Laurie Anderson, Neil Gaiman Talk Muppets, ‘Omens’ and Virtual Reality

laurie anderson neil gaiman
Laurie Anderson and Neil Gaiman in conversation at the 92Y (Photo: 92Y)

“Old Muppets are really scary,” said Neil Gaiman, recalling a 2002 stay at Jim Henson’s old home in Hampstead, England with longtime collaborator Dave McKean (Mirrormask, “The Wolves in the Walls”) that left him forever spooked by the man-made “creatures.” The author found a box of Henson’s old Muppets in the basement, and picked out a sheep. When he tried to move its face, the Muppet’s latex eyelid fell apart. “It was one of the most horrific things,” said Gaiman. The experience was enough to make the author wary of Muppets and puppets—one of many conversations with artist Laurie Anderson at the 92Y in New York on April 17.

Initiating around life and family, Anderson and Gaiman flowed through writing, creating and how virtual reality is transforming art, to tangents only the two could conjure. Anderson, who also finds puppetry “unnerving,” remembered when a journalist once asked to interview her using a sock puppet. Anderson obliged by also putting a sock on her arm, and the interview was conducted via two hand puppet mediums.

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Artist in flux: Laurie Anderson (Photo: Thilo Hoffman)

Gaiman read the first chapter of his latest novel, “Norse Mythology,” a rendition of the ancient myths, all tied to rebirth, or Ragnarök. Admitting that he rarely writes stories for real people, with the exception of family (2002’s “Caroline” was written for his daughters), most are about the fantastical. An idea for a story first takes root, doesn’t leave and eventually starts excreting other things to it, according to Gaiman. “If you’re doing fantasy right, it should be a conversation between the real world and the fantastic,” he said.

Later this year, the film adaptation of How to Talk to Girls at Parties, based on Gaiman’s 2006 sci-fi-punk short story set in 1970s England, directed by John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Itch), will also star Nicole Kidman and Elle Fanning. The author is also in post-production for an Amazon and BBC miniseries based on his 1990 novel “Good Omens,” written by Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett.

all the things I lost in the flood
Anderson’s latest book, “All the Things I Lost in the Flood” (Rizzoli Electa) draws on 40-plus years worth of work from the artist’s archives.

Set to premiere in 2019, the six-episode series is a  humorous take on the end of days on earth and will star David Tennant, Michael Sheen and Jon Hamm. Pratchett asked Gaiman to write the series before passing away in 2015. “He did the last request thing of me, which is a dirty trick to play on anybody,” said Gaiman. “You have to do this, and I’m gonna die. My friend just gave me this thing to do, and he’s dead. That was a last request. I have to do this, and it has sort of taken over my life.”

Essentially, “Good Omens” is an attempt by an angel and a demon to prevent the inevitable apocalypse, according to Gaiman. “I like to describe it to people as the funniest story ever written about the end of the world, and how we’re all going to die, but it’s really about avoiding armageddon, it’s about avoiding war,” said Gaiman. “It’s about ways of not fighting, ways of not ending the world … not fighting is infinitely superior to fighting if there’s anything that half a million years of being a human species has taught us.”

Gaiman later credited picking up “Lord of the Rings” when he was 10 or 11 and staring at The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke (painted by Richard Dadd, 1855-1864, while locked up in Bedlam and Broadmoor asylums after murdering his father) at London’s Tate Modern for hours in his 20s when asked by a member of the audience what key moments changed how they approached art. He also acknowledged Anderson’s late husband Lou Reed’s Transformer (1972) and early Velvet Underground albums as sources of early inspiration.

david Tennant michael sheen
David Tennant (l) as demon Crowley and Michael Sheen as angel Aziraphale, star in Gaiman’s upcoming six-part miniseries Good Omens, premiering on Amazon and BBC in 2019. (Photo: Neil Gaiman)

At the age of 8, Anderson remembered how her mother taught her the power of words. One night, she decided to take her twin brothers home across a frozen lake to show them the moonlight when the ice broke, and their stroller fell in. Anderson dove into the icy water and saved her two brothers. When she returned home, after a few moments her mother said to her “I didn’t know you were such a good swimmer, such a good diver.” Anderson said those words saved her life. “I want to learn how to do that for people,” she said. “I saw what words can do, and I wanted to learn how to shape them.”

Words and stories still shape Anderson. “You live in a country that’s so full of stories, and you think you know these stories and know so much,” she said. “One of the things that inspires me is looking at how little we do know and how I can think about that as an artist and storyteller. We’re living in an extremely dark dream. There are so many stories floating around about what’s real that it becomes a kind of existential crisis.”

Violence in schools needs more transparency, said Anderson, who questioned why doctors don’t show the public what a bullet actually does to the human body. “We really don’t know what’s real,” she said, “We’re drowning in our own stories and they’re all getting wilder and wilder as we try to figure out what we’re living in right now.”

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Laurie Anderson explores virtual reality in her latest installation, The Chalkroom, at Mass MoCA in Boston.

Anderson’s latest book “All the Things I Lost in the Flood,” taps into the artist’s personal stories with commentary on four decades worth of work, and loss. When Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, Anderson lost projectors, props, notebooks, sketchbooks, books and other documents when the basement of her Lower Manhattan home was flooded. Sandy also inspired her latest album, Landfall (Nonesuch Records) a 70-minute multimedia cacophony of sound featuring the Kronos Quartet, released earlier this year.

Virtual reality (VR) is one avenue Anderson has been exploring in storytelling with her recent exhibit at MASS MoCA in Boston. In collaboration with Taiwanese artist Hsin-Chien Huang, The Chalkroom is a VR installation allowing viewers to float through a room of words, stories and drawings via ramps, hallways, towers, and even swoop down a tree. “I think that walking inside an image is going to the be the future of imagery, and music too,” said Anderson. “I have no idea how it works—a piece of music that has no beginning, middle or end. It’s not a narrative, but a spatial thing, so it’s truly exhilarating to think of how to do that. It (VR) uses all the great cinematic tricks of fear and doubt and makes them very visceral.”

Both agree that VR will never eclipse other art forms, yet it is still evolving. Gaiman’s 2003 children’s book “The Wolves in the Walls” was recently given the VR treatment at SXSW.  “The interesting thing about VR is that it isn’t sitting there in my head as something that happened outside of me in the same way that TV or film or theater,” he said. “When I remember it, it registers as something I was there for. I was there doing this thing.”