Laurie Anderson - Biography and Legacy
American Multimedia Artist and Musician
Glenn Ellyn, Illinois, USA
Biography of Laurie Anderson
Laurie Anderson was born in the Glenn Ellyn suburb of Chicago in 1947. She was originally named Laura Phillips, and grew up in a family of ten with four brothers and three sisters. At the age of five, Anderson began studying classical violin. As she explains, "All the kids were more or less forced to play an instrument. And some of them had absolutely no musical talent whatsoever. But they banged away on things anyway, because my parents thought it would be nice to have an orchestra." As a teenager, she would practice up to six hours a day, and often performed with the Chicago Youth Symphony. Anderson also took advanced art classes at the Institute of Chicago, and her early years were split equally between music and painting.
At the age of sixteen, she relaxed her intense relationship with the violin, as there were "too many other things" she wanted to learn. As she remembers, "I loved books and I loved to paint", but she recognized the commitment needed to move into a professional career as a musician limited her ability to pursue these other interests. Moreover, her experience of meeting professional musicians at the time left her underwhelmed. They were so focused on music, she recalls, that they were often lacking in other areas: "There was a cellist who was a wonderful musician. I remember talking to her once, and there were a couple of words that she seriously mispronounced... I was quite astounded and I thought, 'I don't want to be like that. I want to learn to talk." She ultimately "chose not to play. It's one of the few things in my life that I'm proud of: that I actually had the foresight to know I didn't want to do that."
Language, which would come to play an important role in Anderson's later artistic practice, fascinated her from an early age. Her mother taught her to read at seven, with Anderson remembering that she "would love to climb to the top of a tree and read a book", with "so many worlds opening up that way." Anderson's interest was also nourished by the large collection of spoken word records in her family home, which she remembers always preferring to music: "The first one I remember was something called 'Letters from Dad'. It was from a soldier to his family. I thought those were really good, because he described what life in wartime was like," she says. Stories and storytelling therefore formed a large part of her imaginative life as a child, and Anderson remembers inventing a long series of stories to encourage her little sister to sleep. These featured the recurring character of a kid called Judy Marie and were "pretty epic...they were really pretty crazy".
In 1960 Anderson ran for President of her Student Council, and wrote a letter to John F. Kennedy (at the time seeking election as President of the United States) to ask for advice. Kennedy's campaign had made a strong impression on Anderson, and, to her surprise, she received a long and warm response that helped her win the election. After writing to Kennedy again to thank him, he responded with a telegram reading "Congratulations" and 12 red roses. The story made the front page of the local newspaper under the headline "Local girl receives roses from Jack Kennedy." This was likely the first publicity the young Anderson received, and also demonstrates that even at the age of 13 she had a developed awareness of social and political realities, and a willingness to engage in action. Throughout her life and work, she has continued to do the same, often speaking out against war, social inequality and climate change.
Despite her musical skills, interest in language and storytelling and artistic ambitions, Anderson went on to study biology at college. "I changed my mind about what I wanted to be fifteen times before I was twenty - a doctor, a chemist, all kinds of things," she explains.
Education and Early Training
While studying biology at Mills College in Oakland California, the artist found herself producing graphs using chlorophyll she had extracted from plants. This process reminded her how much she enjoyed painting, and rekindled her ambition to pursue it. In 1966, she transferred to Art History at Barnard College in New York, the city to which she had decided to move. After graduating in 1969, she went on to study at the School of Visual Arts for a year, where her artistic focus again shifted, from painting to sculpture. "I studied there with Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre. The sculpture department was much more interesting than the painting department there. I was very excited by minimal art and minimal art theory. Actually, I loved the way people talked about it more than the work itself. I always feel that I like the words better than anything else...books and talking." The following year, Anderson enrolled at Columbia University to pursue an MFA in sculpture. But she did not find the department exciting, and she was censured by the school "for doing things that weren't welded and weighty," she explains. "I was working in fiberglass, which is very fragile."
After graduating, in 1972, she began teaching 'Principles of Art History' at City College in New York whilst also working as an art critic for a number of publications, including ARTnews and Artforum. The artist remembers that at the time she would just show up at offices of the magazines and ask if they needed a writer. She also took a number of other jobs around that time, including producing illustrations for books. Anderson's view of these roles was that her writing, teaching and illustration were all simply ways of supporting her development as a sculptor. As she developed her practice, she began to incorporate her own body and sound into the works to a greater extent.
In 1972, Anderson created one of her first true performance art works, Automotive, in which she orchestrated car horns on a public common in Rochester, Vermont. She also began to perform the piece Duets On Ice, which also took place in public. Wearing ice skates that had been frozen in blocks of ice, she played cowboy songs on her self-playing violin - "an instrument," as Jon McKenzie explains, where "music unwinds from magnetic tape loops". This allowed her to perform a duet with herself, with the performance only ending when the ice melted. In 1973 Anderson hitchhiked to the North Pole, where she saw the northern lights - an experience that she found so strange she considered it as a sign of the end of the world.
Her performance work and increasing profile as an artist began to lessen her dependence on side-jobs and supplementary roles, and with the support of a number of art world friends, collaborators and artistic grants she continued to develop her idiosyncratic combination of narrative, striking visual aesthetics and music. In 1974 she performed As:If, a piece encouraged by Vito Acconci, at the Artists Space in Soho, where she combined a series of personal stories with blown-up projections of words and a drone-like soundtrack.
The musical dimension of her work led her to release her first single in 1977, 'It's Not the Bullet That Kills You - It's the Hole', an upbeat song led by Anderson's violin playing, which met with some underground success. In 1979 she performed Americans on the Move at Carnegie Recital Hall at the request of gallerist Holly Solomon for the occasion of her husband's birthday. Anderson remembers that Solomon asked her 'How about a party?'," to which the artist replied 'How about a concert?'. Solomon agreed, leading to the large-scale performance and greater exposure for her practice. Anderson's reputation in America and Europe quickly grew, leading to the New York Times calling her 'the best and most popular performance artist of her age'.
Part of Anderson's growing profile stemmed from the fact that she was able to traverse boundaries between art forms, genres and artistic media. As art-historian RoseLee Goldberg writes, Anderson belongs to a generation of artists, who were "nurtured on twenty-four-hour television and fast food, picture magazines and B movies," and whose "graduation coincided with rock and roll's twenty fifth anniversary, and with its ironic reincarnation, punk." As an artist who had already met with some success by the end of the 1970s, she was able to draw on all of these influences and experiences, as well as her musical and artistic training, to create highly innovative and original work.
Laurie Anderson's success was solidified in 1981 when her self-produced single 'O Superman', an eight-minute track from the larger performance work United States, rose to number two in the UK Singles Chart. The record became a surprise hit after it was championed by DJ John Peel on his nationally broadcast late-night music show. Anderson remembers that the record was first distributed by mail order, with people caling her directly to ask for a copy, the process being one where she would "go over to a carton, pick it up and go to the post office with it. I had pressed 1,000 records'. After it had begun to be played by Peel, she remembers getting a "call one afternoon from a guy in Britain who said 'I'd like to order some records. I'll need 40,000 Thursday and 40,000 more on Monday.'" Following this unexpected phone-call Anderson reached out to Warner Brothers to ask if they could help her produce the records, something she had previously done independently from her home-studio. Warner Brothers instead signed her to a seven-album deal off the back of the success of 'O Superman' in Europe.
Anderson went on to record the albums 'You're the Guy I Want to Share My Money With' (1981), 'Big Science' (1982), 'Mister Heartbreak' (1984), 'Strange Angels' (1989), 'Bright Red' (1994), and 'The Ugly One with the Jewels and Other Stories' (1995). The artist also become interested in film and television productions and, in 1985, wrote and directed the idiosyncratic concert film Home of the Brave, featuring various friends and collaborators including William S. Burroughs.
In 1992, Laurie Anderson met Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground. "I met Lou in Munich," she tells Rolling Stone, "we were both playing in John Zorn's Kristallnacht festival which marked the beginning of the Holocaust". Reed later asked her to perform a piece with his band. "I liked him right away," she remembers, "but I was surprised he didn't have an English accent. For some reason I thought the Velvet Underground were British, and I had only a vague idea what they did. I was from a different world". Upon returning to New York, the two became close: "Lou and I played music together, became best friends and then soul mates," she says. "[We] traveled, listened to and criticized each other's work, studied things together (butterfly hunting, meditation, kayaking)". We made up ridiculous jokes; stopped smoking 20 times; fought; learned to hold our breath underwater; went to Africa; sang opera in elevators; made friends with unlikely people; followed each other on tour when we could; got a sweet piano-playing dog; shared a house that was separate from our own places; protected and loved each other".
During the 1990s, Anderson's work became more overtly political, dealing particularly with questions of isolation and community, censorship and destruction. In April 1995, the artist presented The Nerve Bible at New York's Neil Simon Theatre, further developing her classic performance elements of meditative narration, music for violin and electronics, and striking visual imagery created by lights, projection and futuristic costumes. Anderson's work evolves by developing elements and pushing them further to arrive at next ones. The Nerve Bible is a good example of this recombination of recognizable elements from previous work and features the line: "History is a pile of debris, and the angel wants to go back and fix things ... But there is a storm blowing from paradise...blowing the angel backwards into the future. And this storm, this storm is called Progress", which might almost be a mission statement for Anderson's development as an artist.
Anderson is an artist who enjoys being challenged and shocking herself out of complacency. In July 2001 she worked at McDonald's, an experience pursued as a result of her personal directive to 'escape this trap of just experiencing what I expect". She explains that "I decided maybe I would just try to put myself in places where I don't know what to do, what to say, or how to act. So, I did things like working at McDonald's and on an Amish farm, which had no technology whatsoever."
In 2002, Laurie Anderson was invited to become the first artist in residence at NASA, a position she held for just over a year. She said that "the opportunity came about completely out of the blue" after "somebody called and said 'Do you want to be the first artist in residence at NASA?'". Although neither NASA nor Anderson were at first sure what such a position would entail, she toured several facilities for inspiration, including the Hubble Space Center and The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, before eventually producing the performance piece The End of the Moon.
Due to pressure from Congressional politicians over the potential waste of government funds allocated to scientific research, and the fact that the piece did not relate favorably to their plans to revisit and further exploit the moon's resources, NASA discontinued their artists-in-residence program. For Anderson though, the experience was a constructive one. She has since said of the residency: "It made me question my criteria for the work I do. It made me wonder what I'm looking for, especially when I heard things like the fact that Einstein rejected some of his own theories because they were ugly. So what was he looking for? Scientists have many of the same issues when they look for hidden things as artists do".
Anderson's marriage to Lou Reed, after 15 years of romantic partnership, was also an experience pursued in a spirit of innovation and personal challenge. Anderson remembers talking to Reed and saying that "there are so many things I've never done that I wanted to do,' [...] 'I never learned German, I never studied physics, I never got married'". Reed responded by suggesting that the two "meet halfway" the following day and get married. "And so the next day, we met in Boulder, Colorado, and got married in a friend's backyard on a Saturday, wearing our old Saturday clothes, and when I had to do a show right after the ceremony, it was OK with Lou". The two remained together until Reed's death in 2013. Remembering their life together after Reed's passing, Anderson explained that "somehow, for 21 years, we tangled our minds and hearts together ... I'm sure he will come to me in my dreams and will seem to be alive again. And 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". In 2015, the artist directed the acclaimed Heart of a Dog, a dreamlike feature-film inspired by the life and death of Lolabelle, her beloved rat-terrier, and dedicated to her late husband Reed.
Anderson continues to make work from her home in New York, frequently pursuing concepts and ideas across projects in multiple media. "I'm teaching myself a lot right now," she told The New York Times in 2017, "...in trying to talk about what stories are, how you make them up, what the difference is between fiction and reality. I build those fictions all the time and call them my life."
The Legacy of Laurie Anderson
Laurie Anderson's career spans four decades and her contributions to the histories of performance art, experimental music, contemporary visual art and installation have received wide recognition. Her work represents a synthesis between the concerns of the different mediums of music, visual art and performance, and reflects the changing nature of spectatorship at the end of the 20th century. As scholar John Mowitt writes, it "participates in those broad cultural transformations that have thoroughly remapped the subjectivity of contemporary spectatorship, undermining the traditional structures of aesthetic identification". In the art world this has helped provide the critical framework for practices that combine music, video, installation and images, including contemporary artists like Christian Marclay, Jeremy Deller and Susan Stenger.
Anderson's music has been cited as an influence by a diverse range of musicians, including St. Vincent, The Big Pink, Spiritualized, Francesca Lombardo, Clinic, Frank Sidebottom, Cut Copy and James Dean Bradfield (of the Manic Street Preachers). Anderson has also collaborated directly with a number of musicians in the later part of her career, including the Kronos Quartet, Colin Stetson, Jean Michel Jarre, Peter Gabriel and her husband Lou Reed, which introduced her music and art to new audiences in the genres of jazz, pop, rock and modern classical music. David Bowie covered 'O Superman' on his 1997 'Earthling' tour, confirming Anderson's status as an influential figure to many artists who are more widely known.
Theatre-makers and performance artists influenced by Anderson's multimedia performances include Robert LePage, Isaac Butler, Tim Miller, Katie Mitchell, Forced Entertainment and Complicite, who explicitly cite Anderson as an influence and/or create performances which similarly deploy projection, modified voices and fragmented narration in a manner deeply reminiscent of Anderson's work. These elements are also deployed by many younger performance makers including Dickie Beau, Louise Orwin and Lauren Barri Holstein, who similarly combine custom props, set and highly stylized projection with modified and amplified voice and narration. As the teaching of performance art and live art is expanded in colleges and universities, Anderson's practice is becoming a major influence on younger artists as a key part of the development of the form.