“Being an artist is a totally godlike thing to do—and I have a god complex.”
Guys who really get it:
A guy who knows absolutely everything about boilers
A guy who built a bicycle from seven hundred parts off the internet
Alain de Botton
I met Laurie Anderson in early 2006, when I invited her to participate in a literary and music series I run and host in New York, called “Happy Ending.” I ask the artists to do something they’ve never done before—to take a risk onstage. The risk she chose was to tell a story through PowerPoint presentation. The audience was completely enthralled, but when I reminded her about her risk in our interview, she was mortified. Hosting in front of Laurie Anderson felt like a personal risk for me: she is one of my artistic heroes. But the instant we shook hands that night, she put me at ease with her ease. I carried that onto the stage, and the show went well.
Born in Chicago in 1947, Anderson quickly found her place in the experimental art scene of 1970s SoHo. Her first performances were spectacles: a symphony of car horns at a drive-in bandshell, a violin concert in which she wore skates frozen into slowly melting blocks of ice. Her reputation in America and Europe quickly grew, and, less than a decade into her career, the New York Times recommended her live performances to “anyone remotely interested in where American art is going,” calling her “the best and most popular performance artist of her age.” Her work has been described as “avant-garde pop,” “cryptic yet warmly accessible,” “popular, but epic; showbiz, but avant-garde,’’ and “entirely idiosyncratic.” By age thirty-five, Anderson possessed something very rare in performance-art circles—mainstream popularity—when her rock single, “O Superman,’’ reached number two on the British charts.
For four decades, she has created work that employs a variety of media: sculpture, music, video, spoken narrative, projected imagery. She has scored orchestral compositions and invented musical instruments, including the “tape-bow violin” (on which recorded magnetic tape replaces the horsehair in the bow and bridge) and the “talking stick,” a wireless device that can access and produce any sound. She has published books, released seven albums on the Warner label, shown at major museums, and was employed as NASA’s first artist-in-residence. She has said that she feels her sensibility is “closer to the attitude of the stand-up comedian… not only because I believe that laughter is extremely powerful but because the comedian works in real time.”
I visited Laurie Anderson at her Canal Street studio overlooking the Hudson River. She sat there, comfortably barefoot, asking perhaps even more questions of me than I asked of her.
I. “AM I IN A STRUCTURE OR JUST A DIAGRAM OF A STRUCTURE?”
LAURIE ANDERSON: I did a show inspired by Alain de Botton—he has something called “The School of Life” in London. It’s a really wonderful storefront, and in it are twenty books—they’re not for sale, but they’re the twenty books that you go, “Oh my god, why is that book not in my collection, why don’t I know about that book?” And he curates them, and it’s on one of these streets that has a name like Bruised Lamb’s Ear Lane, in the old meat-market district. The idea of The School of Life is that a lot of people go to school and learn how to make money or get a job, and then they kind of stop learning things except for the things they have to learn—like Photoshop or Pro Tools, which is a technique, not a discipline, although some people have turned it into an obsession. Anyway, he figures that everyone has one book in them, which I totally agree with—at least if they could figure out how to tell their story, they do—and so he opened The School of Life, and people come by and they talk for however long they feel like, and it’s a kind of—not a class, but a presentation of some kind. I love that idea, because I know a lot of people who have weird specialties that are not taught in schools; they’re things that you learn in life.
So I was asked to curate a month at The Stone, which is John Zorn’s club on Second and Avenue C, and in addition to programming music every night I also had Sundays, which became The New York School of Life, to which I invited a bunch of people. I had one guy come and talk about boilers—boilers are his love. He knows absolutely everything about them. He gives tours of boilers in New York. For most people, they’re something that’s down in your basement, and you don’t know how they work, and the less said the better, but he adores boilers and sees them as works of art, and he gives tours of buildings that have the most interesting boilers, and it is so fascinating to hear him talk. He gave an evening that was a double bill with a friend who built a bicycle from seven hundred parts he got on the net, and it was a beautiful English bicycle, and the bicycle-boiler show duo was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever been to, because it was just these regular people talking about these things they were just really, really passionate about; it wasn’t artists or writers talking about “why I do what I do.”You know, I’ve heard all of those reasons, and they never ring the right bells for me. It sounds like someone talking about their résumé, “why I write.”You’re like, Uh, better to keep it to yourself and just write if you feel like writing. You know what I mean? So we didn’t want to hear why people do their work, we wanted to hear what they do.
THE BELIEVER: Where did you find the boiler guy?
LA: He’s just a friend of mine. I mean, if you think about it, you can come up with about twenty people who know a lot, and if you give them a platform… Now, Alain de Botton is somebody who has a Balzacian sweep of how things work. I really like his work. He just starts at the edges and goes, “OK, what goes on in this town? Let’s see… First, let’s go out to the port and see how things come in…” It’s almost the way Balzac will describe a breeze moving through the city, you know, under a door, and then it goes into the baker’s nostril, and then it goes floating out the window into the seamstress’s house, and he glues the city together with the breeze or whatever mechanism he’s using. One of my favorite things Alain de Botton did was he was the artist at Heathrow, which I thought was a great job, and then he wrote a book about Heathrow. Have you read that?
LA: Fabulous book. Because you go through Heathrow or any airport and you go, What’s behind that hollow cardboard wall? And he decided to find out, so he spent time there, and every time I’ve been through Heathrow since then, I know what’s behind those walls. The way the whole airport shakes every time an airplane lands, you’re like, Am I in a structure or just a diagram of a structure? You’re not really sure. Added to the fact that there are no clocks there, either, so you’re sort of lost in this flimsy world, which is the way they would like to keep it. But Alain is a very sharp observer of detail; he described in a couple of pages, really accurately, what happens when you come into arrivals and what everyone does—
BLVR: They look to see if someone’s come to meet them!
LA: Even though they know no one is coming to meet them. Your boyfriend is not coming, your mother has been dead for five years, absolutely everyone is out of town, no one is going to meet you! You still scan very quickly and in under a second—“No, it’s true, no one has come to meet me”—but also, the next quarter of a second, “I am an adult, I am going to get a taxi and go home by myself to my apartment and I will be grown up about it and I will accept the fact that no one has come to meet me, yet again.” He tracks those eye motions, and tracks what’s going on with people in situations as fraught as an airport, and makes it very vivid. So he’s one of my favorite anthropological observers, and also just because he doesn’t see writing books as something that’s special and stylized, but as something that’s really integral to learning things and putting them into a context. When you’re in a context, it’s very hard to understand, unless you read the rule book about what context you’re in to give yourself one. So you may be like, “Um, I’m an artist of the minimalist school, and so I go to these openings,” but without that context of being a minimalist, I think a number of artists and musicians and writers are really just lost—they are lost. I mean, why are you doing this? Who are you doing it for? Having a little bit of a context gives you this illusion of its having meaning, but what is the meaning, really? Then it becomes beyond terrifying. What are you doing it for?
LA: Most people can’t answer that, myself included.
II. “GET ME A BUNNY, ANNNDY!”
LA: Let’s say I’m asking you why you write. What would you say?
BLVR: I’d say if I knew the meaning, I wouldn’t do it.
BLVR: In some way it’s that elusive, intangible struggle that propels me forward—it has no end.
LA: So you’re doing something that’s endless, and you will never find out what it means, but you do it anyway.
BLVR: Yes. I mean, I know what it means viscerally; I can locate the meaning inside myself, but it’s more of a feeling. Even if I could name it or put it into words, I can’t control whether people are actually receiving the intended message or the meaning I’m putting inside the work—
LA: Well, do you think anyone ever does? I mean, it’s like—I especially feel sorry for painters, or writers, too, because they don’t get a chance to see their audience. I mean, that’s one of the reasons I like working in live things. That’s the way I edit. I look at people’s faces, and if they’re falling asleep, I’ll take it out—not to please people, but because it has to jump across. But, I mean, you do readings and public performances, right?
LA: Don’t you watch reactions, or do you ignore them?
BLVR: I don’t ignore them. I feel like I sort of absorb the information as different temperatures inside my body—as gut instinct, I guess. At the reading series I run, I’m trying to bridge this gap between the audience and the performers, to include the audience so that they become a part of the event, a part of a shared experience. I want the audience to care about the author’s onstage success, and not secretly hope they fail.
LA: But don’t you think that audiences always want people to succeed?
BLVR: Yes, and… no.
LA: I mean, they’re there.
BLVR: They’re there, but an audience builds a relationship with these people, and sometimes they don’t like them—
LA: I always feel like if someone has stage fright, I really try and say, “Listen, these people want you to succeed, they want to have a good evening. They want to see something really great. They don’t want to see something crappy. They don’t. They want to be at something really special.”
BLVR: I feel like there are moments people have onstage where there’s a fuckup, or they flub, and their nervousness becomes the audience’s nervousness.
LA: But that’s part of the whole thing, because then the performer has shaken your faith in them. It’s like suddenly you see, well, actually this person might fail, so maybe we better turn on them now while they’re down.
BLVR: Right, and that’s such an interesting dynamic, because all of a sudden the audience is not rooting for you, and they are now—
LA: The audience creates its own personality, I’ve noticed, in the first five minutes. They will either be generous, funny, silly, withholding, academic, analytical, grudging. And I’m fascinated with how that gets constructed, because it happens right away—
BLVR: It does.
LA: And then if it doesn’t—I mean, I’m sure you know this as a comedian—you’ll never get them back. Good luck. I mean, it’s a cliché, but it’s really true. Even in an academic setting, even in a lecture, people size it up and they want to know really quickly. That’s why I always put a jump cut in the first two minutes—
LA: A really wide jump cut, really wide, so that it functions to throw things off.
LA: Because audiences, whether they’re seeing a film or a reading or whatever it is, a concert, they decide very quickly what kind of show it is, and then they judge it. They judge the rest of the thing by whether it conforms to their rules for what a good symphony orchestra would be. Now, maybe they’re looking at a really bad symphony orchestra, but a really wonderful display of narcissism, but they just put it in the wrong category and are judging it the wrong way. They want it to conform to some rules. So if you can create a jump cut that says, “You know what, I’m not going to let you know where to go or how far to jump”—because people jump to the punch line or to the next thing you should be saying, and if you don’t say—that’s what I adored about Andy Kaufman when I first saw him, in a tiny club in Queens, and he was playing the bongos and sobbing—
BLVR: Right, right, I’ve heard about this.
LA:And I thought, I must meet this guy, and I went up to him and said, “I love what you’re doing,” and I became his sidekick. I followed him around for a couple of years and did his straight-man stuff in his clubs. You know, he wrote an incredible book that was never published.
LA: Yeah—it should have been published. He came over here and read it to me on a lot of nights. I don’t know what happened to this book. But in terms of expectation, he was the beyond-master of anyone that I’ve ever come across. He was a genius of disrupted expectation. For example, we’d go out to Coney Island to just practice situations, and we’d get on the roto-whirl where the bottom drops out, and we’d just be spinning around, so there’s a minute where everyone’s locked in—
LA: And that’s when he began to freak out: “I think we’re all going to die on this ride! Look at the way the belts are done, they’re really flimsy!” And everyone is like, “Who is this moron?” and second, “Maybe the belts aren’t attached that well,” and it was chaos. Or we’d go over to the test-your-strength thing, and my job was to help him make fun of the guys who were doing it. [ Doing Andy’s voice ] “Ah, look at this weakling”—and everyone got so angry at that for a while. They’d go, “OK, you try it, wise guy,” and so he would—and I’m supposed to, like, nag him. [ Doing a whiney voice ] “Get me a bunny, Annndy. I want a big bunny. Look at these guys, you’re a lot stronger than they are!” And, anyway, so he would try, and it would hardly register on the scale at all, it wouldn’t even get up to “Try Again, Weakling,” it just went beep [ flatline noise ], and at that point he would demand to see the manager: “I don’t know why this happened!” And everyone is like, “Oh god,” and he goes way beyond what’s supposed to happen.
BLVR: Did he talk about why he was doing what he was doing?
LA: He didn’t have to. The hardest part was wrestling with him, because he would be doing these club shows where he was very abusive to women, very abusive: “Those broads think they are… Who do they think they are?” You know, “I will not respect a woman until she comes up here and wrestles me down,” and that was my cue to come up there and wrestle him down, and I’m like on my third whiskey—I don’t usually drink, but trying to get up the nerve—and he would fight, and he wasn’t pretending. He’d twist my arm.
BLVR: Did you ever get really hurt?
LA: No, he wouldn’t break my arm, but he would really twist it around, and I fought back. It was definitely not pretend-wrestling. He wasn’t acting, and neither was I, but at the same time it was a game. There are plenty of ways you can play the game of fighting and really seem to be fighting without going for the jugular. Anyway, he was just curious about taboos. To be playing bongos and sobbing—I mean, everyone in the club is looking at that and going, “My god, this is so embarrassing.” You’re not supposed to cry while you sing or play. That’s our job as the audience. We get to have a tear roll quietly down our cheeks, but not the performer.