laurie anderson is the original radical american artist
She even made a concert for dogs.
Photography Ralph Gibson
This article originally appeared in The Radical Issue, no. 351, Spring 2018.
35 minutes into my phone interview with Laurie Anderson, the revered American artist is barking down the line at me like a dog. Because, among the many groups of humans who have visited her stage shows, witnessed her performance art, interacted with her virtual reality installations, watched her films and bought her albums, she also has a music show specifically for canines, and I’ve asked her what kind of an audience they make. “Very attentive,” she deadpans, explaining that she’d often had the fantasy, while performing to humans, that they were dogs instead. So she made it happen. Concert For Dogs debuted at Sydney Art Live Festival in 2010, and has since been performed at Sydney Opera House, in New York’s Times Square and at Brighton Festival in the UK, which Laurie curated in 2016. “The dogs have been so polite, because they don’t know what it is – most people don’t know why they’re at concerts either,” she says. So, at the end of the show, she encourages the dogs to make some noise. “It starts with the little ones, ‘Yap yap yap!’ and add the mediums, ‘Ruff ruff!’, and the big ones, ‘GRROF!’,” she barks. “It is one of the greatest sounds I’ve ever heard!”
Laurie is often described as a ‘visual’ or ‘multimedia’ artist, or as a ‘musician’, but she says these terms are “meaningless” to her. “When I became an artist, I thought it would be one of the few things that you can do in which you’re free,” she says, “But people keep saying, ‘Nail down what you’re doing!’ – they want it to fit into their museum, or not. Or fit into their record collection, or not.” Finding that thinking “claustrophobic”, Laurie proceeded to make an incredible diversity of work, in a wide range of media. In the 70s, she staged impromptu public performance art around Europe, wearing ice skates frozen into a block of ice and playing violin until the ice had melted. She signed a seven album deal with Warner in the 80s after her experimental electronic track O Superman became a surprise chart hit, reaching #2 in the UK. She draws, paints, writes poetry and makes theatre. Known for her embrace of technology, she became NASA’s first artist in residence in 2003, and recently opened a 15 year interactive virtual reality exhibit at MASS MoCA.
In her new book, All The Things I Lost In The Flood, Laurie takes stock of her art practice over the past 50 years. As the title suggests, her hand was somewhat forced. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy broke the banks of the Hudson River and flooded the basement of the house Laurie shared with husband Lou Reed. They had been keeping decades of their old artworks in there, but when Laurie went to see what she could salvage, the items were not just damaged, they had completely disintegrated. “At first I was really devastated,” she says. “It took two days for me to realise, you know, I don’t have to clean the basement ever again!” Laurie says she named the book after the flood because it’s a good story, but also because she made an interesting discovery: “I found that making a list of things was just as good as having the things,” she explains. “And I thought, what does that mean – that symbols could be so important, and replace the things themselves?” The answer to that question would surely tell us much about the value of art.
Having rejected the traditional categories of art-making, in The Flood Laurie ventures to define her own practice. “This is my artform: Stories,” she says. “How do they look? How do they sound? How does the story structure work in a song versus, say, a series of images in a film? This is how these things are tied together. This is what I do.” Laurie’s work is often inspired by personal stories – like the time she pulled her younger brothers out of a frozen lake, or the quite formal speech her mother made on her deathbed, politely addressed to animals on the ceiling that only she could see. But she has also spent a lot of time considering our shared stories. Existential stories about what it means to be human, to be alive in this moment, and to die; and political and social stories about America, its politics and the character of its people.
“The longer I live, the more I see things less as facts and more as perception – and that if you can shift your mind to see things differently, they tend to become different.”
In The Flood, Laurie writes about the 2016 campaign and election of President Donald Trump, with a breaking news cycle bent to the whim of his tweets, and the emergence of ‘alternative facts’. “It was a crisis – an emergency – of stories,” she writes. “It’s a little bit of a pretentious way to say it, but I do feel more and more the potential for stories to shape the world,” she tells me on the phone. “National stories are beginning to fray in really obvious ways – the story that you tell about being a 21st century citizen is one that’s not ringing so true, at least in [America] – and I suspect elsewhere too,” she says. It was sobering, she adds, to “realise it is no longer a democracy here”.
Laurie has long been fascinated by the political power of words, and her biggest concern in these strange times is freedom of speech. “Yesterday, they announced that, in any government documents having to do with the health department, you can’t use the word ‘foetus’, or ‘transgender’. You can’t use ‘science-based’ or ‘evidence-based’,” she says, with a warning: “The tricks are in the language – how you define what you’re doing.” Her 2015 work Habeas Corpus focused on this threat, zeroing in on the US government’s declaration that prisoners are ‘not persons’ (and so they do not have constitutional rights). To highlight the issue, Laurie projected a live-streamed image of former prisoner Mohammed el Gharani into a gallery, allowing him to recount his experiences at Guantanamo Bay. One of the youngest prisoners, Mohammed arrived as a 14-year-old boy, and was held without charge or trial for seven years. Laurie notes the bitter irony that in US law, corporations have been designated as ‘people’: “So they have all the rights – to free speech, to the pursuit of happiness, you know – at the expense of everyone else.”
It’s pretty depressing stuff, so I ask Laurie what gives her hope. Having just returned to New York from performing at Night For Day festival in Houston, Laurie offers an anecdote from a panel she was on there, alongside US Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning, and Nadya from Pussy Riot. “Chelsea spent seven years in prison, Nadya spent two,” Laurie says. “And what did they say when they came out? That the important thing is to help people who have less than you do. To stop judging, and begin to help people. That’s the single most exciting idea I know right now.”
The ability to change the world, or at least your own world, by looking at things differently, is something that fascinates Laurie. “The longer I live, the more I see things as less facts than perception,” she says. “And that if you can shift your mind to see things differently, they tend to become different.” At Manchester International Festival last year, Laurie told an audience that she didn’t think death was real. Is that just a case of seeing it differently? “I think life isn’t [real] either – it’s a dream state that we’re in,” she says by way of explanation. Through her long-time Buddhist practice, and reading “a lot of neuroscience”, Laurie has started to see it differently. “I’m beginning to see perception as less definitive than I thought,” she says. “I don’t see the big divide as clearly as I used to.” As if to give evidence, Laurie recounts an experience she had last year at the MASS MoCA opening, where her Chalkboard exhibition will remain for the next 15 years, alongside a retrospective of Wall Drawings by her former teacher Sol LeWitt. Excited about this reunion of sorts, Laurie selected a quartet she had written for Sol as a student, inspired by his counting patterns, to be performed live, in his room, at the opening event. “I know that music is very, very powerful,” she qualifies, “But as soon as the quartet started playing, I walked in while they were rehearsing, and Sol was there. I was like, oh my god, how could he come back? I’ve never had such a powerful feeling of someone’s presence. And I don’t particularly believe in ghosts, but there he was, his whole being was somehow expressed there,” she says. “Sometimes things happen that you don’t believe but they’re happening anyway.” Sitting alone in the dark, empty i-D office at 11pm on a Sunday night, chatting to Laurie Anderson about life and death and the nature of reality, I think I understand what she means.