Language As Code: Laurie Anderson Explores a World of Words

Laurie Anderson
Laurie Anderson

For those who experienced watching the floodwaters of Superstorm Sandy rise, pulverizing personal belongings into a mush and coating our world with a thin gray slime, listening to Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet’s record, “Landfall,” released earlier this year, will transport you back to the ache and impossibility of that evening, as the darkness fell, and the tide rose, and we held each other close and prayed that things would turn out ok.

Naming those emotions is a difficult task, meant for hard, cold declarative sentences that belie the emotional depth, like the depths of the cold hard ocean, of the grief that comes with losing everything to a flood.

A performance of "Landfall" with the Kronos Quartet
A performance of “Landfall” with the Kronos Quartet

It has been said that music is what happens when words will no longer suffice.

But words matter to violinist, composer, painter, author and performance artist Laurie Anderson, whose work is the subject of an extensive exhibition at East Hampton’s Guild Hall through July 22.

“Language is about loss and in a way words are memorials to things and to states,” she writes in her new book, “All The Things I Lost In The Flood,” released this spring. “I’ve made drawings, music, paintings, installations, film, sculpture, electronic design, software, opera and theater. At the root of all of these works are stories. They are the engines. Stories and words are what I love most.”

The book, like “Landfall,” begins with Superstorm Sandy, which washed into the metropolis of New York in the dead of a late October night in 2012.

Two days after the tidewaters receded from Ms. Anderson’s building in lower Manhattan, she went down to the basement to see what was still salvageable.

“Nothing was left,” she wrote. “The seawater had shredded and pulped everything. Even the electronic equipment was now a lumpy gray sludge. At first I was devastated. The next day I realized I would never have to clean the basement again.”

From that point on, the book, filled with words, becomes a memorial to the things the words represent.

This takes many forms, from using a software program Ms. Anderson developed called electronic representation of spoken text (ERST) to display a list of names of extinct species during a Kronos Quartet performance, to one of her earliest performance works, 1974’s “As:If,” an exploration of childhood stories of drowning, and her impressions of childhood stories from the Bible which she perceived as “the first clues that we live in an irrational and complicated world.”

A scene from Laurie Anderson's "Chalkroom."
A scene from Laurie Anderson’s “Chalkroom.”

Sometimes language leads to new insight into the collective unconscious. For example, Ms. Anderson shares a story in her book of confessing to cellist Yo-Yo Ma at a commencement address at the Rhode Island School of Design that “sometimes when I’m playing I look out and I imagine that the whole audience is dogs.”

“I’ve got that fantasy too!” said Mr. Ma. The two agreed on the spot that whoever was able to arrange a concert for dogs first would invite the other as a guest artist at the show.

A year later, Ms. Anderson got her wish, finding it ridiculously easy to convince the Sydney Opera House in Australia to allow her to hold a concert for dogs there.

“As it turned out, all the dogs were well-behaved, maybe because they didn’t know why they were there,” she wrote. “Then again a lot of people don’t know why they go to concerts either.”

Guild Hall Executive Director Andrea Grover will lead a tour of the museum’s current exhibition, “Laurie Anderson,” for members of Guild Hall’s Contemporaries Circle on Thursday, July 19 at 8 p.m.

The exhibition, which is divided into three components highlighting different media that Ms. Anderson works in, is free and open to the public Mondays and Thursdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 12 to 5 p.m. through July 22.

Reservations are necessary (online at guildhall.org) to experience the two virtual reality experiences, “Aloft” and “Chalkroom,” that are part of the exhibit.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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