An Interview with Laurie Anderson

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A GIF of an interview featuring Anderson is featured here. This visual representation helps to demonstrate the concept of an interview taking place.

In 2006, I was fortunate to have Laurie Anderson partake in “Happy Ending,” the literary and music series I organize and host in New York City.

I asked her to do something she never had before, to take a risk in front of the audience. She decided on a story told through PowerPoint presentation, and the crowd was captivated. When I brought up the risk in our subsequent interview, she seemed taken aback.

For me, hosting Anderson was an intimidating experience as she is one of my favorite artists. But when we first met, she immediately put me at ease with her easygoing demeanor. This eased my nerves, and the show went very well.

In 1947, Anderson was born in Chicago and was soon an integral part of the experimental art scene of the 1970s in SoHo.

Anderson’s first performances were quite the spectacle, including a symphony of car horns at a drive-in bandshell and a violin concert in which she skated on blocks of ice that were melting.

Her fame quickly spread throughout America and Europe, and just a few years into her career, the New York Times praised Anderson as “the best and most popular performance artist of her age” for anyone who was curious about the direction of American art.

Her work has been labeled as “avant-garde pop,” “cryptic but accessible,” “epic and showbiz, but avant-garde,” and “uniquely her own.”

At the age of thirty-five, Anderson had achieved a level of fame that was rare in the performance-art world when her single “O Superman” flew to the second spot on the British charts.

For four decades, her creative endeavors have spanned across a variety of media such as sculpture, music, video, spoken narrative, and projected imagery.

She has composed orchestral music, crafted the “tape-bow violin” (where magnetic tape is used in lieu of horsehair for the bow and bridge) and the “talking stick” (a wireless device with access to and production of any sound).

In addition, she has published books, released seven Warner label albums, been featured in renowned museums and was even employed as NASA’s first artist-in-residence. She has said that her approach is akin to that of a stand-up comedian, not solely due to her belief in the potency of laughter, but also because a comedian’s work is in real time.

I had the pleasure of visiting Laurie Anderson at her studio on Canal Street. She was taking it easy, with her feet free of shoes, and it seemed as if she was asking me more questions than I was asking her.

— Amanda Stern’s words


Laurie Anderson was inspired by Alain de Botton’s “School of Life” in London, which is a storefront featuring twenty books that are not for sale.

These books are the ones that one would wonder why they don’t know about them or why they are not in their collection.

The idea behind the School of Life is that most people are only educated on how to make money or get a job, and they stop learning things other than what they have to.

De Botton believes that everyone has one book in them and that if they can figure out how to tell their story, they will. Visitors to the School of Life are welcomed to talk as long as they like and it is not a class, but a presentation of some kind.

Anderson agrees with this concept and loves that it allows people to learn things that aren’t always taught in school, but instead in life.

I was asked to program music at The Stone, John Zorn’s club on Second and Avenue C, and I designated Sundays as “The New York School of Life.

” I invited guests to come talk about their passions, and I had one person who was a boiler aficionado. He gives tours of buildings with the most impressive boilers and talks about them as works of art.

He shared a double bill with a friend who constructed a bicycle from seven hundred individual parts he found online.

It was so inspiring to witness these two individuals speak with such enthusiasm about their respective interests; it was far more interesting than hearing someone talk about why they do their work–it’s like they’re talking about their resume.

Instead, we wanted to hear what they do, not why.

Where did you locate the individual who services boilers?

LA mentioned that Alain de Botton is someone who has a “Balzacian sweep of how things work”. He admires his ability to begin at the edges and analyze everything going on in a city. He was fond of de Botton’s work as the artist at Heathrow and the book he wrote about it. LA asked if the other person had read the Heathrow book.

BLVR emphatically replied no.

LA: Alain’s book was amazing. He took the initiative to explore what was behind the hollow cardboard walls in Heathrow Airport and ever since then I’ve had a better understanding.

The whole airport vibrates when a plane lands, which makes you feel like you’re not sure if you’re in a tangible structure or just a diagram.

Additionally, there are no clocks, making the world seem flimsy and it seems like that’s the way the place wants to stay. But Alain is very observant and managed to capture everything that happens when you arrive in arrivals in only a couple of pages.

BLVR: They search to observe if someone has arrived to greet them!

In LA, even when people are aware that there is no one to greet them, they still look around in less than a second, comprehending the truth of their solitude, yet remaining self-sufficient by taking a taxi home.

Anthropologists like him often use this technique to observe behavior in emotionally charged settings, such as airports. He believes that writing books is an essential part of understanding and contextualizing the world.

Without having an understanding of the context in which someone exists, such as being an artist in the minimalist school, many creators feel lost and are left to ponder the purpose of their work. It can be an overwhelming experience.

BLVR agreed.

I, like most people, cannot provide an answer to that.

Section Two: “Andy, Please Bring Me A Rabbit!”

What would your response be if I were to ask you why you compose?

According to me, if I had understood the significance, I wouldn’t have gone ahead with it.

LA responded affirmatively.

BLVR: It’s the enigmatic, indefinable challenge that drives me onward, for there is no finish line in sight.

LA declared that the activity they were performing was infinite and that the significance of it was impossible to determine, but they were still engaging in it regardless.

BLVR: I understand the concept on an instinctive level, yet when it comes to conveying my message or meaning through the artwork, I can’t guarantee that other people will comprehend it.

Even if I could articulate the concept, I’m unable to regulate whether the audience comprehends it the way I intended.

LA: Do you think anyone ever really gets to witness the effect of their work? Painters and writers, in particular, don’t have that opportunity.

That’s one of the reasons I prefer performing live; I can observe people’s reactions and if they’re not engaged, I’ll modify my performance accordingly. You do readings and public performances too, right?

BLVR: Affirmative.

Do you ever observe the reactions to your work or do you turn a blind eye to them?

BLVR: Rather than disregard what is being said, I tend to take in the info and store it away as an instinctive feeling in my gut.

With the reading series I organize, I am aiming to construct a connection between the listeners and the performers so everyone is included in the event.

It is my hope that the viewers will be genuinely pleased for the author’s success rather than wishing for their failure.

Don’t you consider that spectators always desire people to succeed?

BLVR: Indeed, but not necessarily.

LA remarked that the people in question were present.

BLVR: Audiences form connections with the characters they watch, and at times, those characters can be disliked.

Whenever I encounter someone with stage fright, I typically encourage them by saying, “The audience wants you to have a great performance, they don’t want something bad.

They desire to witness something extraordinary, something that will make this evening truly special.”

At times, while performing, a person may make a mistake or flub, which can cause a shared feeling of anxiety between the artist and the spectators.

The performer’s lack of success can cause people to doubt them and potentially turn on them while they are vulnerable. This is an integral part of the whole situation.

BLVR: So that’s a captivating situation, because now your listeners aren’t cheering you on and they’re instead–

I observe a unique personality emerge from the crowd within the first few minutes. It ranges from being funny and generous to withholding and analytical. I’m really drawn to how this happens so quickly.

BLVR: This is true.

LA: And if the audience doesn’t respond, you’ll never be able to recover. Good luck! This might be a bit of a cliché, but it’s true; even in an academic setting, or a lecture, people judge quickly.

That’s why I always start with a jump cut within the first two minutes.

BLVR: Intelligently thought out.

A very wide jump cut can be used to create a sense of disruption.

BLVR: That is correct.

Audiences will quickly evaluate what kind of show or performance they are witnessing and then judge it based on their expectations.

This can be a problem if the audience is expecting one type of show, but what they are seeing is something completely different.

To prevent this from happening, it is important to not give the audience an idea of what to expect or how far to jump ahead. An example of this is Andy Kaufman, when he was performing in a small club in Queens and playing the bongos while crying.

BLVR: Yes, indeed, I have come across this before.

I had the impulse to get to know him so I approached him and told him I admired what he was doing. For a couple of years I was his assistant and provided comic relief in his clubs. He wrote an amazing book, but unfortunately, it was never published.

BLVR queried, “Is that true?”

LA: Absolutely — it was meant to be published. On several nights, he came to my place and read it to me. I’m not sure what occurred to the book.

But in terms of expectation, he was especially outstanding compared to anyone else I’ve encountered. He was a savant of unpredictable expectation. As an example, we’d go out to Coney Island to practice situations, and we’d get on the roto-whirl where the floor suddenly drops, and we’d be spinning around, so there’s a moment where everyone’s locked in–

BLVR: Indeed.

When he started to panic, all the other people around him were wondering who this person was. He was saying that the ride belts were not secure and it caused a commotion.

He thought it would be funny to make fun of the people who were trying the strength test. He was doing an impression of himself saying “Look at this weakling” which angered the others.

They started to challenge him to do it himself, and he did but the scale barely registered and he still demanded to see the manager. Everyone was embarrassed and he was going beyond what he was supposed to do.

BLVR: Did he discuss the motivation behind his actions?

LA: He didn’t have to, but the most difficult element was attempting to grapple with him.

At his club gigs, he would be incredibly demeaning to women: “Those women think they are… Who do they think they are?” and “I won’t esteem a female until she comes up here and grapples me down,” and that was my cue to go up there and take him down.

I had downed my third whiskey–I’m not usually a drinker, but trying to get up the courage–and he would battle, and he wasn’t feigning. He would wrench my arm.

BLVR asked if there had ever been an instance of serious injury.

LA: No, he wouldn’t break my arm, but he would really twist it around, and I fought back.

It was not a pretend game, but it was still a game. You can still play fight without trying to harm the other person

. He was just trying to push boundaries. Everyone in the club was probably thinking how embarrassing it was to be singing and playing bongos while crying. We, as the audience, are allowed to have a few tears, but not the performer.


The performer often experiences a certain level of apprehension and unease while they are performing. This feeling of paranoia can be quite intense and can have a significant impact on their performance.

BLVR: When you sense that the crowd is not engaged and not participating in the performance, does that have an effect on you? Does it impact your act?

Do you find that this is a challenge? For me, it certainly is.

BLVR: There is a hint of masochism in me that makes me derive a certain pleasure from the experience.

One might take pleasure in the challenge of figuring out why people are doing certain things and how to help them break away from it. This is all about liberating individuals from their predicaments.

BLVR: It is amusing–I become uncomfortable if I am in an uncomfortable social situation, such as a party, however, if I am on stage in front of an audience who may not be giving me any indication that they understand me, and who are almost expecting me to fail, I don’t really mind it.

LA opined that the suggestion was a bit too much.

BLVR: [laughs] That is definitely the emotion.

In this combination, LA pointed out that this is the contribution you are making.


In my opinion, audiences usually possess a great sense of taste. I have never encountered a situation where the majority of the people wanted a performer to fail. I have never seen this happen and never experienced it either, except in my nightmares where everyone is throwing tomatoes and screaming that it is the most tedious thing they have ever seen.

BLVR: I don’t think they’re trying to make me fail, but they understand the expectations and are not meeting them–

LA affirmed that it was something else entirely to their desire for you to not succeed.

BLVR: It appears that way.

LA: Performing induces a certain degree of apprehension. You are exaggerating the effect it has.


We had to bid farewell to our beloved pet, Lolabelle.

BLVR apologized.

LA said that their pet was like a best friend to them and it was hard when they were gone.

He went on to explain The Tibetan Book of the Dead and how it speaks of a forty-nine day period where one’s senses and mind are lost as they transition to a new cycle.

He said he felt a connection to the number forty-nine since it was his birthday at the end of that period.

Continuing, he brought up the idea that we’re in a Bardo right now, thinking that he and the person he was speaking to were together in the studio by the river when in actuality they weren’t.

BLVR: What’s our plan?

LA: I believe that the concept of illusion is particularly intriguing. Even though I’m unsure of how it functions, I’m aware that our conversation is both real and unreal.

Consider yesterday, the activities you performed, and the importance placed upon them, yet now they are gone. It’s as if they were a dream.

The same applies to tomorrow. Where are we living? Tibetans have extraordinary responses to that question, which I am currently researching due to the death of my dog.

Do you ponder the after-effects of death or what happens after death?

LA commented that no one can give a definitive answer as to what happens in life, and that no one is correct or incorrect.

To put it another way, LA noted that through their experience and process of thought, a “disappearing mind stream” occurs in which some concepts become real and others become unreal. Ultimately, it is the individual’s mind that creates these ideas.

BLVR affirmed in the affirmative.

LA: When I initially became interested in Buddhism, I think it was for the same reason that draws many artists to their craft–you become the ultimate creator, with no authority above you.

For some, this is hard to accept, because they want to have the approval of the art police or critics who can give awards and passes or fails.

I found that, in the last two years, not reading any reviews about myself has been a great experience. The critiques never really did it for me, as I knew when people said I was great that it was a lie, and when people said I was a fraud, I knew that wasn’t true either

. I began to wonder why I was even doing this in the first place. Then I realized that I didn’t have to try and please any critics, and I didn’t have to be famous or have lots of people tell me I was good. It was freeing to come to terms with what really mattered to me.

BLVR: What conclusion did you reach?

The joy of creating and exploring ideas is exhilarating for me, and I take on the role of a deity in the process. I have an overly high opinion of myself, which I believe is understandable in this circumstance.

An area often associated with a deity is referred to as a godplex.

LA discussed the power that Buddhists give to all people, that there is no one judging them and they are their own ultimate authority.

They then went on to mention identical twins and how they have a different kind of happiness in that they don’t have to prove themselves or work at being desirable to be understood, as they will have someone who is exactly like them, who understands them perfectly

They don’t have to look for someone who understands them, as they are already understood.

What is the lifestyle of the people like?

LA commented that the lives of certain people seemed to be quite ideal, and that they had a certain quality that made life easier for them than for others.

Would you care for that?

LA: I’m not saying that it’s the perfect way to be, but it is a different way to be.

Those who were born alone can be defined by questions such as, “Who will be with me when I go?” or “Will I always feel alone?”. Writing a book won’t help this feeling.

When young artists come to me and wonder if they should call themselves artists, being worried about what others will think and if they can live up to the likes of Van Gogh, I have to tell them that not many people are paying attention. You are not the center of the universe.

BLVR: The common theme throughout your art is related to connectedness, and the idea that everything is connected in some way through vibration.

This got me thinking about the Large Hadron Collider and the God Particle, which in a way, makes your work “String Theory Live!” As if the theory were being manifested in physical form.

If the God Particle were to be found, and all the perplexing questions we struggle with were to be answered, what would that mean for us as artists?

LA: We could eliminate all of the museums and end the concerts! We could be proud of that and just hang out.

What is it about the ambition of humans that is so wonderful? Perhaps when we become gods, we will be more content to just relax and admire, instead of constantly searching for something.

BLVR asked if there would be any absence of art.

In five thousand years, if we don’t discover the God particle, we may still be looking for it. It is unlikely we will be making things as we are now and instead trying to appreciate what we already have. We could design better ears, since our hearing is currently sub-par, and have gigantic ears that allow us to tune into Mars.

Alternatively, we could have a hundred lenses built into our eyes so that we can observe Mars without the need for additional tools. With these, we will be able to be in the present more effectively.

We’ll create something of our own.

LA suggested that art is a way to learn to use our senses, and mentioned the example of the Assyrian gold horses which taught humans how to appreciate form and beauty.

He stated that works of art are merely a way to pay attention to what is already there and to appreciate it. Instead of creating more ‘stuff’, LA suggested that we merely focus on the already existing beauty that can be found everywhere.

At four years old, my fascination was with the sky. I had a longing to become one with the sky and the trees below appealed to me because they seemed to reach up to it. I remember thinking to myself, I am that.

BLVR: In the past, you were that. Even now, you remain that.

I have always been aware of the fact that we are all the same, and I have never forgotten that – even when I was a child.

BLVR remarked that the individual in question was indeed a theoretical physicist.

LA: [ Laughs ] Nope, I’m from the Midwest. That scenery was unbeatable: a 180-degree sky. There was no huge ocean or towering mountains, just a flat expanse of sky that’s always been my favorite thing.

The great thing about the sky is that it’s available to everyone, 24/7, unless you’re locked up. Then, you just have to turn to your own inner sky, which is as real as the physical one

. When I’m feeling lost, I take some time to look up at the sky, letting myself get lost in it. This isn’t a meditation someone taught me, it’s something I’ve been doing my whole life and I really enjoy that feeling of nothingness it brings. That’s what I go for–to not be here.

BLVR asked if the experience made the person feel like nothing or everything, implying that perhaps it was the same thing.

The sensation of being both light and joyous was amazing. In my childhood I had to act as if I was someone else, however I never felt the need to be someone else since my own understanding of the world was more meaningful.

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