Moon and Stars Align for Performance Artist
Laurie Anderson Accepts Art Commission From NASA
By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2004; Page A19
Performance artist Laurie Anderson thought the phone call was a prank.
How would you like to be NASA's artist-in-residence?
The offer was legit: The space agency was bestowing a $20,000 commission on the 57-year-old Anderson to produce a piece of work completely at her creative freedom.
NASA began its art program in 1963 but never before had it tapped a resident artist, nor had it pushed the aesthetic envelope so boldly by choosing a performer whose large-scale theatrical productions blended "Star Trek" and Melville. Anderson is no Faith Hill.
The pixie-haired classically trained violinist has approached her assignment like a journalist, visiting the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and NASA Ames Research Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, both in California.
The experience has been "overwhelming and wonderful at once," Anderson said recently in a telephone interview from her loft in New York.
The idea of an avant-garde electronic fiddler hanging out with rocket geeks at NASA's research centers may seem like an odd collaboration. At the Ames center in Silicon Valley, Anderson stood inside a virtual airport control tower to view scenes of Mars terrain, taking photos and recording notes in a small red notebook. The researchers' reaction to their visitor was mixed, according to a NASA newsletter. One confessed to being a huge fan; another doubted the partnership of art and science. "What's she going to do, write a poem?" the researcher asked.
In fact, Anderson's passions run parallel with the pocket-protector crowd. She has collaborated with the Interval Research Corp. in California to design a wireless musical instrument called the Talking Stick, which emits sound when touched.
She intends to produce a range of works from her two-year NASA commission, including a film on the moons of the solar system that will debut at the 2005 World Exposition in Japan.
Anderson said her affiliation with the space agency has sustained her spiritually, especially as the war in Iraq has dragged on and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal has unfolded.
"Frankly, I find living in American culture at the moment really problematic," she said. "But then when I think of NASA, it's the one thing that feels future-oriented in a way that's inspiring. The greening of Mars or building a stairway to Mars, these are unbelievable aspirations."
Her voice ignites with wonder as she describes glimpsing the nebula for the first time, "like watching stars being born in outer space."
Anderson grew up one of eight children in Chicago, graduating from Barnard College in 1969 and earning a graduate degree in sculpture from Columbia University. She took her art to the streets of downtown New York. She once stood on a block of ice, playing her violin while wearing ice skates. When the ice melted, the show was over.
A contemporary of avant-garde composers Philip Glass and Brian Eno, Anderson is best known for her one-woman theatrical productions that combine music, video, projected image and storytelling. She scored a fluke radio hit in 1981 with "O Superman" from her album "Big Science." In 1999, Anderson staged "Songs and Stories From Moby Dick," an interpretation of Herman Melville's novel.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company