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Laurie Anderson on art, life and virtual reality


  • Laurie Anderson. Photo: Ebru Yildiz

  • “Chalkroom,” VR Installation. Photo: Canal Street Communications

  • “Chalkroom,” VR Installation. Photo: Canal Street Communications


Renowned performance and multimedia artist and Manhattanite, Laurie Anderson presented her virtual reality installation, “Chalkroom,” for the first time in New York recently at the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s a tour-de-force of words, sounds, imagery, drawing and imagination designed to take viewers far from their quotidian experiences. Created with artist Hsin-Chien Huang, “Chalkroom” gives the audience a chance to fly through buildings, clouds and an imaginary universe made of words.

Anderson’s got lots going on these days. Along with her VR presentations, she’s touring, performing, giving talks and readings from her new book, “All the Things I Lost in The Flood,” and will have a museum-filling solo exhibition at Guild Hall in East Hampton in June and July.

She shared some of her thoughts in a conversation, which was edited for length and clarity.

MG: As an artist who uses words, music, performance and space and has said your work references disembodiment, VR seems like a perfect fit.

LA: I don’t know about that. I think you can certainly do the same thing if you’re making a pencil drawing or writing a novel. Virtual reality is a new medium, so I think it shocks people in a way, and they maybe experience things a little differently but I don’t think it’s a magic bullet that suddenly we can all express ourselves so well.

You don’t seem pinned down to a particular medium. You draw, you write poetry, you compose and play music. Is traveling between art forms part of that feeling of flying and disembodiment?

No. I think that once I’m inside a piece, or trying to make a piece of music, I’m grounded in another way. When you’re doing stuff like that, you’re really kind of problem solving. It’s very different from the experience of the viewer or the reader to actually try to make these things. That’s a completely different experience — one which is made up of a million details and is all about number crunching and a lot of things that are extremely unglamorous.

What does the act of creation do for you in your journey?

It’s the most fun you can possibly imagine. It’s basically a godlike thing to do. It wasn’t there, and you put it there. It’s staggering what you’re actually kind of doing. So it’s very exciting. I guess it’s probably the most fun that I have. I love inventing things.

Love and empathy run so much through your work.

A lot of my work is about violence and a lot of it is about war. I’ve done many prison projects....

Yet still those pieces are filled with empathy — trying to engender empathy.

And in terms of responsibility, too, and what we can do about things.... I’m just thinking of one example. I had to give a talk a couple of nights ago with Chelsea Manning, who I really respect, and I was just thinking about some of the things that she had said and that Nadya from Pussy Riot had said.

It was part of a music festival in Houston. It was the kind of music festival that decided ‘well, let’s also do some social issues’ which sounds scary, but it was really wonderful. So the three of us were talking about prison, and I’ve never been in prison but I have done work with people who have been. One thing that both Nadya and Chelsea said about being in prison was so staggering to me. You know, when they said it, I just looked at the audience and their mouths were just open, thinking ‘oh my God.’ What they said about being in prison, what they learned in prison, was they both learned that it was really important to help people who didn’t have as much as you do. And I was just floored by that statement, because a lot of people go to prison and they’re just banging their gavels, and they’re outraged. And they want to change society, and they want to blame people — the wrong people put them in prison for the wrong reasons.

No. These two people said they had learned it was really important to help people that didn’t have as much as they did, and I thought, this is colossal. Can you imagine if Americans had empathy what a difference it would make? And I thought I will try to do what I can to encourage that....

We say we live in this information rich culture and we’re totally ignorant. And then we have these heated discussions about things that nobody even knows what they’re talking about.... Nobody’s curious. Everybody just wants to defend their own side. And we know why that’s happening. We’re all fed news of only what we want to hear. It’s like medieval kings who say, just give me the good news of what’s happening in the court. I don’t care what’s happening out on the fields to the peasants. No, I just want to know the gossip, and what’s part of my world. So we all suffer from that. Now we have a so-called government that’s just screaming at each other. It’s like an ongoing porn show. It’s like, wow, I’m really not interested in hearing these guys anymore.

It’s been a theme for me in my work. I try to spend time looking at this country and doing portraits of what it is, or how we can describe it. From a story point of view, and how people tell stories, it’s an intensely interesting moment because nobody can quite understand what’s going on. The stories are multiplying so fast that nobody has a grip on it at all.

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