Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 2, 2019
Laurie Anderson
Mass MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts, May 27, 2017–2020
Laurie Anderson, installation view, Mass MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts, May 27, 2017–2020 (detail: Laurie Anderson with Hsin-Chien Huang, The Chalkroom, 2017) (photograph by Christin DeFord, provided by MASS MoCA)

While the use of cutting-edge technology has become increasingly common in contemporary art, it often comes at a price. Slick display of digital technology can easily overshadow content and turn a work of art into gimmick—novel entertainment, at best. Laurie Anderson is arguably the most prominent among the handful of artists today who are aware of this challenge. Building on the legacy of Nam June Paik’s pioneering contributions to what is now called new media, Anderson has passionately embraced technology over the decades, but has diligently used it in the service of content. A multidisciplinary artist of the most versatile kind, she has consistently applied the newest available technologies to a wide range of ideas, from profoundly autobiographical to intensely political. Five of her projects made over five decades are now on display at Mass MoCA as a culmination of her ongoing collaboration with the museum: The Headphone Table (1978); several short films produced between 1979 and 2005; an audio archive labeled Five Pictured Songs: Birds, Fish, Mirror, Rocks, Storm (2005); and Aloft and The Chalkroom (cocreated with Hsin-Chien Huang), both from 2017. Products of her most recent experiments with interactive virtual reality, these last two pieces warrant further discussion.

Once you don the VR headset and sit down to experience Aloft for about fifteen minutes, you find yourself seated at the rear of an aircraft. The project is inspired by a plane crash that the artist survived in the 1970s. Immediately following an announcement in the artist’s gentle voice, the interior of the plane gradually disintegrates backward from the cockpit. Once the debris clears, you find yourself “hovering” in open space. Various objects—a soot-smeared cockpit voice recorder, a mobile phone, pieces of rock, a flower, a water globe—drift past you amid myriad letter As floating around. A raven flies by. You can rotate 360 degrees on your swivel seat to observe them. When you raise your hand before your headset, its contour appears on your screen as it is captured by an infrared beam, allowing you to reach out and “grab” an object near you. When you “hold” each object in your closed fist, a voice whispers a fragment of a story connected to it, or you hear a piece of music. As soon as you “grab” the flower, for instance, its petals come apart while you hear a whispered reminiscence of a childhood. An old typewriter then appears before you. But no sooner do you start “typing” than a flood of letters float away from it like a swarm of tiny butterflies. Finally, a vintage copy of Crime and Punishment sails toward you. You can “turn” the pages and read it, but before you can focus on the text, it breaks apart and flies out into the sky. The session then concludes with an announcement in the artist’s composed voice.

The Chalkroom, in comparison, is more complex. Unlike Aloft, which is installed in the hall outside the galleries, The Chalkroom is in a dark room. The walls, floor, and ceiling are painted solid black, covered with texts and images in glowing white. You sit at a station, put on the VR headgear, and hold two joysticks. As you stretch your arms forward, you gently “glide” through a labyrinth, guided only by a faint light. You “move” through pitch-dark rooms with white images and scribbles all over, as in the actual gallery, until you “stop” at a specific spot. Anderson’s soft voice informs you that you have reached the center of The Chalkroom, and that you can now begin your journey. Several tabs appear on your screen, indicating different domains within The Chalkroom that you can visit, each of which offers fragments of different stories by the artist, accompanied by a soft music. In each scenario, you find yourself “gliding” around monumental black walls, dense with glowing texts and images. While at times you find the walls connected to a floor and a ceiling, they mostly appear as immense monoliths mysteriously suspended in ominous, bottomless voids. The abysses are likely to make you uncomfortable, scared even. The absence of a ceiling in the labyrinth is occasionally compensated by a glimpse of a nocturnal sky with drifting clouds, only to change back into a deep void. You can choose to “stop” to read texts or look at images, all the while “hovering” right above a floor, below a ceiling, or before one of those giant walls, where you can “maneuver” up and down to inspect its content. However, due to the overwhelming presence of texts visible only in a dim light, you can have no more than a glimpse of any section. It is all but impossible to memorize and recall any of the writings. One of the tabs even encourages you to “write” on the walls; but as you gesture to write with the joystick in your right hand, swarms of white letters rapidly fly away from the surface. You can write nothing. Finally, as in Aloft, you hear the artist calmly announcing the end of the session.

The revisionist tide of the 1970s made a deep impact on art and culture in the Western world, causing major shifts in creative thinking and practice. When the water receded in the 1990s, hyperrealism, textuality, indeterminacy of meaning, and the complexity of the role of language were among the several outcomes of that revisionist awareness that remained vital for many artists. In the footsteps of Conceptual art, many of them put idea and content above medium, challenging the modernist mandates of the previous era that advocated strict separation of the mediums and privileged formalist experiments involving material and process. Disdained by modernism, narrative returned forcefully, establishing the vital role of language in the visual arts. The provocative term “postmedium” has since been used not only to label this shift from the primacy of medium to that of idea, but also to identify the creative efforts that fluently moved across mediums for hybrid results. In her multidisciplinary practice as a storyteller, Laurie Anderson has always used language as a fundamental bond between her sculpture, music, performance, and film, but less as a self-negating vehicle of communication and more as an active agent in her stories. Aloft and The Chalkroom demonstrate this strategy in compelling ways.

Both projects are deeply autobiographical: Aloft is informed by the plane crash and The Chalkroom offers bits and pieces of meditative reflections on her childhood, her creative practice, and her late dog Lolabelle, among other topics. But the two installations are also starkly different. One, stemming from a harsh experience in life, unfolds in broad daylight, while the other plays out in a labyrinth engulfed in darkness. Narrative is crucial to both, yet in neither one is it comprehensive; all you get are symbolic allusions from fragments of utterance or writing. It is precisely this fragmentary character of language, however, that heightens the viewer’s desire to know more, only to be left with no conclusive understanding of the stories. These projects’ resistance to any cogent narrative, in fact, makes language shed its conventional disguise of transparency and appear as an active, structured entity to be experienced, along with the visual images, for its physicality. While reminiscence of a horror in Aloft is offered without any shocking images of death and destruction, the intense hyperrealism makes it no less a reminder of a tragedy. Not only do the incoherent voices emanating from the passing cockpit voice recorder unambiguously refer to great distress, but the pieces of whispers or music embedded in each object are heart-wrenching allusions to unrealized dreams and lives cut short. This is when the magnitude of the tragedy hits you. Yet they are redemptive as well, encouraging you to look at life more closely and appreciate its uniqueness amid its uncertainties. In short, an experience of tragedy in this piece is turned into one of profound contemplation. The Chalkroom is compelling in a different way. The mysterious labyrinth aggressively commands attention. “Floating” through it makes you feel a nagging unease, as if you are navigating through the nooks and crannies of someone’s mind, where each turn around a dark corner offers stories that you are not supposed to know. None of the texts and images are readable beyond a certain point, yet, scribbled all over, they seem to crave attention. It would not be unusual to come away from The Chalkroom with a heightened awareness of the complexities of one’s own mind, where the conscious and the rational easily slide into the subconscious, and memories, both fond and intimidating, are all but disjointed pieces of some unsolved puzzle. The projects’ technological magic aside, their most remarkable achievement is the masterful application of the autobiographical approach—the way it avoids the pitfall of narcissism and offers contents with which others can identify.

While the initial thrill with the technology of virtual reality has faded, there is no question that when applied to the visual arts, immersive virtual reality brings with it a new mode of perception. It resists replication, for one. Unlike all other forms of visual representation, no slide or video clip can do justice to a VR project; donning the headgear seems to be the only way to experience it. Thus, the challenge it poses to teaching and conference presentations is a formidable one. The other challenge, as mentioned earlier, is its strong tendency to be a tool for entertainment, which is a consequence of its central role in the gaming industry. It is not enough, therefore, for an artist to adopt it so much as to adapt its capabilities to the needs of serious art, so that the impact of a work is felt long after the headset is taken off. Laurie Anderson’s rigorous effort to use immersive and interactive simulacra to this end is exemplary indeed. In addition to offering profoundly reflective content, the technology employed in her work demands to be recognized as a medium with immense potential in this postmedium era of art—a medium in the service of ideas.

Sunanda K. Sanyal
Professor, Art History and Critical Studies, College of Art and Design, Lesley University, Cambridge, Massachusetts