Laurie Anderson, one of the premiere artists, musicians and minds of our time is suspiciously inconspicuous. Her clothes are dark and plain, her hair short and nondescript, her voice soft, low and soothing enough to lull you to sleep. She is a slight woman, small in stature and weight, beautiful — but not in a flashy way. You’d never guess that this woman, who could easily pass for a librarian or a teacher, has morphed into the art scene’s pride and joy and a hero for female artists everywhere.
This time around Anderson is showcasing her piece “The End of the Moon,” a nod to her experience with NASA as well as a regretful posing on where space is headed. “The End of the Moon” is the second piece of an artistic trilogy, which began with 2002’s “Happiness” and, true to Anderson’s signature style, will be a multimedia explosion: including spoken word vignettes, violin pieces, computer images and video.
Artsweek: So, you are the first artist in residence at NASA?
Laurie Anderson: Yes
What does that mean exactly?
That’s what this show is about (laughs), because they gave me no hints about what that might mean — and so I just had to improvise. So this is the story of what I am trying to make up and what I saw and what happened.
So they didn’t give you any insight into what that meant at all?
Did they expect you to show up on a daily basis? Or was it just, come and join us?
No, they didn’t tell me a single thing, and I loved that because it just meant that I had to figure out what it was. You know, on my own — and that was a lot of fun. I ended up just going to a lot of places, because I didn’t know that much about NASA, really. And I didn’t end up doing some big tech project about space. Because they were already doing art project, “Stairway to Outer Space,” you know — really incredible things. I became more of an observer/journalist, really. A lot of the kind of report that I’m making, is, in many ways, quite journalistic. Trying to say very simply what I saw, and not what I thought I was going to see, or what I should see — but really trying to describe it, because it’s really quite wild what’s going on: a huge, huge operation. The other half of the show is in another whole different style of writing. It’s much more, sort of, intuitive and stranger. It’s a mix of two different ways of using words, really, and there’s a lot of violin.
Anderson began her career in New York City in the 1970s with performance pieces that include works in which she played the violin while wearing ice skates atop a block of ice. The piece was finished when the ice had melted into a puddle on the gallery floor. Music has always been another passion for Anderson, releasing ten odd albums and hitting the charts with in England with “O Superman,” a fluke single that appealed to the masses in 1981. Anderson continues writing music, touring as a musician and incorporating her violin into her stage performances.
Well, you’ve had your feet in so many different places. I mean, through music and through art, through narration. Are there any artistic avenues that you’d still like to try, that you haven’t tried yet?
Let me think. You know, orchestration would be something I’d love to try to learn. It’s really complicated and I’ve done some works for orchestras, but they sounded really terrible. I thought that they were going to sound ok, but I was a little bit overconfident. In some cases it’s ok to be overconfident: Orchestration is not just an art form, it’s also a real skill and a craft. I just have no idea how to make all those instruments sound like something — so I would like to do that.
Is there any avenue that you’ve taken that you don’t think that you’ll try again?
Botany? (laughs) I used to like, chop up a lot of leaves and examine the chlorophil and I probably won’t keep pursuing that. That was in school.
Well how does it compare to the first one: “Happiness”?
I think it’s a lot more musical, it has a little bit of imagery in it, but mostly I think the writing is really different. “Happiness” was completely in a journalistic style — it really was. I went there, I saw that and tried to speak very clearly about things. And then this, as I said before, the other half of it is like trying to catch things before they become stories, while they’re still thoughts. It’s trying to use words the way to kind of represent the way that thoughts move through your mind, or at least my mind.
In addition to “The End of the Moon,” Anderson is also working on two different projects for the World Expo, which will occur in Aichi, Japan from March though September and is expected to draw in 15 million visitors. Though the Expo is used to showcase new technology and innovation, Anderson has found ways to fit nicely into the foreign environment.
Can you tell me a little about the World Expo and how you are involved in that?
They asked me to do some concerts and then I proposed some other projects, really because I’ve always worked that way. I haven’t sort of waited around for someone to ask me to do stuff. I’ve always tried to say, “What if I did this or that?” and be a little bit more proactive. I didn’t want to be bitter. You know, like, “Nobody ever asks me for something!” I’ll, then, propose something. So I proposed this huge project of making all these pieces of music that you’d listen to as you walked through these big Japanese gardens, and these visual installations, and a film, and then I forgot about it. I had just made this big elaborate proposal with Photoshop and everything, and then six months later they said “We’d like to do your proposal” and I went, “Uh oh.” There are some things that you can do in Photoshop that you can’t do in our world. I sort of panicked, but then I realized well, I’ll give it a try. So it’s been a really big series of things and really challenging, because working in another culture — it’s not like working in Europe, they’re really different. I was just working with a translator. There’s this little story about revenge, and an angry god and a burning bush, and he just said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, about justice.” And he said, “Listen, when you say justice, we say harmony. And when you say individual rights, we say responsibilities.” I was like, whoa! That is so different! (laughs). You forget sometimes, that you come from thousands of years of people talking about the individual and heroes and, you know, if we were to have an argument in these meetings, they would never say, “Dana’s angry.” They would say, “There’s anger in this room.” So, it’s like a totally, different. You know, the ground falls out from under you. You don’t even know how to use the word “I.” So, it’s been really fascinating. It’s taught me a lot about a lot of different things trying to get this done.
With so many ideas, so much artistic energy and producity, “The End of the Moon” should raise expectations for what art can be, what it can do and how it can be presented.
Laurie Anderson will be performing Monday, Jan. 24 and Tuesday Jan. 25 at 8 p.m. at Campbell Hall. Tickets are $18 for students.