January 2012
Laurie Anderson - Illustration by Charles Burns

Laurie Anderson

[Musician]

“Being an artist is a totally godlike thing to do—and I have a god complex.”
Guys who really get it:
A guy who knows absolutely everything about boilers
A guy who built a bicycle from seven hundred parts off the internet
Alain de Botton

I met Laurie Anderson in early 2006, when I invited her to participate in a literary and music series I run and host in New York, called “Happy Ending.” I ask the artists to do something they’ve never done before—to take a risk onstage. The risk she chose was to tell a story through PowerPoint presentation. The audience was completely enthralled, but when I reminded her about her risk in our interview, she was mortified. Hosting in front of Laurie Anderson felt like a personal risk for me: she is one of my artistic heroes. But the instant we shook hands that night, she put me at ease with her ease. I carried that onto the stage, and the show went well.

Born in Chicago in 1947, Anderson quickly found her place in the experimental art scene of 1970s SoHo. Her first performances were spectacles: a symphony of car horns at a drive-in bandshell, a violin concert in which she wore skates frozen into slowly melting blocks of ice. Her reputation in America and Europe quickly grew, and, less than a decade into her career, the New York Times recommended her live performances to “anyone remotely interested in where American art is going,” calling her “the best and most popular performance artist of her age.” Her work has been described as “avant-garde pop,” “cryptic yet warmly accessible,” “popular, but epic; showbiz, but avant-garde,’’ and “entirely idiosyncratic.” By age thirty-five, Anderson possessed something very rare in performance-art circles—mainstream popularity—when her rock single, “O Superman,’’ reached number two on the British charts.

For four decades, she has created work that employs a variety of media: sculpture, music, video, spoken narrative, projected imagery. She has scored orchestral compositions and invented musical instruments, including the “tape-bow violin” (on which recorded magnetic tape replaces the horsehair in the bow and bridge) and the “talking stick,” a wireless device that can access and produce any sound. She has published books, released seven albums on the Warner label, shown at major museums, and was employed as NASA’s first artist-in-residence. She has said that she feels her sensibility is “closer to the attitude of the stand-up comedian… not only because I believe that laughter is extremely powerful but because the comedian works in real time.”

I visited Laurie Anderson at her Canal Street studio overlooking the Hudson River. She sat there, comfortably barefoot, asking perhaps even more questions of me than I asked of her.

—Amanda Stern

I. “AM I IN A STRUCTURE OR JUST A DIAGRAM OF A STRUCTURE?”

LAURIE ANDERSON: I did a show inspired by Alain de Botton—he has something called “The School of Life” in London. It’s a really wonderful storefront, and in it are twenty books—they’re not for sale, but they’re the twenty books that you go, “Oh my god, why is that book not in my collection, why don’t I know about that book?” And he curates them, and it’s on one of these streets that has a name like Bruised Lamb’s Ear Lane, in the old meat-market district. The idea of The School of Life is that a lot of people go to school and learn how to make money or get a job, and then they kind of stop learning things except for the things they have to learn—like Photoshop or Pro Tools, which is a technique, not a discipline, although some people have turned it into an obsession. Anyway, he figures that everyone has one book in them, which I totally agree with—at least if they could figure out how to tell their story, they do—and so he opened The School of Life, and people come by and they talk for however long they feel like, and it’s a kind of—not a class, but a presentation of some kind. I love that idea, because I know a lot of people who have weird specialties that are not taught in schools; they’re things that you learn in life.

So I was asked to curate a month at The Stone, which is John Zorn’s club on Second and Avenue C, and in addition to programming music every night I also had Sundays, which became The New York School of Life, to which I invited a bunch of people. I had one guy come and talk about boilers—boilers are his love. He knows absolutely everything about them. He gives tours of boilers in New York. For most people, they’re something that’s down in your basement, and you don’t know how they work, and the less said the better, but he adores boilers and sees them as works of art, and he gives tours of buildings that have the most interesting boilers, and it is so fascinating to hear him talk. He gave an evening that was a double bill with a friend who built a bicycle from seven hundred parts he got on the net, and it was a beautiful English bicycle, and the bicycle-boiler show duo was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever been to, because it was just these regular people talking about these things they were just really, really passionate about; it wasn’t artists or writers talking about “why I do what I do.”You know, I’ve heard all of those reasons, and they never ring the right bells for me. It sounds like someone talking about their résumé, “why I write.”You’re like, Uh, better to keep it to yourself and just write if you feel like writing. You know what I mean? So we didn’t want to hear why people do their work, we wanted to hear what they do.

THE BELIEVER: Where did you find the boiler guy?

LA: He’s just a friend of mine. I mean, if you think about it, you can come up with about twenty people who know a lot, and if you give them a platform… Now, Alain de Botton is somebody who has a Balzacian sweep of how things work. I really like his work. He just starts at the edges and goes, “OK, what goes on in this town? Let’s see… First, let’s go out to the port and see how things come in…” It’s almost the way Balzac will describe a breeze moving through the city, you know, under a door, and then it goes into the baker’s nostril, and then it goes floating out the window into the seamstress’s house, and he glues the city together with the breeze or whatever mechanism he’s using. One of my favorite things Alain de Botton did was he was the artist at Heathrow, which I thought was a great job, and then he wrote a book about Heathrow. Have you read that?

BLVR: No.

LA: Fabulous book. Because you go through Heathrow or any airport and you go, What’s behind that hollow cardboard wall? And he decided to find out, so he spent time there, and every time I’ve been through Heathrow since then, I know what’s behind those walls. The way the whole airport shakes every time an airplane lands, you’re like, Am I in a structure or just a diagram of a structure? You’re not really sure. Added to the fact that there are no clocks there, either, so you’re sort of lost in this flimsy world, which is the way they would like to keep it. But Alain is a very sharp observer of detail; he described in a couple of pages, really accurately, what happens when you come into arrivals and what everyone does—

BLVR: They look to see if someone’s come to meet them!

LA: Even though they know no one is coming to meet them. Your boyfriend is not coming, your mother has been dead for five years, absolutely everyone is out of town, no one is going to meet you! You still scan very quickly and in under a second—“No, it’s true, no one has come to meet me”—but also, the next quarter of a second, “I am an adult, I am going to get a taxi and go home by myself to my apartment and I will be grown up about it and I will accept the fact that no one has come to meet me, yet again.” He tracks those eye motions, and tracks what’s going on with people in situations as fraught as an airport, and makes it very vivid. So he’s one of my favorite anthropological observers, and also just because he doesn’t see writing books as something that’s special and stylized, but as something that’s really integral to learning things and putting them into a context. When you’re in a context, it’s very hard to understand, unless you read the rule book about what context you’re in to give yourself one. So you may be like, “Um, I’m an artist of the minimalist school, and so I go to these openings,” but without that context of being a minimalist, I think a number of artists and musicians and writers are really just lost—they are lost. I mean, why are you doing this? Who are you doing it for? Having a little bit of a context gives you this illusion of its having meaning, but what is the meaning, really? Then it becomes beyond terrifying. What are you doing it for?

BLVR: Right.

LA: Most people can’t answer that, myself included.

II. “GET ME A BUNNY, ANNNDY!”

LA: Let’s say I’m asking you why you write. What would you say?

BLVR: I’d say if I knew the meaning, I wouldn’t do it.

LA: Uh-huh.

BLVR: In some way it’s that elusive, intangible struggle that propels me forward—it has no end.

LA: So you’re doing something that’s endless, and you will never find out what it means, but you do it anyway.

BLVR: Yes. I mean, I know what it means viscerally; I can locate the meaning inside myself, but it’s more of a feeling. Even if I could name it or put it into words, I can’t control whether people are actually receiving the intended message or the meaning I’m putting inside the work—

LA: Well, do you think anyone ever does? I mean, it’s like—I especially feel sorry for painters, or writers, too, because they don’t get a chance to see their audience. I mean, that’s one of the reasons I like working in live things. That’s the way I edit. I look at people’s faces, and if they’re falling asleep, I’ll take it out—not to please people, but because it has to jump across. But, I mean, you do readings and public performances, right?

BLVR: Uh-huh.

LA: Don’t you watch reactions, or do you ignore them?

BLVR: I don’t ignore them. I feel like I sort of absorb the information as different temperatures inside my body—as gut instinct, I guess. At the reading series I run, I’m trying to bridge this gap between the audience and the performers, to include the audience so that they become a part of the event, a part of a shared experience. I want the audience to care about the author’s onstage success, and not secretly hope they fail.

LA: But don’t you think that audiences always want people to succeed?

BLVR: Yes, and… no.

LA: I mean, they’re there.

BLVR: They’re there, but an audience builds a relationship with these people, and sometimes they don’t like them—

LA: I always feel like if someone has stage fright, I really try and say, “Listen, these people want you to succeed, they want to have a good evening. They want to see something really great. They don’t want to see something crappy. They don’t. They want to be at something really special.”

BLVR: I feel like there are moments people have onstage where there’s a fuckup, or they flub, and their nervousness becomes the audience’s nervousness.

LA: But that’s part of the whole thing, because then the performer has shaken your faith in them. It’s like suddenly you see, well, actually this person might fail, so maybe we better turn on them now while they’re down.

BLVR: Right, and that’s such an interesting dynamic, because all of a sudden the audience is not rooting for you, and they are now—

LA: The audience creates its own personality, I’ve noticed, 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—

BLVR: It does.

LA: And then if it doesn’t—I mean, I’m sure you know this as a comedian—you’ll never get them back. Good luck. I mean, it’s a cliché, but it’s really true. Even in an academic setting, even in a lecture, people size it up and they want to know really quickly. That’s why I always put a jump cut in the first two minutes—

BLVR: Smart.

LA: A really wide jump cut, really wide, so that it functions to throw things off.

BLVR: Right.

LA: Because audiences, whether they’re seeing a film or a reading or whatever it is, a concert, they decide very quickly what kind of show it is, and then they judge it. They judge the rest of the thing by whether it conforms to their rules for what a good symphony orchestra would be. Now, maybe they’re looking at a really bad symphony orchestra, but a really wonderful display of narcissism, but they just put it in the wrong category and are judging it the wrong way. They want it to conform to some rules. So if you can create a jump cut that says, “You know what, I’m not going to let you know where to go or how far to jump”—because people jump to the punch line or to the next thing you should be saying, and if you don’t say—that’s what I adored about Andy Kaufman when I first saw him, in a tiny club in Queens, and he was playing the bongos and sobbing—

BLVR: Right, right, I’ve heard about this.

LA:And I thought, I must meet this guy, and I went up to him and said, “I love what you’re doing,” and I became his sidekick. I followed him around for a couple of years and did his straight-man stuff in his clubs. You know, he wrote an incredible book that was never published.

BLVR: Really?

LA: Yeah—it should have been published. He came over here and read it to me on a lot of nights. I don’t know what happened to this book. But in terms of expectation, he was the beyond-master of anyone that I’ve ever come across. He was a genius of disrupted expectation. For example, we’d go out to Coney Island to just practice situations, and we’d get on the roto-whirl where the bottom drops out, and we’d just be spinning around, so there’s a minute where everyone’s locked in—

BLVR: Yeah.

LA: And that’s when he began to freak out: “I think we’re all going to die on this ride! Look at the way the belts are done, they’re really flimsy!” And everyone is like, “Who is this moron?” and second, “Maybe the belts aren’t attached that well,” and it was chaos. Or we’d go over to the test-your-strength thing, and my job was to help him make fun of the guys who were doing it. [Doing Andy’s voice] “Ah, look at this weakling”—and everyone got so angry at that for a while. They’d go, “OK, you try it, wise guy,” and so he would—and I’m supposed to, like, nag him. [Doing a whiney voice] “Get me a bunny, Annndy. I want a big bunny. Look at these guys, you’re a lot stronger than they are!” And, anyway, so he would try, and it would hardly register on the scale at all, it wouldn’t even get up to “Try Again, Weakling,” it just went beep [flatline noise], and at that point he would demand to see the manager: “I don’t know why this happened!” And everyone is like, “Oh god,” and he goes way beyond what’s supposed to happen.

BLVR: Did he talk about why he was doing what he was doing?

LA: He didn’t have to. The hardest part was wrestling with him, because he would be doing these club shows where he was very abusive to women, very abusive: “Those broads think they are… Who do they think they are?” You know, “I will not respect a woman until she comes up here and wrestles me down,” and that was my cue to come up there and wrestle him down, and I’m like on my third whiskey—I don’t usually drink, but trying to get up the nerve—and he would fight, and he wasn’t pretending. He’d twist my arm.

BLVR: Did you ever get really hurt?

LA: No, he wouldn’t break my arm, but he would really twist it around, and I fought back. It was definitely not pretend-wrestling. He wasn’t acting, and neither was I, but at the same time it was a game. There are plenty of ways you can play the game of fighting and really seem to be fighting without going for the jugular. Anyway, he was just curious about taboos. To be playing bongos and sobbing—I mean, everyone in the club is looking at that and going, “My god, this is so embarrassing.” You’re not supposed to cry while you sing or play. That’s our job as the audience. We get to have a tear roll quietly down our cheeks, but not the performer.

III. THE PARANOIA OF THE PERFORMER

BLVR: When you feel that the audience is stoic and not with you, how does that affect you? Does it affect your performance?

LA: Of course it does. Doesn’t it for you? It’s a challenge.

BLVR: Yeah, but there is something maybe slightly masochistic about me that almost enjoys it.

LA: Maybe you enjoy the challenge of, OK, why are they doing that, and how can I free them from that? Because it is about freeing people.

BLVR: It’s funny—I mind if I feel awkward socially, at a party, but when I’m onstage in front of all these people, and they’re not laughing or giving me any sense that they understand me, and they’re putting me in this position where they want me to fail or they want me to melt—

LA: I think that’s a little over the edge.

BLVR: Maybe [laughs], but that’s the feeling.

LA: That’s what you are adding to this mix of—

BLVR: Perhaps.

LA: I really trust audiences as having excellent taste, for the most part. I genuinely have never been in an audience where most people want that person to fail. I’ve never been in an audience like that, and I’ve never seen it as a performer. Only in my dreams, in which case they are always throwing tomatoes and going, “This is the most boring thing I’ve ever seen.”

BLVR: Well, I guess they’re not actively wanting me to fail, but they know what’s expected of them and they’re not giving it—

LA: That’s different than them wanting you to fail.

BLVR: I guess so.

LA: It is. It’s the paranoia of the performer. You’re adding a lot to it that’s not there.

IV. FALLING INTO THE SKY

LA: Our dog Lolabelle died.

BLVR: Oh, I’m sorry.

LA: Yeah, what a sweetie pie. She was my best friend. When you’re very physically attached to something—not so much mentally, but physically, something that is always at your knee, you know—it’s very different when they evaporate. So in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, for forty-nine days you’re in the Bardo, and it describes in a really fascinating way how you lose your senses and how your mind dissolves as you prepare for another cycle. At the end of that forty-nine-day period, you are born in another form, and, in my dog’s case, what was at the end of that forty-ninth day was my birthday. I’m kind of a believer in magic numbers, in a way. So I wanted to study that particular Bardo, and then I found that that’s only one of the many Bardos. The other Bardo that is happening is the Bardo that we’re in right now—in which we both believe we’re having a conversation in a studio by the river when, in fact, we’re not.

BLVR: What are we doing?

LA: Well, I think illusion is one of the most interesting things that I’ve found to think about. I don’t really know how it works, but I know that in some way we are and in some way we’re not having this conversation. Just look at yesterday, and what you were doing, and how important it was, and how nonexistent it is now! How dreamlike it is! Same thing with tomorrow. So where are we living? Tibetans have unbelievably fascinating answers to that. This is what I’m studying because my dog died.

BLVR: Do you have thoughts about death and what happens after death?

LA: Well, no single person who has ever lived will be able to tell you what happens. Period. Nobody’s right and nobody’s wrong. So what do you do, then? With my experience, and how my mind works, and what I think about—let’s call it “the disappearing mind stream”—when you follow your thoughts and watch them attach to certain things, it makes certain things real and other things unreal, and you realize that this is all created by your mind.

BLVR: Yes.

LA: The main thing that attracts me to Buddhism is probably what attracts every artist to being an artist—that it’s a godlike thing. You are the ultimate authority. There is no other ultimate authority. Now, for some artists that’s difficult, because they want to have the art police. They want to have the critic who hands out tickets and says, “That’s too loose.”They want to have that person—it’s very important. “Oh, I got a great review!”—they need to have that. One of the things that’s improved my life enormously in the last two years is that I haven’t read one single thing that’s been written about me, and that is fantastic! I realize that I am a professional artist and I probably should read that stuff, but it never hit me very well. I didn’t like it, and it always made me feel bad, whether it said I was fantastic—and I knew that was a lie—or whether it said that I was a complete fraud, which of course every person thinks is probably true, but you fight that idea. Either way, it would make me feel creepy, and I didn’t like it, and it’s been great. I didn’t need it. It was hurting me in ways that either pumped me up or pushed me down. I thought, What am I doing this for, anyway—the whole thing? And then, of course, it made me realize that I’m not doing it to please x, y, or z critic. I never have been.And I don’t care about being famous or having a lot of people go, “She’s really good.” I don’t care about that, so it was very freeing to realize, Well, what do I care about?

BLVR: And what did you arrive at?

LA: It’s fun! Part of it is the pure fun of making things and thinking about things, and, like I said about Buddhism, being an artist is a totally godlike thing to do—and I have a god complex.

BLVR: A godplex.

LA: Yeah, a godplex! I’m thrilled by the fact that I made something out of nothing. There it is! It wasn’t there before: there it is—I made it! That’s pretty powerful, and that’s the power that Buddhists give to every single person. There is no one judging you; you are the Buddha. And that’s a frightening thought and a liberating thought, that you are the ultimate authority. Every single person and bird and ant has that ultimate authority—so if you can find that and appreciate that, it’s a kind of a revolution. I have two brothers, identical twins—and I’ve noticed this with other twins as well—they have a different kind of happiness. I won’t say it’s so for all twins, but for my brothers—they never had to look for anyone to love them or understand them. They were born with someone who understood them perfectly and looked just like them, and they didn’t have to spend their life proving themselves to anyone or working at being available or desirable or anything. And that’s really a very different experience: You don’t have to look to be understood. You’re already understood.

BLVR: So what’s their life like?

LA: They have a wonderful life. I mean, of course it’s easy to idealize other people, but they have an ease that other people don’t have.

BLVR: Would you want that?

LA: I don’t know. I’m not talking about whether it’s a perfect way to be, it’s just a different way to be. People who were born alone are defined by feelings like “Who’s gonna be with me when I die? Who will ever understand me? Will I always feel so alone? Maybe if I write a book…” and you forget that that doesn’t help you so much. It’s like when young artists say to me, “I’m afraid to call myself an artist, because what would other people think? What would my parents think, and my friends? I mean, artists are Van Gogh, they’re not me.” And I have to say, “You know, I hate to say this, but not many people care what you do. They care about what you do as much as you care about what they do. Think about it. Just exactly that much. You are not the center of the universe.”

BLVR: A lot of your work is about interconnectedness and giving everything a voice, and how everything is vibrationally connected in some way. I was thinking about that, and about the Large Hadron Collider, and about the God particle, and in some ways your work is like “String Theory Live!” It’s like a manifestation of string theory in a lot of ways, and I was thinking about the God particle and wondering, Well, what if they find it and it answers these enormous questions that we all have and struggle with and that we create art about? What if they find it and it’s answered?

LA: We can get rid of all those museums and stop doing those concerts! And be proud of it and hang out. I mean, what’s so great about the striving aspect of humans? Maybe when we’re gods we’ll be more into just chilling, and we can just appreciate instead of looking for—

BLVR: So will there be no art?

LA: Five thousand years from now—let’s say we didn’t find the God particle. We’re still looking. I think we probably won’t be making things of the nature that we are now. I think we’ll just be trying to appreciate things more. Maybe we’ll design better ears. I mean, our hearing’s crappy. We’ll have huge ears and we’ll be able to tune in to Mars, or we’ll have a hundred lenses through which we can look onto the surface of Mars with our so-called “bare eyes,” or look through our hands. We’ll be able to be in the present more effectively.

BLVR: We’ll be our own projects.

LA: Well, I don’t think it’s projects. We’ll be able to use our senses, because art, in a way, is stuff that teaches you to use your senses. We’ll still have these little Assyrian gold horses that taught humans how to appreciate form and solidity and certain types of beauty, but once you know that kind of beauty… It’s just a Cageian idea of “Everything is here already.” Works of art are just ways to pay attention to different things, and to appreciate what is there, and more and more art is like that. Rather than creating more stuff—“Oh, that’s a nice blue!”—I mean, there are lots of nice blues already that you can focus on everywhere! So focus on that blue.

When I was four, I was a kind of sky worshipper. I would look at the sky, and I wanted to evaporate into the sky—I loved the sky. I loved looking at the trees, just because they touched the sky. I’d think, I am that—

BLVR: You were that. You are that.

LA: I was that and I am that. And we’re all that. I knew that as a kid really clearly, and I never forgot that.

BLVR: See—you are a theoretical physicist.

LA: [Laughs] No, I’m a Midwesterner. That was our perfect landscape: 180-degree sky. There was not some big crashing ocean or big majestic mountains, just this flat thing made of sky, and it’s always been my absolute—my most comfort of anything—and the great thing about the sky is that it’s available, twenty-four hours, to everybody, unless you’re in jail, and then you have to go to your mental sky, which is there as much as the physical one, so you can have that. If I’m confused, I just spend some time looking at the sky and, you know, falling into it. It’s not a meditation that anyone taught me, it’s something I’ve done my whole life, and liked doing, and it made me feel like nothing. I enjoy that feeling. That’s what I go for—not to be here.

BLVR: Did it make you feel like nothing or everything—or is that the same thing?

LA: Same thing. It was a fabulous feeling—of lightness and happiness. There are things in your childhood where you have to say what your name is and pretend you’re a person, but I’m still not really a person, and I never really had to be a person in that way, because I feel like this other way of understanding the world makes more sense to me.

Amanda Stern is the author of the novel The Long Haul, and the founder, curator, and host of the popular Happy Ending series at Joe’s Pub in New York City. She’s at work on her next novel.

Illustration by Charles Burns

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