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Interview with Laurie Anderson

Before “O Superman” hit the charts in England, before she was made NASA’s first artist-in-residence, and before working with Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Philip Glass, Bobby McFerrin, William Burroughs, Spaulding Grey, Robert Mapplethorpe, David Byrne, and Wim Wenders, the Video Data Bank talked to Laurie Anderson about words, electronics and violins.

For the second installation in our Video Data Bank interview series, we bring you an interview from 1977, conducted by VDB co-founders Kate Horsfield and Lyn Blumenthal. The following is excerpted from the longer interview, available in our online edition. For more information about the over-200 interviews available from the Video Data Bank, please contact them at, or visit their website:

Laurie Anderson: In college I was really involved with Art History because there was no possibility of doing actual work at the place I was at. They even considered it too messy.

Horsfield/Blumenthal: Where were you?

LA: At Barnard. And then I had a very checkered career as an art student in graduate school at Columbia. I did sculpture there, and I was working with resins. I was really interested in Eva Hesse’s work, and I got really sick using them. So that went on for a couple of months and I couldn’t do anything. So, actually I’ve made it my hobby to sort of, every place I go now, art schools…if I smell that smell, just go and destroy it, because resins are really dangerous. After that I wanted a really innocent material, so I started using newspapers, and…

H/B: How were you using them?

LA: Well, this was the late 60s, early 70s, and I was really impressed with sort of conceptual stuff, so I did things like…my studio is next to a lot of newspaper stands, so I just got all the newspapers and ripped them up, and each day made these bricks that were tamped and fired and grew. I went through the whole sort of organic conceptual process, growing molds, you know. I mean at this point it seems really pretty silly, but at the same time it was really fun. I also did weavings of, the one I think you said you saw, the same information like a front page of the China Times and a front page of the New York Times, slit as they are written: Chinese vertically, real thin strips, and English horizontally, so…and I liked the way that looked. It looked really nice, it was about the same thing that my work is about at this point too, sort of differences in…some kind of cross between languages. It’s been happening recently because I have been doing stuff in other languages. At that point my work turned into things which were much more about talking as opposed to speech.

The things that I did after that were pieces that…the first one was called “The Institutional Dream Series,” and that started out by falling in sleep in art history class, and having these dreams that were personal things mixed with the images that were on the wall in a very strange way. And so I got interested in how that mix occurs, and what influence the place that you are in has on your dreams. So, at any rate, I went to about eight different places to sleep: institutional, like night court, bureau of immigration and naturalization. By doing it I learned a couple of things actually. One was that sleeping is definitely; public sleeping anyway, is a real taboo. Also I had a friend who came to take photographs of the places, and we were kicked out of night court because of the camera. People thought that they were going to be blackmailed, that we would show these photographs and take them to their bosses…” You know who is in the night courts…” The judge broke the camera.

H/B: The judge broke the camera?

LA: Yeah, well first he unrolled all the film, then he just dropped it like that. He said, “No cameras in the court, you knew that.” I realized then that you had to go to this real strange middle route between seeing too much, I mean the way a camera does, and not seeing anything like when you’re asleep. You had to have a certain kind of glazed look on your face one way or another, you know, seeing too much or seeing nothing. I was interested in working with cameras and sort of street situations, too; I mean taking photographs of anyone who would say anything to me. Yeah, and also I was working at the time as an art reviewer-reporter. Mostly I did it to go into people’s houses, you know.

H/B: To find out what was going on?

LA: What’s in the refrigerator, you know, and see how they lived…I was real curious about the way people lived. I guess I wrote for about three years. Since I was more or less free-lancing I got the jobs that no one else wanted to do. I found myself just rifling through the dictionary for synonyms, for slick and some way to say that the edge was hard without saying it that way again. That was the only kind of work that I was reviewing.

H/B: Who were you writing for at the time?

LA: I wrote for a series of different magazines, first for Art News, Art in America, Art Forum.

H/B: All the periodicals.

LA: Yeah, it was nice. I wrote this one song that I did for a show last year. It was about that, and it was a song called “Unlike van Gogh.” It was about that kind of writing because one of the reasons that I got fired—THE reason I got fired—from one of the jobs was because I made a point of mentioning van Gogh in all the reviews that I wrote because I just thought that his name should be in the foreground. I would just begin reviews, you know, with, “This artist, like van Gogh, uses yellow,” and then this editor finally said, “You know, not every artist can be usefully compared to van Gogh. Why don’t you take another tack on it?” So they all just started, you know, “This artist, unlike van Gogh, does this.” So I stopped writing after I was fired. I guess I really didn’t have a choice.

H/B: What was the development that led you into performance? How did you determine that that would be a course of action for you?

LA: I didn’t, I was just asked to show some films in a film series at Artist Space in New York, which was at that time, and still is actually, a really great place for people to show. Anyone can show there. And I did a lot at that point, and they were really helpful to me.

H/B: What was that like?

LA: The [first performance] was called “As: if.” It was pretty strange. It was the first time I began using a violin in a performance. I mean I used it totally as a prop; it wasn’t really for its musical possibilities.

H/B: Do you play the violin?

LA: Yes.

H/B: So, in addition to an art background you also had a musical background?

LA: Yes.

H/B: And was that serious for you for a while?

LA: Yeah, very serious until I was around sixteen, I guess. And I was living in Chicago, where I grew up and played with some really excellent people, and the Chicago Youth Symphony. And I was also really harassed actually. I mean I lived in the outside of Chicago, and would come in every Saturday to the Art Institute School, you know, to paint in the afternoon and…

H/B: I didn’t know you were a student there at one time. Did you grow up in Chicago?

LA: Yes, from when I was ten until I was about sixteen, I’d go there every Saturday and also carrying this violin. It’s always been like a real double sort of thing for me.

H/B: The violin?

LA: And visual stuff. I really like Chicago a lot, I mean just suddenly thinking of all the trick shops on the way from the train station to the Art Institute. Chicago has more trick shops than any city in the world, you know, with like plastic ink and exploding pens and things. It’s really a strange place, very strange sense of humor. Most of the art that’s come out of Chicago has that weird edge to it.

H/B: That’s really interesting because Chicago definitely has its own style of art. I would ask you the question if you see Chicago in your work at all.

LA: Oh yeah. Most of the things that have been written about my work start with that as a premise: “This is Midwestern stuff,” which I like. I mean for me, the slickness of New York is something I’ve really been trying to get away from. Anyway, in this first performance, I was for some reason wearing these ice-skates with their blades frozen into these blocks of ice which I did again in a street thing…a series of street concerts. But this “As: if” thing was based on audiotape more than anything actually. The only thing that was visual were words, very large words on slides. They were sets of words with colons. I was really interested in the “is like” sort of syndrome. I was very depressed at the time about most of my thoughts being based on that premise, that something is like something else. Is like is like unto infinity. They’re parallel sets of…equations, and there weren’t really any conclusions. As far as I could see, that was the basis of most art at the time, you know: one thing was like another.

So it was interesting to me. It was just doubling up on things. I was trying to work with that, I mean, just the whole system of metaphors. So there were things like different audio layers of sound, that was another part of this thing. The piece was sort of broken down into stories, sort of personal stories that served as examples for these parallel sets of information. One of them was that a year before that, I was in this situation of living in an apartment, and my roommate was going out with a person that I really liked a lot, and I wanted to try and take him away from her. So they would come in and go to her room and lock the door, and then I’d get the violin and just go into the living-room which was right next to their bedroom, and play Tchaikovsky next to the door…architecturally—the architectural thing seems to have been coming up in the work constantly—but in this particular story for instance there are things about sound and about sound sources. For instance, the way you might imagine a Tchaikovsky violin concerto played by Oistrak in quad; and second, the way that you happen to play it; the third, the way it sounds coming though the door.

H/B: Where were you getting the sounds? Were you collecting them from the environment, or were you making them electronically?

LA: Oh, I had a duck caller and also at that point I wasn’t real involved with audiotapes. It was mostly whatever sound I could make at the time. In the performance after that one I used a violin that I’d just taken apart and put a speaker inside, and so it was itself playing and also its strings went up to a little cassette recorder.

H/B: So the visual part of that was that it looked like you were playing the violin but the sound was coming from another source?

LA: It was coming from inside the violin, but it was kind of ventriloquism, violin ventriloquism. There were duets, so that half the sound was on tape coming from the same source. I would take the bow off while it was still going, so in instruments like that there are series of different kinds of ways of changing voice. I work a lot with Bob Alecke who is an electronics designer.

H/B: The two of you worked together in the technical aspect of the performance?

LA: Right, and he designs very incredible things. I just had wanted a piece of equipment so that I could use the sound of a violin instead of voice but still articulate words, which is actually…has a lot in common with wa-wa and rock music, too. In this case, it was a very powerful driver and the sound of the violin was coming through a tube that you put in your mouth, and then the phrasing and the pitch and everything else is violin but the articulation in the mouth is speech. I was interested in deafness at the time actually, and what happens with it…I think I had just heard about Milton going blind, and how his daughters read to him all his favorite things in Homer, but they didn’t know any Greek or Latin, so they read it completely phonetically. You could imagine what it sounded like, “ah uh ah,” all of Homer completely in a monotone. I was using the kind of flatness that he was already in and so a lot of the sound work that I did at the time involved the difference between speaking and sort of understanding phonetics.

H/B: You were setting up paradoxes relating to sound, on both a visual level and an auditory level.

LA: Yes.

H/B: Seeing where sound comes from, hearing where sound comes from.

LA: Yeah, right, and also the dynamics of learning about sound. I had been on an Indian reservation, at a place in Canada. There was a place called Corner Restaurant, and there were no corners on the reservation and no streets, you know. But it’s one of those adapted sort of things, and in the restaurant there was a jukebox and in the jukebox there was only one record which was one that was popular at the time, George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby.” The Cree kids knew the song completely but with the weirdest kind of phrasing. They just learned it right off the record. I got real interested in that kind of tension between parodying something and swinging with it, so I made a film about that actually, about that jukebox, which is an animated crossword puzzle of various ways of spelling the lyrics to that song and the way they would leak into other meanings, like “Rock you, rock you”…so that the sound itself became very non-specific and it could be plugged into any number of meanings. The soundtrack for that was using this violin voice thing so that is was a kind of parallel situation of enunciated things with the tone coming from somewhere else. That particular way of using sound is a lot like the things I’ve been working with recently, the tape-bow violin, which is an instrument that has an audio head mounted on the body of the violin.

H/B: One audio head?

LA: One audio head, with stereo and running into a little preamp. Instead of horsehair on the bow, there is audio tape so that the dynamics of bowing then are really emphasized and it’s really a back and forth process. I would make a lot of tapes in strips and then listen to them backward, you know, back and forth, and the first time that I was working with “wha” sounds, like “who are you? Who is there?”…and I was playing them backward and I started hearing all sorts of really interesting verse-reverse things. I heard very plainly on one of the tapes “Lao Tse” which was the backward sound version of “who is there?” It goes one way and then “Lao Tse” for some reason goes the other. It works very well bilingually because of the inflection. “Who are you?” is “Juanita” backward. Well, especially languages that have a lilt at the end you know, “Juanita,” or “Lao Tse,” you know, anything that kind of comes up at the end. I mean, it doesn’t work anything like palindromes that are written backward situations. So I was thrilled to hear “Lao Tse” because I’d just been reading about a conversation that he had been having with another philosopher about whether it’s better to see or to hear, a real esoteric and totally un-resolvable conversation which he finally ended by saying, “Well, seeing your face is not as good as hearing your name.” So when I heard that name coming through, it was very exciting. When I do a performance somewhere else, I would record, say, a lot of German phrases, going this way and then it would be English coming back the other way. Well, the next one that I did, which was in 1975, called “In the Nick of Time,” the basic premise was really film more than anything else. I was interested in these traffic accidents in Amsterdam. At the time, you had to feel responsible for someone’s death; you’d have to jump out, the cop would give you some chalk, and you’d outline the way the body fell and then come back and paint it in white, and I thought that was really grisly. They stopped doing it pretty quickly because it was just too depressing to see them, these silhouettes. I did like that sort of frozen motion, the way of diagramming motion, and so I did a series of films that were shot from the exact same angle, a completely stationary camera onto a table where there were several objects and a person. For instance, there was in one episode a cereal box in one place; during the performance that rectangle was sprayed red and the film would go on and later, say a book would just slot into that place with the red outline. By the end it was sort of a blackboard diagrammatic thing, just shapes that had been filled with different kinds of objects. I wanted the film to come from various different kinds of sources. So there was one long story about mothers. This film came out of this purse and onto the ceiling. It was like a situation with a lot of rigged objects and then for some reason it was all…instead of water it turned out to be, this is very elemental, a lot about fire. And all sorts of metaphors for burning. Those two early performances actually were pretty much based on things that had happened to me in a sort of distant past.

H/B: I was going to ask you that, how does your life and your background and your childhood fit into your performances?

LA: Well, at that time it really did and it was something that I was really concerned with, wanting to do just something that I knew very well rather than dealing with art issues. At the same time, I felt that I was dealing with movement and dislocation and a lot of other kinds of things, but most of all memory. That performance started with a long sort of passage about—also again using words—about the dynamics of neuronal firing. I had a friend who was doing experiments with horses at the time and administering certain memory drugs to them. I don’t really know what they had to remember, but they were remembering things. One of the things that this friend of mine said was that there is one group of chemicals, Epinephrine, that can be replenished and that…the way the memory works of course is that it works in tracks and you can close those tracks off or you can keep going down the same path and remembering, “Oh yes that day…” And you remember the same thing each time, what you know about that day, instead of like maybe going down another path from another detail and then opening up a whole new series of things that are right there.

H/B: So how did you explore that?

LA: I was interested in one experiment at the time called Galton’s Breakfast Table Experiment which I had heard about while I was taking some philosophy courses at the time in Merlean-Ponty, at Columbia, in this experiment which I really liked. He asked the subject to remember what was on his breakfast table that morning and write it down. Then he says, “Now remember…not what you remember but what was really on your breakfast table this morning.” And I tried exercises like that, working from details. And then after a while that started feeling very nostalgic—very Proustian—and I abandoned it, but at the time it seemed to work really well. The basic thing that happened at that time was that I ran out of stories about my past, as every autobiographical artist does.

H/B: Let’s talk about the major themes and intentions of you performances. What makes them successful to you on a personal level?

LA: I feel most comfortable if all the technical stuff works. If it doesn’t, I get really thrown off and can’t concentrate on what I am doing at all. The electronics has become more and more important to me lately.

H/B: You are moving towards that?

LA: Yes, I’m getting real interested in what happens with that. I never used to like equipment at all, but now, the more things that are plugged in the better. I mean, I don’t want to make electronic music for instance. I have no desire to do that. But since I’ve been using different kinds of electronic phase shifters, and ring modulators, and different kinds of filters, I have been getting into more possibilities of pure sound and also sound for its own sake, not as metronome for film. So the tapes that I’ve been working on lately are attempts at that, and they are also strangely going into other kinds of ways of making music. I mean taking things out of pop music and things like that. I had a very short-lived band. A fast food band, and we did some things about a year and a half ago mostly as a joke. I was invited to be in a series that I thought was going to be sort of an art performance thing, and I wanted to do something. I wanted to just have a rock band like every one else on the block, you know, with a drummer and all. We only rehearsed about eight times and then just did three songs.

H/B: What was your function within this band?

LA: I was the lead singer and since I’ve never sang at all before it was really terrifying. I wanted to do something like that, I mean be in that position. I also played electric violin. There was a sax player, Peter Gordon, and Scott Johnson played guitar, and Arthur Russel made his debut on the drums. He never played drums before—he is a bass player. And it was really fun. I just discovered that it was really a lot of fun. And they helped me a lot on arrangements.

H/B: Did you compose the music and you did the lyrics too?

LA: Yes.

H/B: What was the subject of the lyrics?

LA: The first time we played the reggae-like song for Chris Burden, “It’s Not the Bullet that Kills, It’s the Hole” and that was like…it’s gone through a couple different versions at this point but it had real art subject matter. And there was also a fast food blues about what to do with your old art and sort of a blues recipe song. There was a song for a friend of mine who to me is the Doris Day of the art world, smiling sort of, you know, goodie-goodie, which hit me at sort of an odd angle. Because a lot of my work…I mean it wasn’t tortured and it wasn’t really theoretical; so at any rate, there was a song dedicated to him. It was a real nasty song and I felt good about doing it; and then after that sort of purge, I mean getting rid of all the stuff, I started to do other kinds of music and things that I was much happier about myself rather than just doing it totally ironically.

H/B: Do you feel like the direction in which you are going is leading more toward musical solutions and dropping in a little of the visual quality of your performances?

LA: I had thought that for a while, and then recently I’ve been getting more interested in doing short films. I haven’t had a lot of success with it lately but I would really like to do more or less verses in songs, I mean, totally visual wordless verses. The film songs that I’ve done up to this point were pretty much closely cued together. They were scored so that neither was the track for the other. The film was shot so that there are six frames of image, five of black, and then that corresponds to pitch changes in sound so that was absolutely synonymous at the same time. So, after working with sound and film that way, and before that as a real simple metronome for pacing both. I’ve decided to try these short narrative films, say one to two minutes long each, that are linked through sense as verses in a song, like a 15-minute film-song. In fact, both of these interests are getting more complex. I’m getting more interested in editing sound and also editing film, so that it’s not simple systems so much anymore. One of the things I saw this spring that I really like was a monument on the moon, to dead astronauts. There is a replica of it at the U.N. and what it is is just a little plaque with the seven people who died on their way to space with their names on it. In front of it there is this little lead guy face down, and the scale of that is really quite amazing. I mean it’s just very tiny. I like that kind of information, I mean just what’s where, and find that I can use it more or less as examples in stories so that…so it’s becoming less about “once guess what happened to me.” As I said before I have run out of pungent anecdotes from my distant past, and so I am looking pretty much as it goes in to the present at this point.

APRIL 2006