Wandering The Chalkroom (Laurie Anderson’s Text-based Virtual Reality)

(image via https://massmoca.org/event/laurie-anderson/)

It was a hot, humid day here in New England, so we took our teenage son to the MassMOCA museum — a huge, cavernous modern art extravaganza created out of an old manufacturing complex. It’s cool in there, in both degrees and art. We hadn’t made reservations in advance — it was more a hit-the-road on a whim kind of day — and we took a chance to see if there was any room for us to explore the Laurie Anderson Virtual Reality exhibit entitled “Chalkroom

No luck, the attendant informed us, as the day was booked solid in advance. Dang. We knew our son would enjoy a VR experience. We wandered away, slowly, but a few minutes later, we heard the attendant calling us back. ‘Come on,’ he informed us, with a smile, and a secretive wave, ‘I’ll let you in,’ and he led us into a completely dark room with virtual reality stations set up.

If you know anything about Laurie Anderson – musician, visual artist, writer —  you know she is full of interesting experimentation. The Chalkroom VR takes that to another level altogether, fusing technology with immersive text. The Chalkroom is based on a live exhibit she created years ago for the Guggenheim in New York, in which she converted rooms with etched writings in chalk. In this VR version, the visitor in immersive goggles flies and wanders through a fascinating landscape of virtual writing and art. It’s difficult to describe. Anderson created the experience with collaborator Hsin-Chien Huang.

(image via https://massmoca.org/event/laurie-anderson/)

In one room called Cloud, my favorite, you use the VR set to pull words off the walls and create a swirling cloud of letters and words, so that you end up standing in a maelstrom of texts set in motion. In another called Tree, my other favorite, you come upon a tree, whose leaves are letters and words, and you can either fly up through the branches, causing letters to fall and float, or once at the top, channel down along the trunk of the tree. In another called Rain, you are standing above a puddle of water, as rain in the form of text, comes falling around you. In another, called Writing, you shine a line on the walls, and write your own texts, scribbling lines that are made out of other words, so that her writing becomes your ink, but only temporarily, as you then watch your graffiti lift off the walls, float off and disappear.

Laurie Anderson’s voice, meanwhile, is whispering in your ear the whole time, providing snippets of story and text, a gentle hum of the artist perched on your shoulder even as you are invited to make your own choices about what room to explore and what to do once you get there.

I am often a skeptic to the emergence of Virtual Reality as the next step for creative composition — the whole Meta World thing bothers me because I know how companies are already gearing to exploit the experience for financial gain — but Anderson’s work has opened my eyes a bit wider for other possibilities, for the way that Anderson and Huang so effectively merges text and story and technology and sound together into a fascinating experience within her imagined world.

I love that text itself is key component, too, (white chalk writings set against a dark background) as she uses letters and words and phrases to chalk the walls and floors and ceilings, and then invites the viewer to explore those terrains, which sometimes open up into wider narratives and compositions in the virtual world. It’s also worth noting the tension between the old school writing (chalk boards) and the new (virtual reality), as Anderson bridges the past with the present/future.

Peace (writing it on the walls),
Kevin

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