Laurie Anderson was the first and last artist in residence at NASA. An avant-garde electronic musician of the 70s, she was called by NASA in 2003—the same year when Columbia space shuttle exploded—and was offered full creative freedom to create a theatrical piece about space travel.
NASA has always had arts programs, even as early as Apollo 11. On this monumental day, artists recorded the happenings; sitting, observing, sketching the scenes at the Florida launch center, Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston and the recovery ship in the mid-Pacific Ocean as we jetted to the moon and back for the very first time.
“Art is what’s left behind of history,” said Bertram Ulrich, curator of the NASA Art Program. Over the decades, NASA’s arts programs have ranged from Andy Warhol’s pop art interpretation of moon landing to Jazz musician Ira Bloom’s composition commemorating NASA’s return to flight after the Challenger accident.
But an artist in residence program, where the artist is allowed to roam around NASA’s buildings, interact shoulder-to-shoulder with the scientist and engineers, eavesdrop on the latest cosmic conversations, or in Laurie’s words: “a fly on the wall at Mission Control,” was NASA’s first attempt to engage and expand our contemplations on space.
By the 2000s, Laurie Anderson was well-known for her masterpieces combining music, dance, video, and experimental storytelling. She occasionally came up to the surface of mainstream entertainment, such as when her song O Superman hit global records. But for most of the time, she remains at the edge, constantly challenging and shaping technology as a medium for artists, while telling stories of our deteriorating relationship with nature and among ourselves.
Attending a residency at NASA would mean basking in a vast array of knowledge and wisdom on our mysterious relationship with the cosmos—a well-spring of stories for generations to come. Post Apollo 11, NASA’s federal budget was dramatically cut. And our relationship with the sky remains on the tether of telescoping deeper into the sky, but ignoring the more profound contemplations of our sacred tie to the whole universe.
Laurie Anderson received a $20,000 commission fee over her two-year residency—a drop in the billions of federal funding. Yet even with such a ‘small’ fee, the residency was abruptly ended in 2005 by the Congress because it was considered an obnoxious and unnecessary spending.
By that time, Laurie Anderson had finished The End of the Moon, a performance piece based on her residency at NASA combined with her own meandering on war, aesthetic, spirituality, and consumerism. The End of the Moon was performed in UK and US, while NASA’s residency was stopped. More than a decade later, Laurie Anderson and her long-time collaborator, Hsin-Chien Huang, released a 15-minute VR piece of our voyage to the future-moon that is meeting its doom, a loose continuation of her journey en-route cosmos.
Laurie Anderson’s works are all ethereal, always hinting at our subconsciousness, and as she said, “I want to evoke a reaction more than explain anything clearly. I don’t like things to be confused, but I like them to be multifaceted.” It’s almost impossible to replicate even just a hint of her intention in this article. So below are her quotes from various interviews on both lunar projects, which spanned over a decade.
In 2003, she received a phone call from NASA:
“The opportunity came about completely out of the blue, as many things are in my life. Somebody called and said “Do you want to be the first artist in residence at NASA?” and I said “What does that mean in a space program?” and they said ” Well, we don’t know what that means. What does it mean to you?” I was like “Who are you people? What does it mean to me? What are you talking about?”
Anderson hung up the phone from NASA, thinking it was a prank. When she finally accepted the offer, she began to tease out the fine line between arts and science.
I got to meet a lot of the engineers and scientists and realized that they were already doing works of art like a stairway to space or the greening of Mars.
“I just was a fly on the wall at Mission Control in Houston, Jet Propulsion lab in Pasadena, the Hubble in Maryland. Artists have a different point of view and that should be represented.”
What I got out of it was the thrill of being able to do something that involved so much technology and so much dreaming, and such a visionary way of looking at what you could do with that technology.
But even though Laurie Anderson dabbles in various technologies as a way to liberate the stories, her poignant messages always point back to Earth—a reflection as earthlings, an endeavor to the subconscious, an invitation to look at ourselves.
“The way we’re using this technology allows you to be free and that’s the biggest thing about VR that I love: it’s that you are not presented with a work of art as is that can’t change, but you walk into it, fly into it, you become it. This is what we want people to do. We want them to walk into works of art and wander around inside them and see what they can see.”
Separated by a decade, both of her lunar projects still share common themes: on belonging to the Earth, climate change, and political wars, as if nudging to our own propensity and capacity for ignorance and self-destruction.
“We did different phases of the moon, different aspects, looked not just at the romanticism of the moon but dystopias.”
Recalling NASA’s 5,000-year plan to send earth’s radioactive waste to the moon:
“The political things that made their way into To the Moon are the idea of some people to take all of the messy manufacturing that’s polluting the earth and put it on the moon, so we made a big trash mountain section to show what that would look like and feel like, and how disturbing it is to take a pristine, untouched-by-human planet and fill it with our garbage. Also, I couldn’t resist putting in the scene that’s in every single space movie you’ve ever seen, which is the astronaut needs to make some repairs, he crawls out onto the wing of the craft, his cable gets cut and he tumbles away into space.”
Laurie Anderson then retells her own cosmic experience with the moon:
“When the moon rose it was almost frightening,” she says. “It was like a huge sunrise, really enormous.” There’s a particular night stuck in her memory. “One of the scariest moments of my life as an adult was waking up one morning and looking out the window and the sun and moon were next to each other – the sun was setting and the moon was rising**. My heart almost stopped – ‘what planet am I on?’ I’d never seen them in the same part of the sky in that way, and the same size.”
You don’t always see (the moon) but it’s the closest, most mysterious thing to us
I have a secret goal, which is that people feel free and they’re not trapped by their minds.
It’s a very good time to be creating new realities. The moon is a great subject for that – it’s a great way to investigate the unreal.
** Sun, moon, and stars rise in the East and set in the West, so there’s no chance you’re seeing them next to teach other. Laurie perhaps was looking out to a vast empty landscape that the curvature of the sky seems to be more flat. Hence, what is much further apart seems to be side by side. Or, she’s facing North or South.