Laurie Anderson's 'Go Where You Look! Falling Off Snow Mountain': Review

Courtesy of Laurie Anderson
An imaginative, free-floating ride.

Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang's three virtual reality installations, 'Aloft,' 'Chalkroom' and 'To the Moon,' were shown together in Cannes as part of the Directors' Fortnight.

This year's Cannes jury president, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, brought his virtual reality installation Carne y Arena to Cannes in 2017. This excited the VR community because it meant that the world’s foremost showcase of cinema seemed to suggest it was finally open to new ways of storytelling as well — something that rival festivals, including Venice, Sundance and Tribeca, had been working on for much longer and in a much more sustained manner.  

But in 2018, no virtual-reality projects were part of the Cannes official selection and this year, it fell to the Directors’ Fortnight to make room for the new technology, with the section hosting three works by Hsin-Chien Huang and Laurie Anderson (whose first film, Home for the Brave, was shown in the Directors’ Fortnight back in 1987). The works in question are Aloft, Chalkroom and To the Moon. Though the former two have premiered at other festivals, it is the first time the three related works premiered as a triptych. They were offered as a single experience that could be done in about 45 minutes in total, perhaps with a few minutes waiting between one part and the next. In Cannes, the works were presented in three rooms in the Suquet des artistes, a short walk from the festival’s main venue, the Palais. The walls were pitch-black but some contained decorations hand-painted by Anderson with white paint that resembles chalk, much like the virtual rooms in Chalkroom.

In terms of chronology, Aloft is the first VR piece Anderson tackled with help from the Taiwanese new-media artist Huang, and viewers are seated on a stool that, when the headset is on, turns into a seat on an airplane. As the experience starts, the airplane comes apart, with the floor, ceiling and walls breaking into smaller fragments. But unlike a disaster movie, there’s something peaceful and poetic about the experience, as if the plane is disintegrating because you, as the viewer, can fly so you don’t need that airplane anymore. You are serenely floating around amid a lot of debris, which you can reach out for as it passes in front of you, with various objects then revealing interesting stories, sounds or visual tricks. The voice aboard the plane, explaining the safety features as well as the narrator telling the stories, are all Anderson, whose soothing intonation is perfectly suited for this pleasantly New-Agey experience. Depending on which item you pick up last, Aloft’s ending might be a different one; mine involved Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

The most extensive- and complete-feeling VR work is Chalkroom, which allows viewers to float through a gigantic labyrinth of rooms in which the walls, floors and ceilings seem to be made of chalkboards that have been covered by drawings and texts. Each room holds something different, and taken together it is like floating through the sketchbook imagination of Anderson, who herself provided the texts and drawings (just like in the real space in which the VR experience is available). It is possible to write graffiti on the walls in one room, experience ghosts dancing in another or see trees that have words for leaves. Throughout it all, Anderson’s voice accompanies the viewer with words, stories and parts of song lyrics. 

As with Aloft, there are two controllers, one for each hand, that give viewers the ability to adjust and interact with what’s in front of them and to move around gracefully (I experienced zero technical issues with the movement, unlike in some other VR experiences I've done in the past). And, also as with Aloft, there is a sensation of flying through the spaces Anderson and Huang have created and of almost detaching yourself from your body since you can’t see your body at all, just the effect your actions have on the (virtual) environment that you’re in. 

Whereas a lot of VR experiences suffer from the fact that they can’t yet quite manage to offer fully photorealistic environments that look like the real world, Chalkroom beautifully avoids this problem by being almost entirely in black-and-white; there’s no expectation of photorealism, which in turn opens up the mind to more creative possibilities and interpretations of what you see in front of you. And since what you are witnessing is a kind of playground of ideas, associations and stories, it is important to be as open as possible to everything that you see and hear. Unlike traditional narrative works, the sensorial aspects are the most important here, not any kind of story (as in a film) or any kind of goal (as in most video games), with the sound an integral part of both works.

The entire experience of Chalkroom could be overwhelming given the quantity of material it contains, but Anderson’s soothing voiceover and the constant floating from one space to the next have a calming effect that mirrors that moment of recollection artists must have when they face all their ideas at once and have to make decisions about how to put everything together. In this light, starting with creating different rooms for different things seems like a good idea. Very deservingly, Chalkroom won best VR experience at the Venice Film Festival before starting its tour of the world’s fests, cinematheques and museums (it can be seen in the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, together with Aloft, until early 2020). 

This idea of going into another dimension where creativity lives freely also plays a role in the third and most recent VR experience of Anderson and Huang: To the Moon. In a lunar landscape, DNA formulas float around in the shapes of large animals and it is possible to fly through all these creatures while contemplating the universe beyond. Again, the sensation of gracefully floating through another dimension becomes important and the environment is largely bichrome again, too, with lots of shadows that look more inviting than dangerous. The white formulas against the pitch-black background suggest nothing so much as knowledge extracted from the darkness. 

To the Moon was commissioned by the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, where it was shown earlier this year, and fits in quite snugly with Aloft and Chalkroom. As a triptych, they demonstrate Anderson and Huang’s evolving interest in pushing virtual reality away from more traditional applications (narrative, games…) and into a realm where it can develop its own language and uses. No wonder the triptych was presented with the new title Go Where You Look! Falling Off Snow Mountain, as virtual movement is constantly combined with seeing and experiencing new things. And who wouldn't want to go to the moon or fall off a snow mountain by simply putting on a VR headset?