Laurie Anderson

The celebrated performance artist discusses Andy Warhol, NASA and her work at McDonald’s

Laurie Anderson
Avant-garde performance artist and pop icon Laurie Anderson. Smithsonian American Art Museum

Laurie Anderson's career has ranged far and wide since she emerged in the 1970s as an avant-garde performance artist and scored a hit on the pop charts in 1980. Recently, Anderson gave a talk at the Smithsonian's Reynolds Center. She spoke with the magazine's Kenneth R. Fletcher.

What's the message in your work?
If I had a message, I would write it down and e-mail it to everybody. I would save a lot of paint that way. My work is more about trying to create images through words and pictures. I want to evoke a reaction more than explain anything clearly. I don't like things to be confused, but I like them to be multifaceted.

You started out in the 1960s and 1970s as an artist and you became a pop hit in the 1980s. How was that transition?
I didn't know anything about the pop world. I was just an artist in New York and I had made a record that I was distributing by mail order. People would call me up on the phone and say, "Can I get this record?" I would go over to a carton, pick it up and go to the post office with it. I had pressed 1,000 records of something I had done on an NEA grant called O Superman. Then I got 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." So I said, "Right. Okay. I'll get right back to you."

I called Warner Brothers and said, "Listen, I need to press a bunch of records, could you help me with it?" And they said, "That's not how we do things at Warner Brothers Records. What we do is you sign an eight-record deal." And I was like, "What?"

So that's what I did, because I thought that could be interesting. I tried very hard not to be seduced by that kind of world. I had a lot of fun with it. You get out of a car and everyone is screaming, it was just funny for me. They were like, "Can I get your autograph? Oh my god!" and "It's really you." For me I felt like an anthropologist.

In 2002 you were NASA's first artist in residence, Why you?
Because I have a reputation for being a gear head and a wire head. It was a really great gig. I went to mission control in Pasadena, and I met the guy who figures out how to color the stars in the photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

The opportunity came about completely out of the blue, as many things are in my life. Somebody called and said "Do you want to be the first artist in residence at NASA?" and I said "What does that mean in a space program?" and they said " Well, we don't know what that means. What does it mean to you?" I was like "Who are you people? What does it mean to me? What are you talking about?"

You've also worked at McDonald's.
Yeah. I began to think, "How can I escape this trap of just experiencing what I expect?" 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.

What do you need to "escape" from?
At heart, I'm an anthropologist. I try to jump out of my skin. I normally see the world as an artist first, second as a New Yorker and third as a woman. That's a perspective that I sometimes would like to escape. It's why in my performances I use audio filters to change my voice. That's a way to escape as well.

To become somebody else?
Yeah, to have another voice. If you sound different you find that you have different things. If you sound like (high voice) a little kid or (low voice) you sound like a guy that's just sort of lost. It's just a way to switch perspectives and that's really important to me.

At the Smithsonian, you gave a lecture about Andy Warhol and his "Little Electric Chair" series. Why Warhol?
I feel like we are living in Andy's world now. It's the world that he defined in so many ways and his obsessions with fame and violence and ego. You just look around and go, "Wow, he was doing that 30 years ago!"

American culture was going that way and he nailed it. It's completely fascinating how he came up with those categories and American life became that way.

Why the electric chair?
I think for me it combines a lot of things. One was this idea of tabloid stuff. We don't allow images of people being electrocuted, for example. Another is the factory image, the multiple stuff, it's a kind of death factory. People pass through that and it involves technology as well in a way, it's the power of electricity....

Are you running out of time?
I am running out of time. My assistant is waving his hands, saying "You have to go now or you'll be dead!"

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.