Laurie Anderson’s career has ranged far and wide since her jump from avant-garde performance artist to 1980s pop music star. In addition to experimenting with electronic instruments like the talking stick and the tape-bow violin, she’s written the Encyclopedia Britannica entry for "New York" and recently served as NASA’s first artist in residence. Anderson will be giving a free lecture on Andy Warhol (sponsored by the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum) at 4:30 in the McEvoy Auditorium on March 15. I got the chance to catch up with her last week.
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 anyway, 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 tried to have a lot of fun with it and I think I did. 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.
Anthropologist? You’ve also worked in McDonald’s. Is that how you stay fresh, by trying different things?
I had gotten into kind of a rut with my life as an artist. You know how you make these elaborate plans and you start living them out without really getting into the experience?
I thought "How can I escape this trap of just experiencing what I expect?" 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.
So I put myself in places where I don’ t know what to do, I don’t know what to say, I don’t know how to act. I worked on an Amish farm, a place that had no technology at all. I also worked in McDonald’s. They were all really, really fascinating experiences.
You’re coming down to D.C. next week to give 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!"
(Photograph courtesy of SAAM. Saturday’s event is part of the American Pictures Distinguished Lecture Series, sponsored by the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum and the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland.)