Sonic and Performative: The Beautifully Diverse World of Laurie Anderson
This is the hand, the hand that takes.
Laurie Anderson fans will recognise those words as part of the lyrics from her eight-minute single “O Superman,” which rose to number two on the UK Singles Charts in 1981. She had constructed the song based on a line in an aria from Jules Massenet’s 1885 opera “Le Cid”.
“O Superman” is her most famous work to date and launched her experimental attitude to mainstream audiences.
It’s all been uphill since then, and Anderson’s stardom has continued to flourish over four decades later.
In 2019, she won her first Grammy award – the “Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance” – for her collaboration with the Kronos Quartet for the album Landfall. She had been nominated four times prior to winning it.
One of the most famous women in sound art and experimental music, the artiste is known for her multidisciplinary work across performance, video, installation, painting and more.
She grew up in Chicago where she studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1961, she joined the Chicago Youth Orchestra with the violin – an instrument that she has been playing since she was five years old.
She later moved to Oakland, California, to study biology at Mills College before dropping out and heading to New York for an art history programme at Barnard College, and later sculpture at Columbia University.
In the city, she helped form the 1970s downtown art scene, alongside the choreographer Trisha Brown and the artist Gordon Matta-Clark.
Anderson has a particular knack for creating her own instruments. In her opera show Songs And Stories From Moby Dick, she uses the “talking stick” – a wireless instrument that can access and replicate any sound, produced with Interval Research and Bob Bielecki.
In the 1970s, she created the “self-playing violin”, a modified instrument with a built-in speaker and amplifier.
“I love duets so I made a violin that plays by itself. So that I could play duets with it live. This combination of live and pre-recorded has been basic to my work forever,” she wrote for a guide at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Installation view from Laurie Anderson: The Weather at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 2021. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Ron Blunt.
In 1974, the renowned performance artist and musician, Vito Acconci, selected Anderson to stage a performance at the Artists Space in New York. Twenty-five years later, she returned for the anniversary of the non-profit art institution.
She was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1982, and in 2002, became NASA’s first artist-in-residence.
For the EXPO 2005 in Aichi, Japan, she was commissioned the production of Hidden Inside Mountains, a high-definition film of short stories about nature and dreams featuring an original score by herself.
Anderson frequently collaborates with the Taiwanese new media artist Hsin-Chien Huang. Their 2017 collaboration, Chalkroom, won the Best VR Experience Award at the 74th Venice Film Festival in 2017. The work was most recently on view at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery in New York.
Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang, Chalkroom, 2017. Installation view from Laurie Anderson: The Weather at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 2021. Photo by Ron Blunt.
In 2008, she married Lou Reed, the former Velvet Underground lead frontman and the late singer behind the songs “A Walk On The Wild Side” and “Perfect Day”.
When they had just begun dating, Reed famously made an appearance in Anderson’s fifth album, Bright Red, in the song “In Our Sleep”. The couple were together for a total of 21 years.
“I am suddenly standing here by myself stunned and grateful. How strange, exciting and miraculous that we can change each other so much, love each other so much through our words and music and our real lives,” wrote Anderson in an exclusive for Rolling Stone following Reed’s death.
She has had solo exhibitions around the world, including the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and many more.
Between 2021 and 2022, the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC hosted a major retrospective-like exhibition of the artist. “The Weather” featured over a dozen of her works across video, performance, installation, painting and other media.
Four Talks. Installation view from Laurie Anderson: The Weather at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 2021.
Laurie Anderson is currently based in New York. Continue reading to discover a selection of her performance works.
LAURIE ANDERSON’S PERFORMANCE ART
‘THE END OF THE MOON’
Two years after Laurie Anderson was selected as NASA’s first artist-in-residence, she produced the 90-minute performance work “The End Of The Moon”.
She has been granted access to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and NASA Ames Research Centre in California.
“I think they invited me to do this project because I’m a multimedia artist and they thought I might come up with some sexy techno project life bouncing light of one satellite onto another and lighting up the dark side of the moon,” she wrote in the supporting guide to the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC.
‘INSTITUTIONAL DREAMS’ (1972-73)
In one of Laurie Anderson’s earliest performance experiments, she slept and recorded herself sleeping, across seven different public places in order to see if these locations can “colour or control” her dreams.
The public experiments included a park bench, a women’s bathroom at Columbia University, and five other spaces.
‘SONGS AND STORIES FROM MOBY DICK’ (1999)
In her 1999 directorial debut “Songs And Stories From Moby Dick,” Anderson mixed pieces from Herman Melville's 1851 novel Moby Dick along with scientific documents, the Bible, and her own writings.
She used her self-made instrument the “talking stick” in the show.
“Songs And Stories From Moby Dick” first debuted at the Prince Music Theatre and later toured around various theatres across the US, including in Texas, California and Michigan.
‘DUETS ON ICE’ (1974)
When the ice melts, the performance ends. An exploration of the parallels between skating and violin playing, the early performance work by Laurie Anderson “Duets On Ice” first debuted in New York in 1974.
In the piece, the artist wears a pair of skates that are frozen into blocks of ice and plays the violin until they melt.
Anderson recreated the performance for live streaming ahead of her 2021-2022 show at the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC.
In her first work of performance art, Automotive, Laurie Anderson produced a concert, or symphony, of open horns at a drive-in bandshell in Vermont.
Listen to more Laurie Anderson songs:
- Christine Sun Kim's Ownership of Sound
- Iterations and Improvisation: An Interview with MSHR
- Exploring Carsten Nicolai's Audiovisual Work
- The Life and Work of Alvin Lucier
- Ryoji Ikeda's Data-Centric Pursuits
- Iterations and Improvisation: An Interview with MSHR
- Sound-Sculpted Narrative: Artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller
- Sonic Art: An Overview
Elevate the way you listen to Laurie Anderson with KEF
Writer | Bana Bissat
Bana Bissat is a Milan-based writer who reports on sound art for Sound of Life. She has written for Flash Art, Lampoon, and Cultured. @banabissat