When my son, Alasdair, was two, he embraced an unlikely children’s entertainer: Laurie Anderson. It began when he found her 1982 debut album, Big Science, in my vinyl collection and asked about it. After watching the “O Superman (For Massenet)” music video on YouTube, he moved on to her “Sharkey’s Day” video and then the classic 1986 concert film, Home of the Brave.
There was something about Anderson’s playfulness, her modified violins, sound-generating costumes, odd stage sets, and multimedia projections that appealed to him. As Alasdair devoured her oeuvre, he constantly asked questions about why, for instance, she had a violin bow that glowed, or what it means to say, as she has, that “language is a virus.” So I decided to go straight to the source to answer some of his lingering questions.
“Yaaaaaay! A two-year-old fan,” Anderson exclaimed when I told her about all this over the phone. “I love it. I am so happy to hear that, I tell you. I don’t know why, but I am. Hmmmm.” When Alasdair finally met Anderson in the flesh a month later, he insisted on showing her the art he made that day: “This is a giant hand coming out of a mushroom, petting a turtle,” he explained (which wouldn’t sound that out of place in a Laurie Anderson performance piece). Below are a few of his questions that I asked her.
Why don’t you always sound like a robot?
It depends on who is listening. To certain people — I think to my dog — I always sound like a robot.
Alasdair also asks: How do you make your violin bow talk, like in Home of the Brave?
Computers. Because computers are really smart, as kids know. If we tell them to do certain kinds of things, they will. That was one of the first violins that I had that I had hooked up to an actual computer, as opposed to a tape deck. So it was talking through a computer. These are good questions!
He has a whole lot more, but I had to pare them down. The third one is: How did you turn your violin into a lightsaber?
Into a light-what?
Into a lightsaber, you know, like in Star Wars?
Oh, yeah, lightsaber. I just took a lightsaber and started bowing with it, and combined two things. I like to use things that are already there and make them do things they weren’t doing before. I’m not the kind of sculptor who likes to invent whole new shapes. I think there are enough shapes in the world. I’m going for new uses of old shapes. So I thought, “The lightsaber and the bow look similar, so combine them.”
This is his most straightforward question, and yet his most difficult question. Why is language a virus?
Language is a little bit like germs because they can be communicated. They jump from one person to another, and then they mean something in one body versus the other. For example, a germ might jump into you and you don’t get sick, and it jumps into you and I do get sick. So, the point I’m trying to make is that we’re all pretty different in some important ways, and when we use words we have to be careful that they are being communicated in a way the other person understands. Otherwise, it’s an infection rather than a communication.
Laurie Anderson sometimes wears white suits, and Michael Jackson sometimes wears white suits. Are you two the same people?
Yes. We’re both Elvis, in his white suit period.
Early in his infatuation with your work, Alasdair came home one day and insisted on watching Home of the Brave while he was making art. After I got out his art supplies, he said, “I want to be a performance artist!” What advice would you give to an aspiring two-year-old performance artist?
Be as playful as possible. It’s the thing that is, in a way, the easiest to forget when you start doing things that have “big themes” and you have to work in certain ways. Most of the things that I’ve made, I’ve made in the spirit of goofing around with stuff. Goofing around. So goof around with stuff. Be playful. Have a really good time and you’ll find some interesting things. But kids don’t need to be told to play. They just want to play, you know? So I really respect that about kids.
Kembrew McLeod should let Alasdair choose the questions for all of his interviews with artists. This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 184.