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Out of Body
Debbie Hagan on discovering new worlds through virtual reality.
A year ago, I sat in a dark, dungeon-like room, surrounded by walls, floors, and ceiling covered in mysterious chalk-like messages. I put on a headset, grabbed a paddle for each hand, and listened to the commands, then floated through a dark, creepy, abandoned mill-like building, listening to machine-like groans, drum beats, and the drip…drip of water. I evaded fear even as I flew through walls…spun through space…dove from great heights. I’d left my body and traveled with just my mind.
Chalkroom, created by multi-media artists Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang, is a virtual reality experience installed at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). Once participants have their headsets on and hit start, they can go wherever they choose: sneak into darkened corners, hunt for secret messages, dive through tall trees with leaves made of fractured language.
They can sail down long, darkened corridors, dart in and out of open windows, fly among a cluster of stars. Wait a minute–they’re not stars, but letters, pieces of stories. The letters lift and swirl. A wand helps you write poetry. Speak, and your words turn into three-dimensional sculpture.
There’s nothing to fear, though some people might feel lost or disoriented, as if there’s no coming back. Yet, Anderson sits on your shoulder, guiding with a gentle whisper, always the Sherpa.
Today, I’m trapped in my house, reading about sick bodies. Just before the pandemic, MASS MoCA had installed Anderson and Huang’s latest virtual experience, To the Moon. I wished I’d gone then, when I had a chance. Now, I must wait until it opens again. When that day comes, I’ll toss my mask, grab my headset, speed through darkness, and feel the thrill of casting footprints on the bright side of the moon.
Debbie Hagan is an essayist, creative writing instructor, and book reviews editor for Brevity.
Laurie Anderson is an American musician, filmmaker, and artist. Hsin-Chien Huang is a Taiwanese new-media artist. To the Moon was launched in 2017.