Writers & Company

Laurie Anderson on language, story and losing her archives to Hurricane Sandy

The American musician and storyteller spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about her book All the Things I Lost in the Flood.
Laurie Anderson is an American artist, composer, musician and film director based in New York. (CBC)

Iconic artist and performer Laurie Anderson takes readers on an intimate tour of her life and career in her recent book, All the Things I Lost in the Flood. Along with an acclaimed new album, Landfall — a collaboration with the Kronos Quartet — the book was inspired by the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in 2011, which destroyed Anderson's archive of work and memorabilia.

Anderson is renowned for creating daring, innovative productions across the media landscape. She launched to fame with her hit single "O Superman" in 1980. Her virtual reality show Chalkroom was awarded Best VR Experience at the 2017 Venice International Film Festival, and her 2015 film Heart of a Dog — a reflection on the deaths of her mother, her dog and implicitly, her husband Lou Reed — was an award-winner in Venice, among other festivals.

Eleanor Wachtel spoke to Anderson in her New York City studio, where she has worked since 1975.

Damage and destruction

"We were planning to spend a cozy evening watching the storm. We had gotten supplies  — for the couple of days we assumed we would be holed up — and spent the day watching the dark clouds over the river. Then the lights went out; it became less entertaining. The power in our home went out completely — we looked out the window to see that the Hudson River had covered the highway.

"You had to be there, watching the river almost become alive. To see it rise, and sparkle in the moonlight, was truly awesome. It was powerful and beautiful. It was an event that wasn't happening to me — it was just happening. It's something that you can then look on as a massive and fantastic event. We moved downtown to a hotel, where we spent the days after the wreckage. We came back after a couple of days and my studio on Canal Street had been completely flooded.

"The basement was filled with seawater. That was where I kept a huge amount of my archives. I had a lot of things down there. I had instruments, artwork, projectors, electronics, papers — millions of things. I had hoped that we could save most of my things after the water was pumped out. But my archives were destroyed, they had turned into oatmeal. My first reaction was absolute devastation."

Taking inventory

"I don't know why I was saving my archives. I came from a family where the philosophy is to not hang on to stuff — either throw it away today or throw it away tomorrow. But I kept it. In my mind, I thought it was somehow important. I had somewhat of an inventory of the archive before this happened. The thing that struck me was just reading the description of the listed items was just as good as having a basement full of stuff. It was reminding me of my things and I could see them in my mind.

"It only took me two days to realize I don't have to clean the basement. It's washed itself away. So I was relieved. When something happens and there's nothing you can do, it's a happy situation. It reminded me I still have way too many things. I need to be simpler. I was feeling weighted down by all this stuff. 

"All the Things I Lost in the Flood is a reminder that language is a substitute for things. On a more abstract level, for example, the word 'yellow' is a memorial to the actual colour. It serves as a visual signpost, but it contains as much magic as you could stuff into a word. I had to also rethink a lot of things that I said about language and stories throughout the years. I had a lot of fun writing the book. I got to look at my work through different kinds of filters, and from a bigger distance."

Laurie Anderson's comments have been edited and condensed. 

Music to close the broadcast program: We Learn to Speak Yet Another Language by Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet from the album Landfall. 

With thanks to Anthology Editions for providing Do Angels Need Haircuts? for research purposes.