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.
Her NASA commission puts her in the company of 250 other artists who have contributed to the space agency's art program, including Robert Rauschenberg and Norman Rockwell.
In the early days of the space race, artists would stand in the eerie flatness of Florida and sketch the radio towers and rocket gantries, huge metal hulking forms that sprang up around Cape Canaveral. For the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon, NASA placed artists at the Florida launch site, at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston and even on the recovery ship in the mid-Pacific Ocean, where an artist awaited the splashdown of the returning astronauts. Record crowds viewed the artwork that year at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
Some commissions have been specific, such as when jazz musician Jane Ira Bloom was asked to write and perform a symphonic composition to honor NASA's return to flight after the Challenger accident.
Funding for the art program has fluctuated with the agency's budget. In the 1990s, as NASA's workforce was trimmed, commissions for the program dwindled to four or five pieces a year, paying artists a modest honorarium of $2,500. Between 2000 and 2002, funding for the program increased from $25,000 to $100,000. This year it represents $50,000 of NASA's $15 billion budget.
Why should NASA set aside money for paintings and music? "Art is what's left behind of history," said Bertram Ulrich, curator of the NASA Art Program. "It's a way to document something for future generations."
NASA is not the only government agency that funds art. The Federal Reserve Board spent $183,000 for its art program in 2003, according to spokesman David Skidmore. Other agencies with art budgets include the Army, the Air Force, the State Department and the Interior Department.
Unlike a painting that will hang in a boardroom, Anderson's creation for NASA will debut at the 2005 World Expo and show for six months. (A U.S. premiere of the film will come later.) Anderson has also been commissioned by the expo to compose music for a Japanese garden, and she hints that her NASA research is now seeding all her creative forces and is likely to yield more work besides the film.
"When I began to think about a Japanese rock garden, it was very much about time," the artist said. "You have a plum tree in blossom, repeating time in its briefest form. A blossom falls, that blossom falls on a rock, a stream flows through."
Her logic continues, breathlessly. "Here are these rovers up on Mars. You have robots up there looking for life, for water. Rovers are being trained to think like geologists, pick up a rock and crush it. One of the problems the JPL scientists are having is where the rock is and where the rover thinks the rock is. What is consciousness?"
Anderson doubts her desire to go up in space will be accommodated by NASA. Here on Earth, she lives with her paramour, Lou Reed, and her terrier, Lola Belle. The realities of life on the ground in a post-Sept. 11 America are ever present: Last year the performer was handcuffed and held in custody at the St. Louis airport for two hours when detectives mistook her customized musical equipment for a homemade bomb.
Anderson recently quit smoking. She figured that a nonsmoking astronaut would have a much greater chance of launching into space than one who puffs.