Laurie Anderson, “The Chalkroom” (2017), virtual reality installation with Hsin-Chien Huang (image by Zoran Orlic, courtesy of Mass MoCA)

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — I like to be thrown off balance. Not physically so much, but psychically and intellectually. I like to watch myself trying to right myself and am fascinated by all of the tiny micro adjustments involved in making the world make sense again when it hasn’t for a moment. Or longer.

I don’t know why I like these kinds of experiences, but I do. There’s something about the combination of the challenge they involve and the dear opportunity to observe one’s mind’s functioning in its peak adaptive capacity that I find deeply satisfying. Once the experience of imbalance is over.

Seeing the seams in the seamlessness of consciousness makes me feel very alive.

*   *   *

While waiting to enter “The Chalkroom” (2017), I encounter a friend who has just experienced the piece, trying to get a wait-list slot for another viewing. He works at one of Massachusetts’ many burgeoning marijuana startups, and can’t say enough about how much he enjoyed the piece. He’s testing a new product out and it works perfectly with Laurie Anderson’s VR. His lover, who is not testing any products, enjoyed it just as much. But neither can explain why.

Laurie Anderson, “Handphone Table” (1978/recreated 2017), wood and electronics, a table using bone conduction to transmit sound (image by Zoran Orlic, courtesy of Mass MoCA)

*   *   *

Also in the waiting area is the “The Handphone Table” (1978), a long wooden table with slightly worn spots for a pair of elbows at either end, and two stools. The table uses bone conduction to transmit sound in the most intimate way possible: the placement of your hands — your own tender touch — over your ears. I’m blown away by the imagery of people covering their ears to hear.

*   *   *

I enter “The Chalkroom” twice, once to experience it as it is intended to be experienced, and once with a notebook, to watch other people experience it. To be fair, I put myself in the VR headset first, and visit as an observer second.

I have trouble with the headset, it doesn’t work as well over glasses as it does without them, but I can’t see without glasses. The weight of the goggles causes my glasses to slip down my nose, and then everything goes out of focus. I have to do a lot of adjusting, tightening a dial in the back, letting go of the navigation wands to push the goggles back up my nose. So right off the bat, nothing is seamless for me. When everything is in place, I feel a little bit queasy from motion that isn’t motion, and fear of height that isn’t height, but mostly I’m bad at moving in this space. It’s not my first VR experience, but somehow it’s my clumsiest. I keep bumping up against VR walls and then against the 3D grid underneath it all. It sounds like I’m complaining — I’m not — finding the green 3D grid is a thrill. It’s like finding the edge of the world. It reminds me of a scene in Terry Gilliam’s film, Time Bandits, where what seems like an endless landscape is revealed to be a mirror when someone breaks it. Hitting the edge of virtual reality is a nice reminder that reality too might be misrepresenting its boundaries.

*   *   *

I should talk about “The Chalkroom’s” content. I haven’t yet in order to make the point that the spectacle of the technology, for better or for worse, overshadows the project’s narrative content. If the viewings were longer, this might not be the case, but it probably wouldn’t be practical to make them longer.

It felt at first like a moderately free exploration of Anderson’s inner world — what she values most. But then it becomes clear that language is integral.

There’s a breakdown of and immersion within the alphabet. Only a few words and phrases (such as ‘mono task’ and ‘Bardo’) stand out as phrases as opposed to just text.

‘Bardo’ — the limbic space between life and death in Tibetan Buddhist belief — stands out the most, and I finally conclude that this is what “The Chalkroom” is trying to represent through its glowing, shifting sigils and songs. With echos of “back to the drawing board”, this is a realm where pieces (of identity, language, sound, creature-hood) are floated among and reflected on before being reassembled for renewed use.

*   *   *

Since I can’t tell while wearing the headset, I go back into the room to see what content was painted on the room’s walls and what was only within the VR recordings.

Though at capacity, the room is silent except for the shuffling of people’s feet and shifting in their seats. It’s eerie — like watching an audience watching a movie where you can’t see the screen and they can’t see you. It’s the cover of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, but configured differently. It took all of my willpower not to photograph the scene.

Laurie Anderson, “The Chalkroom,” detail (2017), virtual reality installation with Hsin-Chien Huang (image by Zoran Orlic, courtesy of Mass MoCA)

The text on the walls is wonderful. I’m grateful for the opportunity to read it unmediated. The first phrase that hits me, ‘to name is to praise’, reinforces my sense that “The Chalkroom” is meant to be Bardo. Bardo is also the place where things are before they have names. I love imagining getting a name as gift.

But most of all, I am struck by the three ‘rules to live by’ that are scrawled across one of the room’s walls. These, for me were the most valuable takeaway from the piece:

  • Don’t be afraid of anyone.
  • Get a good bullshit detector.
  • Be really tender.

*   *   *

Sometime after visiting “The Chalkroom,” I am struck by two questions that sit like codas on the back of the pages where my observational notes were taken:

‘What is a bullshit detector and where do you get one?’

‘She is so certain that it is language that holds everything together, but what if it’s just perception and raw power (brute force)?’

Laurie Anderson on view at Mass MoCA (1040 MASS MoCA WAY, North Adams, MA) at least through 2019.

Heather Kapplow is a Boston-based conceptual artist. Her work involves exchanges with strangers, wielding talismans, alternative interpretations of existing environments, installation, performance, writing,...