Laurie Anderson is an American experimental performance artist and musician. On February 10th, 2011, she spoke with Irving Sandler, art critic and historian, and founder of Artist’s Space, Gregory Amenoff, painter and chair of the Columbia Visual Arts Program, and Mark C. Taylor, chair of the Columbia Religion Department. “Refiguring the Spiritual” is a yearlong series of conversations with leading contemporary artists on the implications and influence of the changing spiritual landscape for the visual arts, co-sponsored with Columbia University School of the Arts Visual Arts Program.
Gregory Amenoff: There are so many things—we’ve been thinking about your work so much and I have so many questions. One of them, of course, has to do with your grandmother, but I think I’m going to eschew that for a minute. Because I was thinking about this project, and one of the questions I was thinking about—and I want to read the quote that you cited somewhere, it’s a Melville quote. It’s not from Moby-Dick, you probably remember it and I’d like to ask you later where it’s from, because I couldn’t find it.
The quote is, “in all human beings lie hidden marvelous properties, which when they are accidentally brought together, manage to reveal themselves.” Do you remember that quote? So beautiful. So I’m thinking about the hidden—you know, hiding in the unseen or unperceived world, to be revealed. And then I started thinking about how your work brings and coaxes images, voices, characters forward from invisibility to visibility and creates a setting for them to reveal themselves. And certainly “The Garden” is a perfect example of that.
So, also thinking of the performances, of the way images slide and shift and disappear and come back, shadows—there’s a lot here. So the question is—there’s a question here somewhere and Mark, I think, might add to it. How do you think about how that transmission, that movement between the visible and the invisible and back? Mark, do you want to add something to that? We’re going to make it really complicated here.
Mark Taylor: Yeah, there’s another side to this I want to raise. But in this context what I’d like to do is go back to a comment that you made about the role of the artist—that it is to try to see things the way they are. The whole relationship between the visible and the invisible is complicated because sometimes that which is invisible is that which is most apparent, in certain ways.
And so the question, what’s hiding and what’s showing is not necessarily—there are ways in which this is problematic—to see things the way they are may be to see what is most obvious, which is that which is least visible in certain ways. So explain the whole problem with the invisible and the visible and how that works itself out, and plays itself out, in your art.
Laurie Anderson: To start right there, with that—just on a historical note, I was asked to come to the New York Public Library to look at anything in their collection. And they said, just pick some things, and then they sent, you know, seven thousand things that they had and I wanted to look at absolutely everything there.
I ended up looking at the Declaration of Independence, mostly because one of my hobbies as a child was writing and designing and producing colonial newspapers. I know, sounds really geeky. Did anyone else have that hobby? I mean, I think it was probably some art project that kids had at that time, you know, what was going on in your small town.
But, on my way out of the library, I went through a beautiful exhibition—I’m not sure if it’s still there now, but a kind of timeline of three major religions in the world. And I was really struck by one little thing that was: in the year 4000 B.C. Abraham declares that there is one invisible God. And that was a moment that was on a timeline—I was really struck by that. Especially with the invisible aspect of that Desert-God-discovery.
But with your comment about immateriality too, there is a section in Moby-Dick—it’s about alchemy and properties…
Irving Sandler: This is in Moby-Dick?
Laurie Anderson: Yes. What are the properties of man? And it culminates in a question which I find the central question of Moby-Dick, which is, what is a man, if he outlives the lifetime of his god? And it’s from that. So I found that that was so central to that book. So when I was working on this opera called Sounds and Stories from Moby-Dick—and, by the way, another hint for you young artists, never do that. It’s just such a burden, in a way. I fell in love with this novel, and I heard music, and I heard the whiteness of the whale and I just wanted to write songs and things and do an homage to this great work of art.
And in the end it was so intimidating to do that because I kept thinking, is this really fair to Melville? And also I live in a neighborhood where he lived and worked for some of his life, and I thought, his ghost is going to come and find me and kill me. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a multimedia opera. It’s perfectly good as a book. So I spent a lot of time being terrified by that idea.
Also because I had, while I was working on this, Melville’s Bible. A friend, when he heard that I was working on this, he said, “I’ve got something for you.” He brought a big box over, and inside was Melville’s Bible, that he had while he was writing Moby-Dick. So he took it out and I was like, “whoa.” And I had it for many months.
And, of course, my friend had bought the Bible at Sotheby’s and he had taken it to the FBI—because it was full of pencil marks. And he said, “I want to find out what they were.” And they had been erased, by his wife—not an ideal relationship, let’s say: “You’re marking up the family Bible!” She had erased everything. So he took it to the FBI and they said, well, if it had been done like a hundred years ago maybe we could see what had been erased. But a hundred and fifty, no, it’s turning to fluff. I spent quite a lot of time with the Bible, looking with a magnifying glass at every page for some Leviathan mention.
And I found one, in Isaiah, that he had circled many times with stars and arrows. And, Isaiah 23 something, anyway it was about ‘that piercing serpent, that something serpent of the sea.’ In other words, he was talking about Leviathan the whale as the snake. And the ocean was his garden. So I thought, you know, this was very clearly his giant metaphor.
So that was kind of a tantalizing thing to have. But also, one of the other things about that book, about Moby-Dick, that I found in looking at its history was that the first draft of it had no Ahab in it at all. Which really struck me as, you know, what that meeting with the editor might have been. You know, going like, ‘It’s a great book, Herman. But you know, it is kind of like, guys go fishing. A lot of interesting things are happening here, but there’s no motor. What are you doing this for? Where is it going? What’s it about? Why don’t you get, like, a crazy captain?’
So he appears, not until midway in the book, because he wasn’t in the book before that, he’s hiding under the stack of papers. From the other book that Melville was reading at the time, which was Shakespeare: King Lear. Out stalks an American Lear. With a kind of an English accent – ‘Strike to the mast!’ And these American guys are going, ‘Who’s this? Are you the captain? And why does he have this crazy English accent?’
You know, so the development of that book was also something that I was trying to put into the commentary that I was doing.
Mark Taylor: Another angle on this might be, I want to try to get at the intersection of some of the Protestant background that you had—you mention the Abraham stories—but also your fascination with Buddhism, and the problem of nothingness. Through the issue of silence. And the role of silence in your work. I sometimes teach a course called Nothing, and one of the questions I ask the class the first day is, “what color is silence?”
You said somewhere that there is no such thing as digital silence. So, invisibility, whiteness, void—what about silence?
Laurie Anderson: I think my first introduction to meditation was really through feeling very scattered. And a friend of mine said—I said, ‘I’m really feeling scattered, I can’t seem to focus on something.’ I did this meditation, it was a Vipassana meditation—which is one of the newer forms of Buddhism, 500 years old, coming from Thailand—and he said, ‘After I did these two weeks of silence, I could focus my mind. I could get rid of the chatter and I could just go – and move it over here, and move it over there.’
And I said, ‘that’s for me.’ So I went there, to do two weeks of silence. And the first thing they said was, ‘you’re here because you’re in pain.’ And I said, ‘No I’m not. I feel fine. I’m here to focus my mind.’ And they said, ‘no, you’re here because you’re in pain.’ And I said, ‘no, I’m fine.’ Anyway, it wasn’t a good start. But I did gradually realize the focus of this way—which is based on the premise that when something bad happens and you don’t scream, you put it somewhere.
And you put it in a very elegantly coded way in your body. And to retrieve that, it is not the talking cure of Freud, of ‘let’s talk the story back to its beginning, and just find where it started and then you can see why and get rid of it.’ No, it was based on physicality, which I really appreciated, and could understand better than telling a story about where your pain came from, which didn’t work for me particularly.
When you do this meditation, you wake up at four, you meditate for a couple of hours, you have breakfast, then you meditate for five hours, then you take a little walk, then you have your one meal of the day, then you meditate for seven more hours, then you walk again. And at the end of this two weeks, no one says anything. You find, you gradually realize, as your left arm feels like it’s going to fall off, that part of that experience is an emotion.
A specific one. And you realize that things are coded, so you put loneliness in your knee, you put loss in your shoulder, in the back of your neck you put anger. And it’s all, of course, the negative emotions, because the positive ones just flow through you. So you don’t need to hang on to them, you know, they’re free. And it was that coding that was fascinating to me, along with a number of things that happen when you spend that much time in silence and also without much visual stimulation.
When you do come back into the world you have this very increased peripheral vision for one thing, that was the first thing I noticed. You’re very aware of what’s happening over here, and as much is happening behind you as in your field of vision, and it wasn’t about this vision of desire—I want it, I get it, I look at it. It was much more of a sense of where you were in a room, and in a world, so that you were surrounded in this ocean of air. So for me, silence had to do with a lot of things, particularly pain and focus.
Irving Sandler: I’d like to get back to invisibility for a moment, because it seems to flit in and out of many of your works. And I guess if one thinks of the immaterial as possibly being spiritual, then invisibility is pretty invisible. I’d just like to quote this from one of your works – you talk about Duchamp’s dictum, that since three-dimensional objects cast two-dimensional shadows, three-dimensional objects must be the shadows of four-dimensional objects. And then you conclude we can safely assume, that the shadow cast by a two-dimensional shadow of a three-dimensional object must be one-dimensional. That is, it must be pure idea.
And I, when I wrote this down I thought of the line in the Bible, St. John line one, in which he says: In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was God. And what’s more invisible than a word? But the idea of invisibility—I wonder if you would comment on that, Laurie.
Laurie Anderson: First of all, that quote—isn’t it great to be an art student? You can say stuff like that. Sometimes I think, you know, I do idealize that time, for many reasons, one being that it wasn’t about branding, which so much of culture is about now. Branding yourself, getting your brand, getting your Facebook, getting your whole thing. And for me invisibility was much more the way to go. And I really loved feeling invisible. Also much of my work, I feel, is about being a spy.
And you have to be not there, to be doing that. And of course, what kind of spy would say, ‘I’d like to be a spy.’ You know, what an idiot—deep cover. Anyway, I don’t know particularly why invisibility is equated with spirituality because, you know, when things are gone. I don’t necessarily—and also, when I see living things that are very material, and very real, they’re living breathing things and to me they’re the most spiritual things you can look at.
You know, there they are. In this miraculous shape. And so, when they’re invisible, I’m not sure that this invisible Abraham God makes the same impression on me. Because I like the tangible. On the other hand I don’t particularly believe that we’re here right now. At all. I’m not sure at all that we’re here—that you’re here, that I’m here. I think we’re probably not. So I think, that said, and that’s really something I do actually believe, that we’re in some sort of very odd dream.
I mean, I’m really enjoying it, much of it. But I really do see it as a dream.
Gregory Amenoff: I’m convinced that I’m here, because I’ve just realized how much anger I have in my neck. I want to be sort of concrete for a minute because, you know, biography is interesting and it comes up. And we’re from the same part of the world, in Illinois, so I think about that a little bit. But I’m reading about your grandmother, who was an evangelical preacher. And you attended Billy Graham crusades and all that.
And you know, looking at your performances, having seen some live and in various venues, electronically and so forth—I think about evangelicals. The great ones, anyway—they’re mesmerizing, they’re seductive. How do you think that works its way into the performances that you do? Do you think about it directly?
Laurie Anderson: There was good singing in it, and I was very attracted to that. Something that makes you sing. And the thing that I felt about her—this was a grandmother who was a Pentecostal missionary. And I watched, very carefully actually, what she was doing. Because it seemed very heartfelt and completely absurd. So for example she went to Japan, to convert Buddhists to become Southern Baptists, but she didn’t really bother to learn—
Mark Taylor: So that’s where the Buddhism comes from…
Laurie Anderson: Yeah. So she didn’t bother to learn Japanese. She would just sing hymns, and hope that they would get the idea or something, I don’t know. It was a complete failure. But what was successful in that exercise was that she was a very vain Southern lady. And made homemade hats that were huge concoctions of feathers, and veils, and grapes, and you know, just things. Crown-like things, really. Big crowns.
And the Japanese saw those and they were just like, “Wow, wow. How do you make those?” And she taught them how to make those hats. And they taught—she was a gardener, she loved roses, and she saw the bonsai-cutting methods, and they taught her to cut bonsai style. That was the exchange. And you know, that’s enough. That’s a lot. A hat for a rose—that’s a lot.
If you really try to change somebody’s mind about something like that, it’s—first of all it’s really insulting to the other person, and it’s just absurd. So I watched her try to do that, and really understood some things about what you can try to change about yourself, and what’s really very difficult to change.
Mark Taylor: After that comment, there’s a question I want to ask you. You invoke the category of the spy a minute ago, which is an interesting category. Kierkegaard, who is one of my favorite philosophers, always described himself as a “spy in the service of a greater good.” He’s known of course for the melancholy, fear, and concept of dread and everything, and nonetheless he’s one of the first to really understand the importance of irony and more particularly humor.
And he says at one point that the form of awareness that closely approximates religious faith is humor. So I’d like to hear you think a little bit about the role of humor in your work, if there is a role. There’s a long tradition of humor in Zen, of course, and different traditions—Holy Fool. But it also seems to me that there’s something of a trickster element in what you do. And so, the role of—how you see humor in your work.
Laurie Anderson: Well, first I’ll tell you a joke that sort of backfired. You know, I was doing a lot of shows in places that weren’t really made for doing shows. So, museums. Or often they would say, ‘Why don’t you do this in a church?’ Often in Italy I was doing things in churches. Which is very odd. Because there you are, on the altar, with your stuff, with your keyboards, and right behind you there’s a crucifix. A bloody crucifix.
So in Berlin I made an extremely tasteless joke during a show. And here’s the joke. So, why is it a good thing that Jesus was born in New Testament times instead of Old Testament times? And the answer is that in Old Testament times, death was by stoning, and in New Testament times, death was by crucifixion. So instead of doing this [sign of the cross], they would all be doing this [crouching] (laughter). It would’ve changed a lot of things about architecture and, you know, you wouldn’t have the [cross] groundplan, it would be more strewn around. Just chaotic.
And anyway, that didn’t go over in Berlin. Especially in the context of the church and all of that. But gloominess appeals to me, and Kierkegaard in particular. So I guess that’s the most irritating thing when you talk about things that are religious or spiritual, is that nothing is funny.
And so much of life is just hilarious, it’s just ridiculous. And to cut that off is to cut off your arms. So, when things have to become so serious – and it’s the same in culture, when you have the official culture and what it’s supposed to mean. And it can become very very dry and humorless and just kind of market-driven, just a hysterical exercise of things and nobody stops to go, “this is ridiculous.”
Gregory Amenoff: I have just one real quick question, about angels. You have dark angels, you have gravity angels, strange angels, you have Walter Benjamin’s angels. You know, it comes up—you’ve used it a lot as a metaphor, or as an active image, I should say. Is there something in particular that you want to…
Laurie Anderson: Well, it was a metaphor. Because it was really just a way to say, you know, that we are the angels. Because I don’t actually believe in angels. But I do believe that we are them. And so in writing all of those things about it I was hoping that that would sort of seep through.
Irving Sandler: Laurie, in my day, which was just after the Peloponnesian Wars, we used to think that high art is high art and low art is low art, and never the twain shall meet. I know you’ve been asked this question a lot of times, but you actually did the crossover. Where you maintained your status very much in the high art world and yet appealed to literally masses—all sorts of people who probably never set foot in a museum. Would you talk now about what your attitude, what your role in this was?
Laurie Anderson: Well, one of the things that I did really like about, for example, the commercial world, was that it didn’t have a lot of the snobbery in terms of what you’re making. So when I was making something, I didn’t want to put it in the so-called ‘art market.’ Which is increasingly what you would call the art world, one of my friends said recently: “I realized I don’t live in the art world. I live in the art market.”
And I just thought, that’s what has happened to it. And I played my small part in making that happen, I suppose. But one of the things that I found interesting—for example, about making records—was that they were cheap, and you could just sell them. I came into that sort of backwards, just because I didn’t have a goal of making records, for example. I just made one, and then—on a small grant, I liked making records and it was fun to do one.
And people would call me up and—this is the way it worked—they would call me up and they would say, “I’d like to order a record.” And I would say “OK,” get a record, wrap it up and walk to the post office. That’s how distribution worked. Then one day with that record, “O Superman,” I got a call from London and they said, “We’d like to order some records.” And I said “Great, how many do you need?” And they said “40,000 by Thursday, and 40,000 more on Monday.” And I was like, “OK, I’ll be right back to you.” Click!
And so people at Warner Brothers who had wanted me to do a record and I had said “I don’t want to, it’s pop culture. I’m a snob, that’s not the world.” But I called them up and said, “Listen, can you manufacture some records for me?” And they said, “That’s not the way we do things at Warner Brothers Records and Tapes.” You sign a contract. So I thought, well, I’ll do that. And I got a lot of grief from other artists at the time. They were like, “You just sold out, what are you doing? The art world is this, and the commercial world is that.”
And then a year later it had that tag of crossover artist, and everyone was like, “Crossing over, this is good. Like, rowing over there.” And one of the things that I find really scary about the world now is what we were talking about before, this commercialization of everything. One of my favorite books right now is called Reality Capitalism, and basically the premise of it is that more people can imagine the end of the world than can imagine the end of capitalism. And that to me is really hair-raising.
Even though the other systems, that were alternative systems, they were nightmares as well. You know, Stalinism, communism didn’t work so well either. But now, unlike then, there is no other model. It’s just, get what you can and go out there. And everyone’s got a dollar sign hanging over their head. What are you worth? And any party you go to you know, you feel the assignment of worth. You know, I can’t talk to you because that other one is worth more over there.
What are we doing to ourselves? You know, it’s just truly frightening. And then it goes into personal branding, in which you are becoming your own product. Conspiring in that as well, to become a commodity.
Mark Taylor: We want to open up. There’s one last really brief question, that I can’t resist asking you—are mountains aware?
Laurie Anderson: Yes, yes they are.
Gregory Amenoff: There it is. OK, we have a microphone and I guess we have arms, so, questions for Laurie?
Questioner 1: Hello, I was just wondering if you could talk about your beginnings as a violinist? And, from what I can assume in the bio from the Youth Orchestra, being classically trained and how that has influenced or shaped any of your work, specifically musically.
Laurie Anderson: I started as a kid, playing the violin, and played a lot until I was sixteen. But then at that point, I realized that I was going to have to practice all the time to keep up, and that I would never learn anything else. I would never learn German, I would never learn physics, I would just be practicing. And so I stopped completely.
And now much later I still don’t know German, I still don’t know physics, and I’m a kind of mediocre violin player. The thing about that was that I began making my own violins and seeing what I could make them do, and to sing like a violin was really my goal. And last week I had something really ridiculous happen—I was getting some kind of electronic music award, so I wanted to do something with electronic music.
And so I dug out an old thing I used to use, which was a pilllow speaker. And these are little speakers that you put in your pillow and you learn German in your sleep, sort of thing. That did not work for me, I just woke up feeling super paranoid. And so, because I like putting electronics in my mouth – I just get a sort of thrill from that, I recorded violin and I put it in my mouth and you just hear, “Eeeee!” You could control certain pitches and volumes by doing that.
Ok, so I dragged that out to this award thing and I started practicing that afternoon. And the speaker was a little old, and the fluid and glue flowed out of the speaker. And I put it in my mouth and I glued my tongue to the roof of my mouth. I don’t know if you’ve ever done that. I was supposed to give a speech, and I was like “Ennnnnh…” And I was sure that the roof my mouth was melting from the stuff—it was like, disappearing.
And this was in Atlanta, I went to a pharmacist and I said “Ennn, unnnnhh!” And apparently this was not the first time someone had glued one part to another, you know. And she gave me this concoction that you put in your mouth. And it did work, it unglued the thing. But the biological and the electronic are really, it’s really fascinating to me how those things work. And so when I began to make my own violins it was a way to make those instruments more human and electronic, and to bring in some of the components we have that are somewhat electronic ourselves—our speed, our memories—and to make these kind of hybrid instruments.
Irving Sandler: Laurie, you were not only a student here, but you did some teaching at Columbia as well, didn’t you?
Laurie Anderson: Not Columbia, but I did some at three places, really briefly. I was a teacher.
Irving Sandler: Your academic career wasn’t, I understand, a great success.
Laurie Anderson: Yes, here I would say that’s an understatement. I was teaching Egyptian architecture and Assyrian sculpture at various places—Staten Island Community College, Pace, and somewhere else. Night school, because I decided not to get up at all, for a year, until I had a good idea or really felt like getting up. Because I didn’t want to just—I taught at night. And it worked really well with that plan.
And I was not keeping up with the Egyptological journals, let’s say. And so these slides would come up, and I would just draw a complete blank. I didn’t remember one thing about that image. So, it was dark, and I would just make things up. Students would write it all down, and then I would test them on it. You know, that’s the way it worked.
So, that’s why the career was like, a year. Because the year cycled around and then they would say, Ms. Anderson said “blah blah blah” about that period. And, “what?” Plus, you know, I felt guilty about it as well. History is—of course a lot of it is speculation but you know, up to a certain point. You’re making it up, of course you are, but to the extent that I was doing it, maybe not. And so, I quit. But not before I was fired. Super close, really close.
Questioner 2: So you were talking a lot about narrative, that came up a lot in the discussion. And I was wondering if you could speak to the importance of narrative in spirituality, and if that might contradict what you were saying about seeing the world as it is, since we kind of construct narrative.
Laurie Anderson: To the extent that narrative is time, and how we move through it, it seems to me that major religions are there to explain that before they’re there to explain how to be good. And so all those, the stories of major religions – where did we come from? What will happen in the end? How does this story unfurl? Who made it? Where are we going?
You know, it’s a big narrative. So if you accept one of those—“oh, we came from this and we’re going there”—how we move through time is answered by one of those big stories. And myths. So, probably what appeals to me most about Buddhism is that those are very very minimized. We’re never going to find out where we came from. Never. And we’re never going to find out where we’re going, never. And we don’t know—they’re just going to be stories.
So the most important thing, the only thing, is this exact moment that we’re in right now. Not the one that we were just in, or the one that is going to be so much better over there. But only this one. And so that’s what, to me, is really moving about meditation, is that frightening and fantastic feeling of “this is all there is, that’s it.”
Irving Sandler: Many of your ideas are related to those of John Cage, in the desire to live in the reality of the moment. And appreciate the reality, it’s a very optimistic outlook. Did his thinking actually have an influence on you?
Laurie Anderson: Yes, for sure. As with many artists of my generation he was really key. And I think it was John Adams who said something recently that really rang a bell for me which was that it’s not Cage’s music. Because if you listen to 4:33 or any of the other music, it’s like “Unnnnh, ennnh…” and, it was really a mistake to call it that—it’s really a philosophy. Not music. So, of course, what does it feel like to spend four minutes and 33 seconds in so-called silence. Which, of course, he did not really believe in, that there could be anything like that in any case.
But many of the pieces he left as a musician, you know, are kind of unlistenable. A lot of them. And you know, you wouldn’t sit down for an enjoyable evening to listen to those things. But as ideas, they open giant doors.
Questioner 3: You spoke a little bit, before, about increasing marketization and commercialization in modern life. And I just wondered to what extent you see a connection between that, and possibly science and technology moving into, occupying a space that’s left by a decline in religion. And possibly the role of art in reasserting a role for spirituality in life.
Laurie Anderson: I’m not sure I heard you so well, but commerciality and religion and how commerciality affects religion? Is that it?
Questioner 3: Well, the thought was that perhaps commercialization and science and technology are moving in to occupy a space that has been left by religion. By the decline in religion and spirituality, generally. And whether art has a role in kind of reintroducing the notion of spirituality.
Laurie Anderson: I don’t know. I don’t know that, because I think that you can find it in so many places. Because, you know, when I was at NASA I thought, they’re already building giant artworks. The Stairway to Space is a giant artwork. You know, it’s nanotubes, biology, electronics—it grows like a rose. Like, biology, Jack in the Beanstalk stuff. In which it has a beauty and, you know, incredible uselessness and poetry, and forms a content that can’t be pulled apart.
All the things that I find—I mean, not that I know what art is, I really don’t—but when I see something like that, I think it has many things that look a lot like art. As well as ways to imagine vast amounts of time, which I also find very artful, a work of conceptual art. You know, when you go to NASA for a greening of Mars session, and the whiteboard stretches against acres of room. The ten thousand year timeline they’re working with for this project, the greening of Mars.
Because we’re going to go somewhere, and it’s probably Mars. And so we’re adding, of course, air and water and terraforming it. Because now that we know so much about taking care of planets, we’re going to take care of Mars. Anyway, we’re probably going to go there. I think it’s a really interesting thing that you’re mentioning, about how science and technology and religion are interacting. I mean we’re just feathering, touching out on so many things—this would be a great idea for a series.
In many ways when I look around, I think something is really wrong here. And it has in my mind something to do with commercialization and with technology. And of course the fact that everyone is looking down at dinner, doing this. And everyone’s so lonely. And so cut off, and like, what are you making this for? For who? And I think that that’s actually an old thing, but it’s also a very new thing, the way it’s expressing itself now. In terms of people who are extremely stressed out by the parade of items that you are supposed to get. And keep getting.
By the amount of information that comes in. I mean, I’m sure that you all feel this way too—emails, it’s flowing, it won’t stop, it just won’t stop. And if you stop, if you stop doing it for a second, it piles up. And plus, you can’t get lost anymore. Where are you going to go? There’s no where to just, leave. It’s a giant trap and I think people really feel this pressure, and a lot of it is technology. A lot of people I know are getting address books and paper calendars—people who are super tapped-in. I’ve just noticed. You know, it went over the border for me, I can’t do that anymore. It’s just turned me into something that I don’t even recognize as myself.
It’s just, I’m working all the time, I’m so exhausted. I don’t know why I’m doing this, I’m on this treadmill that is just going—for what? You’re good, you’ve answered all your emails, good for you. You know, but are you having anything like a good time? I mean, I guess this sounds kind of shallow but I think that we’re here not to have a bad time, but we’re here to have a really really really good time.
A good time. You know, so how do you have a good time? Is it like, keeping up with this stuff. When you do realize the pressure that our culture puts on us to be good citizens, i.e. consumers, it is truly frightening. One of my favorite things, my favorite book in the whole world right now is by a guy named Tom Hodgkinson called How to Be Idle.
It’s a fantastic book that just asks you questions like, “Hey, what about convalescence?” You’re not supposed to do that now. You’re just supposed to, if you get sick, pop a pill and work through it. That’s the ethic: work through it. And he says what about the doctors that said, if you’re feeling sick, when you feel better then you go to a nice Southern place and don’t think and don’t do anything for four months. You know, that’s like a foreign concept.
He also then, because he’s a British writer, has a different angle on it. And he would cite a British headline that says something like, “Britain lost 500 million man-hours to illness this year.” And he goes, since when did you owe Britain 500 million man-hours of yours? Who are you working for? What are you doing this for? You know, and there’s just so many assumptions in our culture about how to do stuff, how to be good. And his central question is, who taught you that in order to be a good person you had to be a productive one? A worker? Who taught you that and why do you think that?
It’s a daring and beautiful book. He wrote a follow-up on liberty and it’s truly breathtaking. I’ve read both books like three times, just trying to get it to sink in. And he says very simple things, like, at the end of each chapter, “Start a guild.” And you have to think what would it mean, for me to start a guild, in my own world? You know, in other words, don’t work with all these megamonsters, with the megathings.
Think of how you could do it yourself. How would you reinvent this, if you didn’t choose to work in the big systems? So, what would it mean to you? We’re doing a month of events, at the Stone, down on Avenue C and Second Street, concerts every night but on Sundays we have invited people to come and talk about topics like this. In particular, not artists talking about where-I-get-my-ideas, no, but people who come in and talk about, for example, Henry is going to come and talk about boilers. He’s a boiler expert in New York and he does tours of buildings with great boilers. And so you can come and learn about that.
There’s another person who taught our dog to play the piano, and she’s going to talk about music and animals. And, anyway, it’s just an effort to make a sort of grassroots place, based on Alain de Botton’s school of life, in London. You go into this place where twenty books are out, and each one of those books you go, “Yeah, I should read that, that’s great. And that one’s great.” And it’s just about people coming in who, just, everybody has a fascinating hour to say, at least. It features that kind of way of teaching people.
Check it out next time you’re in London. It’s one of these very obscure, Bruised Lamb’s Ear Lane, I think, the name of the street. I don’t know. It’s just a small place but it’s a really great effort to think about how to learn things in a different way. And to reinvent the things that you do and the ways that you relate to the world.
Questioner 4: Hi Laurie. You spoke earlier about this odd experience of being the artist in NASA, the artist in residence there. And it seemed odd at first for you but you came to see many connections between scientists and artists. I’m thinking back to an earlier album of yours, “The Ugly One with the Jewels,” where you recount being invited to spend some time with nuns. And I’m not sure if that actually happened, if that’s sort of a fictional story you’re telling, but…
Laurie Anderson: True life.
Questioner 4: It happened?
Laurie Anderson: Yeah.
Questioner 4: OK, well I was wondering if that sort of spy work that you did, if then that also had some revealing moments for you. Surprising connections that you might not have expected, between people of faith and artists, the way that you ended up seeing connections between scientists and artists.
Laurie Anderson: Yeah, that had to do with language, I got an invitation from some Benedictine nuns, to come and do a seminar. And I think they had gotten this blurb from something I had written myself about my own work—deals with the spiritual issues of our time, you know. In one of my own pamphlets I write, this is what I’m doing. So they read that and they said, come out, do something with the nuns.
Benedictines are very tough. They’re farmers, and they’re very physical. And the first thing that I noticed was that when they prayed, it was a completely different thing than speaking, so that they were talking: “Yeah, have you gotten the potatoes in yet? Yeah, I did, Sister Marisa Theresa, I got them in.” And then time for prayer: “Dear Father…” You know, I mean, you know the voice of when you’re asking for something. You know it from your friends, who when they’re asking for a loan and suddenly their voice goes “Do you think I could borrow, get a loan? Just for a minute, a couple days?”
It’s about asking, about being a child. Dear Father. Of supplication. So we talked a lot about voice pitches, and what it means to ask for things, and who you are when you’re doing that. Are you the little child who goes, “Could you pleeeeeeeeease… I’m cute, you can give it to me and you won’t feel diminished.” So it was not what I expected to be doing with the nuns, particularly. But I really try to put myself in situations where I am completely at sea, where I have no idea why I’m there, what I’m doing, or how to do it. And that was one of those situations of not being able to predict anything.
Questioner 5: This is just one last question. You said you don’t know what art is, but do you know what an artist is? Or who, no, what an artist is?
Laurie Anderson: Well, yeah, I guess. I see a lot of people who—what I would call an artist is people who are making things, and as I said before they don’t necessarily have to be in the category of art. Because the people who were making the Stairway to Space were artists, working with technology and making this thing. And it doesn’t have to just be that you’re making something to be an artist, you can also think like an artist too.
So I don’t mean to limit it like that, because I think that if you think of who’s going to be the artists in 5,000 years, what are they going to be doing? I imagine that they’re not making stuff, they’re maybe working with being able to use our senses better. Because in a way to me that’s what art is. First of all, it’s sensual. It’s sensual, otherwise it’s philosophy or some other kind of thing. It has to do with things and materials of some kind.
But is it making stuff? I imagine being able to suddenly hear really well, let’s say. Our hearing is terrible. If we were able to enhance that—for me it’s the experience of hearing, more than what it is actually. So if we could become really aware, that to me is what being an artist is. If you’re making stuff, that’s not so important. What if you could have eyes that could focus on Mars? And see through your hands. And experience your own life so intensely that you don’t need to make this stuff. And so museums would be like, the tchotchkes, just stuff.
Not that we shouldn’t treasure this stuff, because if we have little golden horses made by people seven hundred years ago, ten thousand years ago, they’re treasures. Because they taught humans how to see, how to look at things abstractly. I don’t think we’re going to need that stuff, as we teach ourselves to be more and more exquisitely aware of our surroundings and who we are.
You know, it’s like when I was invited to be part of the opening ceremony committee in the Athens Olympics. And they invited me because, again, multimedia artists, let’s make a big splash of stuff. And I was in a very burnout phase of that. I thought, you know, is it exciting that you can push a button and something happens? I don’t think so. Push a button and lights go on, wow. You know? So they were like, “we’re going to have this giant cross come up, and this giant thing with a crane, and then the whole thing’s going to drop down…”
And I was there, and I was part of this committee and I said, “You know, I wouldn’t use that crane. And this other thing – I wouldn’t use that either.” And they were like, “What do you like, if you don’t like this multimedia whizbang show?” And I said, “Here you are, you invented everything here. Philosophy, geometry, history, poetry, all in one big splash. And why don’t you take this opportunity to write something on your big field available to the world? Something that’s harder than just pushing buttons. Write like, ‘Know thyself.’ You know, you invented that. You offered that opportunity and challenge to people.”
And that is really hard. Anyone can go, “let’s have the giant cross go up!” I mean, not that I don’t like spectacle. But I do appreciate something more of—trying to find out who you are and what you’re doing here.
Mark Taylor: Irving, we’d like to thank you very much for coming this evening. Laurie, for both the remarkable work that you do and for coming and sharing it with us here tonight and we’d all very much like to thank you.
Laurie Anderson: Thanks for inviting me, thanks for having me.