Laurie Anderson is a multimedia artist whose work seems to have an endlessly amorphous identity. Whether it’s Habeus Corpus, her recent installation, which ran at the Park Avenue Armory from October 2 to 4, or Heart of a Dog, her new film about the disintegration of memory (among many other topics), her work casts a pall over conventional notions of self-expression, so that the artwork is less an evocation of one mind than an attempt by a singular being to capture the feelings of many. However, she’s fully aware that escaping responsibility for one’s own creations, even one’s own dreams, is impossible. As she said when explaining the film’s opening scene: “Who else do you think is writing these dreams?” The answer may be one’s own self, but what that self ultimately entails is less certain. Conversing with Anderson, one hears the voice of an artist who’s consistently discovering ways to understand the storytelling process, whether it pertains to reconstructing childhood memories or making sense of the rhetorical strategies used by Homeland Security.
I spoke with Anderson about Heart of a Dog’s interest in fear, why Amazon.com doesn’t really understand you, and how this is definitely not just a film about her dog.
I found Heart of a Dog to be horrific in the truest sense of the word, in that it brings one closer to her or his own corporeality. How do you think fear as an emotion informs the film’s construction?
I can think of one of the key stories of this film that links Lolabelle to the surveillance culture. I’m taking a little dog from the West Village, who’s a see-and-be-seen kind of dog, out to California, where, basically, she learned to be afraid. Maybe I shouldn’t say “learned,” but she was afraid, for the first time. Of course, it’s completely instinctual and it’s essentially about preservation. In other words, when a dog from the city goes to the country where it’s fairly wild nature, out in the headlands, it didn’t take much to make her realize in the back of her small dog brain that these hawks were going to kill her. She knew that without thinking about it. She knew that without having previous experience. It’s totally instinctual. What kind of fear is instinctual fear? It does give you a chance to run sometimes. It’s a kind of positive thing, in a lot of ways.
I suppose that I’m not always using fear as a negative emotion. That’s the first way that would occur to me. The second is the fear that I felt as a child when I realized that my version of the story of being in the hospital wasn’t all just being a 12-year-old punk. So many 12-year-olds are really like that. They think adults are idiots. Not only that, it’s embarrassing to be around them when you’re 12. They’re geeky. But when I had the experience of sort of re-experiencing that through sound, and kind of realizing I was in this place—it’s almost like I could hear these kids crying again. At that time, everyone’s sort of dumped into the same ward so, in a way, adults really are sort of idiots. Why would they do that? It’s a very scary thing to hear children dying and hearing them being carted away. I was very fearful. But you know, you tell the story you can tell. At 12, I wasn’t able to really articulate that. I had to tell the story of being a 12-year-old punk.
There’s also fear in the Homeland Security slogan that you bring up and in airport decorum following 9/11, which you tie together with your own fears and those of Lolabelle. Why did you feel the need to interweave that thread with these kinds of fears you’re ascribing to Lolabelle?
I think it’s just the way of telling a story about what’s going on. The story that Americans were told at that time was, “This is really, really scary. You should be really afraid.” Those big stories sort of seep into you in a lot of ways. You kind of build your life on some of those assumptions. Another big story, other than “there are lots of terrorists out there that are going to get us,” is “the world is getting hotter and hotter and then we’re going to drown.” There’s truth to both of those stories, but they’re the stories that people don’t analyze so much and can just become sort of givens before they’re even digested.
I wanted to tell the stories on several levels and in several ways. For example, some of them are told without any voice. There are these rapid text pieces. I really meant them to be about language that isn’t voice. You don’t hear it and it comes to you in a silent way. I wanted to try and address the person inside of you that never talks, a sort of silent witness in a way, and is much more about using the eyes than the ears. The one who has to listen to you talking, or trying to, and is then kind of behind you going, “Oh no. Not that again.” It was just a way to try to use words in a different way.
It’s interesting that you mention words, because I know in a recent interview you spoke of the film as a collection of short stories. How did you find the structure for these stories or go about ordering them in the form of a film rather than, let’s say, writing a collection of short stories?
It began as a collection of short stories. Actually, I didn’t write them down. They were part of spoken things that I was doing. Some evenings of stories. They, of course, have another dimension when they’re put into film. Because, you can’t just put…well, I was about to say what you can and can’t do in film. I don’t know what you can and can’t do in film. I have no idea. But what I wanted to do is not just sort of string them together as a collection of short stories. Like you might put a collection of songs on a record and they don’t have to tell a story. Each one can be its own song. The way you can make 10 paintings in a show and they don’t have to have a progression.
But I think with a film you have a chance to make them enforce each other in certain ways and have ideas move through them and go places. And it literally is about going places. It’s a film that’s full of questions. Is it a pilgrimage, etcetera, and where are you going? I used my own stories to sort of open up those questions a little bit more, but it’s not a film about getting to know me or my dog. [laughs] It’s a film about why you use stories and what happens when you repeat them and forget them.
There’s a certain reflexive dimension to the film, but there’s also a seeming interest in dissolving the boundary between personal documentary and fiction. Was that something you were thinking about while making and constructing the film?
No, it wasn’t.
I wondered that, because there’s a tradition in documentary of saying “the personal is political.” What’s your relationship with this sentiment, in a film like this? Is that something you’re trying to speak to?
I’m talking a little bit about how stories are created for you and being imposed on you, in terms of surveillance culture. Related to that, how you brand yourself with stories on your Facebook account and just like “here’s who I am” and some stab at creating an identity through words. How good are you at doing that? Most people aren’t very good at it. [laughs] And also, most people realize the fallibility of that—that it’s better to put your picture up and get a couple of comments rather than try to describe who you are, because that can be pretty deceptive.
It also broadens out a little bit to what it’s like to be profiled. The best example of that is you get a book on Amazon and then—bing!—two seconds later, “You like this book, Eric! You can have this one too!” And you say, “Now, wait a second. That book I just bought was a gift for someone else. Don’t think you know me, buddy, from seeing what I just bought.” And Facebook has the same sort of salesmanship going on. You have to quickly say who you are and what your value is. It’s definitely a lot of commercial action going on in that. It’s not a literary exercise.
Do you find alternative mediums offer the opportunity to express different facets of yourself? Is there a singular vision working for you across different media or does each new piece, whether it’s an album, an installation, or a film tap into an alternative dimension of your artistry?
This is not about, as I said before, expressing myself or telling you about myself. Although, that is contained in it. But the real point is why and how do you make up stories. It’s about writing. From the very, very beginning it’s about “This is my dream body.” And continued by this pleasurable kind of dream that was about giving birth to this little cute dog. But then you’re followed by a lot of guilt about that because you suddenly realize that it didn’t just happen. You engineered that. You wrote that dream. And so it’s about taking responsibility for being the writer. Most people tell their dreams like it’s some kind of movie, like “I was walking through this big valley and it was really dark and I was really afraid,” as if you hadn’t written this “really dark valley” and cast yourself as this scared little person walking through it. Who else do you think is writing these dreams? [laughs]
So it’s about writing and inventing a self. And then, right in the middle of the film is a big book, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, about the disintegration of that identity and what happens to all of that energy you put into self-description. So I’m talking about describing myself more than the description. It’s about the fallibility of language. So that’s another part that makes it happily be a film because I get to use music, and imagery, and timing to make something that pulls against the language sometimes. It sometimes gives you a break from the language, and sometimes is directed toward the person who doesn’t speak at all. The witness person.
So that’s the other reason the second story in the film, other than it begins with birth and quickly goes to death, is a story of my mother’s deathbed speech. She was a very formal person and waited for her eight children to be there, then she kind of stepped up to a microphone and said, in this very formal way, “Thank you so much everyone for coming.” And we’re all, like, “What is going on here?” She’s making this gigantic effort to make a speech. And then she got kind of distracted and started talking to the animals on the ceiling and then back to talking to history, and her family. Meanwhile, the words are just falling to pieces and you realize it’s just impossible for her to say. So, it’s kind of summed up in a certain way by Wittgenstein, who was talking about how the world is created through language. It really is stories and what your point of view is. So this is a way to look at how those worlds get created and who’s doing the writing behind it.
This film is a testament to the DIY spirit, but I didn’t find it amateurish in any sense. How particular were you about getting images and footage exactly as you wanted them?
There are a lot of filters going on here. For example, in the animation parts at the beginning, it’s pretty clear animation. And then I wanted to add another layer so it would look like, not just drawings, but drawings ripped out of an old comic book that had been in a drawer for a long time. So I put Ben-Day dots on it. Then, I put another filter of sort of bumpy, wood-chipped paper on it, so that it would have this weird, faded color. So everything had some kind of filter on it.
It’s the same thing I do in music. When I use the violin, it’s a heavily filtered instrument. You can hear a lot of things when the violin is next to your head, like overtones, crunches, and harmonics. But you never hear those things by the time the audience hears the sound. It’s more pure, with vibrato and none of that detail. I like to bring those things up off the noise floor and make them part of the music.
It’s the same in the imagery of the film. In the bardo, for example, it’s all behind glass and light. When I was at the Venice Film Festival, I realized why there’s so much gold in there: It’s because all of these medieval skies are gold. The color of the infinite. All the blue became gold. Some of them were just about slowing things down. The 8mm footage was just simply slowed down. Suddenly, all of the warping and melting of those images were as much part of the image as the figures. Just the way the strategy of telling the story is just as important, if not more important, than telling the story itself.