gamut (2005-45)

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Performance artist Laurie Anderson became a cause celebre as NASA’s artist-in-residence

Performance artist Laurie Anderson became a cause celebre as NASA’s artist-in-residence

When New York City-based performance artist Laurie Anderson was asked to be NASA’s first artist-in-residence in 2002, little did she realize she’d end up in the Congressional Record. Indiana congressman Chris Chocola considered the $20,000 stipend paid to Anderson “an example of government wasteful spending” and successfully introduced an amendment to an appropriations bill last June that prevents NASA from funding such a position again.

An artist of Anderson’s stature drew attention to the NASA Arts Program, which has existed since 1962, and which has in the past funded works by Norman Rockwell among others. Chocola’s amendment didn’t take the money out of NASA’s budget; it simply prohibited spending the money on art.

Needless to say, Anderson doesn’t see her tenure with NASA the same way.

“It would be really wonderful if artists were more involved in aspects of culture,” she says by phone from her New York City studio. “Not just government, but especially government. Why not have an artist-in-residence in the White House?”

The result of Anderson’s time as NASA’s artist-in-residence is “The End of the Moon,” which she performs Tuesday at the Tennessee Theatre. Anderson got her MFA in sculpture from Columbia University, but she soon became involved in slyly witty performance pieces. One of the first to get attention was a pun on “ice skates,” with Anderson wearing skates encased in ice and playing her violin until the ice melted.

By the early ’80s, technology had become central to her art, and “O Superman,” an excerpt from “United States I-V,” became an underground hit in 1981. With her voice manipulated and breathy “oh”s giving the song a mechanical pulse, the song, Big Science (the album it first appeared on), the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light , Spalding Gray’s monologue/movie Swimming to Cambodia and Keith Haring’s graffiti-like art ushered in a period when New York City artists were critically admired and commercially successful. Anderson became something of a pop star, which she recalls being very time consuming. Interminable photo sessions made a particular impression on her.

“It takes a lot from you to have to do that kind of thing,” she says, laughing. “I’m really happy I survived that part of my life.”

Anderson went on to make her own concert film in 1986, Home of the Brave , a grand, multimedia spectacle with video effects in addition to the technology involved in her music. “The End of the Moon” is more austere than her work from that period. The stage is largely lit by candles, and the only backdrop is an image of the moon. She has a comfortable armchair onstage and divides her time between it and a laptop computer that now does the work of her synthesizers and sequencers from days of yore.

She admits the people at NASA were a little surprised when she told them she was writing a poem in response to her experience with the agency. “They were like, ‘Why would you waste an opportunity like this?’” she says. As is often the case with Anderson’s art, it has the trappings of technology invoking the future, but it’s rooted in storytelling and the past. The changes technology helps bring about fascinate her, but only as they affect people and their day-to-day lives.

She recalls, for instance, a recent trip to Buenos Aries, where even stop signs are privatized now. “For me, it was really tragic because the last time I was in Argentina it had a big, coherent middle class,” Anderson says. “They could afford to buy books, have vacations, be psychoanalyzed, go out to dinner.” That was 15 years ago. “Now all those people have slipped out of the middle class and are struggling to eat.”

To address NASA, space and time—the latter a theme of “The End of the Moon”—she wrote as journalistically as possible, trying to report what she saw as accurately as she could and resisting the urge to shape her writing for greater dramatic effect.

“The engine is the language,” Anderson says of her work. Music, however, is like her second language. “I’m almost always holding [the violin] while I’m writing. It’s always around and available to do stuff that can’t be put into words that well. That’s the function of a lot of film scores: They tell you how to feel about that empty road.”

For Anderson, the NASA experience was a positive one. It gave her a chance to break out of her routine and interact with a community outside of the worlds of art and music. More than that, though, it allowed her to revisit her youth and the role the space race played in it.

“It was obviously a military race, but [President John F. Kennedy] severely romanticized it. Being a pioneer had that allure, and now it doesn’t really,” Anderson says. “Now, it’s business as usual. Nobody’s talking about the shuttle unless it crashes. For me, the greening of Mars is one of the few things in the world that I think is totally thrilling. A project with a 10,000-year time line—if I were a kid, I’d really find that inspiring. And if I were a kid, I’d be looking for things to find inspiring, because I’m not sure this the most hopeful time to grow up.”

She was not, however, blinkered about NASA.

“When you’re looking at something as big and sprawling as NASA, there is no way to really generalize about it,” Anderson says. “There are so many types of things going on there, from pure research and nanotechnology and applied robotics. Of course, there’s a lot of military involvement as well, but they cooperate with universities as well.

“It’s not like I’m shocked, shocked, shocked that the military’s involved because it’s a ‘How the West was Won’ situation,” she says, “we go out to the borders, and the borders are dangerous, so there’s the Army.”

As a New York artist, Anderson’s work is inevitably touched by Sept. 11, 2001, and a passage referring to the terrorist attacks turns up in “The End of the Moon.” Anderson is worried about how gradually change becomes normal, and particularly how heightened security and an increase in security forces have come to seem like a natural part of the American landscape. She worries about declaring war on a concept—in this case, terror.

“This country is already very, very abstract in a lot of ways,” Anderson says. “A lot of things are very intangible about what you’re supposed to go and get. Like fame or money—no one is ever famous enough or rich enough; it’s all out there somewhere in the ether. Now the war is as well.”

In a sense, NASA itself has become abstract, as what it represents changes according to people’s relationships to it. For some, it’s a relic from the Cold War; for others, it’s one of the last icons of America’s pioneering spirit. For Chocola, it represents the sort of bureaucratic boondoggle that plagues our government. Whatever it is, Anderson was able to get inside it and come out with art.

“I think I slipped in under the techno umbrella because technology is always more OK to do than poetry,” she says.

What: Laurie Anderson’s “The End of the Moon”

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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