Laurie Anderson

Back in the ’70s, Laurie Anderson had a lot of fun playing with people’s perceptions of what a music piece could be, and by throwing together surreal performance, spoken word tone poems, and abstract synth grooves, she even turned the pop world upside down. Originally a sculptor before she started crafting her unique soundscapes, her calm, syncopated delivery conjures all manner of tripped-out dream imagery – evocative and vague enough to qualify as fully-blown artistic statements. Anderson reached a mainstream audience with her single “O Superman,” which led to a string of exotic albums and multimedia experiments, including Big Science, Mr. Heartbreak, and Home of the Brave. Widely influential for her use of early samplers and invented electronic instruments, Anderson has collaborated with Brian Eno, Andy Kaufman and late husband Lou Reed – dancing her own path through art and music with a sense of wonder for life and nature.

On November 16th, 2015, Laurie Anderson joined us on the lecture couch in Paris the wake of the devastating attacks in the city the previous weekend. She felt it was an important moment to talk about how art and artists respond to tragedy. In this talk, she outlined the circumstances behind her 2015 Park Avenue Armory work, “Habeas Corpus,” and how its themes relate to what took place in Paris on November 13, 2015.

Hosted by Todd L. Burns Transcript:

Laurie Anderson

I wanted to just show you a project that I did in New York because there was a question someone was talking about “What about a political work of art?” And this is something that I did last month, but it started out 15 years ago. And so I’m going to give you the slightly long version of this story. And it’s because it goes through many media, and I know that a lot of you are working on different kinds of aspects of media. So this involves a lot of tech and a lot of number crunching and music and imagery and writing. So it kind of goes winding through all of these things.

It started out 15 years ago when I got an invitation from a place called Krems, anybody know where Krems is? It’s an hour from Vienna. It’s a small town where they have really pretty good music festivals. They have Donau Festival, anybody been at that one? It’s really a pretty great festival. Anyway, they asked me there to do a big sound installation. So it was in a 13th century church. And this is a building that was huge in reverberant, and it had been through a lot of changes, so it was a church, it was a pilgrim flop house for a while and then it was a cultural center; that kind of usage arc. I went there and I was trying to do a lot of things because sound installations are something… I do try to make a violin the size of a ten-story building using lots of harmonics and different kinds of ways that you can structure sound, or use speakers, and so, I was thinking of trying to do something like that. But I was just striking out on an idea, I just didn’t know how to control the sound in that building or what to do. And the curator’s there going, “Well, so what’s your idea?” I was like, “I don’t know...” And it was getting past the point of politeness. It was like, “Don’t you have an idea?” “No, I don’t.”

So I went up to the church bell tower, this crumbling old bell tower. And I looked over and in the middle of this perfect, little Austria town is a maximum security prison. And there’s a guy in the guard tower with a machine gun. So I’m in the bell tower, he’s in the guard tower, we’re looking at each other. So I said, “OK, I’ve got an idea.” So I came down and told the curator, “I got this idea. We’re going to build a video studio in the prison. And the prisoners are going to sit there for three months. And then we’re going to beam this image, we’re going to make a life size cast of the person and put it on the apse of the church. So we’re going to beam the image and wrap it onto this three dimensional image of the person in the church. It’s going to be about the function of telepresence in our culture, what happens. And also the attitude towards the body of the church and the prison. Incarnation, incarceration. There, not there.”

And surprisingly the curators go, “OK!” I was like, “Hm, stop me now.” So then actually, a couple of days later they said, “You know what...” They realized that Austrian law actually forbids the use of a prisoner’s image, because a prisoner no longer owns his own image. Some holdover from the Austro-Hungarian empire, of what do you own in this culture. Kind of a 21st century problem too, image ownership. So anyway, they don’t own their own images. So I was like, “OK good, I’m kind of off the hook.” Because by this point it wasn’t seeming like a really great idea to beam the image of a prisoner into a church in conservative Austria. Wasn’t seeming too bright.

Todd L. Burns

So you did it in New York instead?

Laurie Anderson

Well, this is a couple of jumps down the line, but I did do it in New York. And anyway, I actually did it first in Milan. So this was 15 years after that... First the Whitney Museum asked me to do something. So I set it up with Sing Sing prison. Let’s look at two guarded institutions, what do you have in there that you’re guarding. So we were going to beam the prisoner down the river and put the cast of the person in New York. That turned out not to work because it was considered a little bit too political, basically, because at that time there was a lot of hoo-ha about the privatization of prisons. And of course that was when suddenly the statistics were looking bad. One in every 100 Americans is in prison. And boop, you look at the jump, when suddenly they’re privatized, and of course when you’re a company that runs a prison you need ...

Todd L. Burns


Laurie Anderson

Prisoners. So you get them any way you can. So the Rockefeller drug law was invoked, so a lot of artists were thrown into prison for not selling, but just holding a joint. You could get ten years, if you’re smoking you could get life. The Rockefeller drug law, it’s not always invoked but it was invoked a lot around that time.

Anyway, I was describing this project to Germano Celant who’s a curator of the Guggenheim Museum. Half an hour later he goes, “I have the prison and a cultural institution.” So we did this in Milan at the Prada Foundation. And it was the most over-produced project I’ve ever done. If you looked at the budget you were just like, “Whoa.” We dug trenches for the video cables to go from San Vittore prison to the Prada Foundation. And I’m looking at the budget going, “Germano, we didn’t use any concrete. Look at this, it’s like a huge number for concrete.” “I know. My cousin Georgio had a concrete company, and had to get a little advice on concrete.” I was like, “It’s Italy. Take care of your own, OK now I get it, it’s cool.”

Obviously the biggest, creepiest problem with this is collaboration. So you’re going to have a prisoner sit there, and then you’re going to sign your name for it, “This is my art project.” So, I took this very seriously to try to find a prisoner who was collaborate with me on this and wanted to do it and had a reason to do it.

So I spent a long time at San Vittore. This is a white collar prison. These are the guys who basically dismantled the Italian economy. They are very, very smart, all speaking Greek and Latin, writing their books; they get to use knives, they have wine collections, they’re seeing their relatives, they’re all wearing Armani and everything’s cool, except for the shoes. You go down there and they’re all wearing slippers because they’re going nowhere, ever. So anyway these guys are there, and because they’re lawyers and because they’re very skilled at manipulating things, people, language, everything, glances. They’re manipulating me, they’re gradually drawing my attention to the corner until I’m talking to one guy. They had decided who my collaborator was going to be. It was a fiction that I was deciding.

So I’m talking to this guy Santino, a bank robber and murderer, who had murdered some people on his way out of the bank. So I’m talking to Santino and I said, “Santino, if we do this project together, how do you see it? What would it be to you? What is it, what do you think?” And he said, “I see it as a virtual escape.” And I said, “You’re my man. I know you understand this.” So we did this project and it was really intense because, when he’s sitting there as a virtual person, imagine like a three-dimensional live movie, he’s there in the gallery for three months sitting there like “Durrrrr…” He trained himself to do that. And, of course, when we were also working with Sing Sing, when we almost go to do this, it was with meditators and people who were trained to... [goes still] Three months, three months. It’s nothing when you’re in for life. It was called Life . His girlfriend came everyday to stand there. And he did not look like a prisoner, he looked like a judge, because you know, stillness kind of gives you a weird majesty.

I decided I always wanted to do this in New York and the United States. And so when the Park Avenue Armory asked me to do something... And the Park Avenue Armory is just a gigantic thing made in the Civil War time for regiments. Actually the “Silk Stocking” regiment were the ones who built this. It’s a block long, block wide and a block tall. It’s huge, it’s enormous. And it was built for this regiment who were upper east side guys who needed a... It’s a clubhouse really. They weren’t actually very good fighters. They were very good in parades and things. They kept getting mustard for the Civil War cause they were getting desperate for people and so they would go down to so-called fight and then after a couple of days they’d see, you know these guys really can’t do anything. They don’t know how to use their swords. And they go, “Thanks so much, you can go now. Thanks, it’s been great.” And then they’d get desperate again and they’d bring them back and anyway, it was like a little clown show.

So I proposed this to the Park Avenue Armory to the artistic director there... What they do is operas, they do big sound installations, they do all kinds of things at the Park Avenue Armory, it’s a really interesting place.

Todd L. Burns

Had you done anything there beforehand? Or was this the first time?

Laurie Anderson

Had I played there? No. And it’s a crazy space. And so I was gonna have two rows of prisoners streaming from upstate prisons because not very many people from New York are so aware of this, but the second thing in the economic state structure, after insurance, is prisons, we’re a prison state. And New Yorkers are not going to tell you that, it’s one of those things that is on our brochures. But that’s how we make money. Now, state money is minuscule compared to the city money. But still, this is a big reality... And speaking of reality, there are many reality prison shows. If you turn on MSNBC at night, there’s seven in a row, from midnight to seven AM. What’s a three-point restraint? There’s something that Americans like about watching people being punished. Anyway, that’s another thing to talk about.

So I proposed these two rows of like statues facing each other, streaming the images of the prisoners into the Park Avenue Armory. We worked for several months on this and then we got a message from Homeland Security saying, “You will never do this project in the United States. Ever.” And I didn’t really see the upside in that statement. [laughs] Didn’t seem like there was any possibility. You know how you feel when you’re working on a project and you’re getting it and then somebody just goes “Kabash! No.” It’s hard because you put so much energy in it, you just have to... And so the artistic director goes “What’s your plan B?” And I’m like “Plan B? Plan B? I don’t have a Plan B.” Always have a Plan B, right?

Anyway, I didn’t have one. And then I was talking to somebody from the ACLU, American Civil Liberties Union, about this thing because I thought we could have a little more freedom than that and he was talking to me, “You know I think I have an idea. I have a group in London called Reprieve and they work with a lot of prisoners who are on death row in the United States.” And they also work with released Guantanamo detainees.

So I called Reprieve in London, and I’m talking to this person who is the lead lawyer there, and I’m just kind of saying, “Well I have this project, and it’s about projection and telepresence in time, and how we go through time...” And I realize I am babbling. Instead of saying something like, “Oh thank you so much for telling me about your interesting project...” She said, “Tell me more.” And this was a woman named Kat Craig, who’s the head of Reprieve in London. So with some more conversations, she said, “I think I have somebody who might be interested in doing this.” I said, “Really?”

She introduced me gradually to a man named Mohammed el Gharani. Now, he was the youngest detainee at Guantanamo. He had been swept up when he was 14. He spent from 14 to 21 in prison. And he was severely tortured, and also in solitary for many years. He had about as much to do with Al Qaeda as you do and as I do. And the story was that he was a student, he was a computer guy. And he wanted to learn computers. His uncle had a computer school in Pakistan. So he went there. And the first week he was there he was swept up by a raid by the Northern Alliance and was sold to the U.S. for five thousand dollars along with everyone else. Speaking of profiling, we got the prisoners we needed to get, and those were Saudis, so. He was sold and packed up and blindfolded, shackled, and taken to Guantanamo. The U.S. story was that he was an Al Qaeda operative in London. Trouble with that story was he was 11 at the time. I mean these are stories that are just made up, completely; completely fabricated. You know, there’s 11 year-old terrorist, they can be so dangerous… It was just completely fiction.

Habeas Corpus is Latin for “To have the body.” And what it means is, it is the order of the court to the prison to say: “You must give me that prisoner now,” because it is not allowed since the Magna Carta, for the king to throw you in jail forever with no charges and no trial. That’s not allowed in any civilized country. So the name of that right is Habeas Corpus. It’s in the U.S. constitution, it’s absolutely central to what it is. The right to a trial. You can’t just be dragged off and not have your say, have your day in court. They can’t do that.

Language got around this problem because there was a lot of language and a lot of legal rhetoric in the days right after 9/11. Because, like now, in a way, people are panicking, going, “Oh my god, this is different, this is an exception, this is like not normal, we have to...” So what they did was they called all of these people, they declared them, first of all, non persons. So that would mean that they would have no rights, according to the Geneva Convention. They were just labeled terrorists, period. It didn’t matter where they were, who they were, where they’d come from, what they’d done. They had that label. So that meant that we could then keep them as a long as we wanted to, and torture them as much as we wanted to do, and we did that.

Anyway, I met Mohammed where he lives in West Africa, and what we did was... He’s a really wonderful guy. He’s 27 years old, he’s been out for five years. I don’t know how he survived this, because... Also, when you meet someone it’s very different than when you talk about it. When you meet someone you realize that your government was responsible for breaking this guy’s back, smashing his face, cutting him everywhere, you’re just [wordless] “Ah ah ah ah...”

And of course he doesn’t want to see doctors because American doctors were at all his torture sessions as well, as American psychologists. Now, can you say that? No. So I had to learn a lot of things that you could say and couldn’t say. So for example, you can’t say “American doctors were at all his torture sessions.” You can say that the “Behavioral science consultancy team” was at all the sessions with the detainees. Period. That’s what you can say because the language got changed.

Also, there were lots of suicides at Guantanamo. So many people tried to kill themselves cause it’s a hellhole. It’s 100 times worse than anyone was imagining. But suddenly, bingo, one day there are no suicides. What happened? They stopped. There were however a huge surge in “manipulative self-injurious behaviors resulting in death.” Lots of those, lots more of those, but no suicides. You know, the world is made of words and you can remake the world that way if you just tweak it, turn it, just… “OK, we’ll just call it that, instead of that.”

This work was about stories as much as, two stories, juxtaposing them. And I’m going to show you some images from it because it kind of wrapped its way all the way back around to music in the end, which was a really strange trip that this thing took. So we did this project in New York, I’ll show you a little bit of the program, so this is Habeas Corpus, the dates, and Mohammed el Gharani as my collaborator. Descriptions of ... So what we did basically, I don’t know if you can read this. “I have chosen to be here virtually because I’m not allowed to come to this country and I have some things to say.” This is Mohammed el Gharani. So this is about using technology to beam this guy in past the borders, and see what would happen. He’s not allowed to actually come in, so we bounced him in.

We built a big studio in West Africa and we had a big team there. And over three days in early October we built a statue the size of the Lincoln Memorial and we wrapped his image onto that statue.

Todd L. Burns

How did you know he was the one to do this? I mean it’s obviously a very huge task, obviously you were introduced to him by your person, but you, yourself, in your talks with him...

Laurie Anderson

I spent a lot of time in Africa talking to him and just saying, “Mohammed, you know what…” Again like the earlier thing I said, “What is your motivation in doing this?” And he said, “My motivation is to help my brothers in Guantanamo.” And I said, “Mohammed, I can’t say this is going to help your brothers in Guantanamo.” I mean, I can say that if Americans hear your story as it is, that there will be a number of people who will hear it and, a boy who’s tortured and then thrown away at the end, thrown in a country, they don’t even tell you where you are or didn’t tell your family where you’re thrown. No apology, no trial, no nothing, thrown away, and I said, “You know, there are a lot of Americans who want terrorists to fry, you know.” But, the problem with that is that in Guantanamo Bay there were very few people who were charged out of the thousand that were there. The rest are just hearsay. It’s somebody after three years of being tortured in Guantanamo says, “I think all those guys over there, I think they might have at Tora Bora.” And that becomes the case. So it’s all about just making a little frame and stuffing people into it.

So I talked to Mohammed a lot, and I said, “On the other hand, I think if Americans hear your story they’ll be a number of people who will... It won’t be okay with them. It won’t be okay that there’s a real blackout of information.” We think we live in an information culture? What a joke. There’s so much we don’t know about what’s going on. If you just scratch that surface, you realize, “Whoa, this is insane.” Anyway, I tried to scratch that surface a little bit.

And in talking to Mohammed, I owe to war that one of my good friends is now is a goat herder from Saudi Arabia. I have the war to thank for that. And, also, technology to be able to jump across and do something like that for me was... It’s a complicated thing to do. We had a number of redundant systems that were... Because Homeland Security had already told us [no]… So we were able to do it.

Anyway, in answer to your question, we talked a lot and I tried to show him how it would work. I brought little models of figures with things projected on them, and I said, “This is how it’ll work, it’s little but you’ll be big.” And I thought, “This is not getting across.” But we became friends. And here he is captured and imprisoned at the age of 14. Mohammed el Gharani was one of the youngest detainees at Guantanamo, he was held for seven years. Released without charge by a U.S. Federal judge, no explanation, no apology.

These are pretty small images, this is from the program. His story ... We had very, very complicated legal documents too, in case people wanted to really drill down into the legality of it. And so we had 40 page legal brief as well as his story, as he told it. And he’s also hilarious, he has a really great sense of humor. I don’t know how he was able to do that, I would not do well in a situation like that. I kept thinking, “What would that be like to just be...”

Todd L. Burns

Sorry, did his sense of humor play a role in this project?

Laurie Anderson

Absolutely, in his survival and in this project as well. Because this was going to be silent witness sort of thing, but I realized quite quickly that this guy is really articulate and here we are building the statue, so it’s like a kind of a weird cubist project. You make a giant piece of material and you project onto it and you cut away everything that doesn’t work. Now you’re not making a three-dimensional thing, you’re making a screen. So you have to account for bending of lenses and images and camera angles and then you have to number-crunch on the way in too. So it was really complicated to make this thing work.

Todd L. Burns

Seems like the Lincoln Memorial is in there? That was somehow a model for what you wanted it to look like in the end?

Laurie Anderson

Well, it’s a seated figure. And I liked the sense of scale because at first it was going to be 1:6, which is the relationship of a small kid to an adult. And I liked that human relationship. And then they actually sent us too much foam. So I thought, what if it’s a little bigger? And so we just made it bigger. And the Park Avenue Armory, as you can see, is big. So we just made it bigger and it turned out to be the scale of the Lincoln Memorial, which is four times human size. It’s still possible to relate as a person...

Here’s some of the ways we had to do this in the studio in West Africa. Here we are shooting it, and here’s our West African team of DPs and production people. And then we also went to the Gold Coast to look at some of the prisons where, since 1482, it’s been the same route, weirdly. People captured in Africa, brought and held on the Gold Coast, and sold and used as transport and then taken to the Caribbean. Just exactly Mohammed’s path.

He also was so funny and articulate that we also made a film that we projected in an adjoining room. He spoke as a statue, which was really pretty awesome. You see this person sitting there and then he starts speaking. Here’s some things from other 3D film projects.

And then we had a concert every night. So we played with Omar Souleyman and also Merrill Garbus and Stewart Hurwood who’s playing a ... We set up a big drone guitar thing which is Lou Reed’s guitars, I think we have some pictures of that, do we? Maybe we do later. The beginning of the concert, talking about what’s going on, and of course the lenses are really pretty crazy, showing you the scale. So it ended with the dance party. It was a video installation, but I wanted it to feel like a project that had to do with freedom. And we had, of course, a giant mirror ball which [laughs] put the sky kind of in the starfield.

One of the things I learned about this was: Never underestimate the audience. Because people came and they were ... We did not have an audio feed from Africa because I was really afraid someone was going to “You terrorist!” And he’s had enough of that, he’s had a tsunami of that for 15 years. But we did have a video feed on a delay, so what really blew his mind more than anything probably was... First of all, his lawyer coming to reach up to him virtually from New York to Africa. And then to have Americans... First of all, a hundred people came to play instruments, they just said, “I just want to play here, I just want to be here.” So they came and they played with this giant drone sound, which was overwhelmingly loud, kind of like “Rrrrrrrr,” with all these overtones, incredible sound. People just came to play, sing, do, some ballerinas came... It was just wild, it was so wild.

But what was really great was also these people who could see the camera up there, they knew that he could see them, because it was a feed into the Armory, and they’re going like this or they’re playing their instruments, they’re doing this [reaching upwards]… I was afraid it was going to be all selfie stuff but it was like... And so many people who knew that they couldn’t speak to him are going like, “I’m sorry.” It was so awesome. I thought “Oh my god.”

And the next day, a bunch of lawyers who were representing him were in Guantanamo and they took all these pictures, which they’re not supposed to do. And they took them down to Guantanamo and showed them to these guys. Shocker, Amir is a British resident who is swept up in the same scoop, went on the same plane to Guantanamo that Mohammed did. He was just released last week, which was like... He’s been in solitary for 15 years. He was Mohammed’s mentor. And then we just heard from the lawyers that next week it will be supposedly announced that Guantanamo will be closed.

Now, with the events of last Friday [in Paris], I don’t know. Because these things are going up and down like this, and it’s a political football as well. What does this have to do with music and expression and freedom? Well, a lot. And I mean, I like imagery, I like stories, so I like music and I like really intense, very loud stuff. So many of these things were things that combined all of those elements. But in the end, the thing that I liked the best was having contact with someone from a part of the world who had such a different experience than mine. And to become friends with that person and to make something.

Now Mohammed had never been called anything but a terrorist and a detainee and a number. And so this is the first time... And this kind of went pretty viral in the press and it was covered from art magazines to Al Jazeera... The whole spectrum.

Todd L. Burns

Were you surprised by that? I mean you said, “Never underestimate the audience.” It seems like you’re pretty surprised by the response.

Laurie Anderson

I was, because we were really afraid that… First of all, we had gotten a number of threats. And that made me very anxious, but also you know the British lawyer said, “Don’t worry about that, that guy’s just a blowhard, he’s never going to do anything.” I thought, “Yeah, that’s London.” I live in New York where people have guns and they use them! So I was really nervous about this. I didn’t realize it until the end... Or, also Fox News comes and goes “What are you the artist that does this... Go back to making music, what are you doing doing politics.” Or “You’re working with a terrorist, why would you...” Stuff like that, that was my worst nightmare.

Instead, a number of people started talking about Habeas Corpus and Guantanamo. Obama sent his whole Guantanamo team to see this. It began being referred to, in political articles, pre-Habeas Corpus that the Armory was like this and post- it was like... Whoa. I had not expected that at all, so that was kind of blowing my mind.

But also the other thing was Kweku Mandela, who’s Mandela’s grandson, came and hung out at the thing and he was... So we talked to Mohammed and said, “He’s here.” And he said “You mean I’m being projected onto a monument the size of the American president who freed the slaves and Kweku Mandela is here thanking me for being brave?” I was like, “Yup.”

He was just like... The only time Mohammed would cry was when he just realized that... When he talked about people who helped him. Basically Shaker Aamer who gave him a lot of help in prison and taught him Mandela’s words. And they couldn’t have books, but he memorized it. It wasn’t when he talked about how he’d been tortured, but people who had helped him, people who had listened to his story. I had never just dove into that something that big of a minefield before.

Todd L. Burns

And you did make this album, Homeland, though, which was very outspoken.

Laurie Anderson

Yeah, but Homeland Security didn’t vet it. So this one they were like... There were all sorts of people around here going like... You realize you live in a surveillance culture and then you see them, you see them. And that’s a different thing, when you see them. When they’re just kind of back there as an idea or ghosts of some kind, obviously not so worried. And then you see them, and they’re there. And so when I heard about this Friday night here [in Paris], I was like, “Oh boy, let’s just see what’s going to happen now and try to make something that doesn’t go the way that that went,” you know.

There must be some people, and those people are artists and musicians, people who can resist the knee-jerk thing of revenge. “These people are crazy monsters who are attacking our values system here.” Like, really? Are you sure that’s what’s going on? What would a motivation be for someone who does this? I’m not saying that terrorism isn’t reprehensible. It is. Killing people is reprehensible. I’m not saying that this is not really just the worst thing you could do. But, if you want to understand the worst thing you could do, try to understand it. Try to see what it might be. It might be in response to something else.

Todd L. Burns

Earlier you talked a little bit about how the language is part of the motivation. How you could get a person to believe these things. And I’m wondering about your use of language through the years, and your work. I mean, you talk about it all the time. You said language is a virus.

Laurie Anderson

Well, Burroughs said that. I was quoting him.

Todd L. Burns

Yes. Sorry. You were quoting Burroughs. Language seems to be one of the most important things in general, I think, in your work.

Laurie Anderson

It is and stories and narrative structure, and so that’s what drew me to this initially as well. These really clashing stories, and also it’s what the film I just finished is about. It’s called Heart of a Dog, and it’s a collection of stories that have... Sort of on the surface about people and dogs, but really [it’s], actually what is a story and how do you tell it?

Everyone, for example, has their childhood story and what kind of kid were you. And you have a two sentence story: “I was a punk, I was a loner, I was a whatever…” And it’s short. So what happens when you repeat that and what happens when you start to sort of say it too often. How accurate is it? And people aren’t asking you that question to really ask you what kind of kid you were. Because it’s not the kind of question a psychiatrist who would say, “What kind of childhood did you have?” And then that’s a seven-year answer.

It’s the kind of question that is like, “How are you doing?” And somebody goes, “Great, how are you?” People do not want to know how you are doing when they ask you that, obviously. They really hope you don’t tell them how you’re doing. And it’s not about that anyway, it’s just social glue. You say that, it’s just something that we do, it’s not really storytelling.

So anyway, the film focuses on what stories are for and how you shape the world with that, and how you can choose to… You know how you can describe a day, it’s just kind of these events that happen and then as soon as you really start describe you realize, “Oh, that was a really horrible day.” And then it gets sort of even more horrible as you describe it or whatever. And it’s the same with language in general. So it’s another layer of information on top of what’s going on around me.

Todd L. Burns

The movie’s the first time you’ve done something like that specifically in terms of film. Did you find yourself telling the stories differently than you have in the past?

Laurie Anderson

A lot of the stories that are in my work are autobiographically things. And there’s one that’s called “A Story About A Story” and the best way to tell you about this is to tell you the story. If I can remember it. OK, so, this is one of my go-to childhood stories, or it used to be. When I was 12 I thought adults were idiots, I mean I think most 12-year-olds think that anyway. You’re kind of embarrassed to be around them. They’re just... You cringe. I’m sure you remember being 12.

So anyway I was a 12 year old, and also part of a very big family with eight kids, so I needed a way to... I was showing off to try to get some attention once in a while. I was at a swimming pool and I decided I was going to do a flip off the high board. You know, I had never done a flip before, but I thought, you know, “How hard can that be, just somersault, straighten up before you hit the pool.” So I went up and I did it and I missed the pool. And I landed like “Doof!” on the concrete edge. And I broke my back.

So I spent a couple of months in the children’s ward in the hospital. And this was this place where I was in traction, and basically with kids who were in the burn unit. And the burn unit was where you were in these kind of rotating rotisseries, kind of, so the burns could be bathed in these cool liquids. And I remember a lot about that time, especially when one of the doctors came in and said, “You will not be able to walk again. And I remember thinking, “This guy is an idiot, is he even a doctor?”


I don’t know, I mean… But I could not speak, so I could not say that stuff, I was just thinking it. And I said, “I am going to move my feet,” I just focused on it. And these volunteers started coming to read every afternoon which was really torture. “The gray rabbit was hopping down the road and guess where he went? Well, nobody knows! The farmer doesn’t know, nobody knows.” At the time I was reading A Tale of Two Cities, and Crime and Punishment, you know so the Gray Rabbit stores were really like a slow torture.

Anyway, I did finally walk, and I had to wear a brace like this, metal brace up to my neck and all around here. For two years I had to walk around like that. Really great when I was like 12 to 14, just the kind of time you want to geek out. I was like kind of proud of it because Kennedy had back problems too, and he was the President. So OK, I’m good.

So anyway, one day, somebody asked me what my childhood was like and I was telling the story about breaking my back and being in the ward and suddenly it came through sound, it was this memory of sound. It was the story with the kids and the rotisseries, and suddenly I was completely back in the ward and I remembered all of the missing parts. And it was the way the ward sounded at night, and it was the sound of these children crying and screaming. And it was the sounds that children make when they’re dying. And I remember then all of the rest of it, the smell of medicine and how incredibly afraid I was. And how the nurses they’d just make up the bed and they’d not talk about the kids that died through the night, and I realized that I’d cleaned the story up, just the way nurses had. That I’d forgotten so much of it, and I realized that really that’s the creepiest thing about stories. Is that you get your story, you tell your story, you repeat your story and every time you tell it, you forget it more.

And so, that story is an example of what happens when you use language and you’re never really telling a story, you’re in the present now… For example, in that way I was telling the story of a 12-year-old telling that story. You tell the story you can tell, and when you are 12 you can’t really tell that story because adults are idiots. They put all these kids together in this ward and you know 12 year olds can’t deal with people dying next to them at night. That was really hard to, so… You decide, I’m going to be making fun of the doctors, because it’s the only way you can get through that.

Anyway, the film goes through many different layers of how you use language to get around in the world.

Todd L. Burns

What other sounds do you remember from your childhood?

Laurie Anderson

Well I got to use a lot of those in the film in a way because I suddenly started remembering how important sound is as a memory tool, I guess. I mean, not that I sit around trying to think about my past, I don’t really do that. But the sound... I did have a scene of ice skating, and I remember that sound as just one of the great sounds of the world. I grew up in the Midwest in the United States, and so it was all sky, and it was all really freezing. The winters were just like insanely cold, so these lost winter worlds would also come back to me through the sound of blades on skates and kids, “Yay! Yay!” And then [ice skate sound] “Schft schft schft schft schft…” You know this incredible sound of blades in surround sound. [laughs]

Todd L. Burns

One of your first works, I think, was you in ice skates, playing the violin.

Laurie Anderson

Yeah. I’m supposed to do a retrospective book and so actually, because of what you just said, ice is going to be one of the chapters of it. Because it really is somehow... And it also is the end of the film too. Because there was another story that ended the film, which was also a childhood story.

I had been taking my little brothers to the movies in a stroller and coming back over this frozen lake. And I decided to take them to the island in the lake and look at the moon. I was about eight and they were two, identical twins. So, I got close to the island and suddenly the ice broke and the stroller sank into the water. I was like, “Whoa.” My first thought is like, “Mom’s gonna kill me!” Cause their little balls on their hats were sinking below the water, I was like “Ohhh!” So I ripped off my jacket, I dove down and got Craig and pulled him up, put him on the ice. And I dove back down again and the stroller had slipped down the muddy bank of the slope and I couldn’t find the stroller. So finally I found it and Phil was in, he’s strapped in and I pulled him up and I ran home with both of these guys like “Raaa!”

And I ran in, I always describe this, I told my mother what had happened and she said, “What a wonderful swimmer you are. And I didn’t know you could dive like that.” And that kind of like changed my life, right there, in a lot of ways. Because she had waited a little bit, because obviously most parents are going to, “You almost drowned your brothers! What are you thinking! What were you doing!” But she had waited that second to kind of think, “What am I gonna say, what am I gonna say. This is a really bad situation.” And she chose something really that changed my life, to say that. Of course it gave me a whole lot of guilt, because of course I had almost drowned my brothers. You know and suddenly I’m a “Hero”? But not really, so...

Anyway, so Language Is A Virus From Outer Space was William Burroughs’ and I always thought that was a really crazy and great thing for a writer to say. That language is a disease communicable by mouth. It’s a pretty wild thing to say. But it’s true. You have the ultimate control when you shape something that way. You can really change the world by just changing the way that you’re describing it. Looking maybe at the other side of it.

Todd L. Burns

When did you come to this realization? I mean, was this always something that you were thinking about? Or is this something that in the past few years that has come to you, that has crystallized in your mind?

Laurie Anderson

I think I’ve always loved stories. And anytime a story is told really well, I really enjoy it. So I think it’s that appreciation. I mean I never really wanted to be a lawyer, but I can appreciate wanting to describe the world succinctly in that way too. To really shape really carefully. I know we only have a couple more minutes, should we see if people have some questions or things you want to talk about?

Todd L. Burns

Sure, that’d be great. Does anyone have any questions? Yup, let me just give you the mic here.

Audience Member

I find it really interesting that you just told that story about the ice. And you said it kind of changed the way you thought. Because I definitely see the theme of redemption in this piece and you know, being American and having people apologizing on behalf of America to Mohammed. Was it a conscious thing, that kind of act of redemption on behalf of America to him? Or…

Laurie Anderson

Well it’s one of these things, you don’t know what it’s going to be. Like I said I had no idea what I was ... What the reaction would be to this. And what my own, and what his would be and how it would feel. Maybe it would feel just too vulnerable. It’s very possible that he’s going to feel just too vulnerable and people are going to be angry.

Nobody knew. So redemption was the farthest thing from anybody’s mind. That’s why it’s so great to work on things that you don’t quite know what your doing. I trust that. You don’t know how it’s going to be, how it’s going to play out, in any way. I hope, like I said at the beginning of today, that... My goal as an artist is empathy. And so back to the Heart of the Dog, this film, which is really kind of about that. I like to try to imagine what it is to be in another person’s place. How that would be, really. It’s also just because it’s boring to be yourself all the time. It’s claustrophobic. You’re just seeing your own point of view yet again.

So duets really appeal to me. Conversations, arguments, things where things are going like this instead of, “Hey look at me!” I’m not really that interested in that. I like to try to jump out of myself, or try to analyze something. Or try to get an energy that isn’t just projection, but that has some play in it, has some back and forth. Because I think that’s really, really good energy.

Todd L. Burns

Is that also why you use the vocoder quite a bit in your career?

Laurie Anderson

Using the vocoder is maybe more a musical choice. But using a harmonizer to change my voice, to become that guy or whatever, having an alter ego of... Yes, if you find that those of you who work with vocal filters know what I’m saying. When you don’t sound like yourself, you have different things to say. You’re freed from your point of view. You’re freed from your personality.

Because a lot of times I think of personality as a kind of a design problem. For example, something happens, and you want to scream. But you just want to “Ahhhh!” But you know you think, I’m not the kind of person who would scream, I’m just not. So you don’t scream. But the problem is you still want to scream. So I see that basically as a kind of design problem. That you can go back and, of course we get a lot of things from our parents, we inherit a lot of things. But we also design things as well. Designers, you know what I’m talking about, you kind of design your thing. So go back into your thing and make your design a little bigger so that you can scream if you want to scream. Don’t make a rule that says you can’t scream. Make it nice and big so you have a lot of room to do whatever you feel like doing and not just like... Cause people kind of also go “It’s too out of character, why are you doing something that’s not you.” You’re going “Really? It’s not me? How do you even know what that is?”

So, you know, just try to be as big as you can or as big as you want to. But not to feel like you have to act like yourself; you don’t. I mean obviously that’s the way things are sold. You get a style, you do your style, you repeat your style and people go, “That’s your style” and you go, “That’s my style.” And then it’s like, whoa you’re going to die if you have to keep doing that. Especially in the visual art world, that is really extreme. Not as extreme in music, you have a little more leeway to kind of do stuff. But if you’re the person who paints the dots, you better just keep painting dots. Or else people are like, “Your last ten shows have been dots, what’s these lozenges now? What’s going on?” So I think it’s... Is there one more question? Because then I gotta go.

Audience Member

Just something I’d like to share also about what I observe in your work, is… That there’s a very prophetic aspect of things. I remember around September 11th I saw the video “O Superman” for the first time, and it was just so haunting to me to think that something that was made in 1984, was it, just really seemed like really present or it was talking exactly about what was going on. And I’d like to know how you feel when you see something like that happen with your own work? Do you feel this prophet thing going on? What do you think about this?

Laurie Anderson – O Superman

Laurie Anderson

No, I don’t. What I look at is the fact that, not that my work has changed or hasn’t changed, but that the world hasn’t changed. This is the same war that was started there. It was a song written about the failure of technology. It’s a song about a rescue that was supposed to happen in the desert in exchange for hostages and the U.S. was going to take the helicopters in, rescue these people, and it was going to be like “Yes!” And we took the helicopters in and they all crashed and burned in the desert. This song about technology is not going to save us. I know that a lot of people are like “Yeah, don’t worry, we’re all going to be robots and it’ll be all good.” And you’re like, “I’m feeling pretty organic. I’m not feeling that robotic.”

And I’m really resenting that technology is going to solve our problems. I don’t think so. In what way? I use a lot of technology, I use it all the time. I love it, I’m a geek; but I think you can do really dangerous art with a pencil. It’s fun, it’s fast, it’s like our minds, it’s great. It will not save us either. We’re the only ones who can save us. This is just pieces of plastic. I think it’s so crazy that people give it all this power. We have the power. And we’re not using it that well right now. [laughs]

But this is stuff you know how to use, and so I think it’s really exciting to be able to use technology to make great music, and to make great art. If you use it well you can... Or even just kind of in a half-assed way is also good too. I mean I love it when things break and you’re like, “Oh, I can also do this” and you’re like “Ohhh yeah, I can!” So it doesn’t have to be like cutting-edge all the time. It can just be like broken stuff; you also can do really amazing things with the things that break. But I think to give it too much credit is probably a mistake, I would guess.

Todd L. Burns

On that uncertain note, thank you so much.

Laurie Anderson

[laughs] The note of doubt. Thanks so much for like... I’ve been yacking all afternoon!

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