The infinite and mesmeric world of Laurie Anderson

Program text commissioned for Laurie Anderson: International Artist in Residence, HOTA (Home of the Arts).
June 2018, Gold Coast
Laurie Anderson. Photo © Ebru Yildiz

As Laurie Anderson looms towards the fifth decade of her genre-slicing career, the legendary New Yorker has inherited a slew of name tags. Proclaimed a visual poet, sonic maven, digital doyen, and paradigm of performance art, she was briefly an accidental pop star when her loop-laden anthem O Superman appeared in the UK music charts in 1981. But at the heart of it all, Anderson remains an experimental artist with a fever for stories.

“I want to make things that scare me,” Anderson tells me via video phone from her Canal Street studio. “It has to be something I don’t fully understand, or it’s risky or personal.” Indeed, her latest book, All The Things I Lost in the Flood, meditates on the multifunctional language of art, the intangibility of objects, and  how “stories are engines” that help us construct and remember the world around us. In it, Anderson reflects on losing decades’ worth of career sentimentals when the Hurricane Sandy floods gushed through New York boroughs and into the artist’s basement.

“Everything was gone,” she recoils, “keyboards, sculptures, show props, projectors — all turned into oatmeal.” As she listed her ruined possessions, she discovered that remembering them felt as good, if not better, than holding on to actual objects. She exemplifies, “the colour yellow makes you remember yellow more intensely in your mind than in reality. I realised that the function of language is to represent things, because seeing is remembering too.” As she speaks, her hand romps through her iconic porcupine hair, spiked outwards like antennas tuning ideas around her. “I’m a big eavesdropper,” she affirms. “I love the chaos of being on the streets or finding myself in the middle of people’s ideas and conversations. I learn so much that way — I take notes on my phone and turn them into stories and lyrics.”

Propelled by “curiosity and persistence,” Anderson’s boundless multimedia oeuvre includes symphonies composed out of car horns, an experimental opera remix of Moby Dick, and virtual rooms where drawings fly and words explode. A classically-trained musician, she played a reconfigured violin while standing on skates bolted onto melting ice blocks. She’s conjured up radical projects with animators, scientists, activists, and artists — including the late Lou Reed, her partner of 21 years, and the subject of her upcoming book about the rockstar’s creative and spiritual rigour.

For now, Anderson arrives on the Gold Coast for the first time as HOTA’s inaugural International Artist in Residence, where she plans to bewilder audiences with performances that include the imaginative soundscape Stories in the Dark, the memory-triggering Language of the Future, and the pooch-friendly composition Concert for Dogs. Its low-frequency notes were first tested on Reed and Anderson’s piano-playing terrier, Lolabelle, whose passing (along with Reed and Anderson’s mother), shapes her filmic ode to love and elegy Heart of a Dog— also screening during the program. Anderson concludes her stay with a high-spirited conversation about stories and language with local artists and writers. “Friends have told me the Gold Coast is beautiful,” she muses, “but I’m trying not to find out too much — I like for a place to hit me when I get there.”

At 71-years-old, Anderson continues to create transportive work. In 2019, she’ll launch a digital project about the moon to celebrate the 50th anniversary since man first landed on that planet. Which implores me to wonder, what’s on the horizon for this limitless artist? Any plans to perform in outer space next? Anderson responds with a playful smirk, “We are in outer space. We’re spinning around already.” As she turns language, and worlds, upside down, Anderson remains a canyon of lyrical energy.