Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Let x = x

NASA has an artist-in-residence, and her name is Laurie Anderson.

Why should NASA set aside money for paintings and music? "Art is what's left behind of history," said Bertram Ulrich, curator of the NASA Art Program. "It's a way to document something for future generations."

Science and Art! What a perfect combination! How come nobody ever thought of that before?

NASA began its art program in 1963 but never before had it tapped a resident artist, nor had it pushed the aesthetic envelope so boldly by choosing a performer whose large-scale theatrical productions blended "Star Trek" and Melville. Anderson is no Faith Hill.

A serious musician. Her work is actually supposed to mean something.

The idea of an avant-garde electronic fiddler hanging out with rocket geeks at NASA's research centers may seem like an odd collaboration. At the Ames center in Silicon Valley, Anderson stood inside a virtual airport control tower to view scenes of Mars terrain, taking photos and recording notes in a small red notebook. The researchers' reaction to their visitor was mixed, according to a NASA newsletter. One confessed to being a huge fan; another doubted the partnership of art and science. "What's she going to do, write a poem?" the researcher asked.

In fact, Anderson's passions run parallel with the pocket-protector crowd. She has collaborated with the Interval Research Corp. in California to design a wireless musical instrument called the Talking Stick, which emits sound when touched.


Laurie Anderson has been innovating violin-based instruments for decades, as a musical tool but also as a performance art thing-in-itself.

She took her art to the streets of downtown New York. She once stood on a block of ice, playing her violin while wearing ice skates. When the ice melted, the show was over.

I heard this story for the first time when the school orchestra was visiting Boston as part of a music exchange program in the spring of 1985. Me and this other girl — I can't remember her name, don't know what instrument she played, and have only a vague recollection of what she looked like (big hair) — we were billeted to stay with Kirsten, a violinist like myself.

Kirsten was cool. We smoked cigarillos down by the river. I bought a Clash (Sandinista!) t-shirt. We people-watched. Hordes of Deadheads were in town for a show. More interesting were the cliques of cool people amassing for the Pretenders concert that night.

After wasting away the afternoon, Kirsten thought she'd take us over to a friend's place at the university. But it wasn't really her friend, it was her older sister's friend, and the family didn't know about this friendship, not even the sister knew, cuz they wouldn't approve. In retrospect, I figure Kirsten was probably buying drugs off her.

The thing is, no one knew her real name. She was referred to affectionately as Madwoman. Cuz she was mad. Crazy, that is.

We sit on the floor of Madwoman's room while she gripes about the term paper she's struggling with, and, because it has something to do with said paper, she tells us the story of Laurie Anderson and the ice skates.

Like that, I was a fan.

When I got home, I tried to spread the word about Laurie Anderson, but it didn't go over well. The electric violin connection didn't pass with my music teacher (and I really should've known better since he'd frowned on my report on Erik Satie, dismissing him as trivial). Nobody knew what I was talking about.

See this fan site for more on Laurie Anderson.

Maud Newton headed this news item "Language is a virus from outer space," a famous lyric.

Those famous words are attributed to William S Burroughs (for whom I hold the deepest respect for his attempts to infiltrate the Scientologists). The statement is often abbreviated to "Language is a virus."

I have yet to meet someone who can satisfactorily explain the statement, let alone point to a precise source, and full context, for the quotation.

The gist and intent of the sentiment seem to reside in The Electronic Revolution.

Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash owes a vast debt to the idea.

Language is a virus from outer space. — William S Burroughs
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