Watch Laurie Anderson’s Hypnotic Harvard Lecture Series on Poetry, Meditation, Death, New York & More

These days the term mul­ti­me­dia sounds thor­ough­ly passé, like the apoth­e­o­sis of the 1990s tech­no-cul­tur­al buzz­word. But per­haps it also refers to a dimen­sion of art first opened in that era, of a kind in which trend-chasers dab­bled but whose poten­tial they rarely both­ered to prop­er­ly explore. But hav­ing estab­lished her­self as a for­mal­ly and tech­no­log­i­cal­ly dar­ing artist long before the 1990s, Lau­rie Ander­son was ide­al­ly placed to inhab­it the mul­ti­me­dia era. In a way, she’s con­tin­ued to inhab­it it ever since, con­tin­u­al­ly press­ing new audio­vi­su­al plat­forms into the ser­vice of her sig­na­ture qual­i­ties of expres­sion: con­tem­pla­tive, artic­u­late, high­ly digres­sive, and final­ly hyp­not­ic.

Ander­son­’s com­mit­ment to this enter­prise has brought her no few hon­ors. Biogra­phies often men­tion her time as NASA’s first (and, it seems, last) artist-in-res­i­dence; more recent­ly, she was named Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty’s 2021 Charles Eliot Nor­ton Pro­fes­sor of Poet­ry. This posi­tion entails the deliv­ery of the Charles Eliot Nor­ton Lec­ture, a series meant to deal with poet­ry “in the broad­est sense,” encom­pass­ing “all poet­ic expres­sion in lan­guage, music, or the fine arts.”

Nor­ton lec­tur­ers pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture include Leonard Bern­stein, Her­bie Han­cock, and Jorge Luis Borges. “I am pret­ty sure that the Nor­ton com­mit­tee at Har­vard made an enor­mous mis­take when they asked me to do this lec­ture series,” Ander­son told the Har­vard Gazette, “and it was real­ly my own sense of the absurd that made me want to say yes.”

Few could seri­ous­ly have doubt­ed Ander­son­’s abil­i­ty to rise to the occa­sion. She did, how­ev­er, face a unique chal­lenge in the his­to­ry of the Nor­ton Lec­tures: deliv­er­ing them on Zoom, that now-ubiq­ui­tous video-con­fer­enc­ing appli­ca­tion of the COVID-19 era. Despite belong­ing to a gen­er­a­tion not all of whose mem­bers demon­strate great pro­fi­cien­cy with such tech­nolo­gies, Ander­son her­self appears to have tak­en to Zoom like the prover­bial duck to water. Such, at least, is the impres­sion giv­en by “Spend­ing the War With­out You: Vir­tu­al Back­grounds,” her six-part Nor­ton Lec­ture series now avail­able to watch on Youtube. Its sub­ti­tle hints at one fea­ture of Zoom of which she makes rich use — but hard­ly the only fea­ture.

Through­out “Spend­ing the War With­out You,” Ander­son also super­im­pos­es a vari­ety of vir­tu­al faces over her own: Sig­mund Freud, Gertrude Stein, Loni Ander­son, and even her musi­cal col­lab­o­ra­tor Bri­an Eno. This sort of thing would­n’t have been pos­si­ble even in the long­time fan­ta­sy she cites as an inspi­ra­tion for these lec­tures: host­ing a radio show at 4:00 a.m., “a time when real­i­ty and dreams just sort of merge and it’s hard to tell the dif­fer­ence between them.” That’s just the right head­space in which to lis­ten to Ander­son make her ele­gant­ly spaced-out way through such top­ics as her life in New York, tai chi and med­i­ta­tion, lan­guage as a virus, the death of John Lennon, the cul­ture of the inter­net, Cather­ine the Great, the com­bi­na­tion of sound and image, The Wind in the Wil­lows, non-fun­gi­ble tokens, and Amer­i­can cheese. Tak­ing advan­tage of her dig­i­tal medi­um, she also plays the vio­lin, explores vir­tu­al realms, and dances along­side her younger self.

The col­li­sion of all these ele­ments feels not unlike Good Morn­ing, Mr. Orwell, Nam June Paik’s tele­vi­sion broad­cast of New Year’s Day 1984. Ander­son also took part in that project, shar­ing with Paik an artis­tic will­ing­ness to embrace new media. “I’ve almost always been a wire­head,” she says in these lec­tures 38 years lat­er. “But it’s become a night­mare in some ways, with peo­ple attached now to their devices, with a death grip on their phones. At the same time, it’s the same machine that cre­at­ed celebri­ty cul­ture.” Look­ing back on a “humil­i­at­ing” clip of her­self and Peter Gabriel per­form­ing on Good Morn­ing, Mr. Orwell, she recalls her state of mind dur­ing the com­mer­cial and tech­no­log­i­cal onrush of the 1980s: “Every­thing was mov­ing fast, and I just was­n’t think­ing. That’s my excuse, any­way.” See the full lec­ture series here, or up top. The lec­tures will be added to our col­lec­tion: 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Lau­rie Ander­son Read from The Tibetan Book of the Dead on New Album Songs from the Bar­do

Lau­rie Ander­son Intro­duces Her Vir­tu­al Real­i­ty Instal­la­tion That Lets You Fly Mag­i­cal­ly Through Sto­ries

Lou Reed and Lau­rie Anderson’s Three Rules for Liv­ing Well: A Short and Suc­cinct Life Phi­los­o­phy

Jorge Luis Borges’ 1967–8 Nor­ton Lec­tures On Poet­ry (And Every­thing Else Lit­er­ary)

Her­bie Han­cock Presents the Pres­ti­gious Nor­ton Lec­tures at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty: Watch Online

Leonard Bernstein’s Mas­ter­ful Lec­tures on Music (11+ Hours of Video Record­ed at Har­vard in 1973)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Julie A. Gross says:

    Won­der­ful to hear this inter­view with Lau­rie.
    I had the plea­sure of inter­view­ing Lau­rie back
    in 1972 for an arti­cle I wrote called ‘Sus­te­nance’ for ‘APPEARANCES’ mag­a­zine in 1972. Recent­ly I ran
    into the pub­lish­er of the mag­a­zine on the street in
    Chelsea near my stu­dio, and now I’m hear­ing Laurie’s
    ter­rif­ic inter­view. Love this world that ‘goes around’ and
    ‘comes around’!!!

  • Julie A. Gross says:

    Won­der­ful to hear this inter­view with Lau­rie.
    I’ve seen every­thing she has done. In addi­tion I had the hon­or &
    plea­sure of inter­view­ing her for ‘Appear­ances’ mag­a­zine in NYC back in 1972! Recent­ly I ran into the pub­lish­er of the mag­a­zine
    on the street near my stu­dio in Chelsea, & stopped him because I rec­og­nized him. It was a ‘kick’ to see him & remind him that I rec­og­nized him 50 years lat­er!!! And of course he was quite sur­prised too!!
    Thanks for this again! And hap­py, healthy 2022!
    Julie A. Gross

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