by Adam Perry for the Santa Fe New Mexican
June 5, 2009
“I’m working on a sound garden in Switzerland made of singing trees,” musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson told me by phone from Long Island. “Unfortunately, when they asked me to design this sound garden I said, ‘I’ll make some singing trees.’ I had no idea how to make singing trees. So now I have to figure out how to do it.”
In a way, “figuring out how to do it” has been the story of Anderson’s diverse and exciting career as an artist, which has seen her evolve from a suburban-Illinois-raised performance artist (inventing instruments and once conducting a symphony of car horns) to NASA’s first-ever artist in residence to international touring multimedia guru.
Anderson attained household-name status in the early 1980s with her peculiar avant-pop album Big Science (with its hit single “O Superman”), which earned her “sellout” status in the underground art world she came from; but mainstream success only gave her more artistic freedom and vitality.
“Off the top of my head, I would have to say that freedom is the thing I’m most interested in knowing and communicating,” Anderson said. “Freedom, yeah, because there’s no particular way to understand [my work], so it’s not coded meaning; I really try to say what I think and say what I mean and not have some kind of easily expressed message. I want to try to see possibility everywhere.”
Anderson is an obvious choice to help uplift and inspire students and artists in and around Santa Fe. She gives a solo retrospective performance at the Lensic on Monday, June 8 (as well as an improvised lecture and Q & A on Tuesday, June 9), with proceeds going to benefit the Santa Fe Art Institute. In July Anderson begins an international tour of a performance dubbed The Yellow Pony with her husband, Lou Reed. Her Santa Fe performance will include some singing and violin playing but will be more of a “collection of stories.”
“There is music in it, but I think of it more like a soundtrack in a film. It’s stories … and it’s really great fun to do. Strangely enough, a lot of the stories start with ‘last spring’ or ‘last fall’; they’re adventure stories, a lot of them. And then, like, what happened when you weren’t there. They’re almost like little movies because, unlike songs, there’s a lot of theme-shifting in these stories. One minute you’re in Mexico, then you’re all over the place. That’s what the evening is.”
Anderson hasn’t released a studio album since 2001’s Life on a String (which included songs from her stage show Songs and Stories From Moby Dick), but she has kept very busy — she helped create the opening ceremony of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece; collaborated on a multimedia project for the Paris Opera Ballet; narrated Ric Burns’ documentary about Andy Warhol (aired on the PBS program American Masters in 2006); and toured the world performing her Homeland project, a multimedia performance piece that deals with America in a time of tension and fear.
“George Bush started a war with a story,” she said. “I think you can end a war with a story. When the emperor of Japan was talking about [World War II] ending, he saw what was coming … that the big guns would come out against Japan. And his way of describing that they would be defeated was that he said he would never ever give up, but they would shatter like jewels. And not every story has a happy ending, but that was his way of going ‘OK, this is how I would lose,’ and never giving up.
“So I think you can end a war with a story. But can you end war with a story? That’s like, ‘Can you end weather?’ I don’t put that much faith in words. But we could go on like that all day.”
Attempts to describe who Anderson is and what she does seem to go on all day. While her husband helped found the Velvet Underground and has peers in people like David Bowie, Patti Smith, and Iggy Pop, Anderson is harder to pin down. She can only be compared to truly sphere-breaking 20th-century artists like Philip Glass, William Burroughs, and John Cage.
“I’ve just tried to do what seems like it’s going to be a lot of fun. It seems shallow, but I’m in this to have a really, really good time.”
Watching Anderson perform the “Only an Expert” section of her Homeland show last year, it was clear that she is still having an inspired blast, even if her subjects (war, climate change, conformity, and oppression) were dark. Alone onstage in her customary short haircut and white dress shirt, she used her laptop, keyboard, and voice to call out the Bush administration and sheepish Americans. Interspersing quips about the state of the country’s fragile union with the ominous repetition of “only an expert can deal with the problem, ’cause half of the problem is seeing the problem,” Anderson seemed timelessly passionate and profound, as if she were just beginning to accept and understand her depth and gravity as an important American voice.
“I’m basically a nerd,” she said. “I love to goof around with styles and get into details and color and information, so I’m not good at giant generalizations. I used to try to talk that way, and now I realize I end up sounding unbearably pretentious. This story show is largely software and foot-pedals and violin and some keyboards, but it has taken me a long time to design it.”
Asked about her experience with higher education, Anderson said, “I studied a lot of stuff. … I liked school. I never became an academic. I did teach a little Egyptian architecture. There’s a story in the show about what happened when I tried to do that. [Egyptian] history is stories that are kind of hard to verify, so that’s how I approached teaching: speculation.”
Anderson ended her conversation with Pasatiempo by talking about a New York architect and installation artist named Vito Acconci, who affected her tremendously when she was a young artist.
“He would do scary things and combine sculpture and poetry in a way I thought was really thrilling. He was out of bounds. He just wasn’t following categories at all. It was really exciting to see someone who didn’t care about what he was supposed to be … sculptor or poet or whatever. I’d think ‘I want to be like him and do whatever I feel like doing.’ So all you have to do when you do that is call yourself a multimedia artist. Do whatever.”