Laurie Anderson: Storyteller

First, and admission of ignorance: I’ve never really tried to figure out Laurie Anderson. My first experience of her was the soft-avant-garde-electro-pop-poetry she put out in the 1980s. It fit somewhere in the sphere of intellectual art rock, which was perhaps a bit too mature for a fifteen year old with giant Sisters of Mercy posters on her walls, like myself. But I paid attention, because she was a woman who had earned some level of respect from both the avant-garde art scene and MTV.

After her brief pop-culture spotlight, she became one of those artists who was always getting some grant or award, or showing up at the cool event in New York or Berlin. I never took the time to find out what she was working on, or to seek out her work.

When my UW alumni flyer announced that she would be giving a talk, I thought, “huh.” It was free – funded by some generous endowment – so I put myself on the list.

What I never realized, or never bothered to suss out, is that Laurie Anderson is fundamentally a storyteller, and her primary medium is language. When she put her work in that context, her diverse explorations of media began to cohere to a purpose, for me. She’s also very funny. And, man, is she a talker!

Her talk felt less like “hearing a talk,” than like having a really interesting dinner guest. She talked mostly about her recent work, of which I was completely ignorant. She was, for a start, artist in residence at NASA during the first Mars Rover launch. You heard me, ARTIST IN RESIDENCE AT NASA. She was the first one, and the last. NASA called her out of the blue with the offer… and who would say no to that?

She got to see a lot of behind the scenes NASA stuff, and the most interesting was the nanotechnology department. They work on projects like building a living, growing space-elevator in the middle of the Pacific, Jack-and-the-beanstalk-style. And, of course, the “GREENING OF MARS” project – so it’s ready to support human life when we wear this planet out. Their whiteboard has a 10,000 year project timeline.

She vexed NASA when her final output from her residency was a long poem.

At the same time, she was creating an installation, WALK, for the 2005 World Expo in Aichi, Japan. She showed us some of the concepts, as well as some of the finished pieces. Honestly, none of these works struck me as either conceptually or aesthetically amazing: electronic stick streaming haiku in four languages, a bridge rigged with gongs, a drawing of a tiger made of white tape hung from tree branches. My favorite piece was a pair of “horror goggles,” which overlay the peace of the Japanese garden with a fiery sky and horrific creatures.

Regardless of the subjective quality of her work, she’s Laurie Anderson, so she gets to do what she wants. In Australia, she wanted to perform a concert for an audience of dogs at a festival… and thousands of dogs showed up. There wasn’t a single dog fight.

She made a comment near the end that stuck with me. She said that people come to her, hemming and hawing about “being an artist,” not feeling that they are good enough, or that others are so much better. Her response to them: “Nobody cares what you do. If you want to make art, knock yourself out.” How much do we really care what others do? Not much. I know artists and musicians and programmers and salespeople and administrative assistants and writers and waiters… and I don’t think much differently about any of them because of their jobs. If any friend of mine said, “I’m going to stop doing _____, and do _____ instead.” I would just think, “good for you.” Unless their new pursuit was torturing animals or molesting children, who cares?

Laurie Anderson says you should do what you want.

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