Laurie Anderson has always been a little out there. Maybe thatís why she was
tapped as NASAís first artist in residence
One woman show: Laurie Anderson in Switzerland
By Brian Braiker
July 9 - If you know Laurie Anderson at all, itís probably through her fluke
1981 hit, ďO Superman,Ē from her experimental pop album ďBig Science.Ē But
the classically trained violinist and avant-garde multimedia artist has been
working consistently over the past 20 years and is in the final months of
her most interesting gig yet: as NASAís first ever artist in residence. Itís
a natural pairingóthe self-described ďtechno-geekĒ excels at cold and
distant yet surreally pretty melodies. Straight, some might say, from outer
The two-year, $20,000 stint will culminate in a film, which will premier at
the 2005 World Expo in Japan. Meanwhile, Anderson has been dabbling in more
down-to-earth work, too. She has been commissioned by the World Expo to
compose music for Japanese gardens; she's planning for a pared-down fall
tour, which will feature just her and a violin, and she has been taking long
walks around Europe. Really long walks. Anderson recently spoke with Brian
Braiker about walking, touring and her dream of writing an epic poem.
Whatís up with your walks around Europe?
Laurie Anderson: This is a very weird project. It started out because French
radio asked me to do a project and I decided to do an audio diary. So for
half a year I recorded just things from every day, wherever I happened to
be. When you listen to this thing it sounds like the most schizophrenic life
you can imagine. One time Iím in Austria playing in an orchestra. Then Iím
in Sri Lanka doing some other thing, then Singapore. I was going to go mix
it in Paris, and I was in Milan at the time and doing a big exhibition of my
work, and I thought, ďIíll just walk to Paris,Ē in the spirit of, ĎYou donít
really know whatís going to be around the corner.í
Well, I put off that walk, but I began thinking 10 days is a really nice
period of time to walk. But I didnít really want to walk like a pilgrimage
because Iíve been trying to avoid goal-oriented behavior. Rimbaud, who wrote
a lot about freedom and walking, was always running away to Paris [from
Charleville] as a kid. So I thought ďIíll take the runaway road
backwardsĒógo from Charleville to Paris.
What is the ultimate product of these walks?
See, thatís the thing. I really donít know. Iím trying not to be even
goal-oriented in that way. I walked also from Athens to Delphi. That was
Wow. You were in Greece for work on the Olympics, right?
I was working on writing the opening ceremony. I was supposed to be the
narrator, so I had been there for a year until last December. There was such
a shakeup; they said ďWell, youíll have to produce that opening show for
half the money. Is that OK?Ē So I wasnít able to see it through, which I
really am sorry about. Working with that group of people, it was astounding.
You were doing all this as youíre working on your NASA project?
Itís a little wild at the moment because I am doing a lot of different
seemingly unrelated projects, but Iím finding ways to put them together in
ways that are interesting for me. One is a big solo tour that Iíll be doing
this fall of the United States.
Is that the Beauty tour?
I might call it something else, but for now itís called Beauty. I might just
call it Rocks. Iím out here in Colorado right now.
Youíre also composing music for the World Expo.
I need to learn things about what a garden means in terms of a Japanese
garden. It isnít about grass or flowers, itís about placement of stones in a
space to represent things. The theme of Expo is nature and specifically this
area in Japan, Nagoya, is all about water. Also, one of the other themes of
Japanese gardens is time. Thereís this 15th-century Zen master named Dogen
who wrote a book called ďEnlightenment Unfolds.Ē His central question is
ďAre mountains aware?Ē I thought this sounds like [NASAís] Ames [Research
Center in California], where I just was. Theyíre trying to put consciousness
into these Mars roversótrain them as geologists, crack stuff open. The
problem is with their sense of place; where they are and where they think
they are is out of alignment often.
Sounds like some people I know.
Iím not usually where I think I am either. So being out here in the Rocky
Mountains, Iím right now looking at this giant, giant rock, itís kind of
So you have to produce something for NASA and compose music for the World
Expo and plan for a fall tour?
Like most artists I have to combine certain things to do productions,
because itís never easy to put something together like that. The NASA artist
in residence thing is a very small stipend. Itís not enough to really do
stuff, so thatís why Iím using Expo, to help it turn into something
physical. But my secret dream is to write an epic poem. Thatís probably the
most pretentious thing Iíve said.
Is it hypocritical that you have been critical of the Bush administration
and here you are working with a government agency?
I think a lot of people in Washington are extremely suspicious of NASA. When
Bush said it was OK to let [the] Hubble [Space Telescope] die, that killed
me. It gives us a window. Itís a wormhole out of here. It gives people some
other way to be in the world other than just as good 21st-century consumers.
I think people are really suffering these days. I think thereís a lot of
corporate triumph and a lot of personal despair as they wonder what are they
working for ... Weíre being told ďLetís put a base on the moon, and letís
put a base on Mars.Ē And Iím thinking, ďWhy does that make my hair stand on
end?Ē If there are bases on the moon, that would be the end of the moon as
we know it.
How do you see your role as NASAís artist in residence? Do you see it as
showing us the wormhole?
Iím not the kind of artist who feels that I have a mission of any kind
whatsoever. The 19th century was about that. What right do I have? In many
ways it robs people of a lot of things. Iím an average enough person to
point to the things that Iíve gotten to see that are awe-inspiring and look
toward those things. Itís pretty open as an agency and pretty amazing that
they would call up an artist.
And now youíre on the tail end of your two years. Have you produced anything
for them yet?
This film that Iím doing will open in March in the Expo. That will be there
for six months. Itíll play constantly on a huge screen. They have two big
projects. One is this thing that is a theater piece that Bob Wilson is doing
and the other is this link: Iím going to be doing some concerts there in
April and this big film and this garden project.
Are these NASA images youíre using for this film?
Itís images from above. Itís all going to be done in a studio in New York.
Itís about 12 types of time. (I know that sounds so pretentious! I canít
help it. Thatís what itís about.) It begins with this idea of stuttering and
how difficult it is to start things. People only stutter at the beginning of
the word, they donít say ďstuttering-ing-ing-ingĒ because theyíre not afraid
when they get to the end of the word. Thereís just regret. So this is called
ď12 Regrets.Ē And itís connected to the rocks in many ways. Itís about
expectation, how we move through time and what kind of illusions it creates
for us. There are quite a few images of the moon in it as well. Itís very
exciting because I never really know quite what to expect.
Which gets back to your walks and not knowing where theyíre going.
I really trust that more and more. I was getting stuck. I think a lot of
artists who have a certain style and are expected to more or less keep doing
their style. Itís so easy to get into that rut of production. You can do
bigger and bigger things. For what? My own work is more about trying to ask
really good questions and not trying to come up with really big shows. Every
fashion company is doing that, every car company is doing that. Theyíre all
doing multimedia shows Ö One of the things that I learned from working on
the Olympics was that I was hired as a tech geek, someone whose done big
multimedia shows. I said, ďThe world does not need another big multimedia
Little did they know that you were in your walking phase.
Iím in my walking freedom phase! I got my tennis shoes on! And hereís this
place where everything about our culture thatís colossal was invented:
democracy, philosophy, geology, tragedyójust on and on. I said ďYou have the
right more than anyone in the world to just emblazon that on a giant field.
Do you ever anticipate getting back to just one woman and one violin.
That is this fall tour that Iím doing. Iím really looking forward to that.
My plan is to do a series of things, and I hope to end in this poem that
Iíve been working on.
Have you started writing it?
Yes I have. NASA has really inspired me to do this. My commission started
with our technology falling back down on top of us with the [crash of]
Is it too early to share a few couplets?
It is. But I hope that will be what I can contribute, because I do feel so
grateful that NASA said, ďWhy donít you try it?Ē And ďI said Iím going to
try my best.Ē Itís taken a while.
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