Pioneering multimedia artist Laurie Anderson labeled herself this way as it provided freedom to work in a variety of mediums—music, painting, technology, performance, and film.
In her new show All the Things I Lost in the Flood, she wryly noted that today everyone is a multimedia artist. This show is both a retrospective of the scraps that make up her catalogue as well as a hard look at the grief that comes with losing much of her life’s work, during the floods of Hurricane Sandy as well as losing her husband Lou Reed about a year later.
Since earning recognition in the 1970s she has been creating art that intersects music, video, and technology. It’s startling, in reviewing the remnants of her career, to see how forward she was with using computers in her storytelling. What struck me as interesting is how her lens as an artist was not much different than listening to what Vint Cerf, a founding father of the internet, had to say about the last 50 years of technology. These technologically-supported tales have been going on for decades*.
From masking her voice to sound like an impressionist doing Stephen Hawking to her early ‘80s mustachioed clone of herself who would handle the work while she was busy self-promoting all of the awesomeness that, of course, was her work. It’s as though Laurie Anderson was commenting on the Kardashian-selfie-culture before it existed.
As technologically moves forward, she mentioned how some of her work, such as the CD-ROM Puppet Motel** is no longer playable. This brings up that even though so many of her materials were lost to the brackish water of the Hudson River estuary, it may not matter how we hold on to these things. What’s left seems to only be what we can hold inside our phones.
The last time I saw Laurie Anderson was her show The End of the Moon, it was the early aughts and based on her time as the first (and it turns out now, “the only”) artist-in-residence for NASA. Much like that show, her stage was a simple: a chair, a musical area, and front-and-center emcee of stories. Yet the barebones set is inviting as though perhaps this is what her living room is like.
She continues to push the uses of technology to tell stories that gently take us a step further toward the subject and request we see and hear from new vantage points. Her “Habeas Corpus” show at the Armory in 2015 focused on imprisonment—specifically the imprisonment of former Guantanamo inmate Mohammed el Gharani who had been held from age 12 to 21. She created a larger-than-life sculpture of a him sitting in a chair (think: Lincoln Memorial). Then, as he’s not allowed in the U.S., she projected a live video feed of him sitting in a studio in West Africa and wrapped the image on this extra-large three-dimensional sculptural form of his body. From halfway around the world, he was required to sit still to align to the sculpture. It’s own reenactment of a type of prison.
Although the show was not fully cohesive, it’s organization was more like the (now antiquated) “box photos”—the collection of pictures that weren’t gorgeous enough to put into a formal photo album, yet still sentimental enough to hang on to and pull out every now and then. These are the off-kilter shots that add tone and shade to fill in the moment. In that way, Laurie Anderson provides us an an entertaining, historical examination of where we’ve been while always looking at where we’re going. It's like capturing fireflies as these are the moment betweens thought and expression.
* Last month I saw an on-stage interview of Vint Cerf at event hosted by Google (Los Angeles) and conducted by Reddit’s Chris Slowe. Along with a historical look, this chat included predictions for where technology is heading.
**At the risk of dating myself, I remember Puppet Motel from a class I took in 1995. Back then, CD ROMs were the movies of the future!