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Laurie Anderson Accepts Gish Prize

  • Monday, November 19, 2007
    Laurie Anderson Accepts Gish Prize

    Laurie_anderson_cropIn a ceremony held at Manhattan's Hudson Theater last Tuesday, Laurie Anderson was awarded the esteemed Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize. Named in memory of the early-film era stars, each year, the prize honors “a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” The following is a transcript of Laurie Anderson's acceptance speech from the event:

    Thank you. First let me thank all the people associated with the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prizethe
    advisors Pamela Johnson and Alberta Arthurs and Erica Berg Gavin and
    the chair Adele Chatfield-Taylor as well as the selection committee.

    I love, in the wording of the prize, the phrase about making a “contribution to the beauty of the world”words
    that almost seem to come from another era. And it really made me start
    to think about what the word beauty actually means these days in
    America.

    Laurie_anderson_gish_by_lou_reed__5
    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?

    Last year I read an amazing book, a book that many of you might know
    called Within the Context of No Context. It was written in 1980 by
    George Trow and it explains a lot about what’s happening in culture and
    media today, and the book begins like this:

    Wonder was the grace of the country. Any action could be
    justified by that: the wonder it was rooted in. Period followed period,
    and finally the wonder was that things could be built so big. Bridges,
    skyscrapers, fortunes, all having a life in the marketplace, still drew
    on the force of wonder. But then a moment’s quiet. What was it now that
    was built so big? Only the marketplace itself. Could there be wonder in
    that? The size of the con?

    I thought: Wow! Stop right there! And I’ve been trying to think
    about this ever since. What is the engine that’s driving our culture?
    What makes something true? What are we looking for?

    As I mentioned I was at NASA as the first artist in residence and I
    got the chance to talk to a lot of nanotechnologists. I realized that
    artists and scientists have a lot more in common than I’d imagined. And
    that in fact scientists don’t really know what they’re looking for
    either. But we work in similar ways. We get a hunch and then put
    materials together in certain way and try to make something. And then
    there’s the big question: How do you know when it’s done?

    Laurie_anderson_gish_by_lou_reed__6
    And it was odd, when we talked about how to finish things quite a
    few of these nanotechnologists kept citing Einstein, and they kept
    saying Einstein rejected several of his major theories. Why? Because he
    said they weren’t beautiful. So what was he actually looking for? And
    what did Einstein mean by beauty?

    Well part of what he meant by beauty was probably symmetry, a
    western hallmark of beauty. But take that to Japan or China and they’d
    say, Symmetry, it’s idiotic! Totally boring!!! It’s visual rhyming.
    It’s like moon and June. And hey, just because you have two legs and
    two eyes and a bicameral brain that’s supposed to make it good?
    Beautiful? How about if beauty is something with dynamic energy?
    Something with tension! Something really, really big next to something
    really, really small?

    So beauty often depends on where you are. And meanwhile, what do we
    mean by other words crucial to art-making? Like the word freedom? What
    does freedom of expression mean in a country where the press looks more
    like gossip, pornography, and propaganda? What does beauty mean in a
    country where preemptive nuclear strikes are official government
    policy? Exactly what is the size of the con?

    It’s easy to imagine an art world disengaged from the social realityart
    with its own rules for beauty and an art world that goes on its own
    parallel track untied to the rest of the culture. Then again, should
    art really be about saving the world? Saving it for who is always a
    good question when you’re trying to save something.

    Maybe in the end you can just try to make something beautiful,
    something very small perhaps. Something exquisite that makes you feel
    hopeful and happy and free. And that could be more than enough.

    I want to thank the Gish sisters for thinking of making an award
    about beauty. I want to thank everyone who came here this eveningartists
    and writers and painters and people who love art who have created a
    whole world-because the art world really is an actual world.

    Finally I want to thank my partner of 16 years, Lou Reed, for his
    love and for helping me in every way imaginable. And I’d like to thank
    my mother (who’s here tonight), because all my life I’ve been inspired
    by her energy and her enthusiasm for learning things and above all for
    her open mind.

    ----------

    Photos from the event taken by Lou Reed

    Journal Articles:
on November 19, 2007 - 9:55pm
Copy: 

Laurie_anderson_cropIn a ceremony held at Manhattan's Hudson Theater last Tuesday, Laurie Anderson was awarded the esteemed Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize. Named in memory of the early-film era stars, each year, the prize honors “a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” The following is a transcript of Laurie Anderson's acceptance speech from the event:

Thank you. First let me thank all the people associated with the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prizethe
advisors Pamela Johnson and Alberta Arthurs and Erica Berg Gavin and
the chair Adele Chatfield-Taylor as well as the selection committee.

I love, in the wording of the prize, the phrase about making a “contribution to the beauty of the world”words
that almost seem to come from another era. And it really made me start
to think about what the word beauty actually means these days in
America.

Laurie_anderson_gish_by_lou_reed__5
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?

Last year I read an amazing book, a book that many of you might know
called Within the Context of No Context. It was written in 1980 by
George Trow and it explains a lot about what’s happening in culture and
media today, and the book begins like this:

Wonder was the grace of the country. Any action could be
justified by that: the wonder it was rooted in. Period followed period,
and finally the wonder was that things could be built so big. Bridges,
skyscrapers, fortunes, all having a life in the marketplace, still drew
on the force of wonder. But then a moment’s quiet. What was it now that
was built so big? Only the marketplace itself. Could there be wonder in
that? The size of the con?

I thought: Wow! Stop right there! And I’ve been trying to think
about this ever since. What is the engine that’s driving our culture?
What makes something true? What are we looking for?

As I mentioned I was at NASA as the first artist in residence and I
got the chance to talk to a lot of nanotechnologists. I realized that
artists and scientists have a lot more in common than I’d imagined. And
that in fact scientists don’t really know what they’re looking for
either. But we work in similar ways. We get a hunch and then put
materials together in certain way and try to make something. And then
there’s the big question: How do you know when it’s done?

Laurie_anderson_gish_by_lou_reed__6
And it was odd, when we talked about how to finish things quite a
few of these nanotechnologists kept citing Einstein, and they kept
saying Einstein rejected several of his major theories. Why? Because he
said they weren’t beautiful. So what was he actually looking for? And
what did Einstein mean by beauty?

Well part of what he meant by beauty was probably symmetry, a
western hallmark of beauty. But take that to Japan or China and they’d
say, Symmetry, it’s idiotic! Totally boring!!! It’s visual rhyming.
It’s like moon and June. And hey, just because you have two legs and
two eyes and a bicameral brain that’s supposed to make it good?
Beautiful? How about if beauty is something with dynamic energy?
Something with tension! Something really, really big next to something
really, really small?

So beauty often depends on where you are. And meanwhile, what do we
mean by other words crucial to art-making? Like the word freedom? What
does freedom of expression mean in a country where the press looks more
like gossip, pornography, and propaganda? What does beauty mean in a
country where preemptive nuclear strikes are official government
policy? Exactly what is the size of the con?

It’s easy to imagine an art world disengaged from the social realityart
with its own rules for beauty and an art world that goes on its own
parallel track untied to the rest of the culture. Then again, should
art really be about saving the world? Saving it for who is always a
good question when you’re trying to save something.

Maybe in the end you can just try to make something beautiful,
something very small perhaps. Something exquisite that makes you feel
hopeful and happy and free. And that could be more than enough.

I want to thank the Gish sisters for thinking of making an award
about beauty. I want to thank everyone who came here this eveningartists
and writers and painters and people who love art who have created a
whole world-because the art world really is an actual world.

Finally I want to thank my partner of 16 years, Lou Reed, for his
love and for helping me in every way imaginable. And I’d like to thank
my mother (who’s here tonight), because all my life I’ve been inspired
by her energy and her enthusiasm for learning things and above all for
her open mind.

----------

Photos from the event taken by Lou Reed

Publish date: 
Monday, November 19, 2007 - 18:55
featuredimage: 
Stub

Comments

What an inspired, insightful speech and oh dear, I do wish that I could have attended the ceremony, if only to hear those wonderful ideas. Congratulations Laurie Anderson and keep it coming.

A good talk with good points. Didn’t like the bit about the seperate ArtWorld. Seperate worlds can’t interact.
The idea of an “…art world that goes on its own parallel track untied to the rest of the culture” is selfish.
Good thing the Gish girls put that money together.