A Library of Stories
Laurie Anderson’s Voyage to the Limits of Art & Technology
In “Chalkroom,” Laurie Anderson’s virtual reality experience, visitors don a headset and grasp two paddles before leaving their bodies. Once it begins, you fly in a dreamlike state through a dark, creepy, abandoned mill-like building where you hear hollow metallic creaks and dripping water. You see scrawled backlit messages written seemingly in chalk along the walls, floors and ceilings. Maybe it’s the handiwork of a tribe of squatters? Who knows, but you go wherever you want, slipping into narrow corridors, darting into open windows, poking around dark, murky corners. Every turn leads to a surprise. Letters lift off the walls and swirl. Using a virtual reality wand, you write poetry on the walls. You speak, and your voice forms a sculpture. You fly, circle, dip, guided all the while by Anderson’s gentle voice.
“Chalkroom,” created by Anderson, an artist, musician and performer who won a Grammy this year for her collaboration with the music group Kronos Quartet, can be experienced through 2020 at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Located in North Adams, MASS MoCA is one of the largest noncollecting contemporary art museums in the country.
Denise Markonish, senior curator and managing director of exhibitions at MASS MoCA, describes Anderson as “10 steps ahead of everyone else.” Anderson first drew public attention in 1981 for “O Superman,” an eerie, mesmerizing song loosely inspired by the crash of a helicopter during the Iran-contra affair. In it, her voice is haunting as she sings a contemporary aria through a voice synthesizer over repeated loops of the syllable “ha.” When influential English DJ John Peel played it on his radio program, it became a surprise hit in the United Kingdom and introduced Anderson to a wider audience.
Anderson has followed her muse for 45 years, making films, albums and sculptures, writing books, and even inventing instruments. Her persistent interest in storytelling ties all this work together.
In 1995, Anderson and Taiwanese artist and programmer Hsin-Chien Huang created the interactive CD-ROM “Puppet Motel” — more of a mind-space journey than a game. It never gained much of a following, and because of rapid changes in technology, most computers can’t play it now.
So Anderson returned to more familiar media: film, theater and performance. She even created a series of concerts for dogs, starring her beloved rat terrier, Lolabelle. Then her dog died, along with her mother and her husband, famed musician Lou Reed — all within a few years. These experiences set Anderson on a journey to understand where the soul goes, a theme explored in her 2015 film “Heart of a Dog.”
Around this time, Huang tried to interest Anderson in virtual reality. At first, she couldn’t see much art-making potential in VR, describing it as brittle, sharp, shiny, slick and task-oriented. If they could come up with “something homemade, dark, weird, shadowy and drippy,” then, she told him, she’d think about it.
Thus began “Chalkroom.” Work started in 2015 as Anderson mapped out spaces and created detailed renderings of rooms and passageways. These hand-drawn images would ultimately give the space its otherworldly distinction. When they finished in 2017, Anderson and Huang submitted “Chalkroom” to the Venice International Film Festival, where it won “Best Virtual Reality Experience.”
“Chalkroom” was installed at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, where Anderson, in a filmed interview, described it this way: “Mainly you can fly, like in your dreams. That takes a little practice. Some people have fallen off their chair. It takes a little time to get your balance in this world.”
Disorienting or not, “Chalkroom” is often booked months in advance at MASS MoCA. Those who’ve failed to preregister can be seen hanging around the exhibit, hoping for a no-show.
“In some ways, it’s an experiment,” Anderson says. “It’s an isolated experience, too. It’s not like a film or a concert. You’re really alone in this world. You’re also reading a book along the way, too.” She calls it “a library of stories” with hidden elements everywhere and in hard-to-find places. She claims Huang embedded so many secrets and activities in the work that no one will ever find all of them.
“I wanted to see what it would be like to travel through stories,” Anderson says on her website, referring to the graffitilike words that define the spaces. “Then you begin to slowly move into this world of ramps and hallways, and it opens up to huge towers and they’re all covered in language. Sometimes letters float towards you.”
MASS MoCA also features a smaller VR project by Huang and Anderson called “Aloft.” This experience isn’t as dark and disorienting as “Chalkroom.” You take off in an airplane that dissolves around you. While this sounds totally terrifying, it’s not. There’s no plummeting, no panic. Rather, you fly like a bird over beautiful landscapes as the plane’s cargo floats around you. There’s a teacup, letter, suitcase and sponge. You stick out your bare hand and pluck them from the air. Each one tells you a story.
Inspiration for this — and a number of Anderson’s works — comes from being in a small passenger plane crash more than 35 years ago. She walked away physically unhurt, but was emotionally traumatized and had difficulty flying afterward. In “Aloft,” Anderson replays this horrifying moment, but makes it beautiful and reassures the traveler with her calm voice. “She’s our Sherpa,” Markonish says, “and it’s really special, really personal.”
“Everything I’ve ever done, whether it’s a piece of music or a drawing or whatever, it’s always about one thing: disembodiment — losing your body,” Anderson says in the Louisiana Museum interview. “My goal is to make an experience that frees you.”
What could be more freeing than going to the moon, traveling its surface, seeing the constellations and heavenly bodies up close? “To the Moon” is Anderson’s latest VR experience. Throughout 2018, it was housed at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, but there are plans for it to travel to MASS MoCA, possibly toward the end of this year. It’s based on Anderson’s time at NASA, 2003-2005, in what she jokingly calls the space program’s “first and last artist’s residency.”
What’s left for this artist, who, at age 71, has done practically everything? Markonish laughs and says, “I would never pretend to know what Laurie’s future will be. Her brain thinks at a different frequency than everyone else’s. Will she be doing VR 10 years from now? Who knows? And even that is very exciting.”