Laurie Anderson. Photo by Ebru Yildiz

Laurie Anderson on seeing upside down

An interview about art with the avant garde music legend.

Laurie Anderson’s career as a multimedia artist has often easefully navigated the line between avant-garde and mainstream. She may be best known for her musical contributions, but her career has more recently revealed an immense curiosity when it comes to technological art.

It’s fitting that the woman whose celestial spotlight haunted the video for her surprise hit “O Superman” would also be NASA’s first (and last) artist in residence, and would also create a VR trip to the moon with the artist Hsin-Chien Huang. Never polemical, yet not one to shy away from political dilemmas, she also collaborated with former Guantanamo detainee Mohammed el Gharani to live-project a monumentally larger-than-life version of himself onto U.S. soil, in “Habeus Corpus.” These days she’s focused on a variety of VR projects, an upcoming immersive exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., an orchestral work about Amelia Earhart and even “big paintings”. Laughing and excited, she describes her sheer array of summer projects as “a pretty checkered affair,” but her scouring and weird focus has been there from the outset — poetically keen and sweetly cockeyed.

We spoke about some of the unusual ways in which she sees her work and the culture around her, and her plans for an upcoming performance at POP Montreal.

Nora Rosenthal: What’s your process like when you begin a project?

Laurie Anderson: I would say I really start from trying to see what would be an interesting upside-down way to do things and trying to forget everything I know about how to do things.

NR: Are there performances or songs of yours whose significance you feel has transformed over time?

LA: I don’t look back on things really. I don’t look at things like that. I’m only looking to try to figure out the next thing I’m doing.

NR: You never look back on your work?

LA: I don’t, no. I suppose when someone asks me a question like this I struggle to find something to say, but not really. I don’t think I’ve finished anything either. I just sort of stop working on it when I can’t think of how to fix it. I don’t ever sit and go, “Oh, wonderful, perfect!” or even “Done.” When I stop working, it disappears for me.

NR: You came of age in a very exciting cultural moment, but I was thinking about how male the scene appears to have been, or at least seems now looking back. I’m curious how it felt to be a woman in that milieu. Did gender affect the way you were working at that time?

LA: We didn’t think about it. I think it’s much more difficult to be a woman now than it was then — as an artist. In many ways things haven’t changed very much. For women working in technology it’s a little bit easier, weirdly, but women are still struggling in every area of the world. Whether you’re trying to be a lawyer or a diplomat or a doctor, it’s still not very fair.

NR: What is it about women working with technology that you think makes it a little easier there?

LA: Women are great, great programmers. I mean I know it’s silly to say something that’s such a cliché, but women are wonderful at thinking with a kind of big picture and [thinking about how] things connect to other things, and networks. I’ve met a lot of really good young programmers but I do think that if you look around at any world — music or dance or books — it’s still very, very hard for women to be accepted in the same way. I wish I could say something different because I’ve worked all my life to try to make it a better situation for women. But in the U.S. anyways there’s a huge amount of misogyny, as we saw in the last election. It’s quite shocking. And that’s all across the cultural world, it really is. 

NR: I listened to a conversation between yourself and Barbara Goldman back in 1990 and you spoke about how so many of your friends had been helped in one way or another by a Bob Dylan song. It made me wonder, what was the last work of art that really helped you in a time of need? 

LA: Oh gosh I don’t think of art that way. I think of it as something that thrills me I guess, rather than helps me. 

NR: What was the last thing that thrilled you then?

LA: The last thing that thrilled me was…I saw a beautiful dance work in Manchester called Tao of Glass a couple weeks ago. The thing I love about festivals is they really present a lot of work in a very democratic way. You have a whole array of things that are presented to you and you don’t have to have the right clothes and the right bank account to see stuff. Music in the States is really marketed that way, it’s very socio-economic, so that people with money see the opera and people who are 30 go to clubs and people who are 20 go to raves, you know? So festivals are really great. They just open it up so you don’t have to see the music that’s marketed to you. I love that about it. It just cracks the whole scene open. 

NR: Speaking of festivals, what do you have planned for POP Montreal?

LA: I am so excited to be playing. I don’t know what to expect and that’s the coolest thing. I haven’t played with Colin [Stetson] in a long time. I’m more and more interested in improv so this is going to be pretty much pure improv. For me it’s a big solution for a lot of things that have bothered me about doing music, and it’s also beyond thrilling. I also love being in Montreal. I have a lot of friends there so I’m totally looking forward to it. ■

Laurie Anderson plays POP Montreal at the Théâtre Rialto (5723 Parc), Sept. 25  8 p.m., $45