Laurie Anderson is an experimental artist and musician unlike any other. HENRY HOLLOWAY exclusively talks to the guest director of the Brighton Festival.

LAURIE Anderson walks a very fine line between the corporeal and the spiritual, touching both a delicate sense of humour and a refined taste for the absurd. 

She creates some of the most abstract performance art pieces deconstructing esoteric concepts, while at the same time performing music designed for dogs. 

But while the tightrope Anderson walks may seem a precarious one between the avant garde and farcical, she has been consistently producing art, music, film and experimenting with the boundaries of each medium for the past 40 years. 

Now this year taking the helm as guest director of the Brighton Festival, the New Yorker will bring a little bit of both to the city’s annual arts celebration.

“Being an artist is a very godlike thing to be doing,” says Anderson. “You are creating something out of nothing. The idea you are creating your own world which is exhilarating.”

This element of otherworldliness straddling perception and reality in her art finds a synergy with her Buddhist beliefs.

“There is no authority, nobody is in charge, you are not getting rules about what to do, how to be good, and what love is, it is all about finding it out for yourself,” she says. “You turn around and say to people ‘guess what, you are the Buddha’. For a lot of people that is pretty terrifying,”

She goes on, “You create your own world in lots of ways and one of the main ones is through thought and language and our perception of it. 

“We are going through that in a major way right now with our elections at the moment. We begin to realise how much our world is made up of words.

“Each guys just comes up with a story about what he thinks the world is like, or what it could be like, and then you vote for the one you like the best.”

Politics is something she became closely acquainted with in her youth, enjoying a series of correspondence with soon to be president John F. Kennedy while he walked the campaign trail - writing to him asking for advice.

“He sent me a telegram and so roses, it was a long crazy love story between a punk kid and a politician,” she says. “But what I feel to him now is just a lot of gratitude.

“One of his famous sayings said was that poetry and art is at the heart of America, thinking about that now I just burst into tears. There is no one since him in politics who has said anything even close to resembling that.

“I believe the heart of things is art, perception and poetry and that is our engine. For him as well it was the engine to go to the moon and to confront the Russians in Cuba.

“He was a very competitive but a very soulful guy. I was very amazed with him at the time but even more now.”

Looking at the current crop of US politicians, Anderson says it is “eerie” none of them mention culture or art any more.

But the despite her belief in reality’s be all and end all being perception, Anderson does appreciate her philosophy on reality may be cold comfort.  

“Right now in the States we have been divided down the centre between the haves and the have-nots,” she says. “I have not spoken to the person who has been living out the back of the car and has lost their house.

“When I ask them about how they feel about perception versus reality then they might not agree with me. But while the hard realities of things are there, I still think you have a lot of power over the way you shape it.”

Her perception of reality is the one of the subjects of her first feature film in 30 years, Heart Of A Dog – a visual and audio essay on love, language and death.

The film, being screened at the Brighton Festival, is based around the motif of Anderson’s pet rat terrier Lolabelle, who died in 2011, and contains intimate of home movies of the artist, her late husbandguitarist Lou Reed, and the finger-painting, piano-playing pup. 

Anderson also considers Buddhism and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which deals with the idea of the ‘bardo’, the intermediate state between death and rebirth.

“The energy transforms into something else,” says Anderson. “As a theory that always made an awful lot of sense to me. Even as a kid, I thought when you died you would not go somewhere and get a crown, I could not imagine that sort of stuff.

“But I could imagine energy transforming, people becoming air, energy and memory and other lifeforms.

“By the laws of the physics, energy does not just evaporate, so the bardo seemed an interesting way to talk about the imagery around that.” 

Anderson says Heart Of A Dog was produced when she received an invitation from French-German television channel Arte to make a film about why she makes art.

“That sounded deadly and I just thought oh please,” she says. “But there was a creative freedom around it, so I decided instead of answering that question I would just use stories to work around the answer.

“It became a film about what is a story and what happens when you use it to describe yourself, and I had a very good time making it.

“Originally it was not going to be a feature , it was supposed be just 20 minutes, but it kept going into other realms and then it went out to a wider audience beyond the art film circuit.”

Heart Of A Dog is a collage of narration, film and music and once again walks a line between the humorous and the heartfelt, tackling her relationship with the dying mother she struggled to love and the dying, blind dog Lolabelle who she loved in a way she never thought possible.

Lolabelle’s use as a motif in Heart Of A Dog beguiles and is another use of animals, in particular dogs, as central themes in Anderson’s most recent work.

Even at last year’s Brighton Festival, Anderson produced All The Animals, a collection of stories about her encounters with animals used to represent human emotions such as joy, confusion and mainly empathy.

Do they teach us about ourselves, or does it just make good art?

“It is some of both,” says Anderson. “I am drawn to dogs in particular because of their skill for empathy. 

“That is probably my number one goal as an artist and as a person is to try and have empathy and to pay attention.

“Dogs are all eyes, all ears, all smell and they are really there, they live in the present.

“That as a skill for most us is atrophying. I am stumbling down the street looking at my cellphone, I know it is pathetic and I cannot stop doing it.”

But as Anderson strolls through the streets of New York staring at her mobile, which she describes as her office and notebook, it is the places she is walking through which are also holding bearing on her latest crop of work.

This year, the 50th anniversary edition of the Brighton Festival is themed around home and place, something Anderson says she holds very close to her heart.

“I realised almost every show I have ever done has started the same way,” she says. “The first three sentences are always about place, something like ‘I am from New York’, or ‘I live by the Hudson River’, or ‘This is the world’.

“It is very essential to me to map that out – it is all about mapping. That is what one of the things I am writing for the Brighton Festival is going to be about.”

She is referring to the piece Slideshow, which will see Anderson deliver a monologue on stage in front of a selection of images featuring places from her past.

“It is without music which is terrifying to me,” she says. “It will have pictures but I really wanted to challenge myself to just talk about place or places which have left a big impression on me or what it is like to be in certain places and how that influences how you are.

“For example I will talk about what it is like to live by a river and what that does to you . I just realised I always situate myself near rivers and I asked myself, why is that? What is that place all about?

“I am still writing it now, so we will see how it goes, and I just love the opportunity to do something I would not do normally.

“Festivals are great for that, they are more forgiving, if you do something really horrible it gets lost in the shuffle.”

But in terms of Brighton as a place, Anderson says most of her stand-out memories of the city relate to the beach and the seafront – fondly recalling the salt air, the wind and the bright light.

“I tend to gravitate towards the beach,” says Anderson. “So my memories of Brighton have to do with what I was doing on the beach.

“I recall I had to write something on some abstract music, so I decided I was going to go down and sit on the beach to do it.

“But with the sound of the sea and the pebbles I ended up writing about that as much as the music.”

She adds, “Home and place is about locking in those memories connected to ideas and people.”