Conversation: Laurie Anderson and Thom Mayne 10.03.11

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Conversation between 
Thom Mayne, principal of Morphosis, and performance 
artist Laurie Anderson, New York, 29 November 2008.

Thom Mayne Are you from here?

Laurie Anderson Chicago.

TM Oh! I grew up - and I hate to admit this to anyone - in Gary, Indiana.

LA Sure, I know Gary! We used to hold our noses all the way going through Gary. Amazing gas smell. I remember that well.

TM You used to get sooty going to school. You used to have to dust yourself off coming home. But you showed up in New York, when?

LA For school, so that was like 68, 67, something like that.

TM There was a lot going on here at that time - and just the characters. You were here at a time when Warhol was a dominant figure.

LA Yes and no. He was still considered a joke by most people, by most museums and galleries. And when he was alive there was only one thing of his in a museum, in his lifetime. He never thought he'd get in a museum. Can you imagine? I mean, The Factory was so off the map in lot of ways - for us too.

TM But it seems like what are considered art films today - whether it was the Warhol films or Antonioni, Fellini, Godard - it was kind of what you did at that time. It wasn't that conscious.

LA I think the concept of "superstar" was Warhol's, that wasn't Fellini's. You know, this idea that he didn't have to do anything except sit there and be kind of glamorous and that was the movie. That didn't exist before. I mean, he made a lot of things seem very, very inevitable. They really weren't. A lot of it came from trying to trawl for ideas. According to Lou [Reed, Anderson's husband] who used to spend a lot of time in The Factory, he used to say, "I don't know what to do today. What should I paint?" I remember one collector who said to him, "Well, Andy, you like money, why don't you paint money?" That was the beginning of that series.

TM Seriously? But he's an odd artist and in a way also a cultural anthropologist and an anticipator. We are living now in the world he invented. He could see it somehow coming and he had the same neurosis, let's say, the same weaknesses that represent status quo today.

LA Totally. I think if you look around now it really does seem like things we take for granted are Andy's world - MySpace, iPhone. The whole thing is about "me and media" - you know, "me, the star of media" - it's Warhol. And narcissism and obsession with death. You look around our culture and that is it. You know, "I'm going to be the centre of this world." "Let me tell you more about me" and everybody blogging their lives.

TM And we are still connected to a blackness, a deep, deep darkness in his soul.

LA And in culture too. I remember this New York Post headline that has haunted me ever since I heard about Warhol's "15 minutes". There was a headline - he was obsessed with headlines, too, and disasters - and it was "Fifteen Minutes!". That was the time it took an ICBM missile to reach New York from Moscow. And my fantasy is that he read that, and that his fame and death thing got kind of married there.

TM Let me ask you ... I was a huge fan of Frank Zappa, as a musician's musician. I saw him many times in concert. Recently, meaning like 10 years ago, I became aware of John Lurie. I bought this album by Marvin Pontiac [a character created by John Lurie] and went back to the store and asked: who is this John Lurie? "Are you kidding me?" He looked at me like I was from out of space. He had Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, a whole bunch of people saying he was the most interesting guy, a huge influence. Were they part of your world?

LA That's a strange circuit but yes, they were. The thing I loved about the 1970s is that you weren't obliged to say what you were doing. You just did your stuff. One week it would look like painting, another week it would look like a Mud Club show. You didn't have to say "I'm a photographer, I make opera ..." You would just do a sculpture, your work, and it was very vague, intentionally, so you could just switch around. I mean, I did all sorts of things. I was basically a sculptor - that's what I studied, and then started doing ... just because of the people I was hanging out with: Philip Glass, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark, Tina Gerard, a mixture of people that did all sorts of stuff. A big thing was that there was no money, and that made it essentially different. Because no one came in to be an artist to get a picture in a magazine. There was no magazine that would take your picture. We were just making stuff in SoHo. We were very aware we were creating a scene that had never been there before. We were super conscious.

TM And you were aware there was a hybridising taking place. Because that was taking place in architecture. The disciplined architecture of the 60s completely went away.

LA Why was that?

TM It had exhausted the project, it had exhausted its ideas. Partly, it was ready for reinvention, and the conditions for the invention have to precede the invention. That time, politically, it was the Kennedys, Luther King, the Vietnam War - I'm part of that, my brother died in the Vietnam War - and literature, film, an explosion of material that was kind of reshaping how you thought about architecture as a problem. Because basically it seems you're constantly looking for a project.

LA Yes, I am.

TM It's what's so interesting about you. It seems like you are always engaged in the project and you are aware of your own intellectual creative capital. You do it in a way that you have to reinvent the tools. In architecture it's a sign of a huge creativity if you develop something that can't be done, so that you have to invent the tools or the means to realise that invention. It means you move beyond a certain conventional territory.

LA A group of things make the problem interesting. Right now the Guggenheim is doing a show on the influence of Eastern thought, let's say, on American artists, and I'm going to do a piece in that, and a few things. One is working with this HyperSonic system of sound that focuses on these panels; it's the talking billboard thing, or it's the Coke machine that loops sounds of ice clinking, or you're in the mall and you hear a voice saying, "Do you need a new pair of jeans? I think you do." It's really clear, like schizophrenia, and then you are next to a jeans store. So, anyway, it's this focused system that I'm playing around with. I've done a lot of putting stories in different objects, into instruments, into pillows, door mats, in between walls, talking bowls, talking candles, talking tables ... I made this table - this was at the Museum of Modern Art in 1978 - and it had drivers that conducted the sound up some steel tubes and into the elbows ... And then I finally worked language by filtering it, and squeezing it. The line was from a 17th-century English metaphysical poet, George Herbert, who wrote this beautiful thing, "Now I in you without a body move", and so that crosses from ear to ear making the head have the dimensions of a room, you know, so you have that feeling of interior space like that.

TM Were you always somehow interested in space?

LA Yeah.

TM I remember you did a piece, I would say it was 12 years ago. You were by yourself, in a big 25ft hall, it's a big proscenium stage, and you're playing a chord and it gets louder and louder and it completely fills out the room. It's at the beginning of the show and it's just reached a point where you can tolerate it, and I cracked up laughing. Because you completely filled out this huge room, this little woman, all by herself, with all these people, and it was just one chord ... it's a fabulous idea, the chord filling up that room, like a balloon, right?

LA It's about the architecture and expectations. There's a great experiment they did where two people had a conversation and then they sealed the room and kept measuring the sound waves, and the sound waves from that conversation lasted like four years, the disturbances in the air, until it went back to absolute static. So you are always making all of this stuff all the time, stirring it up. The two things I like doing at the beginning of the show are exactly that, scale and boundaries, "Where are we?", and making it clear visually or by sound. By sound is easier ...

TM You like to get in and just push things, right?

LA I was once asked to design hotel lobbies by Philippe Starck, who was doing all these hotels with [Ian] Schrager. And Philippe said, "I want you to design 100 hotels." He said, "What would you do if you did that?" I said, "Well, I curate stories in the pillows, and do visual stuff here and there, you know." Anyway, for about a month I played with this idea. One of the things they wanted me to do was make lobbies bigger. Because when you go into a hotel, or any entrance, you measure how big it is by its sound, not by looking around. You hear and, "Oh, God, I'm in a big reverberant space". And then you look up to see it.

TM When you filled that room, had you rehearsed that?

LA Oh sure. Because I can only hear my side, I can't hear what the audience is hearing. How do you try out your ideas?

TM Through abstractions, drawings, models. They have a limited connection to reality because there is such a huge leap. But what are your fascinations right now?

LA I'm trying to narrow down rather than open up. And also playing with a lot of different people that I would not normally play with.

TM You don't play with the same people?

LA No, this last thing I've done with a bunch of different groups, a big jazz group, small electronic groups, and more string-based things, and with a Tuvan group - the Tuvan group [Chirgilchin] was really fun, you know, Mongolian throat singing. You think the world is pretty small sometimes, with these 15 cities you can do in four days. But for these guys to go home from New York it's an 11-hour flight to Moscow, then a five-day train, then a three-day car ride, then a one-day walk - because they are, literally, really far from anything. So, they came with us on a tour, and I remember playing with them north of Lisbon, and after the show they were packing, and I asked them "Where are you guys going? It's two hours to Lisbon." And the Russian manager had forgotten to arrange transportation back to the hotel so they had just decided to walk. Why? Because they are nomads. Americans would have just gone: "Where's the van?!" I learned so much hanging out with them about time, music, who we are making this stuff for. You can get in this grind of media and culture - this rat race.

TM Are you optimistic?

LA Totally optimistic. But what do you think is the most contradictory building you've ever made?

TM God, I guess they all are in some way. Again, mine are so much more abstract. They don't deal with a single organisational idea. Take, in this city, Richard Meier - he works with a singular organising idea. My generation was interested in something quite different, closer to what's taking place in biology, ecology and the complexity of chaos theory - overlaying systems and multiple interactions. They are all connected with ways of organising buildings, cities, communities, and the interest is not so much in the thing but in the relationship between things. I was only 21, 22, and had no clue of what was taking place, but it just made sense: we were attacking the author and the singularity of the artistic work. We were looking at Archigram - they were teaching at UCLA, and I met these guys. And Morphosis came out of that, as did Coop Himmelb(l)au with Wolf Prix, and OMA, and none of us knew each other until 10 years later.

LA Really?

TM That always happens when you are young. If you understood you probably wouldn't have done it. You can only do things that you don't understand. Does that make sense?

LA Yes.

TM Music can operate on a level - and you've done it so tremendously well - that it says the things that you can't say with words and it leaves you with a sensibility which is parallel.

LA Well, you play with it. There are many ways you can say "I don't like you" and you can make it mean 700 different things. Tone is important, and people write about what they think it meant as if they were going to put it in a programme note, so they weren't hearing it as musical notes.

TM Do critics actually ask you what is it about?

LA Oh, yeah.

TM Oh, I hate that. I became so disliked by so many critics, because I would actually just look at them and say, "I don't have a clue. This is your job. This is what you get paid for. I have no bloody clue or if I had an idea today it would probably be different tomorrow." And they would get pissed off with me.

LA They do want you to do their work like that.

TM They want me to tell them what it's about. Why do you think I would know?

LA That's better than "Tell me about your last work", which they haven't seen or don't know anything about. But back again to contradictions. If you had to pick one of your buildings that really has contradiction built in, because I love that concept.

TM Probably the piece of work I'm doing now in Shanghai [the Giant Group Pharmaceutical Campus], but there is a piece in Austria [the Hypo Bank] that I was very conscious of developing as an idea, and the development is opposite. But then again, I layer things. So it's closer to a film, because I'm directing a team of people. And I'm constantly focusing large groups of people to a particular idea. If you look around and see the kind of genericness that comes out of a collective work force that is leaderless, that there is no singularity, or idea even. And ideas are all I'm interested in, it's my world - I'm a thought leader, basically. But it's so different than you. I'm encumbered by endless contingency. By the way, am I right? Steven Holl, he's a good friend, I read that you were thinking of him doing your place.

LA Yes.

TM And I was thinking why would they want Steven Holl? Why would they want an architect?

LA He's a friend.

TM No, I don't mean that. I mean I couldn't imagine that your environment is you. That's what's so weird when we are doing someone's house. What can I offer you as an architect other than something that is not you?

LA A way to turn something upside down in an interesting way. Also sound studios are getting tinier, they don't have to be bigger than your laptop, they really don't.

TM You still do things on your own.

LA Yeah.

TM Can you only hear the mistakes? Like I can never appreciate a building. Walking into a building with an architect is the most horrible thing, because you can see 1,000 mistakes.

LA You mentioned Richard Meier as someone who is more monolithic in approach. It's funny because he came up with those three highway things which are around the corner from where we live. Is that where he gets the interplay, he puts one thing and then another and another?

TM It's about the thing itself. But New York must be a shock to you, especially in the last decade.

LA Unbelievable. Lots of really hideous buildings around here.

TM You're going to be the last of your generation to live here.

LA I don't think so. Since the crash I totally don't miss those people you would see in bars. Not that I go to bars. But when I'd go to a place, you would hear this guy: "You got to help me out. I got to spend $11 million by Monday." Oh, hell the 
hedge-funders are gone, and their lofts are gone. They've stopped building buildings around here.

TM I was [in SoHo] Tuesday night and there were two young guys, you know, martinis, really nice bottles of wine - $200 or $300. And just regulars, every Tuesday night. And they were 23 years old. My God, I was a gym assistant at that age, barely starting out with Morphosis. It's startling, the city is crazy, the insane money. That's a shifted a little.

LA It's going to even out. Plus I think art gets more interesting when the bottom drops out.

TM There'll be no artists here anymore. They'll be in Philadelphia.

LA That's OK. Wherever they are, it'll get interesting. There'll be a few hangers-on like me.

This conversation originally appeared in Icon 068 (February 2009).

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A big thing was that there was no money, and that made it essentially different. Because no one came in to be an artist to get a picture in a magazine

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