NOTE FROM DEBBIE:
Hi everyone and Happy Saturday! This is the first of a group of live interviews I am releasing as a special Design Matters Live Summer Series! I've recorded quite a few live shows this year at festivals and conferences with artists, designers, musicians, photographers and more, and these podcasts will all be FREE because of your Drip support. (Thank you, as always!) This first interview is with musician, writer, artist, poet and performer Laurie Anderson. We spoke at the OnAir Fest in Brooklyn, New York back in March 2018. I hope you enjoy it!
Dalmatians and dachshunds stood at attention. Labradors, bichons and beagles cast their snouts toward the stage, transfixed. It was 2010, and before a crowd of nearly 1,000 canines at the Sydney Opera House, often in frequencies imperceptible to the human ear, Laurie Anderson played her violin.
It had long been a dream, a fantasy of Anderson’s—she imagined looking out at a crowd as she performed, and seeing only dogs. So when she curated Australia’s Vivid art and music festival with her late husband, Lou Reed, she simply decided to make it happen.
After performing for 20 minutes, Anderson stopped. And her audience roared in approval.
“It was a beautiful sound,” she told The New York Times. “They barked for five minutes. That was one of the happiest moments of my life.”
Laurie Anderson defies everything: Expectation. Discipline. Description. She is simply herself. And that is a rare thing, granting us as an audience a series of brilliant, and brilliantly unorthodox, surprises over the course of her decades-long career.
Pets have long been a throughline. As a kid in suburban Chicago, she and her seven siblings had cats and dogs—but they also had monkeys, horses, gerbils, ducks and toucans, forging in Anderson a deep love of animals that would often find its way into her work. Her incredible abilities as a polymath blossomed early, and never abated, foreshadowing a life to come: When she was 5, she picked up the violin at the urging of her parents. On Saturdays, she worked on her visual output at the Art Institute of Chicago. In high school, she blossomed as an actor, starring in her senior play. She was a cheerleader. She served as an editor at her school newspaper. High or low seemed irrelevant—perhaps another throughline in her life.
After high school, Anderson got a degree in art history from Barnard College, studied with Sol LeWitt at the School of Visual Arts, and earned an MFA in sculpture from Columbia. As she went about her various pursuits over the years, one wonders if there was any definitive moment in which Anderson realized she was the art. In the early 1970s, she began to experiment with performance. She filled a violin with water and played a Tchaikovsky concerto as it wept. She choreographed a symphony of car horns. Reflecting on having cold feet about performing, she froze her feet into skates in a block of ice, and played violin on the 59th Street Bridge in New York City until it melted.
Then, after dabbling in largely underground music recordings, her life completely changed: She became an accidental pop star in 1981. Anderson had won a $500 NEA grant, which she used to record a song about the Iran hostage crisis titled “O Superman.” Clocking in at a weighty eight minutes and 21 seconds and consisting of vocoders and the assorted electronic ephemera, it was an unlikely contender for mainstream success, especially given that Anderson was distributing it herself via mail order. But one day she got an order for 40,000 pressings of the record. It turned out the United Kingdom was nuts for it, and she reached No. 2 on the British pop charts—and subsequently wound up with an eight album deal from Warner Bros. She toured extensively, recalling that dealing with hordes of screaming fans made her feel less like a star than an anthropologist.
As Anderson delivered album after album over the years, she retained an element of surprise, transitioning from her performance roots to film soundtrack to pop to spoken word with ease, receiving three Grammy nominations in the process.
And in addition to her record contract, she focused on, well, everything, revealing the true extent of her genius: She published six books. She invented musical instruments, including her Talking Stick, created for her multimedia show based on Moby-Dick. She produced brilliant works of visual art that appear in museums across the globe. In the heydey of the CD-ROM, she released the video game Puppet Motel alongside designer Hsin-Chien Huang (as NPR noted, “Creatively, it should do for CD-ROMs what the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper did for rock’n’roll.”) She worked on the opening ceremony for the Athens Olympics. She won Pratt’s Honorary Legends Award. She served as NASA’s first artist-in-residence, which led to her 2004 touring performance The End of the Moon (on the parallels between artists and scientists, she mused, “You make something, see what it does, adjust it, and you have the same question in the end—is it finished?”). She worked at McDonald’s to try to see things in a new way. She directed the haunting Academy Award–nominated documentary Heart of a Dog (2015), reflecting on her late beloved rat terrier Lolabelle and the nature of life and death. With Kronos Quartet, she released the album Landfall (2017), finding beauty in the horror of Hurricane Sandy. She took her canine concerts on the road to Times Square and beyond, and continues to perform them today.
Hell, in 2001 she even wrote the New York City entry for Encyclopedia Britannica.
For someone with such varied output and such diverse talents, how does Anderson determine how each project will manifest—the physical frame that will give form and life to her ideas? As it happens, “I often start working on one medium, and it turns into a different one,” she has said. “I start working on an opera and it turns into a potato print.”
Moreover, of the many monikers that could be used to define her—musician, performance artist, visual artist, filmmaker, and on and on—she has carefully selected “multimedia artist.” Her reasoning: It doesn’t mean anything. And in that, she has the freedom to do anything in her career, category be damned. In a culture in which creatives are urged to define themselves more than ever, Anderson proves that you don’t have to.
Finally, it’s worth noting that these days, performance art and works of spoken word might seem antiquated, or even quaint, given the rolling news cycle. But as Kurt Loder wrote in Rolling Stone in 1982, “Visuals have taken on an increasing importance for [Laurie Anderson]. Appalled by the political and cultural state of the world, she hopes to come up with some new, positive images to countervail the current inventory of viciousness and dread that confronts us daily on the streets and in the media.”
If you listen to the words in “O Superman,” it remains painfully relevant—a reminder that we need the output of artists like Anderson perhaps now more than we ever have.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
Laurie Anderson: We live in a cold place, make no mistake what's going on here.
Curtis Fox: This is Design Matters with Debbie Millman from designobserver.com. For 14 years now, Debbie has been talking with designers and other creative people about what they do, how they got to be who they are, and what they're thinking about and working on. Design Matters is on summer break and will be back with a new season in the fall. In the meantime, we're sharing some of the live interviews Debbie has recently done in front of an audience. The audio isn't always perfect, but the interviews are lively. This one, with Laurie, took place in March 2018 at the On Air Fest in Brooklyn.
Debbie Millman: Hey everybody. I have Laurie on the stage! How exciting is this? So we're going to talk for about an hour. We're going to talk about Laurie's career, her life, her ideas. We're also going to talk about politics. So I'm telling you now, get ready. Laurie, my first question is you said you've seen three ghosts in your life. When, and where, and who?
Laurie: This is the great thing about secrets, I'm not going to tell you. You know, it's so important to have secrets. Some things that you just never tell anyone. I mean, nobody. And I really like to ... I love my songs and stories are kind of addressed to the part of you that never speaks. The one that's in there, and I don't about you, but that part of me is often kind of critical, the one who also is going, "Who do you think you are? Are you really trying to do this, or that?" So I try to fight against that, but I do like being somewhat in contact with that part of myself.
Debbie: So it's been only three ghosts, no more than that?
Laurie: You never know.
Debbie: Ahh, okay. Now you quoted the late, great David Foster Wallace, who stated, "Every ghost story is a love story." Do you still think that's true?
Laurie: It's actually the other way. Every love story is a ghost story, is what he said. And I think you can definitely say that. And I am very fond of quoting my teachers. So David Foster Wallace is a big ... big mind. I really like him a lot. And I also in that book, and in that film too, which you're quoting from it, a film called Heart of a Dog, a film about my dog. And I also quoted a lot of things from my teacher Mingyur Rinpoche in there, so there's little things that ... I don't know about you, but I just need like little short words to live by once in awhile. You know, life goes by so fast, and things come up, and you don't know what to do. You're like "Ahhh, I ... " you're at a loss.
Laurie: But you're on your feet, we're moving really fast now. So what do you do? So I have these little things. One is Mingyur Rinpoche, my Tibetan teacher who said, "Try to practice how to feel sad without actually being said."
Debbie: How do you that, Laurie?
Laurie: It's a wonderful distinction, you know, because there are plenty of sad things in the world, in fact there are plenty of horrible things, or tragic things. And if you don't recognize them, if you don't pay attention to them, you're an idiot. They will come, and they'll kill you. And so keep your eyes open. On the other hand, the point of this little practice was do not become them. Don't became that sad stuff.
Debbie: But did he also turn it around to the notion of how to manage happiness?
Laurie: I think that is very basic to his thinking, because he really doesn't actually believe that we're here to suffer, and punish, and be punished. But that we're here to have a really, really, really good time. That's what we're here for. So I like that philosophy. You know, there are other people who say we're here for other reasons. They have other reasons that they're stacking up and you could go with that. I choose to go with this, because I just ... I don't know, I'm a party person.
Debbie: I wouldn't have thought that about you actually.
Laurie: Yeah, I'm a party person. Aren't you? Aren't you-
Debbie: Not really, no.
Laurie: What are you here for?
Laurie: But that's your idea of a good time, right?
Laurie: Okay, so you're here to have a good time.
Debbie: Yeah, that's-
Debbie: Fair enough, yeah, I think that's true. I want to get a little bit meta. You said this about audiences. "The audience creates its own personality in the first five minutes. They will either be generous, funny, silly, withholding, academic, analytical, grudging." And I'm fascinated with how that gets constructed, because it happens right away. Because audiences, whether they're seeing a film, or reading, or whatever it is, a concert, they decide very quickly what kind of show it is, and then they judge it. And so I was wondering how that might be manifested today with an audience? Turning it right back on you all.
Laurie: And all these people listening who aren't in this room, which is a really nice part of you, the way you tell stories, because that's a ... usually, I mean, I'm an artist who works in a live situation, so as opposed to ... well, that's not true actually, there's a bunch of books and records that I've done. But anyway, I do love live energy, and I really appreciate that you bothered to come here on like a cloudy, Sunday morning. And I do want to do a little thing before we go too much farther because I don't know if you remember, a year and a half ago, morning after the elections, totally gray in New York, and really dreary November day. And you know, it was ... do you remember how quiet it was? It was so quiet. People just didn't ... they didn't come out, they weren't going to work, they weren't even getting out of bed. This was a heavy day. And you're kind of going, "Wow, this is now what we will call reality."
Laurie: Now what happened shortly after that, was one of my heroes was asked to comment on the election. This is Yoko Ono. So they said, "Yoko, we'd like to have your comment on the election." And she did this one minute scream. Now, this is not a meta scream. This was not an artistorical, clever, ironic, meaningful scream. This was a blood curdling scream from hell.
Laurie: Now so what I want to do with you ... is we're not going to scream for a minute, but we're going to scream for a long six seconds. And before we do, I want you to prepare for this, because we're going to put our mics out, and point them towards you, so the people who are listening to this later can join us in this scream. So what I want you think of, if you need to channel anything to get up for this scream, this six second scream, you know, you go to things like, you know, that morning if you want to. Go to the ... go to Florida a couple of weeks ago, go to the upcoming military parade, go to the wall, go to our businessman president. Go to all the things that are so messed up in your life, you now? There's a lot of material, I know, I have a lot of material. So-
Debbie: Come into our archives.
Laurie: Yeah, come to our pain archives. I'm going to give you a three, and we're going to do this for six, are you ready? Okay. One, two, three.
Laurie: Oh, so excellent. Those people in the back are just like still doing that scream.
Debbie: I think we should do that again.
Laurie: Oh yeah, I know.
Debbie: How good was that?
Laurie: That was great. That was great. Now that's called an audience, that's really ...
Debbie: Thank you audience, for participating. Yes. I want to talk a little bit about your childhood. Your entry in the encyclopedia Britannica states that you started studying classical violin at age five. Why?
Laurie: Because mom said I had to do it, you know. It's like we had a family orchestra, and it was that kind of family, it was kind of like a little machine. We all wore, okay, matching outfits.
Debbie: They did, I've seen pictures.
Laurie: Eight kids in like navy skirts, and pants, and red turtleneck sweaters. And it was kind of fun. You know, it was kind of fun to be part of a group. But you get lost in that group, and I also liked that, although I had real, a lot of envy for people who were just one or two kids, I thought that would be just wonderful.
Debbie: You wanted attention as you were growing up, because you were in this group of seven other kids. And though you were very engaged in lots of different pursuits, in a way to ... in an effort to stand out, you attempted to do a back flip off of a diving board when you were, I think, 12. That resulted in you being in the hospital for quite a long time. Talk about that experience. I was thinking about the need for attention, and imagining what it must have been like to want attention so badly that you were going to go up on a diving board and literally jump off.
Laurie: Well let's not exaggerate that so much. When you're a kid ... think back when you were 12, you're just ... you're a show off, you're a know it all. At that time I was also doing things, when I was 12, I wrote a letter to JFK, because he was running for president. And he was doing the Wisconsin primaries, and I wrote a letter to him, "Dear Jack Kennedy, I admire the way you're running your campaign in Wisconsin. And I'm running for student council president and I wondered if you could me some advice." Right, just a 12 year old. You think the world revolves around me, I'm 12, you know, so I got a letter from Jack. And it was a pretty long letter.
Debbie: Do you still have it?
Laurie: Yes, I do. And I recently did some things at the Kennedy Center, and I'm giving them this letter. Anyway. So he said a number of bullet points about politics, and he said, "Find out," it basically came down to, "Find out what the students want and promise it." He's practical. He says, "Now don't be an idea [inaudible 00:11:59], be a representative. You're representing these people. It's not your idea. So try to find out what they want. What do people want? We the people kind of thing."
Laurie: So anyway, I wrote to him ... about a couple months later, and I said-
Debbie: You wrote back?
Laurie: I wrote back. And said, "I'm sorry I haven't gotten back to you sooner, but I've been very busy. And I won the election and best wishes on your own campaign. Sincerely, Laurie." You know, so it was like ... so, then-
Debbie: So did you become pen pals?
Laurie: Then what happened was even better, because we lived out by lake ... out in kind of like, not in a place where you get deliveries that much, but a delivery truck came with a white, long box of red roses from Jack, and a telegram. "Congratulations on the election, Jack Kennedy." And this was of course front page news in the Glen Ellyn News. "Local girl receives roses from Jack Kennedy." And every woman in town fell in love with Jack. And they said he was a seducer. I mean, all politicians have their thing, their style. And he was that. He and Jackie had their style thing going. And we really went for it. I mean, it was so glamorous. And also, he didn't have to write to a 12 year old, but he knew that's going to ...
Laurie: Anyway, but back to your thing. So jumping off the diving board, it wasn't just, "Look at me." I mean, I'm actually not an artist who does confessional work or stuff, I kind of look over there and try to describe it. I don't care if you know me at all. I don't. It's not about self-expression, you know, or at this point probably trying to get attention in a group of kids was just also the thing you so for a dare, and for fun, and just because you can. So I went up on this board, and I thought, "How hard can it be to do a triple flip? I've seen people do it, I'm going to give it a shot."
Debbie: Never having done it before?
Laurie: No, I hadn't done it before. But you know, you learn from other people. You walk to the end and then jump on the board, and then you know ... so I did that. But I missed the pool. And I landed BOOM on the edge of the concrete. And I broke my back. And I spent a couple months in traction in the hospital in the children's ward. And the doctor who came to see me said, "You're never going to walk again." And I'm looking at this guy thinking, "How would you ... are you even a doctor?" I mean I remember thinking, "Why is he saying something like that to me?" So I spent that time talking to my feet, just saying, "Move. I want you to move. I'm just looking at you. Move." And ... it's funny to tell the story about a story, because this became my story, my kids' story, like, "What were you like as a kid?" You all have stories, you drag them out, "I was a shy person, or I was a punk, or I was a little ... " you know, you have your little stock stories that you ... this is my stock story, so you know, it kind of in a way started to represent me, and you get a little bit of identity from it, whatever that means, and then you push against it.
Laurie: What happened with this story was once I was telling, and I ... what I remember about this was how much I couldn't stand the doctors, and how much the people who came to read to me were reading stories like The Gray Rabbit, and, "The gray rabbit is hopping down the road. Hello Laurie," and I couldn't also talk, so I'm like, "Hello Laurie, how are you feeling today?" I mean, okay, they meant to be kind, but they were reading me The Gray Rabbit, and I'd been reading stories like Crime and Punishment and you know ...
Debbie: Moby Dick.
Laurie: The idiots, you know. I was like why are you reading these baby stories to me? And so I had kind of a ... I was that kind of kid, and I was in the burn ward, so all of these kids are being in these little slings, where their burns are being bathed in these liquids and they're ... So anyway, once much later in my life, somebody said, "Okay, you spend two years in a brace." Okay, so from 12 to 14, women in the audience, you remember that's not a great time to be immobilized in a brace. You know, it's not a great time for a boy either. So it was horrible.
Laurie: But anyway, that's what they did at that point. But so that became part of the story too. But at one point I was describe this to someone, and I had ... sometimes you're in the middle of some language thing and you remember actually what it was like, and in this case for me it was sound. And it was a hallucination of sound, it was like suddenly ... I don't know why it happened, but it was like suddenly back in the burn ward, and I could hear the sounds of the kids all night. And the sound of kids crying and screaming. And this special sound that children make when they're dying. Because almost all the kids died. They were ... this was a severe burn ward.
Laurie: And so I realized that I had really forgotten this, what it was really like, and I'd gotten caught up into the story about it. And so I realized that repetition does that with stories. And your identity does that with your own story, too. The more you tell you it, the more you forget it. And so trying to get into, if you're remembering something, into the grittiness of what that really was, instead of the story that you're telling about it, is something that's really been important to me as an artist, to kind of like, what is memory? How do you get back to that day, and to that moment? And you dressed it up usually in some nicer way than it was. And I often think about that. How I've done that in my life. And not seen the complexity of really what was going on.
Debbie: Laurie, I've been thinking about that story a lot since I first read about it, and heard about it, and I'm wondering if at the time you were just remembering what you were capable of remembering. That somehow you weren't ... your psyche wouldn't have been able to tolerate that type or grief, or pain.
Laurie: Yeah. I mean you ... that's absolutely what it is. For a 12 year old, you can't tell that story. You can't tell that story of children dying, you're not able to. And so as an adult, I was telling the story, but 12 year old telling the story. So it's a kind of puppetry that went on and on.
Laurie: Which reminds me of a story in the book, which was I was in an interview situation like this, because I'm trying to talk to you, but I'm also trying to talk to you and I'm trying to talk to all these people who are in some other year, and they're listening to this thing. And it's a complicated thing, and so I had asked an interviewer to come to my studio, and usually I don't do that because I just don't. And mostly because it takes so many ... so long to hide all the things in your place that you need to hide [inaudible 00:19:56] coming over. And you're like, "Put that away, put that away," and it's just exhausting by the time they get there you're out of steam.
Laurie: And so this woman showed up and she had a ... we were going to do an interview on music and my recent album that I did, and so she reached in her bag and she pulled out like a sock and put it on her hand, and she began to animate the sock as a sock puppet. And she said, "Say, do you mind if we do this interview with this sock puppet?" And I was like ... And she wasn't like a really good puppeteer, so it wasn't really synced, the puppet hand wasn't really syncing with the words that well. So I said, "I'll be right back." So I got up and I ... you always have a stray sock around, extra sock, so I-
Debbie: I often do.
Laurie: I said ... put my sock on, and she had her sock on, and we did it as a kind of sock puppet interview. And it worked out well, because we had a little bit of distance from who we thought we were, you know? And we could say things that we maybe wouldn't have said if we had to have ... stayed in our own so called identity. You know, because these are traps, these things. And people want you to stay in character, they don't like you doing stuff that's out of character. I don't know why. Because you design this personality, and then you're stuck with it. And people say, "That's not really you." You go, "Really?" How do you know what me is? It's a designed thing that I'm showing you. But it's not necessarily who I am. So ...
Debbie: I'm feeling really inadequate. I have no socks. I have no tricks.
Laurie: You've got a lot of tricks. You've been doing this for 13 years.
Debbie: I have.
Laurie: I can't tell you how much I admire persistence. And I really do, because it's one thing to get a good idea, and it's another to watch it, and push it, and watch it unfold, and you've done this for so long, and it's just like one very, very, very, very long story with all the chapters.
Debbie: And a lot of different memories-
Debbie: That sort of keep evolving and changing.
Debbie: Thank you. I think people would be surprised to know that when you were growing up you were a cheerleader.
Laurie: Thanks so much. [
Debbie: Talk about designing, right? But you were also the star of your senior play. You were an editor at your school's newspaper. You were the violinist. You were also an artist. And this was really fascinating to me, you made homemade magazines about colonial times.
Laurie: Yes I did, yeah.
Debbie: I love that, please tell me you still have some of those as well.
Laurie: Yeah, you know how much fun it is to do that kind of penmanship, like old colonial penmanship. And I thought-
Debbie: You all know that, right?
Laurie: What is news, you know, it's just ... as we know now, news is just a combination of rumor and things invented by Russian trolls who are ... speaking of Dostoevsky, they had us down. You know, these trolls are like-
Laurie: Their descriptions of idiotic Americans, they're so on, you know? I want us to know ourselves better than they do, that's one of my ambitions, is to get in there, get into the troll mind, and see if we can make better stories about who we are. Better ones. That people kind of go, "Oh wow, well that's a good story." Instead of just this junk rumor stuff that's going around. And junk kind of whatever.
Laurie: What did you ask?
Debbie: I was asking about your colonial times magazine.
Laurie: Oh, yes. Yes, I thought, you know-
Debbie: Thought I'd forget about that one, huh?
Laurie: I want things to go slower, you know, and not much happened in colonial times. And I thought, if you could go back to a day and just invent what might have happened in a small town, and then I would ... I sold this to my neighbors in our town. I just had ... also, I tried a lot of things. I had a bakery also, I would bake things, and that never worked out because I would just design a menu and the proposed item that could be on it, and I would bring samples to people, like this could be the kind of carrot muffin that you could order in bulk if you wanted, this is a little piece of the type of cookie that I would make. And they would go, "I like that cookie, but could it be another sugar cookie?" And then I'd go back and have to make sugar cookies and bring more-
Debbie: Like a test kitchen.
Laurie: It never went beyond test kitchen. So anyway. But I'm interested in failure, and this book, All the Things I Lost in the Flood, is really about plan Bs and failures, and what happens when things just don't work out. It started out in Hurricane Sandy when my studio is on Canal Street, and it was completely flooded. And so I went a couple days later to look at what I could fish out, and there was ... what was down there was a lifetime of stuff, of props from shows, and electronics, and projectors, and whole lots of inventions, and sculpture, and paintings, and you know, a lot of stuff. And it was ... sea water is powerful. It pulverizes things. It had turned all of this stuff into oatmeal. You know what happens to circuit boards? They just ... they pull apart, and then the little component things just start floating, and then they just dissolve in sea water. So it was all just junk. Everything junk.
Laurie: And I was ... at first I was completely devastated. And it was only like two days later that I thought, "I don't have to clean the basement. Ever." And then two days after that, I'm looking at the inventory of all the things, and reading the lists of things that I lost. And I thought, "You know, reading these words is just as good, maybe better, than having a basement full of this stuff." And that's when I thought, what kind of ... we live in a world of representation. Of language that begins to substitute for things, so in the beginning of this chapter I was talking about the power of language to be things. I mean, we live in a representational world, which is part of the reason we have this death grip on phones. Is it's all disappeared. You know, there isn't a record store. Well there a few record stores, but mostly your record are in your phone, your friends are in your phone, all your things are in your phone, your dates, you calendars, your notes ... you know, it's all in there, so you have to [inaudible 00:26:40]. Because you've lost so much.
Laurie: And so the theme of loss in this book is about how language can represent things, and become things, the way I think really it's a little bit geeky, but the way the world yellow can be a kind of memorial to the color yellow. How does that work? So, it's also about how we treat things that we've lost. You can treat ... I wrote a song once about ... it was about hope, and it was about living next to train track, and the train comes through all the time, [inaudible 00:27:15] and you have a whole shelf of things, porcelain, glass things on the shelf, and the train rattles the shelf and stuff falls off and breaks, and it keeps doing that, and you keep replacing it, and you keep replacing it, you replace it with cheaper and cheaper things. Until finally you just have this cheap junk on your shelf.
Laurie: What do you do with the things that you lose? You try to put them back, replace them. When a friend of yours, or a family member of yours dies, sometimes I've seen that happen with people almost devalue the loss, they play it down. "I didn't know them that well", or, "You know, he wasn't that great a guy." So that you won't have to miss them so much the rest of your life. So you kind of go, "It wasn't that much, it wasn't that important."
Laurie: So to make enough room in your mind for all of that I think is something that's really important to do. And not to let it overwhelm you. So this looks at ... this book is a way to look at how language effects imagery, actually, and how it pushes into the world of sculpture, pictures, film. And ... you had talked about Burroughs when we were talking before this, and this was a song that I wrote called Language is a Virus From Outer Space, which is a Burroughs quote. When somebody would ask me, "Why'd you write that song?" I would say, "Isn't it strange thing for a writer to say that language is a disease, communicable by mouth?"
Laurie: Now when I was writing this book, I had to look at my own halfwit comments like that, and kind of go, "Well what does that mean?" And then I realized you know what, language ... I mean, a virus is not a disease, a virus is not even alive. It's one of these things over on the ... it's called on the edge of life. It's an agent. It's a kind of an activator, but it is not alive, it does not have life. So I thought that even makes it more connected to language and how language acts in terms of replication, and mimicry, and deception, and representation. And what you have then is things going viral. And you see the world that Burroughs was envisioning of language and how it can spin, how you spin it. And he is the grandfather of the trolls, I'm telling you. He saw this coming, he was a really dark and fascinating voice, and he talked about American in a way that was, I found, completely fascinating. And so I got a chance in this book to write a little bit more layers on top of that. Because when you look at your work, it looks different as you look back on it, so ...
Debbie: You quote Kierkegaard, and I'm not sure if it was actually in the book, or in Heart of the Dog, and you say that, Kierkegaard says, "Life can only be understood backwards." And I'm wondering if now that you're looking back at your career, and at your work, and putting together a book that has so much of a collection of your journey, do you feel like you understand it any better?
Laurie: Well, the whole quote of that is that you can only understand life looking at it backwards, but ... we have to move forward. So that's the difficulty in this. You can understand it backwards, so what do you do, do you like walk backwards while you're looking at your, you know, things that you've learned, or glance over your shoulder this way? I think it's ... that's why I was saying I sometimes see these little flags of things that just say, "Do this in this circumstance. Do this in that." Remember to be ardent. Remember to be positive.
Laurie: And so those things are enough for me. I mean, there's ... to just kind of key me into a way to go on. Because I think we are all ... it's such a crazy moment, because when you talk about stories now, I've been a lot of climate panels, for example, and these things started at the Black Diamond Library in Copenhagen last year, and it's a collaboration of many libraries throughout the world who are beginning to share conversations about climate, which I think ... And so, one of the first ones was in Copenhagen last summer that I did with a really wonderful writer, Icelandic writer called Jon, that's J-O-N, who wrote something called The Blue Fox, among many other beautiful things, he wrote something it's a kind of conspiracy of the hunter and the blue fox, he's hunting her, and she's kind of talking telepathically about this, and she finally allows him to shoot her. And so it's this kind of conspiracy of action.
Laurie: And so he had spent a lot of time at a climate institute in Potsdam, like because he's an artist and he also wrote ... worked a lot with Bjork and wrote Dancer in the Dark and a lot of wonderful things, but he's very focused now on climate, as many artists are. And what do you do to make art about climate? How does that work? How do you engage with that issue? I'm sure a lot of you are dealing with that. How do you do, and how do you look at a story like that? Because are unique human beings, because we are suddenly in our movies, suddenly in our books, end is being mentioned. The doomsday clock, the sixth extinction. And so with showing ... and these are very difficult things to discuss, because we're humans, and we are people who do things, and we're not people who ...
Laurie: So Jon, for example, is saying, "You know, the sixth extinction is not about we're going into it. We're in it." And so how do you say it's too late? And of course a lot of the climate stuff is about yes, those fire engines of technology are going to say, "Ooo, tipping point, let's drive in and solve it, let's knit up the ozone hole, no problem, we just didn't see it coming. But we will fix it." Really?
Laurie: When? So we are in this moment where we have to look at all of these ways and scenarios are being played out throughout all of these fictions, and hallucinations, and things. And also, who would be ... how would you tell a story ... I mean, first of all, the carbon loop is going to happen no matter what. And then I find a comfort in that. We're going to be scraped off the planet whether we drive anymore or not. It's just what happens, it's a carbon loop, and it happens, and this is the sixth time it will happen, so you know, that just happens. I find that ... I find that kind of a joyful thing in a weird way. So it doesn't stop me from wanting to put the brakes on in every possible way, and make this a livable place. I spent a lot of time at NASA when I was an artist in residents there, looking at Mars. I would go into a place and there was a 100 yard whiteboard about the greening of Mars, because Mars is where we're going to go. It's the most likely thing, and NASA is working on making it green. And putting oxygen and plant life there so we'll have a place to go. And now that we know so much about taking care of planets, we're going to take care of Mars. We did such a good job here, let's go as fast as possible.
Laurie: Anyway, so when you have this idea of telling this story of how things might end, what are you even talking about? So if you're telling a story, you tell it to someone. So we as human beings, if we tell this story, and we're talking to who? Who are we talking to? That's an awesome thing, to tell a story, and it's not even to anyone.
Laurie: I asked one of my Buddhist teachers, I said, "How does karma work if nobody's here? If all the humans are scraped off the planet? How does that work then? How does energy ... what happens?" And he said, "Well ... " I said, "What, you know?" And he-
Debbie: Does he?
Laurie: Yes. Should I tell you?
Laurie: He said, "That's why the Buddha talked about other universes." I was like, "Okay." We're actually not, after death, geographically limited to our planet, as you might know. You don't have to stay around your house, your city, or your planet. You're free. You're free. You go into the now, into the wherever we are, wherever that place is that we're all actually in all the time anyway. But so I think storytelling now is ... it's so crucial. You are people who are in media. You know what it is tell a story. Think about how you're going to tell that. Think about trying to be really honest about it. And free, and positive at the same time.
Laurie: One of the the things I did learn in the last few years is that is possible to be happy about being unhappy. It's possible. You have this realization that you recognize how you feel. You're not trying to be something else. And that recognition is a huge amount of pleasure, because you've achieved that. A way to recognize how things really are, not how you think they should be, or your mother thinks they should be, or your president thinks they should be, but how you think they should be.
Laurie: So it's a ... those of you who are artists know that it's like being God. It is a God like thing. It wasn't there, you put it there.
Debbie: Yeah, making something where nothing existed before.
Laurie: Nothing was there. You put it there. So this is a great moment to put things there. Put things out there. People need that, desperately. You know, just think of how lost we all are. And frazzled. You know, when you get hit every 40 seconds with information, it is the responsibility of us, and by us I'm saying media, people who are interested in stories and communication, to think about what we're doing. And also to try to slow down if you can possibly do it, and resist that machine of bombardment. Because this is the technique of making people crazy. Bombarding them with information from all sides until they kind of go, "I don't even know what's happening anymore, I just can't deal with it because 400 emails just came in, and I ... " you know?
Laurie: So analyze that. And you're the ones who are going to be doing that. So it's a ... it's no joke. It's-
Debbie: Laurie, one of the things that I contend with now is sort of the notion that we're preaching to the converted, that we're in our own little echo chamber, we all sort of believe a lot of the same things, people in this room. How do we get through to the people that feel differently, that aren't as outraged as we are, that are critical of our outrage, that don't believe in the same things we do, that we so fundamentally believe need to be addressed?
Laurie: I think first thing is to take that wall down of us and them, thinking that we know this thing, and believe these things and they don't. That's maybe not so true. First of all, question that it's our side and their side. When you see the sides come together, we've created the situation of two sides screaming at each other, and we know many of the ways that this is created, because our media has become personalized. So you hear only what you want to hear. And what somebody has decided is good for you to hear. So open your ears, so first of all, take that barrier down and walk outside your cozy area. And go into someplace where you don't belong.
Laurie: One of the most ... the things that I've learned, the times I've learned the most about life from being an artist, is putting myself in situations that are really wrong. And at one point I did something called Happiness and it was a project about just that. So in one case I decided to ... I worked at McDonald's for a while. Just to see what it was like. And-
Debbie: What was it like?
Laurie: It was great, actually. One of the things about McDonald's is I'm probably from the Starbucks group, and we think McDonald's is cheap food. Well, it's pretty good food. It's like real eggs, it's real coffee. But we're trained that unless you spend $7 for a [inaudible 00:41:29] chino something, that it's not good coffee. So anyway, I learned a little bit about stereotypes. I mean, the McDonald's I worked in was in China Town, and so a lot of ... I was working away, and most of my coworkers were Chinese. And so at one point, Peng and Anna, they were like this Chinese like martial arts duo of like making burgers, like [inaudible 00:41:57]. So I was trying to keep up, I was like okay, this is like a Chinese opera, this is like excellent choreography. So I'm trying to like do it, and then once they said, "Say, Anderson, you're"-
Debbie: They called you Anderson?
Laurie: Yeah. "You're German right?" And I was like, I mean, I'm Swedish kind of Scottish sort of person, Irish. And I said, "You know, I'm like a mixture of like Scottish, and Irish." But they didn't want to hear that. They just want like a very clear word, they don't want to hear like details and complicated things, and it's just too much information. So I said, "Yeah, basically I'm German." So then they called me the German from then on. "Hey, get the German to mop that up. Hey, get the German to make that Slurry." And then after a while, being the German, I kind of like became like a lot more efficient. I was like doing things in a more mechanical way, and getting it all done, and giving them my list at the end of the day.
Laurie: It's how you think about yourself that matters. Another experiment was I went out into an Amish farm, I was getting really burned out on technology, so I went out this farm where they didn't have anything. They just had wheels, they had wind, that was it. And I worked on a farm with this family for a while, and the thing was I didn't do that much work, I scrubbed the floors, but it was mostly indoors because it was raining the entire time. So this family, and a newborn, we just would sit around the kitchen table like for days. And-
Debbie: And do what?
Laurie: Listen to the little newborn crying. So it was like the wind, and the rain, and the crying. And this was really ... And then, there was this kind of anger there that I haven't seen maybe ever, and it would be this super slow motion anger. So the woman would be sitting there, I'd be sitting there with the husband and the baby. And she would say ... "David. You should never speak to me in that way again, I hope you never do." And since no one had said anything for like hours ... it's like, I looked over at the husband, he was no reaction, he was tuned to another station, totally. So I ... Anyway, finally one thing I do remember about this, basically I thought get me back to New York where people can actually say, "Fuck you!" Just express themselves, they were literally choking on their own goodness. You know, they just-
Debbie: Why were you there?
Laurie: Why was I there, I was there to get out of my little world, get out of my little bubble, the bubble you were talking about.
Debbie: Right. How did you find them? How did you choose them?
Laurie: Oh, you can find Amish people, they're not ... they're just living out there.
Debbie: Just like knock on a door, like-
Laurie: You walk out there, and you say ... actually, I was at a farmer's market, and I saw these farmers and they were just ... their hands, their hands are hanging by their sides in this relaxed way, and they were just ... they were there selling bread, but they didn't care if you bought their bread, or if you didn't buy their bread. Either way, fine. And I thought, "I want to live that way." I don't want to have to like buy their bread, or have to think about their bread, or just if I want bread I'll get it. Kind of easy going thing.
Laurie: So I said, "Can I come and stay with you? And work on your farm?" And they said ... first of all, they were like ... like that, why? And then they said, "Yeah, okay." Now when I met their grandma, the grandma once finally came to visit, and this little kid, there was also a two year old who was very jealous, of course, of the newborn, so there's that dynamic going on as well, there are two kids. And you always forget that jealous two year old who's in the background going, "What about me?" Anyway, grandma comes, and she says to this little kid, she goes, "Hey, come over and kiss grandma." And his name was ... what was his name? It was Spanish for north wind, it was a beautiful name. And he's like ... he really doesn't want to do it, and she keeps ... you know, pestering him and she's saying, "Come on, I'm here to kiss you, come on and kiss and hug grandma." And he finally says, "Well I'll kiss you when we're in the living room." And we've been in the kitchen for about two weeks, so it seems pretty safe to him to say if we're in the living room he will do that.
Laurie: Finally, the next day, we're all in the living room. And grandma's saying, "Okay, it's time to kiss grandma. We're in the living room now. Come on." And I'll never forget this guy, he gets up, he's slowly dragging himself over, and he ... puts his mouth to her cheek and I thought, "I am seeing this happen, a tiny boy who had just learned to kiss without affection." To kiss as part of a deal, as a kind of a payment. And it was ... it was hair raising, you know, the things that you learn so early. What is a kiss worth? You know. And when are you going to do it, and when are you not?
Laurie: So anyway, that's why I did things, to get out of my thing and probably the most recent thing that I felt jumped the farthest was a collaboration that I did with Mohammed el Gharani from Guantanamo. And this was a project that I'd done a lot of work with prisons, and telepresence. And this started in the late 90s when I did work in Austria, I couldn't think of ... they had invited me to a 13th century church to do a sound work, and it was all about reverb, so I couldn't really get it working. It was too fuzzy, I wanted to use language, it was all just flying away.
Laurie: So I didn't have any ideas, walked up to the bell tower of this ... it was a 13th century church, as I said, and in the middle of this perfect little Austrian tower is a maximum security prison. So I'm thinking, "Whoa." And I'm looking over at the guard tower, guy with a machine gun. I'm in the bell tower, he's in the guard tower, come down and tell the curators, "I'm going to a work about telepresence, we're going to build a video studio in the prison. We're going to make a live size cast of this statue and put him, put this statue of the prisoner in the apse of the church, then we're going to beam the image of the person sitting very still onto the cast of his body, and it will be like a living sculpture."
Laurie: This is in 1998, so we had some pretty good ways to do it. And I said, "This will be about telepresence, the function of telepresence, and cameras in our culture, and the attitude of the church and the prison to the body. Incarceration, incarnation, they are not there." So surprisingly, the curator said, "Great." And I was like, "Really, okay." As it turns out, we didn't do that because Austrian law forbids prisoners to use their images. Prisoners no longer own their own image. A 21st century situation as well, who owns your image and what can they do with it? Now it's a very contemporary dilemma.
Laurie: So anyway, I thought in a way, good, because that gets me off the hook. I got back on the hook when their Attorney General said, "I love your project, you have special permission to do this. Use prisoner's image." And back and forth. Didn't work for various reasons. The Whitney then asked me to do something a few weeks later, and I said, "Let's do something with Sing Sing. Let's do something with two guarded institutions, what do you keep in there with those guards? In a museum and in a prison, what's in there that's so, so precious?" So we were going to T1 lines and kind of fancy tech stuff that would bounce the prisoners image and there are lots of prisoners in Sing Sing, a lot of them are artists who got dragged under the Rockefeller drug law, which means you're sitting there with a joint, you're not even smoking it, you're definitely not selling it, you can get 25 to life.
Laurie: Now what happened at that time was, suddenly all these prisoners are showing up and coinciding with hey, the privatization of prisons, of course. What do you need if your prison is your business, you need customers. So all of these laws are invoked, and people swept in, so we had a number of people who were doing meditation, they were artists in prison. And so they were interested in doing this project with me.
Laurie: That didn't happen either. Why? Too political. Don't want to do political art, do you? And so anyway, there was an Italian curator, [Chibano Chinak 00:52:24] who heard about this project and said, "I have a place, cultural institution, and prison for you in Milan." So we did this in Milan with the Prada Foundation. And that sponsors a lot of big art events, and San Vittore prison. San Vittore mostly has white collar guys, in for life, real weasels. They have basically dismantled the Italian economy. They know Greek, they know Latin, they're writing books, they have knives, they have big wine collections, their friends can come over there wearing Armani.
Debbie: In the prison?
Laurie: Everything's right except for the shoes, the shoes are slippers, because they're never going anywhere ever, they're in for life. And anyway, because they were ... so, I ... you know, the worst part in a situation like this is to ... it's obnoxious. You're an artist and you go, "I'm going to collaborate with a prisoner who's going to sit there forever, and then I'm going to sign my name as my art project." And you're like, ah, that's revolting, what kind of like horrible exploitation of that is, of people in prison.
Laurie: But one of the things that happened was, so I thought, "I have to find someone who wants to do this, who's motivated to do this." In fact, these guys had decided who my collaborator was going to be, and because they're lawyers, and because they're very skilled at shifting your attention from here over to there, and here, I'm talking eventually to this guy named Santino, a bank robber, murderer, writer. And I said, "Santino, if you do this project with me, how do you see it?" And he said, "I see it as a virtual escape." And I said, "You're my man. Let's do it." So we did this, and it was a really intense project.
Laurie: I always wanted to do it in the United States, and then when the Park Avenue Armory offered me a chance to do something, I said, "Let's do streaming, live streaming of 12 prisoners from all upstate New York. And they will be arranged in twice life sized statues, their images will be beamed on them, they will sit in the prison for several hours a day, and then we'll go to playback, and there will be like two lines of then, and it will be like hot shot statutes in ancient Egypt of just stillness, and punishment, and technology."
Laurie: And so we worked on that, we got it almost there, and then homeland security got in touch with me and said, "You will never do this project in the United States of America." Did not see the upside to that, so ... a long sort of circuitous route, I began working with a group in London called Reprieve, who represents people on death row in the United States and people in Guantanamo. And one of the ... I was explaining this to one of the head lawyers there, and you know when you're explaining a project that's a little bit wacky like this, you know, "We're going to build a big statue and we're going to beam this person in, and ... " and you kind of think they're going to go, "Thank you so much for your very interesting project, it's been so nice talking to you." Click. But this person said, "Tell me more." This is the lead lawyer for Reprieve.
Laurie: And so we did this project with Mohammed el Gharani, the youngest detainee at Guantanamo. He was captured when he was 12. And detained until he was 21. Cut up, head broken, teeth broken, sliced up, in solitary, tortured, waterboarded, everything. One of the things I learned in working with this Guantanamo project was pretty much 95% of the people there are very unlucky people who were sold by the North Alliance for $5,000.00. And just happened to be cab drivers, students, Mohammed was a student, he was a computer student who was a goat herder and went to study in his uncle's computer school in Pakistan. And he got pulled in because we needed Saudis. We needed Saudi prisoners, that was the template we needed. There are some bad guys in Guantanamo, about 10.
Laurie: So the rest of these guys are there and I was the first American he had met, who was not his torturer, or his interrogator. So we had a long way to go to meet each other, and see who we were. He was an amazing guy. He turned out to be ... had wonderful stories. About what had happened there. This is a person who is a survivor, first of all. He is one of the most inspiring people you'll ever meet. Anyway, he told stories, for example, like one of his fellow detainees had a dream that a submarine came to rescue all the prisoners in Guantanamo. The next night, the whole Guantanamo Bay was filled with helicopters and ships, looking for the submarine this guy had dreamed about. This is a dark dream. We are in a dark dream here, of illusion. Trying to find out what those lines are.
Laurie: Anyway, we did this project and we made a life sized, well, a statue. We built a studio in West Africa, where Mohammed lives. And I also have to say one of the things that fascinated me bout this was language, because the reason this happened, the reason Guantanamo happened is language. We capture these guys, and then we say they are ... the first thing we do is declare them nonpersons. These people, nonpersons. So Geneva Convention does not apply. Second, we then change all of the language about what happens. We were not allowed, for example, to say that American doctors were present in every torture session, which they were. What we had to say was the American behavioral science consultancy team was at every session with detainees. Okay? There were countless suicides. Suddenly, none. Why? There were behavioral, self inflicted events resulting in death. We live in a cold place, make no mistake what's going on here.
Laurie: We built this double life sized, well, it's the size of Lincoln Memorial, and Mohammed, who is no allowed to come in like any other Guantanamo prisoner, we beamed him in, and what happened was we also presented ... I have to leave in 30 seconds. There was a camera, you know how you always know where the cameras are now? Any place you go, you have a sixth sense.
Debbie: The eye in the sky, yeah.
Laurie: We have a sixth sense for the cameras. We had a camera in the top of the armory, so if you stood with your back to the projection of Mohammed, you would, pretty soon people who came there realized that he could see them. So they stood in front of the statue, with signs. I had no microphones, because he'd been called a terrorist too many times, this boy who was ... you know. And people had the opportunity to read in absolute detail his case. The US government story of who he was, which was a terrorist, an 80 year old terrorist, and his story. They were juxtaposed, these two stories. And everyone who was there had read that. And they came and stood with these signs and instruments, and dancing, and mostly with their mouths going [inaudible 00:59:07]. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
Laurie: For me, that ... you have certain moments in your life when you're just going ... you can break some walls. You can break the wall that you're in right, you're trapped, we're all trapped in this little thing that we're in. And we built it ourselves, with our own little media tools. Use those tools to get out of it. We have to get out of it. What's on the other side is not people who are like crazy and scary, they're just people like we are. And really keep that in mind. Don't be fooled into ... this language of us and them is ridiculous. It's ridiculous. It's just been ... it's a fiction.
Debbie: I know. I know. One parting thought for the audience about we can all mobilize.
Laurie: I'm going to go back to Mingyur Rinpoche who says, "Don't forget to have a really, really, really, really ... " the reason we're here, "good time". Okay. So thanks for coming to this.
Debbie: Laurie. Laurie Anderson.
Laurie: Thank you.
Curtis: Design Matters is produced by Curtis Fox Productions. The show is published exclusively by DesignObserver.com and recorded live at the School of Visual Arts Masters in Branding program in New York City. The editor in chief of Design Matters Media is Zachary Petit, and the art director is Emily Weiland.