From a childhood of music to the mysteries of language and going from Guantanamo to McDonald’s, this wide-ranging conversation with Laurie Anderson at the On Air Fest provides an entryway into the brilliant mind of a legendary polymath.
Design Matters Live: Laurie Anderson
STORYTELLING / LANGUAGE / ALL THE THINGS I LOST IN THE FLOOD / HURRICANE SANDY / HEART OF A DOG / PERSISTENCE / GUANTANAMO / NASA / MCDONALD’S / DAVID FOSTER WALLACE / MINGYUR RINPOCHE / YOKO ONO / JOHN F. KENNEDY / WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS / BJORK
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
And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. — Debbie Millman