Fifty years after man first landed on the Moon, Laurie Anderson is flying us all there at MIF19 with To the Moon. Developed with fellow artist Hsin-Chien Huang and presented in the Royal Exchange Theatre’s intimate Studio, To the Moon is a work in two parts: a dreamlike VR experience that takes us on our own lunar exploration, and an accompanying installation with film, images and music.
This isn’t Laurie Anderson’s first virtual trip into space. Along with top-five singles (O Superman) and Grammy Awards (for Landfall), her extraordinary, genre-defying career as an artist and musician saw her spend two years as the first ever artist-in-residence at NASA, which inspired an acclaimed performance piece called The End of the Moon.
To the Moon, though, takes us closer to the lunar surface than Anderson’s ever gone before – and the journey is just as important as the destination. ‘The moon has a very inspiring, dreamlike existence,’ she confides. ‘Secretly, all I want to do is to let people fly.’
Why virtual reality?
As an artist and performer, I’ve become increasingly frustrated with stages and screens, and more and more interested in immersive works – music you can walk into and images that completely surround you. I also love long extended drone work that fills the physical space and the imagination, and art that is composed and completed by the listener/viewer, who walks into it and experiences it viscerally, emotionally and intellectually.
In working with VR, I’ve had to relearn many of the things I know about narrative and stories. In VR, the beginning, middle and end are shifting states, not sequential ones. I find this way of being in time increasingly interesting and actually true to life.
I want to get lost in works of art. Of course, you can get lost in a Russian novel, lost in a pencil drawing. But getting lost in virtual reality has its own deep pleasures. I also enjoy the fact that it can confuse and confound the sense of proprioception and safety as well as convey completely different messages to your several senses. For example, sometimes your feet tell you, ‘I’m standing in a room in a museum, completely safe.’ But your eyes tell you, ‘I’m standing on a 300-foot-tall column and it’s only two feet by two feet.” And you start to sway. The eyes rule!
Sometimes when we show VR in a film festival, the VR work is somewhat ghettoised, exhibited in dark rooms far from the centre of things. VR’s the bastard child of cinema and tech with an occasionally obnoxious attitude. I’ve overheard other VR makers refer to the other works in the film festival as ‘flat films’.
As someone who has used technology to tell stories for many decades, I don’t have any illusions that tech has any great advantages over other media. A good story is a good story. And while the latest technology has a certain sexy lure and commercial appeal, I like to spin on a common technology proverb: if you think technology will solve your problems, you don’t understand technology. And you don’t understand your problems.
But back to flying. I fly in my dreams, and now I can fly inside stories too. I love VR.
Hsin-Chien Huang and I have the greatest time working together. We understand each other’s language and sensibilities. Sometimes we work in the same space and sometimes via Skype. We continually shape the work as it goes along, adding stories music and scenes in an organic way. VR is not a solo art form. It entails intense programming and is ideal for collaboration. And for me, this collaboration has become an important part of my work.
To the Moon uses images and tropes from Greek mythology, literature, science, sci-fi, space movies and politics to create an imaginary and dark new moon. During the 15-minute VR experience, the viewer is shot out from earth, walks on the surface of the moon, glides through space debris, flies through DNA skeletons and is lifted up the side and then tossed off of a lunar mountain. Unlike Aloft and Chalkroom, our two previous collaborations, To the Moon is divided into scenes and has a more formal narrative structure while still allowing the participant a choice of where and how to look.
To the Moon’s scenes include ‘Constellations’, which features life forms that are becoming extinct – a polar bear and a honey bee – and emphasises the transitory as opposed to the fixed. When the viewer looks at the constellations, they evaporate the way that humans can create and erase their worlds. In the ‘DNA Museum’, you can fly through the skeletons of dinosaurs made of DNA symbols, which morph into a Cadillac, in a play on the history of fossil fuels. In ‘Technology Wasteland’, the Moon is imagined as a dystopic dumping ground for plastics and nuclear waste, and you glide through this toxic scene with long, scaly tentacles instead of arms. ‘Stone Rose’, inspired by the rose in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book Le Petit Prince, is a fossil rose adrift in the universe as planets swirl around it.
In ‘Snow Mountain’, the viewer loses control and is swept to the top of a mountain. Inspired by the plot line of many space adventure movies, the viewer’s virtual body dramatically tumbles away into deep space. In the ‘Donkey Ride’, you the viewer trot along on the back of a donkey through the lunar landscape, and eventually you float up and away into a universe of stars that begins to explode like fireworks.
There are fewer words in To the Moon than in our other pieces, Aloft and Chalkroom. And they’re questions rather than stories.
You know the reason I really love the stars? It’s that we cannot hurt them.
We can’t burn them. We can’t melt them or make them overflow.
We can’t flood them. Or blow them up or turn them out.
But we are reaching for them. We are reaching for them.
What humans can and can’t do in the natural world is one of the several themes in To the Moon.
To the Moon is dedicated to the ancient Chinese painter who made a huge vertical landscape, a painting of a mountain with groves of pine trees, a steep road winding up to the top, waterfalls, tiny hikers with walking sticks, thatched bamboo huts and fishermen casting their nets in the sea far below. The painting was very intricate and it took many years to make. When the painter finally finished the painting, he walked into it. This is what we aim to do with To the Moon: allow the viewer to literally walk into a work of art.