Recently multimedia artist Laurie Anderson was awarded the esteemed Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize for her contribution to “the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” Laurie had some great things to say about modern culture and some grand questions about what is beauty. Recently Laurie was the first Artist in Residence at NASA (didn’t know that existed) and had some cool things to say about that experience as well. Here’s an excerpt from that speech.
As an artist I work with lots of different media, but mainly what it comes down to is story telling. I tell stories. And I love stories. They’re illusions. You can make them up. You can get a lot of people to believe them. You can even get a lot of people to believe a story about how they’re in great danger and how there’s an evil despot with lots of hidden weapons who wants to kill you. I mean you can actually start wars with stories. That’s how magic they really are.
And if it’s a really good story, you can tell it again. Just add a few new details about mushroom clouds hanging over US cities and invasions of the homeland. Just change a few names and places and you can tell the exact same story again and you can start another war. Because everyone forgot that the first story wasn’t a true story. But of course the point was never that it was a true story. The point was that it was that it was a good story. A really scary story. Scary, convincing, and beautiful.
So what do stories mean in a country where the government promotes violence and is also very media-savvy, very story-savvy? What does a true story mean now? What’s a beautiful story? And what does it mean when labels are slapped onto concepts? When the Geneva Convention for example is suddenly labeled quaint? How do concepts like beauty and truth work these days? Have they also become quaint? Something from other simpler times?
One of the big stories now, one of the most-told stories is about how the world is getting hotter. More crowded and dangerous. It’s about arctic floods and disappearing resources and entropy and the world winding down. And nobody knows whether it’s fiction or not. But it’s such a complicated story, and like with many complicated stories about the future, there’s no way to absolutely prove which version is true. It’s just sort of a matter of preference. Which story do you like better?
Recently I spent a couple of years as artist in residence at NASA, and one of the things I loved about NASA was that they also have stories with very long time lines. But many of their stories are really upbeat. And who knows? Maybe even true. One of these is a story about a project with a 5,000-year time line. And the idea of this story is to move all the manufacturing off the earth onto the moon and Mars and then to gradually remove all the toxic and radioactive materials and to ship this off. And this, along with extreme population control, would allow the earth to repair itself, to return to its original state, back to a kind of Garden of Eden, whatever that was.
Of course, there are a few problems with this plan. One is an issue currently in the international courts involving ownership and a claim by a Chinese realty company that they own the moon. Of course, this is a pretty big problem, because the Russians are saying, “Wait a minute! We got there first. We planted the first flag.” And the Americans are saying, “No, no. No way! We had the first man there.” And the Italians are saying, “OK, OK. But we saw it first.”
So who owns the moon? As we leave the earth and begin to make colonies elsewhere, we’ll have to figure out how to cooperate. Otherwise it will be pretty much like the race to the New World in the 15th century. The one who owns the New World is the one with the fastest ships. The one with the most resources. So what’s the real story here? Where are we really going? Or trying to go?