Have you ever dreamed of flying? Remember what that feels like? Experiencing Chalkroom, a virtual reality work created collaboratively by famed multimedia artist Laurie Anderson, who is based in New York, and mixed media artist Hsin-Chien Huang, based in Taiwan, feels much like a trip into those hazy abstract memories of flight and movement. Except in this case, the flying takes place within a virtual experience of wonder, made of stories.
Chalkroom debuted in 2017 at the 74th Venice International Film Festival, where it won an award for Best VR Experience, and is now on view at Mass MoCA (the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) as part of a larger Laurie Anderson exhibition, and at the Phi Centre within the Particles of Existence exhibition.
The work’s official synopsis sums up quite well the incomparable feeling of being inside the work, as the viewer, (or “reader”), it describes, “flies through an enormous structure made of words, drawings, and stories. Words sail through the air as emails. They fall into dust. They form and reform… Once you enter the work, you are free to roam and fly.” Indeed, “free" is a fitting description of the sensation of soaring around at will, along with elation and mystery (the work also contains a subtle sense of strange, spooky darkness); and of using the controllers in your hands to navigate and control speed and direction. You can also choose rooms and “activities” within the experience, including, among others, exploring trees with words and letters as leaves, underwater situations, and a room of dancing ghostlike figures. Once you get the hang of it, even just the flying element is an amazing experience that feels new yet familiar.
And then, stepping back, this work also shows us how virtual reality can be used as an artistic language. For example, the theme of “disembodiment” is one notion that Anderson, an icon of many artistic mediums including multimedia, visual arts, stage performance, film, photography, music, spoken word, and now, VR, has mentioned in interviews about what now appeals to her about VR, such as within this oft-referenced video piece by the Louisiana Channel (a non-profit initiative of Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art), in which she also credits her collaborator Hsin-Chien Huang for much the work’s complexity and discoveries.
Born in 1947, Anderson’s body of work and achievements so far is vast. Some highlights include exhibitions and performances across the world, as well as grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. As explained in her bio, she’s also known for incorporating technology into art in different ways (from making new electronic instruments, such as the Talking Stick (with Interval Research Corporation), to becoming NASA’s first artist in residence in 2002). And, among her awards is Yoko Ono's Courage Award, most recently for Habeas Corpus, performed in New York in 2015 and exploring the story of a young detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Mohammed el Gharani, with whom she collaborated on the project.
Within Chalkroom, you may be flying solo but Anderson’s voice is there with you, speaking not only instructionally but also poetically and lyrically, guiding you into trust. Chalkroom’s sonic creativity reflects Anderson’s work as a Grammy-nominated musician, composer, vocalist, and spoken word artist, who has made music for dance, theatre, and film productions, including Home of the Brave, her 1986 feature-length documentary film. Her latest album, Landfall, a collaboration with Kronos Quartet, is out now, and over the years she’s collaborated with Philip Glass, Jean-Michel Jarre, and her late husband Lou Reed, to name just a few.
As for Phi’s inspiration for bringing Chalkroom to Montreal, Phi's Myriam Achard, who curated Particles of Existence, said, “I found it fascinating to see that an artist as established – and as extraordinary! – as Laurie Anderson would be interested in this particular medium: virtual reality. As well, Chalkroom premiered in Venice, which added to my desire to present it at the Phi Centre, as we wish to bring the best digital art and immersive works to Montreal." Furthermore, once Achard experienced the work for herself, she found it nothing less than hypnotic. "Laurie's voice accompanies us throughout the voyage... I could easily spend hours within the work!"
By Simona Rabinovitch
Particles of Existence is on view at the Phi Centre until August 12, 2018.
Photos: Chalkroom, created by Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang (cover), Sandra Larochelle + Jean-Sébastien Dénommé