Singer, author, violinist, performance artist, visual artist, electronic-music pioneer, Lou Reed wife: Laurie Anderson's art-world bona fides are unassailable. Who better to help launch the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts' Vanguard Series than someone who has spent her career crisscrossing all the genres that a proper arts center holds dear? On Sunday, Anderson performs Transitory Life, a retrospective show that draws from her entire body of work. The Pitch spoke to Anderson, on a tour stop in Boston, to see what to expect.
The Pitch: Transitory Life is a retrospective of your work, but a lot of the art you've produced over the years is sort of famously hard to define. Can you give a sense of what we can expect? Multimedia? Spoken-word stuff?
Anderson: I've been describing it as a kind of mental movie. There's a lot of stories, adventure-type stories, that come from moments in my writing career. Like a story about trying to go to the North Pole. And there's a story about when I worked at McDonald's.
Why did you work at McDonald's?
At the time, I was frustrated. When you're an artist, you do work, develop a style, and then you're judged by that style. But I think of myself as an experimental artist, and I don't like having a type of style. I like putting myself in experiences where I don't know what to do. So I went to work at a McDonald's for a while.
Do you view Transitory Life as being especially political?
There's some politics. It's hard to tell stories these days without politics coming into it somehow. And politicians, you know, they're basically doing what I'm doing. They're telling you about the world as they see it and telling you what they think it should be.
What else besides the stories?
There's some altered voices, lots of processors, some violin solos that are more or less short stand-alone things. It's kind of like movie music — the music is rhythmically a counterpoint to the stories. As the narrator, I try to be the straight man, but the violin can really cry, so that's one of the more emotional aspects of the show. The performance kind of stretches out. I improvise some things. It's set up in terms of software, so it's not linear, and that allows an incredible amount of freedom. There's lots of characters, lots of ideas about how we move through time. It's this sort of weird wind that blows, and you follow it around.
I know you like to tinker around and invent new electronic-music instruments. Have you been working on any new toys lately?
I guess the closest thing would be — I'd been getting burned out on circuitry and software, so I did this show opening of my paintings, which I'd never done before. It was a lot of clay and mud and iron. Big, messy, funky materials. And I ended up making a violin out of the ashes of my dog, which had just died.
Like a functioning violin?
No, no, you can't play it. It's just sculpted from mud. But it was very physical. Dog's ashes aren't like people's ashes. There are chunks of bone and hair in dog's ashes. I didn't expect that. When I added water to it, it almost felt like she was there, alive again, you know? I thought, "Am I doing the right thing here?"
To what extent do you think humor plays into your work?
I guess I think most things are funny, even if they're sad or grotesque. And I trust laughter because it's physical; you can't fake it easily. It plays a big part in what I do. In some ways, I will sometimes think of myself as a stand-up comedian up there.
What kind of stuff are you working on lately?
I'm writing a string quartet, finishing my book, making paintings, designing a video installation. I'm a workaholic. The book is a collection of stories, some of which I do in Transitory Life. With stories, I do them to be spoken, not written. I work things out by saying them. I always want it to be like a conversation. I want to be able to really hear the backtracking and the pauses of a normal conversation. I don't think in terms of paragraphs and punctuation. So I have to make some adjustments for the book.
Are you aware that the venue where you'll be performing here is brand-new?
Yes, and it's pretty amazing, right? Everyone is talking about it. I can't wait to see it.