An experimental paragon, Laurie Anderson makes multimedia splendours out of everyday stories of memory, identity, love, loss and place.
For almost 50 years, the sonorous American artist and composer has funnelled ideas into music, films, and digital works. She’s stamped words onto books and talking sculptures, and played anecdotes on stage, in museums, and on the streets. Ahead of her hotly anticipated residency at Gold Coast's Home Of The Arts (HOTA), the 71-year-old icon discusses new works, and reflects on the chorus of language and finding gems in mistakes.
What role does unpredictability play in your art? It’s quite random, how unpredictability works. You can’t plan for unpredictability and look back to find a pattern. Instead, I want to make things that scare me. It has to be something I don’t fully understand or it’s risky or personal. Early on, I used to be afraid of failing, but not so much anymore.
And why is that? Because I realised the works I like best are the ones that come out of mistakes and messiness. There’s definitely a difference between knowing something is working and not working. But through this process, I try to avoid calling the ones that aren’t working bad. I feel that labelling something bad makes it harder for you to get out of it. Instead, I’ll go into the middle of the mess and find whatever’s left that looks interesting... And I pull it out. I’m curious and persistent, I gotta say.
So, it’s like pivoting ideas into other directions until you arrive at somewhere good? Yeah! If I can focus on saying ‘how can I make this work’ or ‘what do I really want this idea to do’ then I can steer the idea a different way until it works. It’s always an experiment.
Where do you usually find ideas and how do you capture them? I’m a big eavesdropper, so I love the chaos of being on the streets or finding myself in the middle of people’s ideas and conversations – I learn so much that way. I have an obsession with taking down notes and ideas. I used to have a million notebooks, but I spent so much time transcribing them! Now I take electronic notes and speak words into my phone and turn them into lyrics or stories. I also use the internet for all kinds of ideas, I’d be nervous about life without it. At the same time, I try to have some digital control over my life as I don’t want to look at screens all day. Actually, I had breakfast recently with an old friend who I hadn’t seen in a long time. At the end of our catch up, she told me, ‘I don’t want to be too personal, but you’ve been on your phone this whole time’. I almost burst into tears, because she was right! In my defence, she asked if I had a photo of something, and it was on my phone. She asked if I was free on a certain date, and I had to check my phone. Still, I was mortified. After that, I made a big point to avoid looking at my phone for a couple of hours a day, especially when I’m around people. I have to thank her for that.
When do you feel at your freest? When I’m making music or doing improv.
On that note, can you give us a snapshot of your upcoming performances at HOTA? What affection would you like to leave audiences with? 'SOL' will be a quartet performance based on numbered drawings by my sculpture teacher Sol LeWitt [late American conceptual artist]. It’s a beautiful, meditative work, and I hope people will enjoy chilling out to the quarter notes. For 'Stories In The Dark', I’m using sound and people’s imaginations to create a new work in the dark. I have no idea how this voyage will turn out — maybe it’s just me being claustrophobic in the dark [laughs] – but let’s see what happens.
'Language Of The Future' is a mix of personal, political, and technological stories. It’s an ongoing work that’s about the perception of memory with concrete stories inside it. I’m also playing the violin and reciting readings for 'Songs From The Bardo' with Tenzin Choegyal [Tibetan singer/songwriter] and musicians I’ve never played with before; we’re doing an improv translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. 'Concert For Dogs' is a performance of dog-friendly frequencies that lets me create a situation for animals and humans to be in the same realm. During the residency, I’ll also be talking with local artists and writers about stories and language. It’s going to be a blast!
You’ve visited and performed in Australia before, but this marks your first time on the Gold Coast. What have you heard about the place so far? That it’s beautiful. I have friends in Brisbane, so I know a bit about the Gold Coast scene and I’ve seen pictures. But I’m trying not to find out too much about the place before I go. I like for a place to hit me when I get there. I want the surprise.
As memory and representation are prominent in your work, what are your thoughts on posthumous tributes? As in, what if someone in the far future, decides to revive an 'O Superman' version of you into a hologram or virtual reality homage? I’m not sure what this domain will look like in the future, but I’d like to think that good works will live far beyond the artist. So, if people want to have fun with my work when I’m dead, they can knock themselves out! It’s wonderful to see an artwork be put into different forms, but it would need to respect the art form’s intention and purpose and not be used as fodder. Which I did once: I turned 'Moby Dick' into this multimedia opera, and it was probably a mistake. It would’ve been easier for me to write something new, but I was just so in love with the story! So, it’s a thin line, deciding what is the best way to represent another person’s work.
On that topic, you’ve encapsulated the memories of your late soulmate Lou Reed [American musician and Velvet Underground frontman] into projects like 'Heart Of A Dog'. How will you continue this? Right now, I’m working on 'The Art Of The Straight Line', a book that Lou was going to write but never finished. My editors and I have done about forty interviews so far with writers, musicians, and tai chi practitioners who Lou worked with. It’s about tai chi and focus. Lou put such amazing energy into learning the practice and all its forms and weapons, and I’m still in awe of the way he was able to strengthen his mind and spirit, especially during his final moments.
You’re known for your vanguard work with new technologies. Are you creating anything of this ilk at the moment? Oh yes, I’m working on a virtual reality project about the moon with Hsin-Chien Huang [Taiwanese film director], who was my collaborator on my previous VR project 'Chalkroom'. A lot of people will be focusing on the moon next year for the 50th anniversary since man first stepped on the moon. I haven’t found a name for the work yet, but the show will open at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in the fall of 2019.
As a limitless artist who has played around the world, in an expanse of genres, would you ever consider performing in outer space one day? We are in outer space [laughs]. We are spinning around already.
Laurie Anderson takes over Home Of The Arts from 20-24 June.