Virtual reality transcends technology, creations

“Well, that was enough sensory overload for today,” an elderly woman said to her husband as the couple exited The Chalkroom, a virtual reality experience that is part of Laurie Anderson’s exhibition at MASS MoCA. The piece is quite sensational; guided by Anderson’s voice, one flies through The Chalkroom by moving controllers that are connected to graphics displayed on a virtual reality headset.

Anderson provides a physically immersive experience – I got a brief bout of vertigo after flying high up in The Chalkroom – yet also engages the viewer’s mind. Letters and words fill the piece, sometimes legible (“Some say our empire is over” is graffitied in multiple spots), but often obstructed. In “The Tree,” one of the rooms that comprises The Chalkroom, a white scraggly tree fills the room. Upon further inspection, the tree is made up of floating and disconnected letters, inciting a kind of 3D word-search for the viewer. 

The exhibition’s fixation on words and language is to be expected from Anderson, a skilled composer and musician. Her works at MASS MoCA play with communicability through different mediums. Right outside of The Chalkroom is The Headphone Table, a wooden table connected to an electric pulse. If you position your elbows on the table and your head in your hands, you can hear a subtle song, since bones are conductible. The action feels childlike, and the sound’s effect is reminiscent of the warped voices a child might hear while pressing their ear up against a wooden door, scheming to hear parents’ private conversations. Anderson seems to cater to the child’s mind; along with her alphabet tree, her works also include child’s games and stories.

Her charcoal installation, a series of wall-covering pieces titled Lolabelle in the Bardo, features dogs and spinning tops. The installation is playful but mildly apocalyptic; animals are ungrounded and at times upside down, seemingly whipped up by some Oz-esque tornado. The pieces’ black and white coloring and flying livestock remind one of Picasso’s Guernica. Anderson still manages to incorporate sound into this silent work, including spinning keyboards and violins in her tornado.

Lolabelle in the Bardo, a relatively simple charcoal composition compared to the other electronic works, nevertheless touches on technology, a central theme in Anderson’s exhibition. A keyboard, this time from a computer, and a flip phone are also whipped up in the charcoal tornado. Anderson seems critical in her depiction of the technology, suggesting its ultimate weakness as it is easily unplugged and drawn into the black and white whirlwind.

A flip phone appears again in Aloft, a second virtual reality experience from Anderson. The piece was described as “choose your own adventure,” and  viewers can clutch floating objects in the virtual reality space to hear their stories or to move around. Touching the flip phone transports you to a serene lake with a floating Buddha statue. Then, “give up attachment,” Anderson whispers to you in a prophetic voice.

This Buddhist philosophy from the flip phone is at odds with another story that can be heard from a floating lotus flower. When clutched, the flower whispers, “You always feel like you never have enough time to write to people, but you have so many people to thank – just do it.” Hooked into a virtual reality head-set and self-excluded from the real word, Anderson’s words come as a curt wakeup call to a viewer in the Information Age, encouraging them to set aside the flip phone and pick up a pen.

Promoting Buddhist detachment and also interpersonal communication, Anderson’s works encourage sincere thought about communicability and technology in the modern world. Spanning the alphabet to virtual reality, the exhibition ultimately runs the gamut of ways to communicate, offering seriously innovative approaches and adaptations to the historical human dilemma of communication.

Laurie Anderson’s ‘The Chalkroom’ immerses museum-goers in a chalk-illustrated virtual reality. Photo courtesy of MASS MoCA