Laurie Anderson has been a creative pioneer for decades, working across genre, time and place. Now 71 and still prolific, she continues to push boundaries with virtual reality projects. “You, yourself, your body kind of disappears and you have this incredible freedom to fly and to observe things that you wouldn’t be able to do in your body. So it’s almost like you’re as free as your imagination and you become your own imagination. It’s very, very thrilling.” By Romy Ash.
Dark Mofo guest artist Laurie Anderson
I listen to Laurie Anderson talk. It feels like I’ve been listening to her talk since I was a teenager: to her voice and her “voice of authority”. Lou Reed named her voice of authority Fenway Bergamot. “He really liked that guy. Not many husbands would really go for that, but he did. He was a great storyteller himself,” says Anderson of Reed. And of her male alter ego, Bergamot, she says, “It’s gotten a little more melancholic, I have to say. He’s not bossy anymore. He’s just kind of like, wistful and philosophical.” She’s been a monologist her whole life. In her work, her goals, she says, tend towards disembodiment.
Her work spans 50 years and defies categorisation. I make a list: painter, writer, composer, pop star, violinist, performance artist, sound artist, mixed media artist, tech artist, sculptor, filmmaker, director, poet, photographer, vocalist, inventor. She wears these roles, sheds them and, easy as an outfit, puts on another. She is a creative pioneer. She is 71 years old and still prolific.
Tonight, she’s in her studio working on a new virtual reality project. There is a VR team from Taiwan waiting for her. It’s New York City. It’s very cold. It’s raining. It’s nice to be inside and wearing headsets and looking at virtual reality. Her studio is spread across a couple of floors. The recording studio is right next to the projection room, separated by glass doors. There’s always a lot of interaction between the rooms, as there is in the work itself. There’s a place where she can make things, build things. There’s an editing room. When she’s preparing for a painting show and she is about to start another, she has a studio in Red Hook in Brooklyn where she likes to be very messy. But other than for painting, she doesn’t have to go to a different place to do a different thing. It’s all there. “From the very beginning I was doing a lot of different types of things, music and sculpture and, you know, film, so it’s all interrelated physically as well,” she says of the studio.
She’s working on something new about the moon. She’s got to figure out a lot of things about light and dark and space and time, and, she says, “just make our own moon”. She says that, visually, VR has a kind of brittleness to it, and that she’s had to figure out how to interpret the visual language of VR, make it dustier, more atmospheric and weirder, not as bright, sharp or plastic. She says VR is about disappearing. “You, yourself, your body kind of disappears and you have this incredible freedom to fly and to observe things that you wouldn’t be able to do in your body. So it’s almost like you’re as free as your imagination and you become your own imagination. It’s very, very thrilling,” she says. It’s not the first time she’s made work about the moon. Between 2003 and 2005 she was NASA’s first – and last – artist in residence.
Anderson was born in suburban Glen Ellyn, Illinois. I ask her what it was like growing up in a conservative, small place in the ’50s and she says, “I remember my first art teacher very well. When we were about five, I guess, and she wasn’t one of the regular teachers. She came in for like a day a week or something, and so she would always come in wearing much crazier clothes than the regular teachers and she’d always be late, which was shocking to us because our lives were ruled by bells. Ding, go here; ding, go there; ding, stop doing that. She didn’t care about the bells. She’d come in and say, ‘Let’s paint big juicy tomatoes, what do you think?’ And we’re like, ‘Okay?’ She was so free and I thought, ‘I want to be like her, I want to be free and I want to have a life that is not framed by all the bells ringing and buzzers, and trying to be normal.’ ”
She moved to New York City when she was 20. She studied sculpture at Columbia University, graduating with a master of fine arts in 1972. A year later she had established herself as a performance artist and in 1981 her single “O Superman” reached No. 2 on the British pop charts, secured her a seven-record deal with the Warner Bros label, and appeared on the subsequent record Big Science.
I tell her that when I listen to Big Science it transports me back to a time when I was heartbroken and homeless, adrift emotionally and physically. How her voice, her music was a sort of heartbeat to that time when I listened to it obsessively.
“It’s interesting to hear that you were homeless because that’s a very homeless record in a lot of ways,” she says. “There’s a lot about wondering where you are and being lost. The things that will save you and the things that won’t. So, I can imagine that that would be a pretty good record to listen to if you were breaking up with your boyfriend and you were homeless. I like those – I don’t like breaking up with people or being homeless really but it’s very powerful to have something like that happen in your life, and I like to make music that’s based on powerful situations and not just you know…” she trails off. “Loss and emptiness are powerful things,” she says finally.
She speaks about Göteborg Film Festival where a previous VR work, Chalkroom, was shown earlier this year. Juliette Binoche was there receiving a lifetime achievement award. She says Binoche, “instead of thanking the producer, I’d like to thank Mom and Dad, she said, ‘I’d like to thank loneliness’, and I thought, ‘Whoa, that’s radical.’ Because those are the moments in your life when you really learn a lot, and you don’t even recognise that you are learning a lot, because it’s just so awful, but you’re learning things that make you human, you know, and that’s one that does it quicker than anything else, loss and loneliness.” She pauses and laughs, “I don’t mean to emphasise all the gloomy things,” she says and there’s an immense warmth to her voice.
I think of Big Science, how in the record there’s such a mix between the bleak and the hilarious. The track “Sweaters”: I no longer love the color of your sweaters. I no longer love the way you hold your pens and pencils. I no longer love it. Your mouth. Your eyes. The way you hold your pens and pencils. I no longer love it.
Throughout the record there’s this mix of the absolute devastating and the humorous. As in the track “Walking and Falling”, the listener is always both walking and falling at the same time.
I ask her about her 2015 film Heart of a Dog, a lament for her rat terrier Lolabelle, and a meditation on love and loss, filmed variously from the perspective of a dog, a drone, and much of it filmed by Anderson herself. The film speaks of the death of her mother, of Lolabelle and Lou Reed. In it, Anderson quotes David Foster Wallace: “Every love story is a ghost story.” I ask her about All the Things I Lost in the Flood (2018), a book she wrote after losing her physical archive of work in hurricane Sandy, and about her album Landfall (2018), also about the hurricane.
She says that losing her archive was freeing. She didn’t have to clean the basement, she says and laughs. She liked having the list of items that were kept in the flooded basement, but not the items themselves. She says the word yellow is more yellow than yellow. There was a weightlessness in the loss. Landfall, she says, like VR, is about disappearing.
She says of Heart of a Dog, “It’s a film about love, and what love is, but in the middle of that movie, like a lot of my projects, is a book, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and it’s a description of the bardo, which is the 49-day period after death, in which your consciousness or spirit, the energy in that, evolves into another form. It’s a way to explain time and, in many ways, I think religions are supposedly about being good to other people and morality and that kind of thing – but I think that really what they do more than anything else is try to explain time. Where do we come from? Where are we going? How does the big time machine work, you know? I don’t think of it as a film about loss, but I think of it as about perception and basically about how we see the world and how different filters show you different things and above all what is a story and why do we use stories?
“Our national story, of what it means to be an American, broke into a lot of pieces for a lot of us, and we’re still at a loss, because we don’t have a story to describe who we are. They’re all mixed up, or they’re shortened, or they’re called fake, or they’re... The ones that used to seem fairly true, are not true anymore so it’s a very weird moment that reminds you that we need stories to go on. There has been pretty dark times in America but this one is really horrifying, this one is – this is a really new low. And I thought I saw some pretty big lows in the ’80s and the ’60s.”
We speak about the gloomy things: Trump and school shootings, whether the virtual world is connecting or dividing us, climate change. She has rituals. Despite the gloomy things, she has fun as a ritual. She makes work about things that she likes, that excite her. She doesn’t feel obligated to make work about climate change, no. She doesn’t feel she has this responsibility to the world. She likes the world, in a lot of ways. She’s not a social crusader. She doesn’t begin a work thinking, “How do I fix this part of the world?” Her work might become political, but it doesn’t start out that way. She works with things that attract her, that make her feel something.
“I’m a very dark person in many ways in terms of what’s happening in the world just because I’m pretty in agreement with Timothy Morton who wrote about hyperobjects and what the climate shifts mean, and he basically says we’re not entering the sixth extinction, we’re in it, it’s too late. And that is a message that for humans is intolerable, because we’re people who do things and fix things, and to be told that we can’t fix it is not a story that we can hear, so how do you tell that story, it’s a big struggle.”
She says all this with a lightness to her voice and a generosity and openness with her thoughts and feelings. She turns her darkness on its head, laughing and wondering at the weirdness of living through this moment in time. “Well, it’s pretty awesome,” she says. “I mean it may not be the end, but it looks kind of like that, so what kind of story do we tell if no one is there to hear it? Who are you telling it to? That’s a really awesome thing. That we would still tell that story or try to. We couldn’t possibly be living in a more interesting time. There’s just no way. This is a wild moment to be living in.”
Again, I think of Big Science, a record she made nearly 40 years ago, that still stings with relevance. Good evening, this is your captain, we are about to attempt a crash landing … this is your captain, we are going down, we are all going down together and I said, uh oh …
It’s her voice of authority, and he’s telling us to laugh, despite or because of it all.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 16, 2018 as "Feeling Laurie".
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