Laurie Anderson isn't a "star" in the traditional, hit-parade sense. In fact, the popularity of her futurist anthem "O Superman," in 1981, came as a bit of a surprise. The classically trained violinist and avant-garde artist is more of a media auteur than a music celebrity. For the past two decades, she has delivered -- and exported --'challenging yet unpretentious modern art.
Proficient in musical composition, poetry, photography and filmmaking, the New York City-based Anderson is also a pioneer of electronics in music. Her stage performances run from stripped-down spoken-word pieces to full-blown multimedia events in which her insights about human nature coincide with beautiful, hi-tech music.
The new millennium found the 57-year-old Renaissance woman appointed to a curious government post: As NASA's first-ever Artist-in-Residence, she acted as an interface between hard science and human passion. These experiences inform her latest stage work, The End of the Moon, which will be at the Flynn this Friday.
A series of vignettes about the nature of beauty, perception of time and optimism in the face of uncertainty, The End of the Moon certainly tackles lofty subjects. Yet what might become unwieldy in the hands of another artist is, in Anderson's, touching and poignant -- and funny.
In addition to the new stage piece, a touring retrospective of Anderson's sonic and visual oeuvre is making its way through Europe, and she's currently at work on an installation for the 2005 World Expo in Japan. Seven Days recently chatted with the ever-busy artist via phone from Antigua.
SEVEN DAYS: You seem comfortable talking about your work. Do you feel this is a necessary part of being creative?
LAURIE ANDERSON: For me it's an interesting part, because there's always a backstory. I learn a lot about what I'm doing by talking to people and listening to their questions. I enjoy that part of it.
SD: Do you ever get tired of explaining to the media what a piece is all about?
LA: Well, I don't necessarily think of the people I talk to as "the media," and I hope they don't think of me so much as "the world of culture." I'm just having a conversation with someone. But it does help me sort of clarify my reasons for doing things.
SD: The End of the Moon tackles some pretty broad topics -- the nature of beauty and the perception of time. What inspired you?
LA: Last year around this time I was asked to write for a Buddhist group. Every few months they'd ask visual artists and curators to write what they called a "white paper." I wrote an essay called "Time and Beauty" for them. I was in AthensÉ about 15 blocks away was the Parthenon. I started thinking more about these things because of that paper.
SD: I've read that appreciation of beauty might not be more than recognizing symmetry. What is it for you?
LA: When I had that apartment facing the Parthenon, I was looking at symmetry -- in some ways in its purest form. (I talk a little bit of symmetry in this piece.) It's one way of seeing beautiful things. But is it really what makes things beautiful? I come at it through different kinds of stories rather than a theoretical approach.
"Eye of the beholder" describes some of what I'm trying to understand. Ideas that [avant-garde composer] John Cage had about beauty affected me because he'd say, "That work is finished, you just can't see that it's beautiful because you're limited." That was really always frustrating, because I'm such a puritanical workaholic! I like to finish things in the most workmanly way. And for him to say it's finished before you even started, that it's perfect without you -- to artists, that's like saying, "Well, we don't need you, do we?"
SD: Is that a valid artistic method? It seems like it might be contradictory for a creative person.
LA: I do think it's an artistic act to see something in a new way, and you don't always have to be the person who is making the art. The other thing I truly believe is that there are no rules about art. Once you start making rules about what it should look like or what it should do, you're back in this 19th-century way of thinking. You realize that critics are judging things on just what they're told to look for, and then people are unable to see things for themselves. That's the biggest challenge for artists, to figure out how to get out of those traps. That's why we use things like notes and colors, because they do that stuff the best.
SD: Where do these explorations lead?
LA: I'm trying to find new ways to see the world, and I suppose that it does lead somewhere, although I hate to think of the future as some sort of road. I'm trying desperately to live in the present, instead of doing things so they'll be better in the future. I want to eventually understand how to get rid of my own ego in this, to stop expressing myself and understand things better. It gives me a sense of freedom -- freedom to sink into other ways of seeing things, into a bigger picture. But I don't have goals about how to make other people feel.
SD: Did working as NASA's Artist-in- Residence have a big impact on your recent work?
LA: I got a lot out of talking to people who are looking for things in other worlds. It's a balance of trying to figure out what you're looking for while keeping your eyes open. It made me question what I thought was beautiful and good. Einstein rejected some of his own theories on the basis that they were too ugly. And I thought, Boy, what is it that he's looking for? Does it have to resonate in this beautiful way? What does that mean? But the fact that this piece is pictured as a report about my residency is a bit of a disguise. There's lots of music, stories about my dog, about war. I never stuck to a subject in my life!
SD: A lot of NASA's scientific breakthroughs might be used for military purposes. How do you feel about that?
LA: I'm not na?ve about it. The army has always been out there with the scientific pioneers. It's how the West was won, you know? Quite a bit of what they do is for military research, and I do talk about this in my piece. Before the tour NASA asked for a transcript of the text, and I said, "No way!" OK, I worked for the government, but I'm not working for the government -- I can say whatever I want to! This made them incredibly nervous, but they knew my work well enough when they asked me to do this to realize I wasn't going to be some sort of NASA shill.
SD: How is your work for the Japanese World Expo coming together?
LA: It's going to open in April. Over the last couple weeks, we were trying to translate some of the texts. It's a film about the different ways we experience time, done in short, haiku-like stories. Words and concepts become slippery when you try to translate them. One of the Japanese men I was working with said, "When you say justice, we say harmony. When you talk about rights, we talk about responsibilities." It's an utterly different mental landscape. For Westerners, justice is a really basic concept, and we'd go to war for that. It's replaced in another culture by the idea of harmony. Then again, tell that to the Japanese army in World War II, and you'd have a different story.
SD: Traveling abroad must be pretty insightful. What are your recent impressions about America's place in the world?
LA: Well, what passes for communication here is propaganda. It's very controlled. Every country goes through oppressive times, and this is unfortunately one for us. The more time I spend in Europe, the more I realize it's not always going to be like this. But we're not respected. The British are our only friends, and they view us as drunk drivers. The strong-arm tactics aren't appreciated. But even though our diplomacy is pitied, our culture is valued. It's not so simple. It's a complicated thing.