Call Her Ishmael

Laurie Anderson hunts the great white whale of meaning

Anderson announced that she's on a campaign against rectangles, "because everybody looks at boxes all day and their mind goes into the box. They name their hard drive after themselves and they think they've disappeared into it, and they do." But the look of the piece is going to be "very 19th century" — in a high-tech sort of way. She's animated water and words, gears, some rope. And while she can't get away from the shape of a book page, she wants to project these images onto a line, a stairs, a sphere, anything that isn't a box.

"The way I put it together is linked to the music so it's either slinky or choppy or whatever counterrhythm I want to work with, because the eye is so rhythmic. They do a little eye dance and then they go back to being very nonjudgmental, always taking it in. Always streaming and scanning." So she's written some "poems for eyes."

What's consistent in Anderson's work—and she began as a sculptor—is that she shifts the characteristic property of a thing without changing the aura of the thing. So the violin talks. The eyes dance. The mouse (in one of her old stories) is just workingas a mouse (but really wants to be a deer). Her work always shows the self to be both fluid and manipulable. She's actually very much like the Ishmael character — Ahab's opposite, who sees that the whiteness of the whale could mean so many things.

Anderson's new piece will be a reprocessed Moby Dick.
photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Anderson's new piece will be a reprocessed Moby Dick.

Anderson mentioned that her next project is going to be about germs, inspired by a book she strongly recommends, The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life. "It's about why Americans were so receptive to the idea that something invisible and teeny-tiny could kill you." The idea didn't go over so well in Europe—at first. "But Americans," says Anderson, "the descendants of the transcendentalists, thought, 'There is an invisible world. I'll go for that.' "

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