Laurie Anderson is a cultural archeologist, explorer of ideas, of experiences, big and small. She takes it all in, and she takes it all on—everything from asking exactly who and what is America to how to teach tricks to a dog. Laurie puts together and takes apart concepts so deftly that in her hands even the most dissonant of ideas snap together like Legos. She is a sprite of some sort, a lithe spirit, moving between forms and media, between voices—hauntingly beautiful feminine vocals that call us to her and a deeper voice of authority, commanding our attention.
The first time I met her was in Washington, D.C., in the mid-’80s, after she’d played a show at the historic and conservative DAR Constitution Hall. I was with a friend who worked with her, and after the show, a small group of us were waiting outside for Laurie. She came out into the humid D.C. night and, under the glow of the crime lights, spotted a tree just outside of Constitution Hall. She looked up at the tree and asked us all if we thought it was okay if she climbed it—she thought it would be great to climb a tree in Washington, D.C. We all watched and stood by as Laurie tried to scale the tree—but it was a kind of small scrabbly tree, the kind the city plants to make they city “greener,” the kind they have to replace every few years. So after Laurie attempted the climb and then abandoned it for fear of harming the tree, we hopped into my car, a 1980 Honda Civic wagon, and headed for the after-party. Laurie was folded up in the space between the front seat and the back seat, kind of curled into a space that was between spaces, her head pressed into the sunroof. And as we were driving, I started telling her about how, when I was younger, I’d gone to a camp that had metal bunk beds, and I was always on the lower bunk, and at night if I sat up, my hair would get caught in the metal webbing under the top bunk, and after a few days there would be a lot of long brown hair just hanging down from the metal webbing … There was a long pause, and Laurie curiously asked, in classic Laurie Anderson tone, “Exactly what kind of camp was this?”
She’s often described as a multimedia artist—I’m not sure why, perhaps because it’s nonspecific with room for autonomy or—but there really is no word or set of words for who she is and what she does. Why does artist fall short? Poet? Sculptor? Musician? Philosopher? Inventor? I have deeply admired her for her invention, her singularity, for simply making her work and not needing it to fit into any known system. She is a cultural chronicler, commentator, often turning the everyday on its head as if to ask, “Does this seem normal to you? Is this okay?” She is passionate about meditation, about compassion, always trying to go further, deeper, to understand the seemingly impossible, the infinite, the unknowable. She goes from Earth to space and back again, and now, increasingly, to things that are more grounded, more terrifying, like her exploration of what’s happening in the world around us.
For six months, she collaborated with a former Guantánamo detainee, Mohammed el Gharani, putting together “a meditation about real time and telepresence. How to be there and not there at the same time,” is how Laurie describes it—but this is the first time that, as she’s worked, friends have asked, “Do you have a good lawyer?” The content of the piece Habeas Corpus is complex, asking questions our government has not wanted to answer. And as the piece evolved, it moved away from being a silent meditation and started incorporating language and storytelling, and in the end, as Laurie says, “It came to rest on the most basic of all questions: What is truth? What is suffering? What is justice?”
And while Laurie was juggling these big ideas, she was also making a film, Heart of a Dog, a playful and melancholy illumination of the life and death of her very unusual rat terrier, Lolabelle. It’s a dog’s life, a kind of co-authored canine memoir, beautifully interwoven with Super-8 footage from Anderson’s childhood.
That all of this work has come together in the last two years, since the death of Laurie’s husband, Lou Reed, is astounding. For those of us who knew Lou and Laurie, it has been an incredible journey, and to see what Laurie has done in the midst of all else leaves me truly in awe. She is among the most inspiring people I’ve ever known, for how brilliant she is, how fearless and vulnerable, open, and compassionate, willing to try almost anything and at the same equally content to sit at the water’s edge—watching the sea and the sky and talking with friends.
A.M. HOMES: You have your film coming out at the same time as your installation at the Armory, Habeas Corpus, which is based partly on Guantánamo.
LAURIE ANDERSON: Yeah, the timing’s weird—they both sort of turned out on top of each other. But I think of them as being similar in some ways. I’m sure nobody else will think so. I’m just hoping with the Armory project that I don’t end up in jail.
HOMES: What are you doing that’s jail-worthy?
ANDERSON: Guantánamo detainees are legally barred from coming into the United States. But the project has this live telepresence event. I just don’t know if it’s going to be appreciated. Legally. Mohammed el Gharani, a former Guantánamo detainee, will be sitting in Africa. We built a studio there. He’s training to sit really still for three days. It’s hard, though, because he’s really hurt his back, but he doesn’t want to see doctors. Because American doctors were involved with the whole process. I’m one of the first Americans who wasn’t a torturer or an interrogator, so it took us a while to get to know and trust each other. It was really an amazing experience just sitting across from him and seeing the cuts on his arms and realizing that we did that. Just the combination of idiocy and pornography and torture. And many times this spring, I’ve thought this might be a giant mistake because it’s making me so sick. But it really did help to see this person. And now it’s actually happening, which also feels different.
HOMES: How does it feel different now that it’s happening?
ANDERSON: It’s become something you can see and hear and feel, rather than some law we might be breaking. Did I show you a picture of Little Will [Anderson’s dog] sitting on the statue for the piece? The statue is at least the size of the Lincoln Memorial.
HOMES: Are you serious?
ANDERSON: Yeah. I want that to be a shock for people. So it isn’t just some streaming event. The statue is a three-dimensional image of him sitting. He’s in Africa sitting, but we’ve carefully figured out a way to map his image onto this statue.
HOMES: Will he be talking too?
ANDERSON: He will be talking. He has to take breaks, and I also didn’t want to put the pressure of performance on him, so we recorded a lot of his stories. His stories are incredible. We also made a film of him speaking, because it’s a little hard to speak when you’re not supposed to move.
HOMES: How did you first meet this man?
ANDERSON: It’s from something I did about 15 years ago in Milan [Dal Vivo, 1998]. And then I made this proposal to do a prison project in New York, but it was a fight, mostly with Homeland Security. So I ended up instead having to do plan B, which was floats of cave people looking at the moon.
HOMES: That sounds very plan B. [laughs]
ANDERSON: Really expensive, impossible to do, maybe not worth doing in the first place. [laughs]
HOMES: I’m curious how you see a connection between the Armory project, which involves a prisoner at Guantánamo, and your film, which covers the life of your dog Lolabelle.
ANDERSON: Well, the fear part of Heart of a Dog is definitely there. Lolabelle was a West Village dog, and I did her the favor of showing her fear. We went to California once, and she hadn’t really spent time in the wilderness before. It wasn’t exactly wilderness, but it was close enough—up in the hills, completely alone in this little cabin. It didn’t take Lolabelle more than a fraction of a second to realize what the hawks were doing. In her dog brain, she already had that figured out. But she’s also a rat terrier, and the cabin we stayed in for about ten days was filled with mice. She and I were under this big coverlet because it was really cold, and when the moon came out, we popped our heads out and saw all of these mice basically having a dance festival. She kind of looked at them going, “What the fuck?” and dives under the covers, and you don’t see her till morning. She is not a ratter—she is a human being.
when we invoke our rights, it’s our Constitutional rights, and that has nothing to do with human rights . . . So as a person, I just can’t say my life is worth more than yours or his. It’s not. Laurie Anderson
HOMES: Where were the mice?
ANDERSON: On the covers of the bed! Like a stage!
HOMES: When I saw the film, I thought of the fear and terror that comes out of the air, the sky. Which is true of September 11.
ANDERSON: The film is very sky-oriented. It’s all about sky. And the sky is often an image of freedom. When I was in Venice, I was looking at the paintings in the Doge’s Palace, and the sky is gold. It’s a medieval, eternal sky. So a section of the film was goldified. It’s like this painting I love of Goya’s [The Dog] at the end of a hall in a red room in the Prado. If I’m in Madrid for a week, I do the same thing every day. I go to the Prado, and then I go swimming, and then I have a huge meal. It’s just something I’ve done by myself for years. That really is one of my favorite rooms. It’s a really weird painting. Goya did some paintings that were almost like frescos with animals and hunting dogs and vines and trumpets. But this was not that. It’s all gold and then there’s just this little dog peeking out.
HOMES: Did it inspire the poster I saw for the New York Film Festival?
ANDERSON: Yeah. It’s that. You know, one thing I’d really like to do is take a year and just make a gigantic landscape painting. It’s something I wish I had the time to do, with really thick paints. I love making paintings. Do you make paintings anymore?
HOMES: No, and I miss it. But what time do I have? You know what I mean. But I miss the physicality of painting, the scale and gesture.
ANDERSON: It’s exactly like music. It’s the same thing as bowing—the same stroke, the same decisions. You look at it and think, “Is it complex enough, weird enough, empty enough, full enough, connected enough?” All the same things that you ask about a piece of music.
HOMES: I always think when I’m teaching writing that it can be a bit like teaching calligraphy. I do a lot of drawing when I write, because when you can’t solve a problem, you take it out of one language and put it into another. And all of a sudden you have new information on what the problem is—like you sound it out by putting it into a different form. I’ve talked to a lot of artists about what their note-taking process is. I remember Wim Wenders said that he takes notes in watercolors.
ANDERSON: [laughs] How does he manage that? Does he carry around a little watercolor set? I suppose if you had a little set and a brush and some water …
HOMES: One of the things that struck me about the film was that it’s all done with Super-8 footage. And particularly the ice skating part reminded me of Sunday in the Park With George, like such a complete image of people in the midst of recreation.
ANDERSON: Yeah, like a Seurat. Or the background of a Bruegel painting, which I love. That’s where my eye goes. There’s always some kind of fight or someone’s doing something with an animal or someone’s peeking out behind the tree, some little weird stuff going on back there. When I was working on the film, my older brother, Chris, said, “I have a bunch of films. Could you transfer them for me? I got to get them out of my closet.” I was like, “I’m kind of busy but okay.” They were really dusty and crappy. But I pulled a few scenes out randomly—the lake, the island, my mother, the stroller, me skating—and I was like, “What the hell?” So that landed in there. I didn’t have an end for this movie. The end was a sad end with my mother, but I couldn’t find that moment. But there was some childhood story we had where I almost killed my younger brothers, Craig and Phil.
HOMES: Why were you walking across an ice-covered lake with a stroller?
ANDERSON: That was just a Saturday thing. Every Saturday when we went to see movies, and I parked them in the aisle.
HOMES: How old were they?
ANDERSON: They were 2 and a half, and I was 8. I did a lot of taking care of kids as a kid. And Saturday afternoon was the Glen Theatre in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. I skated over there with the stroller, and on my way back, I remember how beautiful the moon was. It was a very romantic idea for me to say, “Look at the moon, boys!” And I remember suddenly there was water, like some new physical law that you didn’t know could happen. They were just below the water, which was the first big shock of my life.
HOMES: And you just stumbled on this footage of you ice skating? It seems like something you always would have known about.
ANDERSON: We have so many hundreds of thousands of hours of childhood footage. I have some really beautiful footage of my grandmother, who was a missionary. That’s a treasure. Also, it’s 8mm film that’s been in a box for 50 years so it looks pretty great, because it’s all squished and bent and glued and cracked and distorted. All I had to do is slow it down. And that’s me in the film, just skating around.
HOMES: I remember a piece you did a long time ago that was on a pair of skates frozen in blocks of ice [Duets on Ice, 1974].
ANDERSON: Right, and it was about that lake.
HOMES: I was thinking about how interesting it is—these moments that are beautiful and nostalgic and indicate who we are that we repeat and repeat.
ANDERSON: That’s really true. For me, it’s water and ice. Because Chicago was an icebox in the ’50s. It was really cold. And to see the ducks that would also be flying north to Canada or back south again, they’d be so frozen they couldn’t move—frozen into the ice. And then the sun would come up and they’d unfreeze and go up and away. And also that ice work had to do with my grandmother, too, because the day she died I went out on the lake. I often went out there by myself to think. It was a good place for me.
HOMES: I feel similarly about water. Especially now when I go out to Long Island. And the ducks are flying overhead. For a while you had that whole birdcall collection. Those wonderful birdcalls.
ANDERSON: Oh, yeah, I have a lot of birdcalls. [laughs] Isn’t that weird? You know something I do when I’m anxious? I have this exercise in my mind of going back to the room I had as a 6-year-old. Like, I can sit in that room for a while and see what books were there and the shoes on my feet. And then, if you get really adventurous in your mind, you can walk to school and see what’s on the sidewalks, what the trees look like. You can smell it. It’s always a big comfort to me. It just reminds you that since that point in time, your heart has not stopped beating once. You haven’t stopped breathing once. And you remember a lot more than you think.
HOMES: But the memories always come back so quickly; it’s almost hard to slow them down.
ANDERSON: The whole film, of course, is about stories and what they are and how they’re made, and the language of telling them—which is why I put in the story about my mother’s deathbed speech. Because she waited for all eight of us to get there. And then it was almost like she was stepping up to a microphone and saying, “Thank you all for coming. It’s been so fun, it’s been just a pleasure.” And we’re all like, “What?” And then she starts talking to the animals, and then she’s back to the microphone talking about the history of her family and then saying goodbye, making this gigantic effort to speak. I will never forget that. So this movie is about her. It’s kind of frustrating for me, going around to these festivals, because they’re all like, “Were you afraid to put more of Lou’s story in there?” or “This is about Lou, right?” And in some ways, of course—the way most of my work has been about Lou in some ways since I met him. But there are so many parts to it.
HOMES: You say this film is about your mom. Did it change or influence how you felt about her?
ANDERSON: I really admired her, but she was one of the women who should have been the CEO of a major corporation. We all wore matching outfits, we had to do things perfectly all the time, just this type-A family. Making everybody compete against each other. It was tough.
HOMES: Was it okay to be an artist? Was that allowed, if you did it well?
ANDERSON: When I left for school, my mother wouldn’t say goodbye; she’d yell, “Win!” It would always make me stop. I was like, “Win what?” What are you even talking about? And win for who? For you? I don’t think of myself at all as a competitive person, but she was drilling that into all of her kids. On the other hand, she loved reading. I’d get up at four sometimes and she’d still be up reading. She went to college when she was 16. And then she eloped with her riding teacher. She was a bad girl.
I’m not someone who believes in heaven, but I’ve had to rethink my ideas about the persistence of the spirit, because Lou’s right here in the corner, right now. In a way that’s so real. Laurie Anderson
HOMES: And you had a lot of animals, so much of your work is about animals, communicating with animals.
ANDERSON: We had everything—horses, monkeys, toucans, the usual numbers of cats and dogs, gerbils and so on. Also rabbits, ducks. It was just a menagerie.
HOMES: Before we leave the film, I always had the weirdest thought—that in Lolabelle’s old age and final illness, you connected to her in a way that was extremely personal and even more real.
ANDERSON: I learned how to get old from Lolabelle. She just kind of slowed down and looked around a little bit more. [laughs] She was very graceful. And she really did seem to like to play the piano. After all, she watched Lou and me trying to play piano for years. So she thought, “Hey, I’ll give it a shot.” There were a lot of things we didn’t put in the film that were maybe too personal. For me, lying next to her for three days, the way Lou and I did, they were clearly too personal to put in the film. And also, I didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings who don’t do that when their own animals died. Everyone does what they can. And it’s an intense, arduous process. It teaches you so much about death. It’s kind of a beautiful and magical quality. Lou did everything to keep her alive. Everything. Of course, people think Lolabelle’s death in the film is about Lou and his death, but it really isn’t.
HOMES: Do you mind if we touch on Lou a bit? I’ve never said this to anyone else, but Lou’s death and all of what immediately followed taught me a lot about the passage, about being lucky to be there in the minute, and then it’s gone.
ANDERSON: It’s true. That’s also partly the way he was when he was alive, too. Because he was so alive. That’s why I loved Robert Thurman’s set of CDs. I could listen to them about 60 times. It starts out, “There are no dead people. Let’s get that straight. There are no dead people. Go from there.” I’m actually not someone who believes in heaven or anything like that, but I’ve had to rethink my ideas about the persistence of the spirit, because Lou’s right here in the corner, right now. In a way that’s so real. He loved this place. You can see him sitting in his wicker chair—see him, hear his voice. He was and is a really vivid person. So I don’t really know what to make of this after all this time, because first of all, unlike a lot of people, he’s also in millions of people’s thoughts.
HOMES: It’s almost like he got larger, he became louder.
ANDERSON: Much larger. He didn’t play that down, and he didn’t play that up, ever. And especially as he got older, he wanted to get old in another way. He didn’t want anybody applauding. He was going to do it his way. He also had the spirit of getting up and doing. He was swimming the day before he died. He made this huge effort to be in life and really understand it and try to just live it.
HOMES: That’s part of the individual struggle. How do you stay open? Tell me about meditation. When did that start?
ANDERSON: In the ’70s. In ’77, I had a really good friend named Bob Bielecki, and Bob attended silent meditation class. He said that before he went, he felt all fractured, and when he came back, he felt like he could focus on things one at a time. He said that without the chatter, his mind was like a beam. I thought, “I want a mind like a beam!” [laughs] So I went. It was, like, ten eighteen-hour days, and they said, “Why are you here?” And I said, “I want a mind like a beam.” They said, “No, you’re here because you’re in pain.” I was like, “No, listen, the beam.” And they said, “No, you’re in pain.” and I said, “This is a really bad way to start a meditation course but I’m not going to argue.” I didn’t really understand that Vipassana is a relatively new form of Buddhism that was based on the storage of pain. So the idea is that every time you don’t scream, that’s your Buddhist side. And what happens when you meditate for that long is you get up at 4 a.m., meditate for three hours, have the only meal of the day, go back to meditating, walking meditation, stop for some water, stop for some tea, on and on for 18 hours. During that time, you start noticing really interesting things. For example, pain in your shoulder, pain in your knee … But you realize that emotions are connected to those pains, and it’s so elegantly coded you can’t believe it. That this is loss and this is anger and this is fear. So the idea is to work on that pain through Kundalini and find it and get rid of it. It’s so unlike psychoanalysis, which is to find it through language. I couldn’t do that. Finding it through the body was, for me, the way to do it.
HOMES: Right, I’m converted! Focus on my light!
ANDERSON: Some people will do only eight hours, some six, some two, and some none.
HOMES: And for some people it’s once a week.
ANDERSON: And that’s okay. The next time you do it, you go a little further and forget again. And that was what hooked me, and I wanted to stay hooked because it was the first time I’ve been part of the tradition where forgetting was just fine. You do it, you try, you forget, you fail. This is how it works.
HOMES: It’s not win. You can’t. There’s no such thing.
ANDERSON: Right. There’s no such thing. Also that’s one of the things that really inspired me about Mingyur [Rinpoche], who is technically the happiest man in the world, according to the University of Wisconsin neuroscientists. He was given a huge number of audio tests—playing things that are deeply disturbing—and he was able to maintain his equilibrium.
HOMES: That does have a resonance with the show at the Armory, Habeas Corpus. It’s the body.
ANDERSON: It’s the body. And also, at night, it becomes an out-of-body thing. Finding things through the body, I really trust that.
HOMES: Well, you spend a lot of time doing tai chi.
ANDERSON: Exactly. And that as a meditation is also really amazing. So anyway Mingyur is definitely at the center of this film as someone who’s bliss. He’s like straight-ahead bliss. He’s just like, “We’re here to have a really, really good time.” That’s it. That’s the story. It’s not about “Push all of that dark stuff away.” That doesn’t work. It’s going to come and bite you in the butt. So his solution is to absorb it and really feel, not just sort of feel it but really feel it and don’t be it. It’s like the difference between empathy and compassion. I put the dog in the title of the film because it’s about empathy and about love. Because dogs don’t just like us, they love us, and they admire us. The big reason they admire us is we invented cars. They’re like, “Yes, we get to go somewhere!” Go somewhere faster, with their head out the window, and their ears, like, “Yes! Yes!” And so it’s that feeling that I want.
HOMES: We took our new dog to get her first haircut on Tuesday.
ANDERSON: There are reasons we have them, reasons we bring them to work. Because it reminds you of a way to be in the world. John Cage always had that mindset for me. I spent a lot of time with him in his last year, doing some interviews for Tricycle, most of which they threw away because they said we didn’t stick to the subject. But I said you just got the wrong people. Me and John Cage, we do not stick to the subject. And what is the subject?
HOMES: Meditation for me really allows me to tolerate the things that are said and to be more available to others. To actually allow me not to have to close off but to stay open to others and to sit there.
ANDERSON: The Great Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo is the subtitle of that [The Tibetan Book of the Dead]. It’s about the evolution of Avalokitesvara, who was a kind of Buddhist saint who is all ears, and it’s just about hearing things, being the ultimate spy. Re-experiencing this time in the hospital came through my ears. Because so much of what we see is garbled. That’s why, after that scene, I cut to absolute silence. For the first cut of this film, I had no music; it was just a voice-over. And when I showed it, people said, “Don’t put music in; it’s so hardcore.” You know, I’m a musician—
HOMES: Yeah, I was going to say.
ANDERSON: I was at the Rauschenberg Foundation recently. Oh my God, it’s so beautiful; it’s old Florida. Like, manatees and gas pumps and rotten swamps. I was there in February, and I thought, “Okay, I’m just going to try some music.” So I just put it on my laptop and just played with it, with the violin, and kind of played along a couple times and got some ideas and just did it really fast. I did it for, like, a week. Then I added it and showed people, and it wasn’t getting in the way. And Dan [Janvey] who’s a great producer, said, “Just don’t put in any beats.” And I realized why movie scores are mostly strings, because it really frees your eyes to look around. Nothing matches the cut, so you’re always sliding through reel cuts. I really loved that, to have eyes that are a rhythmic element in the piece. There’s a lot of staring going on, over here and over there. You’re sort of freer if someone’s talking in your ear, because then you can look around.
HOMES: I think when I first came to know your work, which was really a long time ago, it was like, “Oh, that’s so interesting, she’s a musician but she has work in museums.” You know like a sound piece or something. And how is she allowed to do that? Then it seemed like you did a lot of that. You evolved through a lot of different fields and mediums and channels. Now, in some ways, you’re expected to be able to do 15 things all at a competent level.
ANDERSON: I think you’re right about that. And the policing of fields is kind of extreme. But then, that almost struck me as a branding problem, you know? For example, once the record industry collapsed, that created a freer field. So I didn’t have to decide whether I was electro-pop or pop-electro or folk-experimental or what it was. You could pick something out, and it could be just you, though they always call that stuff “new work.”
HOMES: Right. “Untitled,” “new work.”
ANDERSON: And that’s lazy, man.
HOMES: Right, that breakdown of the record business was in some ways very powerful, because you had to be categorized to be sold. And then how did that relate to showing in a gallery? Is this person an artist in the sense that it’s art she can show?
ANDERSON: It’s a closed system, and that’s why I don’t have a gallery. I do things in museums once in a while. But I don’t have a gallery that can take it. The last one I was in kept saying they needed more inventory. But like, yesterday, I had a ballet opening in Stockholm, with the Cullberg Ballet. I did the music. And I had a drawing show in Geneva. That’s a lot for me for one day.
HOMES: That’s also a lot for a lifetime.
ANDERSON: But they’re all really different. The music for the ballet has a lot to do with the stuff in the film. Although it’s Deborah Hay—she was a big dancer in the ’60s and the ’70s, and I love her work. I ran into her in Austin, and she said she was going to do a ballet and asked if I would do the music. Only Deborah’s notorious for not using the music. So I said, “Deborah, you never use it. Why are you asking me?” And she said, “No, I think I would.” [Homes laughs] So I made a lot of music for her and she came to the Rauschenberg Foundation while I was working on the film score. She’s really intuitive. She’s incredible. So I was playing her the score and she’s moving around and she says, “It’s good, but can you just make it a little softer.” [pauses] And again, “It’s really wonderful, but it needs to be a little softer.” And so finally, a couple minutes later, she’s says, “That is so perfect. It’s really perfect now.” And I said, “Deborah, it’s off. It’s not even audible.” So who knows if it was audible yesterday or not?
HOMES: You also do a ton of collaboration. Does working with other artists engage you?
ANDERSON: Especially with music, and especially with improv music. I didn’t ever do that until John Zorn said, “Let’s do an improv.” And he’s the most prolific musician I know. He can make, like, 25 different types of music. From super-soft to really sophisticated trios to noise orchestras that will just rip your head off. And everything in between. So that terrified me. I was like, “Wait, Zorn, who plays the first note? What key is it?” “Eh, we’ll see.” It seemed like a superbad idea to me to just go out there, but he and I did some stuff and he and Lou and I did some trios.
HOMES: Talk to me a little about surveillance. It’s another theme in this recent piece.
ANDERSON: Part of it is the annoyance. Like, you buy a book on Amazon and 30 seconds later it says, “You loved this one, you’re going to really love this one!” And you’re going, “No, you don’t know me.” It’s part of the branding world, part of the Facebook world, part of the world of information, and it slaps an identity onto you. It’s just what you were saying about the record business—”female pop vocalist,” and that sells. “Don’t think you’re going to do anything but that,” and that’s what drives me crazy. And it’s getting more and more extreme, that you stay in your little lane.
HOMES: Right, but also even when you google something, what you’re given as a result is based on all your previous searches. So you notice when you google something on someone else’s computer, you get a whole different set of products.
ANDERSON: It’s called profiling.
HOMES: We don’t see it happen and we don’t know what it left out.
ANDERSON: I think of it as an information problem. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this Guantánamo thing. When I talked to people and described what I was doing, most looked at me like I just hit them. Because Guantánamo, we’re trained to think, “bad people.” But the guys who are in there are goat herders and taxi drivers who know as much about Al Qaeda as you and me. Maybe less. And, of course, it’s linked with the rest of the profiling and the weekly events of the black men who get shot. But it comes down to language. Because, first of all, all the Guantánamo guys are defined as nonpersons, and you’re not going to do anything for a nonperson. And when we invoke our rights, it’s our constitutional rights, and that has nothing to do with human rights. The right to carry a gun has nothing to do with the rights of other people. So as a person, I just can’t say my life is worth more than yours or his. It’s not.
HOMES: Does an artist have to be socially responsible?
ANDERSON: No. They don’t have any more responsibility than a postman or anyone else. The example that comes to mind is a giant blue painting. It could offer the feeling of freedom more than some long essay. Art can be engaged in the world without being specifically politically engaged. It doesn’t make them less intense or less essential.
HOMES: What does it mean to you to be an American artist? Or a New York artist? Does that have any additional meaning to you?
ANDERSON: It does. I started out abroad, like everyone in my generation. We went to work in Germany and France because people gave us chances to do things. So we came to a town in Germany and they go, “Do you want to work with the orchestra?” That was unheard of in New York. So we followed in the jazz cats’ footsteps. It’s also the tradition of American writers getting away in order to see the country—to get a better view. Twain and Hemingway and Melville went offshore. The reason I started working on stuff that was kind of political was because I would sit at dinner with a bunch of artists and collectors and promoters in Naples, and they’d go, “How could you live in that country?” It wasn’t that the question was insulting, but that the answer was really complicated. It took me eight hours to answer that question. It’s a complicated country, and that’s what’s endlessly fascinating. These Republican candidates and the whole kind of dark turn that’s going on here with that debate the other day does draw me a little bit more toward taking things on that are more engaged, but it flips almost with the administration. If I’m in a Democratic administration, I have my blue paintings. In a Republican administration, I write screeds.
HOMES: Would you ever reprise United States [Anderson’s four-part, multimedia epic from 1983]?
ANDERSON: Oh, God. Anyone who wants to do it, knock yourself out.
HOMES: It’s a piece of American cultural history.
ANDERSON: I’m supposed to do a big retrospective book, and part of that is digging through all of that old stuff. I can hardly bring myself to do it, so I’m going to do it really fast. Life is short, and getting shorter.
A.M. HOMES IS A NEW YORK-BASED WRITER AND AUTHOR OF THIS BOOK WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE, MUSIC FOR TORCHING, THE END OF ALICE, IN A COUNTRY OF MOTHERS, THE SAFETY OF OBJECTS, AND THE MISTRESS’S DAUGHTER.