Laurie Anderson can take you to the moon and back

Thomas McMullan

Thomas McMullan talks to the artist using VR to disembody our senses

05 October 2018 08:30

Laurie Anderson wants to fly. She wants to balance on top of a 300-mile column and drift up, away, out of her body into the void. She wants to do all this standing with shoes firmly planted on the ground.

The US avant-garde artist and musician, who has been pulling rugs from under feet for several decades, has embraced technology throughout her career. She’s invented instruments, played with vocal filters and multimedia projections, picked at and combed through the many ways that new technologies affect our lives. I speak to her soon after the premiere of a new virtual-reality artwork in Copenhagen, set on the surface of the moon.

Impish and twinkling, she tells me over the phone there’s a moment in To The Moon – made in collaboration with the artist and designer Hsin-Chien Huang – where the viewer drifts away into space. It’s a terrifying, ecstatic moment of flight, she says. The person wearing the headset is left to gawp around them as they float outside of their body; a highly emotional experience on the evidence of the premiere.

‘My aim was not to make a lot of Danish people cry. But there it is.’ She laughs on the line. ‘You know, I was happy that happened. A lot of “tech art” is quite cold, so to be able to do something else with it was thrilling for me.’

‘To The Moon’, Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang

To The Moon is not Anderson’s first foray into virtual reality. Showing this week as part of Brighton Digital Festival is Chalkroom, an installation also made in collaboration with Hsin-Chien Huang, where the viewer explores a surreal structure made of words and drawings. It has previously been shown at the Venice International Film Festival and Taipei Museum of Fine Art, and is now getting its UK premiere. Again, the sensation of flight is at the heart of the experience, with the solo audience member able to control where they roam, through labyrinthine passages scrawled with graffiti.

She explains her aim was to make a virtual book; something that the viewer could lose themselves in: ‘I’ve always been very interested in disembodiment. Whether what I make is music or a story or a painting, I want to lose myself. With other people’s work I feel the same. I want to lose myself in the work. You can get lost in a Russian novel, you can get lost in a pencil drawing and you can get lost in virtual reality.’

This thread, between flashy new hardware and older media, comes up several times during our conversation. I ask Anderson if, compared to other artforms, virtual reality is uniquely positioned to explore ideas of the body, given how central the viewer’s physicality is to the whole thing. ‘They do it in different ways,’ she says. ‘Even if you’re reading a book about a character moving, it’s sometimes like looking at a dance. I think art forms are much more fluid than we think.’

That said, Anderson does think that VR can offer something traditional cinema cannot. Even though the initial hype around the technology has abated over the past year, she argues there is genuine artistic potential in crafting virtual spaces. ‘When we show VR work in film festivals, we geekily refer to film as “flat film”. It’s really pretentious, I have to admit.

‘Chalkroom’, Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang

‘But I do think one of the futures of imagery is film you will be able to walk into,’ she adds. ‘And music that you’ll be able to walk into. It’s going to be much more physical. Like the first films in the 1900s when people screamed at a training coming at them in a flat film, your eyes rule. Your feet tell you that you’re standing on the floor of a museum in Copenhagen, but your eyes tell you you’re on a 300-mile tall column. It’s a fascinating art form.’

Virtual-reality music? Anderson has invented a whole heap of different instruments and recording techniques throughout her career, from a magnetic tape violin to a wireless, six-foot-long MIDI controller dubbed The Talking Stick. She explains she’s recently been experimenting with composing and mixing sounds in VR, changing how music sounds by moving spatially:

‘I like trying all sorts of things, like what would happen to reverb if you go into this other space. What would happen to the melody if you fly above it? How does it feel if music comes in one ear and goes out the other, and changes in the middle of your brain?’

‘Chalkroom’, Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang

It’s an approach to VR that’s altogether more slippery and nebulous than 360-degree video of real places. Film festivals such as Sundance and Venice have held VR strands for a number of years now, with a number of prominent directors making works for the medium. Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Carne y Arena, for example, was given a Special Award Oscar for its story that centres on a showdown on the US-Mexico border. This quasi-documentary approach has become a popular one for VR, but Anderson says she’s keener to use the medium to explore interiorities; dark, unknowable rooms for music, reflection and vanishing.

‘I’m much more interested in disappearing,’ she says. ‘For example, if someone takes your picture and you’re scrunching up your eyes, and you say “That’s not me. You can’t take a picture of me. I’m the one in charge, looking out”. That’s what I’m going for in VR. I’m not trying to recreate a physicality.’

‘I don’t really care about being cutting edge,’ she chirps. ‘I never really did. I don’t think there’s anything more interesting about VR than painting. It’s just using a lot more buttons. I’m a geek and always have been, but I don’t use it because it’s new…’ She pauses, the line goes quiet for a moment, then bursts into a warm crackle of laughter.

‘Actually, I probably do. I probably do get off on it being thrillingly new.’