While the sci-fi dreams of virtual and “augmented” reality are now within the grasp of artists and game designers, the technology of the adult human brain remains rooted in the stone age—we still need a good story to accompany the flickering shadows on the cave wall. An artist as wise as Laurie Anderson understands this, but—given that it’s Laurie Anderson—she isn’t going to retread familiar narrative paths, especially when working in the vehicle of VR, as she has in her new piece Chalkroom, created in a collaboration with Taiwanese artist Hsin-Chien Huang.
The piece allows viewers the opportunity to travel not only into the space of imagination a story creates, but into the very architecture of story itself—to walk, or rather float, through its passageways as words and letters drift by like tufts of dandelion, stars, or, as Anderson puts it, like snow. “They’re there to define the space and to show you a little bit about what it is,” says the artist in the interview above, “But they’re actually fractured languages, so it’s kind of exploded things.” She explains the “chalkroom” concept as resisting the “perfect, slick and shiny” aesthetic that characterizes most computer-generated images. “It has a certain tactility and made-by-hand kind of thing… this is gritty and drippy and filled with dust and dirt.”
Chalkroom, she says, “is a library of stories, and no one will ever find them all.” It sounds to me, at least, more intriguing than the premise of most video games, but the audience for this piece will be limited, not only to those willing to give it a chance, but to those who can experience the piece firsthand, as it were, by visiting the physical space of one of Anderson’s exhibitions and strapping on the VR goggles. Once they do, she says, they will be able to fly, a disorienting experience that sends some people falling out of their chair. Last spring, Chalkroom became part of an ongoing exhibit at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, a “Laurie Anderson pilgrimage,” as Mass MoCA director Joseph C. Thompson describes it, that also features a VR experience called Aloft.
In August, Chalkroom appeared at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, where the interview above took place. Watching it, you’ll see why the piece has generated so much buzz, winning “Best VR Experience” at the Venice Film Festival and visiting major museums around Europe and the U.S. “Mostly VR is kind of task-oriented,” she says, “you get that, you do that, you shoot that.” Chalkroom feels more like navigating catacombs, traversing dark labyrinths punctuated by brilliant constellations of light made out of words, as Anderson’s voice provides enigmatic narration against a backdrop of three-dimensional sound design. It’s an immersive journey that seems, as promised, like the one we take as readers, pursuing elusive meanings that can seem tantalizingly just out of reach.