Over the past couple of years, though, Anderson has scaled things back dramatically. The stage setup for her newest work, The End of the Moon, is downright bare: It's just the 57-year-old storyteller, her trademark custom electric violin, and a messenger bag's worth of high-powered software to help run the show.
And yet, from a philosophical standpoint, The End of the Moon might be Anderson's most complex and challenging creation to date. It's an impressionistic, dreamlike collection of stories and observations, all glued together with music interludes, which attempt to shed light on some of the most brain-melting quandaries we face. What is the meaning of art? What is this strange universe we live in?
"The piece looks at beauty, fear, the perception of time, and some other things," says Anderson somewhat cryptically in her soft, deliberately paced voice during an early morning phone call from a hotel room in Illinois. "It's stories about the colors of stars, animals, people I knew as a kid, all sorts of different stuff. There's a lot going on, and it keeps evolving as I go along."
Speaking with Laurie Anderson reminded me of those brief-yet-odd run-ins I had on occasion with a particularly quirky college humanities professor after class. She's sweet and exceptionally gracious, but there's little time for small talk or small ideas. Just seconds after our initial pleasantries, she's already digging into the theories of Marcel Duchamp.
But that's not Anderson's fault. Far from being pretentious, condescending, or willfully oblique, she appears to inhabit a world of perpetually deep thoughts, lofty concepts, and strange snippets of logic and revelation, few of which can be adequately explored in the context of a short conversation, but which become clearer, more accessible, and much more profound when articulated from the stage.
"My very first question in this piece has to do with a conversation I had with a friend who said, öWho taught you what beauty is?' and so in some ways this work is an attempt to deal with that," she explains. "People call piles of dirt art. A playwright can write about a boring day and call it art. But maybe all of life is art if you can just see it that way. Maybe the only things you call art are the things you were taught to see as art, and that if you look at everyday things in a different way, you can see them not just for what you're gonna use it for, but for what it is."
Much of The End of the Moon is rooted in Anderson's two-year stint as NASA's first artist-in-residence; she views the work as a final report on her experience, which comes to an end in the next few months. Since 1962, NASA has sponsored an art program, inviting more than 200 artists, including Norman Rockwell, Andy Warhol, and Robert Rauschenberg, to render impressions of rocket launches, Shuttle missions, space probes, and other subjects in paintings, sketches, and photographs.
But when Anderson was selected last year to become NASA's resident artist, neither she nor the agency knew what direction her tenure should take. "Some of these guys were a little skeptical," she laughs. "They were kinda saying, öWell, whatcha gonna do, write a poem or something?' And I was thinking, öYeah, you know, I am gonna try to write a poem about it,' and in a way that's what Moon is."
Later, when she visited the Kennedy Space Center, the Ames Research Center, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and observed myriad projects in various stages of development, Anderson began drawing parallels between art and science.
"There's things going on at NASA that are very, very similar to art projects in that so many of the NASA projects are wild and visionary," she says. "And some of the things they're coming up with are just really beautiful designs, whether you're talking about manned spacecraft or space stations or exploratory devices or any number of things. They're just all over the place. Some of their designs are pure theory. But it all looks like art to me!
"Some of the things they're creating are breathtaking," she continues. "If you're troubled about some of the things that are going on in this country, take a look at aspects of the space program and it's just thrilling. And not only aesthetically. I mean, we're actually getting ready to go to Mars. That is absolutely incredible."
One might surmise that in our post-9/11 world, it has become more difficult for an esoteric artist like Laurie Anderson to connect with audiences, since eras of uncertainty tend to make people grasp onto concrete ideas and firmly entrenched beliefs in order to feel stable and secure, and thus they're less willing to contemplate concepts that could further shake those foundations. But she sees things in quite the opposite way.
"It's a wonderful time to do this, because I don't think anyone wants to close off entirely, to close their doors and just be afraid," she says. "Our world is really dangerous, but what do you do with that? And how do you find beauty within that?
"There are so many questions in this piece. And I don't have all the answers yet, no one ever could, but I'm finding some of them as I go along and I hope others do, too."