To be honest, before this past weekend in the city where I lived and breathed in a bubble with the words “Laurie Anderson” printed in bold above my head, I had no solid understanding of who she was or what had been doing in the art world. I can’t say I’m entirely sure now either, as Laurie, modest in both presentation and speech, stood veiled behind the works she and Bill T. Jones curated with the assistance of many other individuals for the third annual Live Ideas festival. The events culminated in a program, S K Y — Force and Wisdom in America, which took place at New York Live Arts (NYLA) from April 15-19. With appropriate emphasis on such an idea, the festival centered around the idea of the sky; normative association with the word conjure visual, etherial, or poetical connotations, yet here it is marked as a symbol of “aspiration, vastness, change, threat, and now information storage,” Jones articulated. It was under a term as lofty as this that Laurie had room to gather an impressive series of works.
For those who do not know Laurie Anderson, she is best known for her work that spans across experimental music, visual, and artistic fields. She has become a creative pioneer in these worlds, challenging the boundaries of knowledge found within each and pushing them outward in a blending of power and pursuit. Her partnership of 21 years to Lou Reed and eventual marriage (they married in 2008) exposed her to a milieu of endeavors, among them tai chi—the badass rocker chick vibes she gives, I believe, can be somewhat attributed to this portion of her life. During the festival, Laurie made a trip to Cleveland, Ohio to induct Lou Reed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In this speech she detailed to the audience the three rules she and Reed “came up with, rules to live by”: “don’t be afraid of anyone…get a really good bullshit detector…be really, really tender.” These words, while not indicative of the work Laurie creates, inform the profound perspective she has accumulated—one worth sharing. Outside of personal anecdote, Laurie has proven herself worthy of much praise; she has created endless new technologies for the music industry including the “tape-bow violin”, become the first women artist-in-residence at NASA, and challenged herself to make work absolutely new.
The festival, a commentary on the social and political status in America, presented more than twenty-five events over the course of five days. Anderson and Jones implemented an array of mediums to spark dialogue and interest on particular issues, ranging from a demonstration on the art of tai chi to avant garde films to conversations such as the one titled, “Where are We Going.” On the festival’s website Anderson wrote, “as effective social action becomes increasingly more difficult in a society that is deeply divided, unjust and often toxic, it is urgent to question our direction and ethics.” The intention in cultivating this series of work was to bring into question these prominent issues and address them to the growing urban community. Questions about the past, present, and future were raised, challenging and inspiring the audience members to react with colossal profundity.
What seemed to be the most important to Laurie and Bill, above all else, was forming an environment that raised a passionate audience and in turn provoked conversation. Many events closed with panel discussions or solicited dialogue; if neither were executed, still they promoted discussion between audience members as they shuffled out of the auditorium. In one instance, after viewing La Jetée, a film by the late Chris Marker, founder of The Modern School of Film, Robert Milazzo, sat center stage on the “set” that would become the most palpable connection between each event (a series of oriental rugs overlapping one another, forming a strategic yet seemingly random pattern, a scene wholly reminiscent of the final moments in Across the Universe, where characters come together to sing a heartfelt “All You Need Is Love” on a building’s rooftop where band’s stage is situated on a mosh of super groovy carpets). Miles created a classroom setting for his discussion, focusing on how the audience experienced the film and moving into a dialogue from there about the film’s history, making it feel like more of a collective experience than a typical question and response atmosphere found at such events.
My first encounter with Anderson was at Bard College, where she was “in conversation with Neil Gaiman.” I remember feeling overwhelmed by her presence, by her ability to remain calm throughout the waves of intensity the discussion brought. She sat in an oversized, cushioned chair, and despite the vacuity such a chair could manifest, she remained poised and spoke with a certain eloquence — an eloquence that seemed to me to stem from an experience she cared to share and the audience hoped to hear.
Our second, indirect, interaction came in the form of the Live Ideas festival. The first event in the festival I attended was a screening of Julian Schnabel’s film Before Night Falls, based on the autobiography of writer Reinaldo Arenas, an openly gay Cuban exile. Following the screening there was a Q&A with Anderson and Schnabel. Her praise of the film was humble, her worn voice full, delicately drawing out her words. When Schnabel spoke of both Reed and Anderson’s role in the project, she remained stoic in the face of a subject that could steer the conversation elsewhere.
When I spoke to producer of the Live Ideas festival, Kim Cullen, she advised me on how to follow the events to allow for a cohesive experience. She told me to think of the events as a “spider-web” whose parts, seemingly disconnected, could be seen fit from the same cloth; it was only after I had taken part in the events and had the ability to think back on what I had seen, experienced, felt, that I would find them as necessarily proportional to one another. It was then I would see their culmination into the larger scope as linked back to the ideology of the termed sky. When I realized the moments where my attention sparked, when I linked the thoughts of those I heard speak in charged dialogues, I could see how events as disparate as John Cage’s Lecture on Weather and Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls found common ground (aside from the overt relationship to the sky in their titles).
The Cage lecture began with a recording of Cage speaking in his oddly disembodied but direct voice, as some ten people sat in rows on stage, waiting to, as the audience assumed, speak. In the recording, Cage argued, “not only aspiration but intelligence, as in the work of Buckminster Fuller, and conscience, as in the thoughts of Thoreau, are missing in our leadership…. we have lost confidence in one another we could regain it tomorrow by simply changing our minds.” Although easily overlooked, this thought heavily contributes to the political atmosphere of our time, while also brings the social sphere into the conversation. In Before Night Falls the audience can see this aspiration, intelligence, and necessity to change present in Reinaldo Arenas as he ruthlessly fights for his freedom of speech, finding himself in prison for a brief stint before eventually finding his way into America.
It is easy to see Laurie’s hand in all of this; as indicative of the list of events present in the festival, she had the audacity to find inspiring and thought provoking work from most all mediums whose content, drastically different and so poignantly relevant, touch on pressing matters in the world today. What Laurie did is wildly important—she brings back to the forefront of our understanding the necessity for art in America to find itself embedded in both the social and political spheres of the nation. The energy maintained in this festival must remain as we focus back into our respective worlds.
When asked how La Jetée spoke to the political atmosphere of the early 1960’s, Milazzo talked of the film (a word written with hesitation as the work is entirely comprised of still images) and Marker’s intentions as circumscribed around time; western and eastern time “would be the most significant question” for Marker. I believe this to be an essential part of Laurie’s preoccupation with the “force and wisdom in America” and as well with the notion of “effective social action”; what she demands of us is participation, and after taking part in such a paramount festival this past weekend, I am willing to give it to her.