she has explored American culture and folkways with energy and wit.

In her new multimedia work ``Empty Places,'' she probes a subject that's new and risky for her: the social problems of American life at the end of the '80s. ``Empty Places'' recently opened the seventh annual Next Wave festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and will soon begin a national and international tour.

Also due soon is ``Strange Angels,'' an album on the Warner Bros. label that contains several selections from the ``Empty Places'' music score. Meanwhile, the Next Wave continues its busy schedule through Dec. 3 (see highlights in box at lower right).

``I've been sort of staying away from [politics] for a while,'' Anderson told me during a recent interview in the BAM playhouse. ``And now I really feel like saying something. Mostly because ... after several years of big changes [in American life], you start seeing what the results of those changes are, and I'm personally sort of horrified by some of them.''

The conditions Anderson has in mind are visible in cities like New York, where she is based. ``I just walk by my own door,'' she says, ``and there are eight new guys sleeping on the ledges. There's been a lot of half-hearted talk about this, but nobody's really talking about how different it is to live here now.''

The songs and stories of ``Empty Places'' deal partly with such problems as homelessness and poverty. Anderson notes that there's ``a lot about men and women in it, as well - that kind of politics. There's also a lot about language and electronics.''

Add these elements up, and you have a portrait of contemporary life that's also a portrait of Laurie Anderson at this stage of her career - commanding the stage all by herself for nearly two hours, surrounded by giant slide and movie screens, expressive lighting, and a battery of electronic instruments. It's a prime example of ``performance art,'' an avant-garde hybrid that has been criticized for staying apolitical, but may now be changing its priorities.

``People are just beginning to be more politically aware,'' Anderson says. ``We kind of sailed through the last elections, and as far as I'm concerned there was just a lot of rhetoric going on, and not really saying, `Okay, let's really look at what we've made. Look around! Look how different this is!'''

That doesn't mean politics should be the main business of art, in Anderson's view. ``It's not artists' responsibility to point to politics,'' she says, ``any more than for politicians - as currently is happening - to decide things about art. Both those things are pretty strange.

``But there are dynamics between [art and politics], and they should be allowed to happen,'' she continues. ``I'm trying to show what the difference is between freedom and change, for example.'' While her intentions are serious, she tries to avoid any hint of didacticism, preferring to put aesthetics first. ``I'm not trying to say anything,'' she says with a smile. ``I'm trying to show it.''

ALTHOUGH the content of ``Empty Places'' deals with problems in American society, Anderson's outlook is essentially upbeat. ``I'm stupid enough to be an optimist,'' she adds with a grin. Then she pauses a moment, and I ask her a major question raised by her activities: Can a work of art make a real difference in the way people live and think?

``I've been changed by works of art,'' she says. ``I know that. I've been changed by songs, too, and I know a lot of people who have. They say, `When I broke up with her or him, or when I was doing this or that, that Bob Dylan song was my song. It helped me.'

``I don't think it's the artists' obligation to help other people,'' Anderson goes on, ``but I think it's amazing if they can. It's not only hard to be an artist; it's hard to be a human being. And any time someone can say, `Oh, think of it this way,' and that helps someone - well, that's kind of what we're here for, as far as I'm concerned!''

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