Michael Stipe and Laurie Anderson photographed in New York on Nov. 5, 2019.Credit...Alice O'Malley
“You’ve got to fall on your face to sit at the table,” says the erstwhile R.E.M. frontman.
At 72, no one would fault Laurie Anderson, the avant-garde multimedia icon — an inventor, performance artist, musician, writer, filmmaker, painter and more — for being nostalgic. She is best known for her 1981 surprise hit song, “O Superman,” a visionary tirade against American imperialism, built on looped vocal effects that seemed to predict the next three decades or so of pop music. In recent years, Anderson has been moonlighting as an archivist, shaping the legacy of her husband and collaborator, Lou Reed, who died in 2013. (His archives, which include letters, photographs and recordings, are now housed at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and are available to anyone with a library card.) But the experience of looking backward, immersed in another’s oeuvre, has only made Anderson’s own work more forward-looking.
From her dead dog and Guantánamo Bay to Tibetan Buddhism and the moon, and from virtual reality to recorded music to oil on canvas, Anderson finds inspiration from and expression in a wide range of subjects and mediums, as she has since she began her career as a performance artist in early 1970s New York. As the music critic John Rockwell wrote in The Times in 1988, “She didn’t so much emerge on the scene as create it.” Anderson’s upcoming exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. has been postponed, but when it does open it will consist mostly of new work, including wall-size paintings that she warned last November were still works in progress. (“They are really bad,” she deadpanned.) Worrying about her own legacy, she added, is just a waste of time.
For Michael Stipe, however, the past has become a preoccupation of late. The 60-year-old singer and songwriter fronted R.E.M. for more than three decades, from 1980 until their breakup in 2011, and the band has been reissuing some of its classic 1990s albums, including “Automatic for the People” and “Monster,” while at the same time revisiting live recordings and concert footage. But Stipe has also largely moved on from music, concentrating instead on art and photography (his most recent work is gathered in his 2019 monograph “Our Interference Times: A Visual Record”).
Anderson and Stipe met for a conversation in a photo studio on the Bowery this past November to discuss their current projects, their early experiences in the city and Reed’s leather jackets.
Anderson performs with Kronos Quartet at the Big Ears music festival in Knoxville, Tenn., on March 28, 2015.Credit...Jake Giles Netter for The New York Times
Laurie Anderson: What are you making now?
Michael Stipe: When I first started talking about stuff that I was making that wasn’t music, I said sculpture, because I wanted people to imagine something tangible that you could hold. The truth is, I wasn’t really making sculpture, I was just making things, and a lot of it is photo-based. The book is an extension of that.
LA: Weren’t you doing that as a songwriter, making people imagine things? I mean, in sculpture, you actually make things that people can hold. Imagining it is even wilder. That’s what I love about the art — nothing’s there. There’s not even a fence. There’s nothing. I love it.
MS: “O Superman” was my introduction to you. I was surrounded by art students [Stipe studied art at the University of Georgia before dropping out soon after R.E.M. formed] who said, “This is a new day.” I have to say, the work that came after it was, for me, more enthralling, but in terms of really throwing down the gauntlet sonically, that song was like —
LA: I just do wonder why more people didn’t do stuff like that. More political or more electronic.
MS: Music now is post-hip-hop, which is really interesting to me, because hip-hop came from the same culture as punk rock, and then has this whole other aspect to it because it’s coming from black America.
LA: It has more language than punk rock, though. Although you used a lot of language in your early things, and that’s what I loved about it: unfurling words.
MS: I was a vulnerable man. I’m so proud that I never pretended to be something I wasn’t, even before I spoke publicly about my sexuality [Stipe came out in 1994]. Vulnerability and sensitivity in a public figure and as a man was something that in my generation was not common at all.
LA: A friend of mine just sent me a video of Lou when he was talking about what it was like to be Lou and not be anybody else. The interview ended with this amazing sentence, about how he felt about his efforts as a writer. He said, “I’ve always been true to him.”
MS: That’s so beautiful and true. He allowed immense vulnerability as a writer. But then he was kind of curmudgeonly as a person, or he could be. He did not suffer fools gladly, and he made that abundantly clear in the most beautiful way.
LA: Doing the archive was a really exciting thing for me. My idea from the very beginning was to let anyone come in. You didn’t have to have white gloves or be a scholar. And I’m so proud of that. I’m still giving things away — I have endless things to give away. Actually, you would fit in Lou’s jackets. I’ve got to give you some.
MS: I would love that.
Stipe performs with R.E.M. in Perth, Australia, on Jan. 13, 1994.Credit...AP Photo/Perth West Australian
Stipe performs with R.E.M. at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in Washington, D.C., on June 14, 1998.Credit...Rahav Segev for The New York Times
LA: Would you call what you were writing pop songs?
MS: The one time I met Warhol he told me, “You’re a pop star.” And I said, “I’m a singer in a band.” And he insisted that I was a pop star, and finally a few years later, I was like, “Well, he was actually right.” I was a pop star all along. And it’s something I didn’t mind at all. There’s nothing reluctant about being a pop star, I don’t think, for either one of us. It was really fun. I liked being a pop star.
LA: Oh, I was not a pop star. Maybe for four seconds.
MS: But those were four very important seconds.
LA: I approached it as an anthropologist. I was so observant. It was always absurd to me. But I decided, “This is going to be fun.” And it was fun. I didn’t think I deserved it, or wanted more of it. In fact, it was horrible in other ways.
MS: It’s also grueling work. You’ve got to work to put out good work.
LA: So what’s radical now?
MS: Radical now might be what’s mainstream, in fact. So, it’s Billie Eilish, it’s music that has been formed by the algorithms that are dictating what we listen to on the platforms that are available to us.
LA: I want a sense of groups, community, sweat, instead of bigger and bigger things sold to bigger and bigger markets, which is what’s going on now. Any time any big corporation — whether it’s Google or Facebook or any cultural organization you can think of — decides to monetize art or music or whatever, the first real buzzword they use is “community”: “We love your community.” And then they buy it, they brand it and they sell it back to you curated for a huge, expanded audience of people with their cellphones.
MS: It’s been watered down.
From left: Anderson, Lou Reed and Bill T. Jones perform “Save the Last Dance for Me” in New York on June 11, 2002.Credit...Rahav Segev for The New York Times
LA: How’d you choose New York?
MS: I first came to New York in 1979, as a teenager. It was all about opportunity and possibility. It was really through the punk rock scene and CBGB. It was Patti Smith who spoke of, or sang of, or wrote of — she did all of those, how about that? — New York as a place of opportunity and possibility. I took that very literally. I was like, “This is where I find myself.”
LA: Let’s say you were that age now, can you imagine coming to New York?
LA: Where would you go?
MS: I’m trying to think of where my group of people would be in 2019. I’d have been born in 2000. My people would probably be obsessed with somewhere in South America or somewhere like Porto, Portugal.
LA: I almost bought a sheep farm there. I used to have a hobby of shopping for sheep farms: You’re on tour, it’s Sunday, there’s nothing happening and you want to see the place, so you look through brochures.
MS: Did you really ever intend to buy a sheep farm, or was it just a way to see the countryside?
LA: Initially, it was just a way to get someone to drive me around. Then I found one near Porto. I was looking at brochures and said, “Oh, sheep farm, $2,000.” I called the agent and said, “Is that a typo?” He said, “It is. It’s $1,000.” So I said, “I’m going to get a sheep farm for all my friends.” We went out there, now with the intention of buying this. I think the thing that made me reconsider was he said, “You can use all the prisoners here for labor because the prison is right over there.” I said, “That’s handy.” There was no water or electricity or anything like that, of course, which didn’t bother me. I didn’t have that when I moved to New York. I had no roof. I was basically squatting.
MS: Are you a futurist?
LA: Oh, I aspire to be. Don’t you?
MS: Well, I like to surround myself with futurists. I like to hear what they have to say.
LA: I was part of a group of futurists who were supposed to be coming up with what people would be doing 20 years from now. With, oh God, what’s his name, the co-founder of Microsoft? Paul Allen. I’d been on Paul’s boat and knew him a little bit. I thought, “What would I do if I could not have to start from zero every time?” So I put all of my stuff in a box — films, videos, websites, movies, records — and I sent them to Paul Allen. I said, “I’m looking for a Medici.” He called me up, said, “Let’s talk.” I’m a really proud person, so it’s hard for me to actually ask people for things. So we were having this beer in a bar and it crashed on the floor, all over his California white pants. I was like, “Babe, your dream is over.” Anyway, he had this thing called Interval Research, and he hired a hundred people to tell him what people would be doing in the future. I was able to do a lot of things. I formed a media company and we did a lot of big projects. He funded a lot of the work. And it was a terrible mistake. Some artists are good at opening the London office and becoming the mega this, mega something. I just never had the ambition after that.
Stipe and Patti Smith perform at Carnegie Hall in New York on March 11, 2009.Credit...Richard Termine for The New York Times
MS: I don’t like having people that are on the clock to help me attain whatever it is I want to attain.
LA: Is that part of what made you want to be a visual artist, that you don’t have to have a giant array of people?
MS: Yes, unless I was going to be the type of visual artist you were just thinking about, the type who had a London office. I’m not interested in that at all. I’m fortunate to be in a position where I don’t have to pay the rent with whatever I’m making, so I can just make stuff to make myself happy.
LA: I do not think about my own legacy. Not in the least, not for one second. And yet, I think about Lou’s all the time. I think it’s important to put it together — I’m an archivist. But for my own things? I actually couldn’t care less. That’s not what’s important to me. What’s important is love. That’s the only thing. The stuff? I really don’t care. I’m happy with now. I’m trained as a Buddhist to think that’s all there is. But it’s weird, I’m doing it obsessively in Lou’s case.
MS: There’s a deflection there.
LA: Maybe something like that. I couldn’t say no. But I might have just burned out on the whole idea. After you do it so much, you’re like, “Eh, I just want to make new things.” That’s why the Hirshhorn chose me. There’s almost no old work in it. I wish there was. I actually have a meeting today, and I want to say we should put something old in there, but we’re making a lot of new stuff. It’s terrifying.
MS: Because you don’t know whether it’s going to be good work or not?
LA: It might be terrible.
MS: That, to me, is the sign of a true artist. You’ve got to fall on your face to sit at the table.
LA: I’m trying to make really big paintings. They’re really big, and they’re really bad.
MS: Acrylic or oil?
LA: Oil. They’re the size of this wall.
MS: I failed this morning. I failed yesterday morning, for sure. I woke up and my first thoughts were really dark and horrible.
LA: But so are mine. My first thoughts every day are very, very dark.
MS: Are you going to keep making the giant paintings?
LA: Yeah, I’m going out there tomorrow morning. They’re so bad.
MS: Keep working.