Laurie Anderson and The Use of an Artist

Last May 10th, my class and I finally marched (!) on stage, culminating two years of graduate work here at the MFA program in Interaction Design at the School of Visual Arts.

Our commencement speaker was the incomparable Laurie Anderson, experimental musician, composer, performance artist, and inventor, among other hats she wears. During her speech, she recounted her time as NASA’s first artist-in-residence and recalled how she was also the last one, after a politician sought to amend a bill making sure no such thing happened in the future. Anderson suggested that really, we should create artist-in-residence positions in institutions such as NASA, Congress, and other such places, which generated applause and laughter from the audience.

Laurie Anderson. Image via The Guardian.

It’s strange to be listening about art when I spent two years studying to be a designer. I have always questioned my artistic leanings, especially coming from a scientific background. I am and will always be immensely grateful for my geeky past (and who am I kidding, present), although from my experience in that world, to want to be in the arts was almost tantamount to self-banishment.  Thinking about the past six years out of undergrad—all the cancer lab rotations at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, art school in Spain, the Poetry Brothel in Barcelona—and frankly, I have to ask myself whether I actually have found what I’m looking for in a design program. And to a large extent, I did in interaction design. I always thought it was a way to humanize the sciences and the arts, which thankfully doesn’t always have to translate to something on screen. Two years in a design program have found me to be stubbornly conceptual, not because I wanted to upset my class but because that’s what I came to graduate school for. I think that if I do work for a company, I will probably spend all my waking hours designing apps and websites, and I have all the time in the world to do that.

So what is the use of an artist? After being immersed in interaction design for two years, I think that IxD shares an important thing with the arts—empathy. To be an artist, at least for me, requires me to place myself in different shoes and absorb various identities. The same is true as an interaction designer. Perhaps one thing that has been enormously helpful to be a practicing artist is the familiarity of actually inhabiting a character instead of simply watching people from afar, taking down notes.

To be an artist is to challenge the norm. While it’s wonderful to design apps and websites, it’s not the first thing I turn to when trying to give form to a project. Ironically, I do not own a smartphone, which will probably give most interaction designers a heart attack. No smartphone? What do you do when figuring out a bill, trying to find a place, or bored in a subway? Well, I try to do the algebra by hand, I talk to strangers a lot, and I write and doodle in a sketchbook constantly. It’s not a perfect system but it is a cheaper and more entertaining one. I think that we are more than our gadgets, and I think that an artistic practice allows one to experiment not just with what is, but what could be.

But more importantly, at least for me, artists are always questioning the self. Art will never lose its relevance, particularly in a time that is rife with uncertainty, though as I get older, I think each year in human history is tumultuous and unstable. On a personal scale, art allows for the exploration of selfhood in a manner that is less contained. I suppose that’s why I keep hearing of the banker who finally turned to painting, or the lawyer who is now a musician. As a scientist (I’m still wondering if I can call myself this), there are certain terminologies and protocols I have had to use for the scientific institution to understand where I am coming from. As an interaction designer, I do feel sometimes limited (although “limited” isn’t always a bad thing) by the words I have to use (hello, “user”) and the media by which I practice (wireframes and sticky notes). As an artist, I am moored to no such arbitrary islands; I can easily experiment with musical instruments as much as kitchen appliances and be equally at home with both of them

But enough with all this labeling. As I leave the comforts of school—though my classmates and my teachers alike are betting I’ll go for a PhD eventually—I would like to embrace the hyphen the comes when saying that one is a writer-artist-interaction designer-etc. I sometimes cringe when I’m only referred to as one of these, because to seemingly pledge allegiance to one field may appear as though one is relinquishing all her other interests. And wouldn’t that be such a shame.

Laurie Anderson with a pillow speaker in her mouth

But back to the red landscape of graduation at Radio City Music Hall and the blinding strobe lights. My favorite part of Anderson’s speech was the finale, when she stuffed a pillow speaker in her mouth and proceeded to sing to us for quite a long period of time with a sound that resembled Darth Vader’s voice, waking up even those who were dozing off. Afterwards, the school gave her an honorary doctorate. Lady, I just adore you.

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