Nearly 50 Years Into Her Career, Laurie Anderson Is Still Fearless

At 70, Laurie Anderson is producing some of her best work ever. We spoke to the experimental icon about politics, art and virtual reality.

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May 14 2018, 2:30pm

Courtesy of Dark Mofo.

In 2012, after Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of the east coast, Laurie Anderson went down into the basement of her New York home to find it completely flooded. It was the place where Anderson had housed prized objects from her decades-spanning career in the arts: keyboards, projectors, books, papers and performance props. All had been destroyed, or as she explains to me over the phone, “turned into oatmeal.”

At first, Anderson was devastated; then, she was relieved: “It wasn't long after that that I thought ‘Fantastic, I don't have to clean the basement!’” she says. But after compiling an inventory of all that was lost, she was struck at the power of words and memory, and how they can act as a substitute for tangible, real-life objects. “We live in this world that's very abstract—a lot of things have been reduced to their images, or digital representations. So, all of this stuff then starts living in our phones… photos and music and contacts and to-do lists. It’s very intense, what's been reduced to numbers.”

This idea is at the core of Landfall, Anderson’s latest album, made in collaboration with San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet. The album is built around Anderson’s personal retelling of Hurricane Sandy, but is also imbued with a larger warning about the ugliness and carnage of climate change. In the song “Everything Is Floating” she speaks plainly about the experience of seeing her life’s work reduced to junk: “how beautiful, how magic, and how catastrophic”, she says, delivering the line with a kind of contemplative stillness that wouldn’t be misplaced on a meditation tape (which isn’t surprising––Anderson is also a practising Buddhist). Also released this year was her book All The Things I Lost an personal rumination on language, codes and stories.

The latter will be reimagined as a live performance for Dark Mofo this year, alongside her VR work Chalkroom, and Drones, a sound installation made by her late husband, Lou Reed. A week later, she will undertake a residency at Home of the Arts on the Gold Coast, which includes the world debut of Stories In The Dark, a concert of soundscapes performed in complete darkness.

Anderson’s 40-plus year career as an artist is not easy to codify. Since the 70s, she’s released a dozen experimental albums, directed films, and made countless installation and performance works. She was the first (and last) NASA artist-in-residence, is the inventor of the tape-bow violin and her own custom voice filters, and has collaborated with Brian Eno, Philip Glass and Ai Weiwei, among others. In 2010, with Reed, she even orchestrated a concert for dogs at the Opera House steps in Sydney, with Anderson playing dog-friendly frequencies to thousands of jubilant pups. The work will be performed again during her Home of the Arts residency.

She was also, briefly, something of a pop star. “O Superman,” an eerie, robotic, 8-minute rumination on the 1980 Iran Hostage crisis, reached number two on the British charts in 1981. Listening now, the song has lost none of its relevance; the song’s grim tales of American planes and militarism could reference any number of tragedies involving American imperialism.

And while Anderson’s work routinely transcends genre or mood or medium, it has always been anchored by ideas around stories: who tells them, how we tell them, how they are constructed and why they fracture. This comes into full view later in our conversation, when we’re discussing climate change, and the difficulty with conceptualising something so vast, complex and terrifying. She explains the conundrum simply: “It’s not a story that is easy to tell. What is it to tell a story like that if no one in the future is listening? You're telling a story to no one. Is that still a story? But it's an awesome responsibility and we're the first people who can imagine that happening.”

Often, the stories Anderson tells are inherently political. In 2015, for her installation work “Habeas Corpus,” she live-streamed a video of Mohammed el Guarani, a Guantanamo Bay detainee who was imprisoned for 8 years, into the Park Avenue Armory in New York. He was projected onto a large monolith reminiscent of the Lincoln Memorial, while a disco ball cloaked the audience in dotted, fragmentary light. The magnitude of the work made it near impossible to look away, leaving you to reckon with institutionalised violence and abuse inflicted in the name of protection and security.

A pioneer of new technology from the vocoder to livestreaming, Anderson has always embraced and utilized new technology. When I ask about Chalkroom––the ‘library of stories’ made with Hsin-Chien Huang––and its use of virtual reality, I can almost hear her eyes widen with excitement. “VR fascinates me because you're disembodied. I just like getting lost in things. Of course, you can get lost in a book, and get lost in a drawing, but in VR you can lost in a place and you can fly,” she says with a small laugh. The immersive work sees fragmentary sentences and words glide past you, with computerised passageways covered with etchings, and trees constructed purely by letters.

Chalkroom is immersive and playful, yet also demonstrative of how reality can be falsified with words––something that’s ever-present in current American politics, which Anderson sees exemplified in bots that wreak havoc across social media. “People made up entirely of words!… And these so-called people are actually influencing the real world,” she says. “They’re saying “Let's go to rallies” and you're like ‘What? You're a bot! You're a troll! You can't go to a rally, you're not a real person!”… it’s really wild! We're living in an incredibly fantastical moment.”

When I ask, misguidedly, if she still feels hopeful about technology considering how much she’s adopted it in her work, she corrects me. “I'm definitely a geek, but I didn't ever think it was the most wonderful thing ever.” For one, she’s certainly wary of the savior-complex of Silicon Valley tech bros. “I think they're insane. If you think that the tech fire engines are gonna roll in at the last minute at the tipping point and knit up the hole in the ozone again you're out of your mind! We live in a free-reeling, late days of capitalism world where it's not about fixing things, it's about innovation and money.”

Anderson is trying to reckon with volatility of the world right now––Trump, climate change, nuclear weapons––without feeling helpless or overwhelmed. “I’m an extremely optimistic person, and so I choose not to ignore these problems,” she explains, “But also not to be overwhelmed by them. I still want to do every single thing I can to make the world a wonderful, beautiful, exciting place.”

Isabella Trimboli is a writer from Sydney and editor of Gusher Magazine, rock criticism written by women. Follow her on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Noisey AU.