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Dr. Laurie Anderson’s convocation address

Multidisciplinary artist Laurie Anderson was awarded an honorary degree by NSCAD University on Tuesday, May 14. Credit: Wiebke Schroeder.

NSCAD University’s honorary degree recipient, Dr. Laurie Anderson, addressed the graduating class of 2024 at the convocation ceremony on May 14. In addition to congratulating the new graduates, she offered some reflections on life and art as they navigate their new lives as professional artists. 

First of all, thank you so much for inviting me to be part of this ceremony. It’s such a privilege to spend some time here and get to see some of your work. And I’m going to try my best today to say a few things that might be useful to you.

I’ve learned almost everything I know in my life from other people. I’ve met a lot of people who gave me great advice. I had a painting teacher who would look at my painting and say, “Just throw this one away.” And then he’d say, “Try this: just do your worst work. Make something really bad, idiotic tasteless and stupid. You might find this turns out to be your best work because it’s not polite… it’s not so careful… it’s free.”

So anyway, I’m just passing this tip along to you, in case you need it.

I have to say that right now is an amazing moment to be an artist. There are more opportunities now to make things —to invent things—than I’ve ever seen before.

And there’s this new and wonderful freedom to move between art forms — music, fashion, film, sculpture, painting, design. The boundaries have become very fluid,  making it easier to move around and experiment.

Plus, this has become a culture that accepts and encourages starting things up yourselves so you don’t have to wait forever for an invitation to do something. You can think it up yourself and just start—your own gallery, your own blog, your own line of whatever. And of course, you no longer have to feel like a weirdo since, as it turns out,  the world is full of weirdos eager to meet you and see what you want to do.

There are also lots of challenges, especially surrounding technology. For example, there’s the idea that art should be democratic and that technology will invent tools so that everyone can become a kind of instant artist. This is a wonderful dream, but after several years of art school, I’m pretty sure you all agree it’s not actually all that easy. 

I’m thinking about a kind of horrendous ad I saw last week for the . And it starts with a pile of sound equipment a metronome, an upright piano, violins, a saxophone, brushes, art supplies, architectural tools, cans of paint and cameras and when you look up you see they’re all about to be crushed by this gigantic slab of metal lowering itself down on them.

And then boom! Everything is flattened down—compressed into a paper-thin piece of metal. Smoke clears to reveal The Crusher logo and the wafer-thin iPad that is now supposedly the only thing you need to make music or film or any art form. Even though the message was idiotic and completely insulting to every musician, painter, filmmaker in the world you had to admire the eye-catching style.

Even though I love technology and I use it in most of my work my favorite quote about it  comes from a cryptologist who said, “If you think technology can solve your problems, you don’t understand technology and you don’t understand your problems.”

You are the generation that will start interacting with and collaborating with AI in your lives and in your art. As someone who loves AI, I encourage you to explore this but also when you ask yourself whether AI is taking over the world, please also ask not only what artificial intelligence is… but what human intelligence is. What is it in you that allows you to think and to feel? What makes us human?

I’ve learned a lot of things from the artist, Brian Eno. His recent film, like much of his art, is generative. It’s not a set story recorded and played back on film, but it’s played by a computer and is never the same from screening to screening. And it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen. In the film— or the version I saw— he says  a strange thing, “Art is feelings.” And it was an especially striking thing to say since he’s in many ways a very thought-based, rational and intellectual artist.

It made me think about how what we do as artists—making pictures sounds and colors— must strike the people who see it. The people sometimes called the viewers or  the audience. I think it works the same way it works with friends. You know I don’t remember what you said and I don’t remember what you did but I remember the way you made me feel.

One of the things I love about being an artist is the unique combination of social and private—being part of a big community of people who make things and at the same time, there’s the reality that much of the time you are also alone. It’s a kind of ideal combination of connection and solitude.

I love what John Cage said about painting; that when you start a painting there are a lot of people around—friends, family, critics, everyone who’s ever painted a painting. It’s a kind of crowd; you keep painting and gradually there are fewer people, and you keep going and they’re drifting away, and you keep on painting and finally you’re the only one left, and you keep going and finally… you’re gone too.

Speaking of community, I do want to say something about being able to speak up. And how important that is. Two days ago, I went to visit my university in New York Columbia where I studied medicine, art and lots of other things and the big front gates were locked and surrounded by heavily armed police. Graduation had been cancelled and was only happening in very small groups far from the campus. I just want to thank the students there and in many other places who stood up at great personal risk and protested the war.

It made me think back to the protests we did in the very same buildings that were raided by the police almost 56-years-ago. And I remember sitting there, arms locked with the other students, and wondering “Is this even worth doing? Will this change anything?” And now I finally get the perspective and the opportunity to say—it changed things massively. The student movement supported both the civil rights and anti-war movement and remade the country. Not forever. There’s still a very long way to go, but I am grateful to the people who take this idealistic long view.

This summer is the 60th anniversary of what came to be called “Freedom Summer,” that sparked a whole series of movements. I’m not at all saying that artists should be activists any more than people who deliver the mail or work on farms. It’s just that artists have such sharp tools and if they so choose they can have an enormous impact on our world.

Now as you know, one of the biggest stories of our time is about time. And in this story we’re running out of time and all the clocks—climate clock, the nuclear clock, the clocks of populations, of resources—are all counting down to zero. Only seven more years until climate change is irreversible… Only three months left before the last white rhino is gone forever. So, what is the future? What is this world to come?

As artists you are trained in time….you’re trained  to understand the world of direct experience. And this requires only one thing: your awareness. Of course, we look at the future and learn from the past but you are trained to keep your eyes and ears open. While this seems simple, of course it’s not. And I’m sure your training of the last few years will help you understand time this way and move through time in ways that are positive and creative.

I’m an optimist for only one reason. It’s not because it makes sense. No one, no one…  will ever be able to prove that the world is getting better or worse. I’m an optimist for only one reason—simply because you have a better life. A happier life. A more positive life. To risk sounding shallow It’s just more fun.

Life goes by so fast but there often isn’t time to think “What should I do?”  

So, I found that it’s good to have a few dependable rules that you can fall back on. My husband, Lou Reed and I made up three rules that I found work really well in most circumstances and here they are: Number one, don’t be afraid of anyone. Can you imagine what your life would be like if you were not afraid of anyone? Number two, get a good bullshit detector, and learn how to use it. The second part is very important. Number three, be very tender, and with these you have enough.

We’re about to wrap things up here but I want to tell you one more thing… one of the best, most useful thing I’ve learned. And it comes from the great Buddhist teacher Mingyur Rinpoche who said: “Try to practice how to feel sad without being sad.”

This is a great distinction. To practice how to feel sad without actually being sad. I mean there are so many sad things in the world. And if you pretend they’re not there, you’re an idiot. But the point is that it’s very, very important not to become sad yourself.

And more than that he said remember the reason that we’re here –the whole reason is to have a really, really, really good time.

I’d like to conclude with a short song. I’ve always wanted to sing like a violin so a long time ago I finally figured out how to do this. And it involves something called a pillow speaker. Looks like this. And it’s a small speaker that you put inside your pillow at night so you can do things like learn Chinese in your sleep. This never worked for me. I just woke up feeling really paranoid. But being a somewhat oral person, I like to put things in my mouth so it goes like this.

A couple of years ago, I was in Miami and I decided to play this little piece. So, I was trying it out in the hotel room but the battery acid had leaked and the speaker glued itself to the roof of my mouth. It was totally stuck. And I thought: the acid is going to eat into the roof of my mouth!

I ran out, down the elevator and out into the street. And into a pharmacy and I found the pharmacist and I was just kind of pointing to my mouth with the cable hanging out and gesturing. He just got a q-tip and some acetone and went chk! No questions asked.

Thank you again and congratulations.