Legend, allegory, fable, anecdote, chronicle or yarn — there are many ways of communicating information. In Hawaii the locals “talk story” with one another, while on the early American frontier, “tall tales” made heroes and were carried by the wild winds that whispered these histories from ear to ear. Even further back, our furry ancestors scratched stick figures on granite cave walls and expressed the seemingly inexpressible with pictographs. Today, people stand around and “shoot the shit,” but storytelling and personal communication remain at once prehistoric and space-age, innately human and completely mysterious.
With her new book, All the Things I Lost in the Flood: Essays on Pictures, Languages and Code (Rizzoli Electra) multimedia artist Laurie Anderson explores the idea of story as a notion both transcendental and basely human, further delving into recurring themes in her life's work: identity, memory, happiness, death, place and love. Though not intended to be so, the book comes across as a retrospective illuminating Anderson's deeply ephemeral creative processes in beautiful photographs and personal essays.
Known mainly as a performance artist, Laurie herself — like the blips of information she often fleetingly conveys — is many things. A wearer of many hats, her prolific output has included work as a musician, composer, writer, filmmaker, installation artist and even as a software designer. She seamlessly flutters through space and time, touching down on one medium, then moving on to the next. Highlights include seven albums of music (including the 1981 hit “O Superman”) and the 2015 experimental film Heart of a Dog, in which Anderson documented the life and death of her piano-playing canine, Lolabelle. She has created art of the moment in the form of performance pieces. In “Duets on Ice,” Anderson wore ice skates and stood playing violin upon a frozen block of ice, fiddling until the ice melted into the inevitable puddle that was its ultimate destiny. This was perhaps an echo of Nero playing his fiddle while Rome went up in flames around him, and it could be a reminder that nothing is ever permanent.
“I really do say yes to way too many things, ” Anderson mused at a talk on Friday, April 19, part of Los Angeles Central Library's ALOUD Series, at the Central Library's Mark Taper Auditorium. “It's one of the problems of being a so-called multimedia artist. You can write a book, you can make a movie, you can make a sculpture, you can do virtual reality, you can do a puppet show. Somebody would say to me, 'Would you like to do the music for a puppet show that is happening at the bottom of the Atlantic?' I'd say, 'Hmmm …tell me more.'”
Fittingly called “Between Thoughts and Expression: Stories About Stories,” the event's title was a coy reference to Anderson's marriage to the enigmatic Lou Reed (her departed husband had written a similar verse in Velvet Underground's “Some Kinda Love”). The Q&A session with author Maggie Nelson sold out within 10 minutes of the public announcement of tickets. Anderson, fighting the flu, told the rapt crowd, “This really wasn't meant to be a retrospective book. I was thinking about how language affects image, whether it is film or sculpture, and the number of times I've tried to put words into things. That's what these essays are about.
“I would never do a work of art to show people how to fix the world. Anytime I use political issues, I walk very, very lightly, or try to, because I hate it when people tell me what to do or think. In working with ideas and structures like that, I try very hard just to focus on description. Here's what it looks like, you make up your mind.”
Throughout the 90-minute talk — mostly a loosely structured Q&A — Anderson expounded upon the central ideas of her canon, interspersing the evening with tangents and offshoots, weaving in and out of the narrative, as the best storytellers often do. She touched on Buddhism, wandered into climate change, and told the three secrets to a happy life that she and Reed generated: Don't be afraid of anyone; get a really good bullshit detector and learn how to use it; and be really tender.
Anderson summed up the evening by concluding, “We are not here to have a bad time or to punish ourselves or other people. The reason that we are here is to have a very, very, very, very good time.”