Anderson was born in 1947, into a large, eccentric family outside Chicago. She was one of eight children. Growing up in that household meant marinating, constantly, in language and stories. One of her brothers was named Thor; a sister was named India. At dinner, each child was expected to tell the story of their day — a recitation that could go on indefinitely and include a baffling variety of incidents and styles. On Sundays, their grandmother took the kids to church, and Laurie became fascinated by the dreamlike surrealism of the Bible: “talking snakes, an ocean that suddenly parted to form a road, stones that turned into bread and dead people brought back to life.” These stories, Anderson would later write, “were the first clues that we live in an irrational and complicated world.” Two of Anderson’s younger brothers were twins, and as kids they invented a private language so elaborate that it drew the attention of a linguistic researcher. It was, in other words, a perfect childhood for producing Laurie Anderson: deep normalcy inflected by sharp stabs of strangeness.
With so many people around, Anderson found it easy to slip away and do her own thing. She relished her freedom. She took long bike rides and went ice skating on ponds. In elementary school, she joined an all-girl gang that threatened to poke boys’ eyes out with sharp sticks. In sixth grade, Anderson founded a painting club whose members posed for each other nude. Every day, for many hours, she practiced her violin. On Saturdays, she took the train to Chicago, where she would study painting at the Art Institute and play in the Chicago Youth Symphony.
Anderson’s parents were a study in contrasts. Her father was personable, funny, affectionate. Her mother was formal, distant, intimidating, hard to read. Anderson describes her mother as a kind of bottled-up genius: She went to college at 16, married young and immediately started having children. In her rare spare time, she read voraciously. She designed the family’s house herself. One of Anderson’s earliest memories is of waking up in the middle of the night, around 4 a.m., and seeing her mother still awake, alone, reading. “She was very smart, very focused,” Anderson told me. “She really should have been, like, the head of a big corporation. But she got caught in a generation of women who didn’t get to do that. ” Every morning, when Laurie left the house, her mother would offer a single word of advice: “Win!” Anderson remembers thinking: What does that mean?
Later, the voice that Anderson would use in her art performances — that distinctive blend of casual and formal, fluid and halting, warm and cold — was a combination of her parents’ voices. Her father’s sly deadpan; her mother’s precise, ironic detachment.
In college, Anderson studied biology for one year. But this only confirmed her desire to make art. In 1966, she moved to New York and dove headfirst into that world. She studied at Barnard and wrote reviews for Artforum. At the School of Visual Arts, she studied sculpture with Sol Lewitt and Carl Andre. The trend, back then, was to make huge, heavy steel monoliths, but Anderson decided to work mostly with newspaper. She would pulp The New York Times and shape it into bricks, or cut multiple newspapers into long, thin strips and weave them together. Already, she was manipulating stories, slicing and crushing and blending them.
The art world, Anderson realized, was not set up to showcase storytelling, this art form she had learned to love as a child. Museums were designed for objects, not the human voice as it moved words through time. Early on, Anderson became obsessed with the challenge of smuggling stories into art galleries. She began experimenting with audio, video, performance. Her work became increasingly about voice: looking for the line between voice and nonvoice, speech and nonspeech, story and nonstory. She built a talking “robot” out of plywood and organized a concert for car horns. She made little clay figures, onto which she projected Super 8 films so that the statues seemed to move, to speak, to live. “Fake holograms,” she called them. Little by little, she managed to bring her Midwestern origins into New York. She found a way to invite the whole art world to sit down at her childhood dining-room table.
Marina Abramovic first heard about Laurie Anderson in 1975. Abramovic was living in Europe at the time, hand-to-mouth, sleeping in her car, traveling from one country to the next to do the performance pieces that would eventually make her reputation. She and her partner, Ulay, would braid their hair together and sit back to back in a gallery for 17 hours, or they would get naked and run across the room and repeatedly slam into each other and fall over. In the midst of all this, Abramovic heard about something wild happening down in Italy: A young American woman was doing street performances in Genoa. Every day she would pick a different spot in the city and stand there playing some kind of cyborg violin — it had tape loops and speakers inside of it, so the violin would play prerecorded violin music, and the American would stand there and play the violin along with itself. A “self-playing violin,” she called it. But that wasn’t even the best part. The best part was that this young American was playing her experimental violin while standing on ice skates, and the blades of the skates were frozen into two huge blocks of ice — so as she played her cyborg violin, as crowds of baffled Italians gathered to watch, the ice blocks she was standing on would slowly melt, and eventually the skates would clunk down onto the pavement, and that would be the end of the performance. Anderson would stop playing and walk off. She called the piece “Duets on Ice.”