Laurie Anderson talks with Martin Patrick about the power of art, the complexity of language, transforming the voice, working amid a dire political situation, Buddhism and Burroughs, and their shared love of terriers.
A familiar voice is on the line. When we talk, American artist and musician Laurie Anderson is in Massachusetts, preparing an exhibition of new and existing artworks for the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington. It opens just ahead of a slew of works she is presenting in Wellington as one of three guest curators of the 2020 New Zealand Festival of the Arts, from late February.
“It’s a really good chance for me to branch out and see who’s working right around there and to see what we might have in common,” she tells me of her impending New Zealand visit. “And I always find people! I’m from such a small scene in a certain part of New York City, it’s a way I can collaborate with people in different parts of the world, and it’s not hard, you know?”
In Wellington, she will present two string ensemble performances: Here Comes the Ocean and The Calling, a tribute to Lou Reed by using his guitars for a drone concert, and a virtual reality voyage, To the Moon (developed with artist Hsin-Chien Huang), at the Dowse Museum. In considering this programme and Laurie Anderson’s wide and varied art practice, there are interesting associative links across any number of fields of inquiry: philosophically, politically, socially, aesthetically. She remains endlessly curious and open to the world.
Anderson has long had a collaborative approach to her art – as ever ahead of the curve. In Wellington, she’s enthusiastic about working with both her existing ensemble and artists from Aotearoa – such as taonga pūoro composer and practitioner Horomona Horo.
“I got the chance to do something last year in Hamburg for the first time, which was working with a pretty big ensemble of some of my all time favourite musicians. We had a really wonderful time, accordion, bass, Brazilian percussion, and violin. We played a lot of festivals in Europe and it was an absolute blast. It was such a weird sound. I love to work with people I don’t often have the opportunity to work with.
“That was the beginning and Greg Cohen [her bassist and music director, who has worked with Ornette Coleman, Tom Waits and John Zorn] and I have been meeting people virtually by Skype. It’s been working well. I can’t wait.”
Laurie Anderson began her career as an avant-garde performance artist in New York’s downtown scene, along with peers like sculptor Gordon Matta-Clark, dancer Trisha Brown, and musician Philip Glass. Back in 1983, Anderson’s groundbreaking eight-hour United States, Pts. 1-4 featured music, stories, projections, and the song “O Superman” made her into an unlikely pop phenomenon. To sum up her country in this way was a remarkably ambitious move.
“I don’t think I was trying to cram the entire country into eight hours. But I think there are a lot of people who have tried to make portraits of their country, and right now I think it’s so much harder. It’s changing and it’s so volatile what’s going on. You know I can’t quite keep up. It’s such a whirlwind I’m at a bit of a loss.
“I would love to try something like that again but I would have to do it in a different way. We’re living in an absolute nightmare. It’s really horrible. Everything is breaking. And it’s wild to see that happen. I never could possibly have imagined something like this.”
The technological devices Anderson has developed and implemented – such as a self-playing and tape-bow violin, and a vocoder to transform her voice – helped extend and make even stranger her narratives and songs.
“You become tired of your own voice and if you describe the world in a different voice, you are looking at the whole thing in a different way. I found that completely fascinating. I could change my point of view just by changing my voice. You get really tired of looking at the world through the eyes of a white female artist in New York.”
Anderson has always had a compelling way with words while “always trying to use English in a vernacular way, and how it’s used in the everyday”. The late writer William S Burroughs was a collaborator and an influence. She adopted his phrase, “Language is a virus from outer space.”
“I think it’s informed everybody now, language has literally become viral, and we’ve learned that a virus is a language. Things are complicated and made of many parts that are more integrated than we thought. He was really prophetic in terms of what he saw language doing and how it could move through the culture so quickly. And nobody else quite anticipated it like that.”
Anderson’s early albums, Big Science (1982) and Mister Heartbreak (1984), can sound stripped back and minimalist today, but during that era Anderson played to stadium crowds. And by the early 2000s her sonic approach was pared back yet again.
“I did a lot of those big shows and frankly I got kind of burned out. They were expensive to make and to tour around. I thought I’d like to do something that’s really portable and changeable. Where you’re not doing the same show every night. With a big show you can’t improvise. It’s a trap, and my way out was to do shows where I’m the only one in it and travel by myself. Suddenly I thought: this is so much fun!”
Humour plays a strong, and often under-acknowledged role in her work.
“Not a lot of people have noticed that. I probably see the world in a bit of an absurdist way. I admire good jokes. It’s really hard to come up with a classic good joke. And so when I hear one I remember it and try to pass it on, and like to try to make things up as well. With humour, you can’t fake it and you can fake so many other things in life. I trust physical things like laughter.”
Anderson spent time with the late comedian Andy Kaufman, known for testing limits and antagonising his audiences.
“He was a great friend of mine and a very smart guy. He knew exactly what he was doing. He was a strategist like no one I’ve ever met before.”
For many years Anderson, along with her husband the late Lou Reed, has practised both Buddhism and Tai-Chi.
“For me being a Buddhist and being an artist are really kind of the same. The only things you have to do are to pay attention. That’s it. Otherwise there are no rules. For artists this is the greatest; no rules, that’s fantastic! And it’s a way to take responsibility for yourself which of course artists have to do. Sign your name on this: what are you making and why. It’s also a traditionally god-like thing to do; to create something that wasn’t there, and you put it there. That’s wild. And it’s also good to have a reason for what you’re doing. I love that there are no rules about making art. None. Zero!”
Anderson is also an advocate for what the purely visual language of art can accomplish.
“Sometimes just seeing a gigantic blue painting can be more about freedom than any long essay about what it means to be free. We’re working with the senses as well as the mind.”
Anderson’s film Heart of a Dog (2015) memorialises the passing of her rat terrier Lolabelle, but in the process it also talks about broader cultural loss and the loss of family members. It comes in the form of an entrancing, poetic, uncategorizable, and often humorous narrative. The film will screen at the festival after a 20-minute Concert for Dogs, featuring sounds beyond the range of human hearing.
In the film Anderson says: “If you give a command to a terrier, they say: ‘Is it going to be fun? Because if it’s not going to be fun, I’m not interested!’” The comment holds particular resonance for me, as a border terrier owner.
“I love terriers, they are just a blast – super cheerful dogs, and also like living with a cop. But once they realise a person’s OK, then they are the most loving dogs in the world.”
In a sharply politicised vein, Anderson created the work Habeas Corpus (2015) in which she worked with Mohammed el Gharani, once the youngest detainee at the Guantanamo prison facility. In the project, el Gharani’s video image is streamed and projected onto a large sculpture.
“We are rebuilding that piece to show in Washington DC. I’m really looking forward to that. I went to visit Mohammed a couple of months ago and he is still stateless and still homeless. Even though he was released he was never charged, and if you’re not charged you can never be pardoned. He’s in absolute limbo, in 10 different countries, and sent to countries that tortured him again. It’s a seriously crazy and horrible situation. He’s recorded some messages for Americans, and it’s been amazing to work with him. He’s got an incredible sense of humour and ability to see the absurd side of things. It’s astounding how he’s able to do that.”
The now 72 year-old artist appears to be in perpetual motion, constantly working on multiple projects across a range of media.
“My life is one big experiment. Over the past year I’ve been making these really bad but really big paintings, and it’s the greatest fun. Other projects I’m working on have to do with spatial sound using multiple speakers, writing a couple of books. I’ve just recorded a quartet, and an orchestral piece, and you know they’re all kind of weirdly unrelated.
“It’s a very strange life I have. I see the relation when I’m working on a painting or an orchestral piece. I ask myself the same questions: is it big enough? Is it small enough? Is it clear enough? Is it mysterious enough? Is it vague enough? All those things, and they all have answers that change the way you’re going to work on the piece. And some of them don’t have any answers, and you have to work blind a little bit, to just drive in the dark.”
Has she any wisdom to share about staying so curious and open?
“Number one, don’t forget to breathe, and breathe deeply. I follow that.
“I work with a lot of people under a lot of stress and I often ask my artist friends their advice. For example, Philip Glass says, ‘I acknowledge it.’ It’s important to accept your own, struggling self. You don’t need to be this perfect person you think you might need to be. You’re never going to be that anyway and none of us are. Accept that and see all the positive things. Once I do that I feel 1,000 times better, much more relaxed, and my mind clears.”