Filmmaker Laurie Anderson Talks about Her VR Installations at Cannes

     May 16, 2019

With Go Where You Look! Falling Off Snow Mountain Laurie Anderson presents three VR installations Aloft, Chalkroom and To the Moon for the first time in one exhibition. Audiences can experience her collaborations with Taiwanese new media creator Hsin-Chien Huang at the Suquet des Artistes in Cannes free of charge until May 25.

After savouring the mind-blowing VR installations it was a pleasure to sit down with the performance artist, filmmaker and musician as she explained her work.

*Aloft (the first piece the pair created)

As a passenger on a plane you are immersed in the flight experience and then things go wrong. As the plane falls apart and a black box hurls past, you start to float in your seat and have the use of a pair of virtual hands to touch and hold the debris that have stories and music attached to them.

*Chalkroom

You experience a seemingly endless edifice starting with the Chalkroom made of words, drawing and stories and glow-in the dark white drawings. Then you enter other rooms including The Tree Room that allows you to fly around an enormous tree with stories attached.

*To the Moon

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Photo by Helen Barlow

Commissioned by the Louisiana Museum in Denmark for their 2018 exhibition The Moon: From Inner World to Outer, the piece allows the viewer/participant to walk on the moon, glide through space, be lifted up the side of a lunar mountain—and then be thrown off.

As someone who wears glasses this took a bit of getting used to, even if it was quite a trip, and a welcome respite from watching movies.

LAURIE ANDERSON: People said it broke their glasses. “You have to give me some new glasses!” I know VR is not for everybody. We’re quite aware it has a lot of problems as a lot of new artforms do. Some people have fallen over. We try to watch people experiencing it because we’re very curious about what’s working and what’s not working, especially with the stories. We had to learn everything about narrative and stories again. These are stories that don’t have a beginning, middle and end and it’s really challenging to make something so open-ended. It’s not like 45 minutes of film where you sit. Here you have to be active, to invent. You’re very aware you’re doing that too. It can be quite tiring. You know who’s best? Nine-year old boys. They’re such good gamers so it comes naturally.

In this VR exhibition you can not only feel emotions, but read images with numbers and words.

LAURIE ANDERSON: Initially we had a lot more text in To the Moon. It was going to be a Russian spy movie because the dark side of the moon is all Russian names. Ultimately this is our fractured version of the moon. They said make your own moon. One of our ideas was ownership, which is expressed in the flags at the end. One of the stories that was originally part of it was about the Chinese going to the international court claiming that China owned the moon. The Russians said, “Wait a second we were the first on the moon!” Then the Americans said “We had the first guy there”. And the Italians said, “We saw it first with Galileo”. But this was too wordy for a visual artform that you want to be free in. So Hsin-Chien’s solution became the flags.

Do you attract adult gamers?

LAURIE ANDERSON: We’re not looking at audiences but I’m making it for adults really. We’ve shown Chalkroom at 25 places, it tends to be museums and film festivals like Tribeca.

We are going to show To the Moon at The Museum of Natural History for a week in July. A lot of people are doing things this summer to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first walk on the moon so they are celebrating the anniversary of the first accident too.

You were the first and last artist in residence at NASA. Did that inspire you?

LAURIE ANDERSON: It’s a very weird job and not something I was seeking. I was having a really bad day in the studio where nothing was working. I got a phone call from this guy at NASA who said, “I want you to be the first artist in residence”. I hung up the phone saying, “You’re not from NASA.” He rang again: “I’m from NASA.” I was like wow it was a kind of secret dream in a way. I asked what an artist in residence does in a space program and he said, “We don’t know. What do you think we should do?” So I did this programme for almost three years. I just invented the job. I went around mission control in Houston, the jet propulsion lab in Pasadena, the big Hubble telescope in Baltimore and I was talking to fascinating people like robotics engineers. But they don’t need an artist in residence because they’re already making artworks, a stairway to space. The idea is that instead of the big explosion for a blast-off you build a stairway up above gravity, you just glide off above gravity. And that’s a beautiful idea. I ended up talking a lot with the nanotechnologists as they were not so busy. They’re more like the philosophers of science. Einstein rejected some of his most well known theories because he said they weren’t beautiful and I was very interested to investigate that.

So why did the NASA gig end?

LAURIE ANDERSON: Congress and NASA hate each other. It’s almost like the smart guys and the sports guys. So when Congress was reviewing the budget of NASA they gave $30 trillion for space satellites because it’s like a military operation, but when it comes to $20,000 for an artist in residence this senator was like, “This is outrageous!” I think it’s a great idea to have an artist in NASA, I think it would be a good idea to have an artist in Congress, an artist in the White House, an artist in the Supreme Court. Artists think and see the world differently and I think we should be represented in the way things are decided.

I do I think art should change the world. When I think of music changing the world I think of Bob Dylan. He was the first person who wrote a song about a loser and people think that’s for me. So if you make something with great empathy for others you can change the world. But the world now is so me-directed that it’s a challenge if you want to do that. If you have the purpose of changing the world you’re probably not going to make very good art. Maybe it’s going to be too preachy, maybe you have to be more sneaky.

Does VR offer a new approach?

LAURIE ANDERSON: We have so much fun and it’s about freedom. How can I see that in a different way? I used to think it was a terrible idea to collaborate with the audience then I started doing more improv music and it made me feel more free.

What is special about the Cannes show?

LAURIE ANDERSON: Cannes marks the first time we show all three installations; we never get a chance to do this and to do it in this way. Some PR people just go, “You’re going to go into a VR world; here’s a headset.” But we wanted a space like an installation or where you go to the theatre. It’s a place where something will happen and you step into that. It’s also why we made that red room for people to have a little water between each show.

It’s stimulating for be so involved and move around.

LAURIE ANDERSON: Movement is a big part of what I like to do even with music. I’m an electronic musician and when I made an opera on Moby Dick it was very much electronic music but it was boring to watch. When people play electronic music it’s like watching someone iron, so you have to give something. I like music where you use your body like playing the saxophone or violin. That’s the interesting thing for me about VR. Your body is in it.

There are no bodies in these three installations except one–the astronaut who falls. That’s because if you’re doing something about space you have to have that scene, the astronaut who crawls out to make a repair and his cable gets cut and he tumbles into nothingness. This is what VR is about, losing your body and at the same time being virtual. We know little about the brain and the body and there’s so much potential, like for being able to jump into somebody else’s brain. Everything I’ve done is to lose myself in a work of art and VR is just another way to do it. It has a bad reputation because it’s technological.

Filmmakers are scared of it?

LAURIE ANDERSON: Many filmmakers are like “Oh!” Also VR filmmakers refer to other films as “flat films”. This does not make us popular at film festivals.

How do you differentiate your own films (Home of the Brave, Heart of a Dog) from VR?

LAURIE ANDERSON: I don’t differentiate, with a piece of music either. To me it’s what is the story? I like stories. Is it coherent enough, funny enough, vivid enough? Can it communicate? I’m not really an artist who wants to express herself. I don’t really care if you know me or not. I just want to say, “Hey I see that, I felt the same thing in another way”. A lot of things come from normal experiences amplified in another way.

You once had the idea of building a swing on the moon. You’re a kind of inventor like Georges Melies.

LAURIE ANDERSON: It’s like that—but without a lens, no pictures. It’s all mental. But swinging over the planet was a very bad idea. Everybody got sick. We had another one about antigravity where you would walk and see yourself, so you’re jumping from here to there. But people would fall over so we made everything more reasonable. Still it would really be fun to make an extreme sports version of the moon.

How did you get into VR?

LAURIE ANDERSON: Meeting Hsin-Chien was a really big thing for me. He won a contest in the 90s and we did a CD-ROM together. This is the liability of technology–that piece doesn’t exist any more. It’s not like preserving film; it just disappears. I was sceptical in the beginning because I didn’t want to make something that would disappear. But you got to fly so that was irresistible (says the woman best known for her song O Superman).

Was Go Where You Look! expensive to produce?

LAURIE ANDERSON: Somewhat. The money came initially from the Ministry of Culture in Taiwan, but it was like spare change compared to film budgets. It was great to work in Taiwan because their museum closed for a year so they built this beautiful pavilion in the courtyard, an electronic visual theatre where you use your body and images and you can walk into a movie. I wonder if cineplexes in time will have that. You can be sure that Disney is working on something.

Do you have a new movie?

LAURIE ANDERSON: We have a secret plan. If you talk about what you’re thinking it makes it too solid. It could be any kind of thing at the moment.

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