Moment of Zen

Pioneering musician Laurie Anderson on meditation, art, and human contact

The "O Superman" singer comes to the Bay Area to help a beloved center.

MUSIC When I spoke with art legend-cult hero Laurie Anderson — known for her experimental music involving invented instruments and poetry — her soothing manner caught me off guard. She's critical, yet positive; accomplished, yet humble. She's also somewhat of a Zen goddess (although she'd probably dislike that tag).

The lasting impression of her visit to Hope Cottage, a retreat tucked into the pastoral hills of the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Marin County, will bring Anderson to the 142 Throckmorton Theater this week for a conversation with San Francisco Zen Center's senior dharma teacher, Tenshin Reb Anderson. The event directly benefits the restoration of Hope Cottage — a Bay Area refuge that has recently fallen into fiscally prohibitive disrepair.

San Francisco Bay Guardian: What drew you to the Hope Cottage restoration project?

Laurie Anderson: Hope Cottage itself. It's such a beautiful place. I went there with my dog, and it was sort of an experiment to see if I could learn to communicate with her better. I heard dogs could understand 500 words, and I thought, 'I wonder if I go to an isolated place and spend a lot of time with her, we can learn to talk?" It was a lot of fun.

SFBG: How did Buddhism become an important part of your life?

LA: I first started doing meditation in the '70s, and it was just a way to train my mind to not be so crazy. I realized a lot of painful experiences are stored in the body in a coded and interesting way and that when you meditate, you can find those places. I found that really fascinating and helpful.

SFBG: Do you have any advice for people interested in getting into Buddhism? I've tried to meditate, but I can't sit still for long enough.

LA: It's very difficult to do. Then you realize if you try and break it down into smaller pieces, it becomes a little bit more possible. We live in a culture that's so obsessively dedicated to getting stuff done. The last time I was out at dinner, I realized, we were all reading our emails! I said, 'Read [your] last two emails. Let's see what we're spending this time doing.' We did, and they were idiotic. I thought, 'Whoa, this is what I'm giving up human contact for?' You have to be really careful about that stuff. It can eat you alive.

SFBG: What have you been up to artistically?

LA: Right now, I'm interested in painting — something I hadn't done in a very long time. I started just making a lot of music and films. One of the reasons I came back to [painting] is because of scale. It's really fun to work with physical things that don't necessarily fit on your computer screen because we pretty much live in a world of screens, and you think, 'If I've seen it there, I really understand it.' And that's not true in the world of painting.

SFBG: What made you transition from fine art to performance art in the first place?

LA: I like stories, so I was trying to record things and put them into talking sculpture boxes or something, and I thought, 'Wait a second. Why don't I just say them?' One of the great things about the so-called multimedia artist is that you can do a lot of different kinds of things and no one can say, 'You're a painter, you shouldn't be writing a novel!' So, it gives you a little more freedom to stay out of your box because, you know, artists just get put into boxes and are supposed to stay in them.

SFBG: It seems like you've completely transcended that.