This article appears in the November Issue of VICE.
One Tuesday in October, Laurie Anderson was standing in the doorway of her SoHo studio dressed in plaid pants and a baggy white T-shirt with Tibetan script. The longtime New Yorker exudes a kindness that overwhelms her effortless cool. It wasn't even noon, but she'd already hosted a wedding reception for old friends who'd gotten married at City Hall earlier that morning. On the table was a large bowl of fruit salad left over from the affair. "Help yourself," she encouraged. "The bowls are on the counter."
When we'd nearly finished our servings, Anderson turned to the scruffy dog nestled beside me. "Willy," she said, her eyes bright and a grin flashing across her face, "would you like a little fruit juice?" The border terrier gave an affirmative bark. "Restraint is his best trick," she remarked, setting her bowl down on the floor. Willy waited patiently until Anderson gave him the cue to lap up the fruit-salad drippings. "Good boy!" she cheered.
Anderson's warmth took me by surprise. Maybe I didn't anticipate it because her work over the years has always been so avant-garde and analytical, often about technology and marked by voice modulations. I expected someone more distant. But when you think about it, the things she makes are always about alienation but never alienating, always challenging but still accessible. Her newest film, Heart of a Dog, which explores death, love, and post-9/11 surveillance culture through intimate anecdotes, is no exception.
"It's about stories," explained the 68-year-old performance artist. "Someone asks you what it was really like to be a kid and you haul out a story. You are a lot more complicated, but no one wants to know the whole story. It's too hard to put into words what you were really like. It's the same reason why when people ask, 'How are you?' they don't really want to know how you are." She laughed. "So you say, 'Fine.'"
In the film, Anderson tells a lot of stories about herself and about Lolabelle, her late rat terrier. In a short span of time, Anderson lost her dog, her mother, and her partner, Lou Reed, but she chose to focus on Lolabelle in the film, using her dog "to address the parts of people that aren't language." She explained that dogs absorb language but never voice it, and in Heart of a Dog, at times, she asks the viewer to see the world through the eyes of a dog. There's a David Foster Wallace quote in the film, "Every love story is a ghost story." Reed is the film's ghost, a haunting presence absent until the end, when his song "Turning Time Around" comes on. "It's a song about trying to be in the present," she said.
Anderson's mindfulness and her be-here-now mentality are ever-present in the steady timbre of her voice as well as in the Buddhist teachings she weaves into her sprawling and essayistic film, which knits together quotes by Kierkegaard, childhood memories, accounts of dreams, and offbeat details of the big-data industry and how Amtrak further militarized police dogs. The film marries emotionally frank sincerity with decidedly downtown eccentricity—Anderson's dog, we learn, played the piano and recorded a Christmas album. Perhaps the most memorable story in the film, though, is an account of a trip she and Lolabelle took to Northern California in the wake of 9/11, when "everything was so loud and such a mess" in New York.
On one of Anderson and Lolabelle's morning walks to the ocean, several hawks came swooping down and circled the dog. Anderson remembers a suddenly new expression on the canine's face. "First was the realization that she was prey," narrates Anderson in the film. "And second was a whole new thought. It was the realization they could come from the air... It was the same look on the faces of my neighbors in New York in the days after 9/11."
Anderson also engages America's fraught relationship with the Middle East in her latest performance, Habeas Corpus, a collaboration with Mohammed el Gharani, who was taken to Guantánamo Bay when he was 14. Even though Gharani was released in 2009, he is banned from entering the US, like all former prisoners. At once highlighting this prohibition and working around it, Anderson conceived of an installation that combines 3-D sculpture with live video feed for Gharani to share his story remotely. For three days in October, Gharani sat in a studio in West Africa for seven hours as his larger-than-life image was projected inside the Park Avenue Armory in New York. Each evening Anderson stood beside Gharani's statuesque hologram, introducing him to the audience and punctuating his chilling stories about Guantánamo by playing violin and reciting poetry.
In the Armory's Drill Hall, where the installation and concert took place, the high ceilings were lit up like the glittering cosmos. Anderson returned to the image of the sky, this time to evoke a complicated notion of freedom, suggesting both Gharani's hard-earned freedom as well as the freedom from laws that allowed him to be detained without charges for so many years. "In this case, it's a night sky," Anderson explained. "Someone in the Bush administration said for these detainees we have to find a legal outer space—a space where nothing applies. That phrase stuck with me."
As we spoke in her studio, Anderson showed me a picture of Gharani's lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, locking eyes with his former client through the two-way video feed. Gharani is shown bracing his head with one hand, emotionally overwhelmed. "Seeing that made the whole project worth it for me," she said, "and just seeing Mohammed laughing."
Although Heart of a Dog picks up many of Anderson's favorite hobbyhorses, it's only the second time she's ventured into the terrain of film, and this narrative-driven video essay is very different from the 1986 concert film Home of the Brave she directed, which featured performances from her album of the same name.
"What I love about performance is knowing tomorrow the show is going to be a little different, a little better," she said. "I had a lot of reluctance putting something in the can and saying, 'Done.' I wish there was a museum you could go to hang your painting and every night you could go back and work on it a little more: the museum of never-finished objects."
Despite being a final cut, Heart of a Dog still achieves a dynamic nature. It refuses to be pinned down. Like the best essayistic works, it makes meaning through all its disparate parts rubbing up against one another, challenging reductive narrative and straightforward definition, instead highlighting the slipperiness of language.
"Prisoners of war are called 'nonpersons,' and then you can do whatever you want to them in terms of the Geneva Convention," she said. "Or, for example, there were a lot of suicides in prisons, and then suddenly they call them 'manipulative self-injurious behavior.' Suddenly that was the name for a person who had killed themselves with his own hand. That's why this film is about language and exposing how much you can totally fool yourself thinking you can know your own past and that you can be encapsulated in a story."
Read on The Creators Project: Laurie Anderson Collaborates with a Former Guantanamo Bay Detainee
Anderson's stories are valuable on another level. She included affecting anecdotes on how she's dealing with death and mourning. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, she explained, suggests not crying when grieving because it confuses the dead. And she talked about refusing to put her dog down as the veterinarian encouraged. Her Buddhist teacher told her that death is a process for animals and people, they approach death and they back away, and you don't have a right to take that from them. In these moments, Anderson is never preaching but instead narrating her own exploration of different tools for negotiating suffering. Her honesty and vulnerability in doing so are hard to discount.
The film itself was one way of dealing with the death that was happening around her. "There's this practice of feeling sad without being sad. One part of the picture is to not say, 'Oh my God, it's so sad,' but to accept it and then do something," Anderson said, exhibiting an unflinching calm. "And something I did was I made this movie."
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Heart of a Dog is now playing in theaters.