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Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang’s To The Moon
Laurie AndersonPhotography Ebru Yildiz

Laurie Anderson wants to break your heart with her latest VR artwork

Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang’s To The Moon

The avant-garde icon lets us fly on the moon in her most recent collaboration with Taiwanese artist and filmmaker Hsin-Chien Huang

Laurie Anderson isn’t afraid of pushing the limits. Her avant-garde approach to her work as a performer, artist, musician, composer, and director is exhilarating. And Anderson’s latest project, a collaboration with Taiwanese artist and filmmaker Hsin-Chien Huang – who previously worked as a game developer for Sega and Sony – is no different. In To The Moon, the duo transcend the Earth’s atmosphere to land viewers on the moon for an immersive VR experience.

“I really want to make things that break your heart,” says Anderson of the project’s intentions. “I don’t want to make it clever or interesting – if it’s like that, good. But I want to create an emotional situation. Like a song, a really beautiful song, that then becomes your song. You’re like, ‘oh, I understand what that’s about’. And you then own that song.”

In a 15-minute artwork, viewers float across the moon’s landscape in low-gravity conditions, roaming through a series of visuals that draw on fact and fiction. There’s a meditative quality to the experience, which includes riding a donkey across the satellite, wading through trash which has been transported from Earth, and floating freely through flying moon rocks.

“You don’t always see (the moon) but it’s the closest, most mysterious thing to us” – Laurie Anderson

Anderson says her interest in the moon “probably came from where everyone’s came from – the first time you look at the night sky”. The icon recounts growing up in America’s midwest, a mostly flat terrain. “When the moon rose it was almost frightening,” she says. “It was like a huge sunrise, really enormous.” There’s a particular night stuck in her memory. “One of the scariest moments of my life as an adult was waking up one morning and looking out the window and the sun and moon were next to each other – the sun was setting and the moon was rising. My heart almost stopped – ‘what planet am I on?’ I’d never seen them in the same part of the sky in that way, and the same size.” It’s a memory that Anderson has channelled, decades later, into To The Moon, in which the moon appears as an overwhelming presence in the sky. “You don’t always see it but it’s the closest, most mysterious thing to us,” Anderson adds.

Huang used Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1943 novella, The Little Prince, in which a prince describes his love for a rose which has bloomed on his small planet, as a jump-off for the installation’s visuals. He also cites the moon’s significance in Chinese culture as influential. “Although I am Taiwanese, my culture is Chinese. The Chinese have a lot of poetry about the moon – reading about it was my childhood. We also have many festivals revolving around the moon, as well as the Chinese Lunar Calendar.” Naturally, Anderson’s back catalogue was also drawn on. “In one of the scenes, you’ll see that the astronaut has very, very long arms, that’s my tribute to ‘O Superman’,” Huang says, referring to Anderson’s 1981 ‘surprise hit’. Huang reveals that it’s also indicative of the Nuclear arm’s race between the Americans and the Soviets in the late 1940s and 1950s. It’s not the only political nod in the artwork; ‘democracy’ also appears and dissolves into the blackness of space, and flags populate the moon’s surface, referencing ownership and how countries have attempted to gain sovereignty of it.

The pair have been collaborating since 1994 when Huang won a competition titled “New Voices New Visions”, judged by Anderson. That same year, Anderson invited Huang to work with her on – what was considered at the time – a very future facing project; an interactive CD-ROM for her album Puppet Motel. Since then, the pair have worked together several times, notably on Chalkroom in 2018 – which won the Venice Film Festival Best VR Experience.

While both Chalkroom and, now, To The Moon, have been successes worldwide, Anderson was initially apprehensive of VR technology. “I brought the VR technology to visit her in her New York studio and I said, ‘so 20 years ago we used this new technology called the CD-ROM, and now this is the new technology called VR, do you want to give it a try?’ I think she was very dubious about the new technology,” Huang laughs. “But since we have known each other for so long, she said, ‘okay, let’s do some tests’, and after several prototypes, she started to see the potential with virtual reality. Laurie is very critical about technology and her intuition is amazing. She can see technology’s potential but can also avoid its downfall.”

“I was not even 10 per cent sure,” affirms Anderson. “I didn’t want to work with it because the things that we had done in the world of CD-ROMs had disappeared and weren’t playable on any system 15 years later. It’s something you work on for a long time and it’s like your book being shredded, all traces of the pictures, the stories, the sounds, the music, the interactivity, were gone, reduced to a bunch of lines pointing in different directions with no instructions on how they related. It was very hard for me to work on something that had no future whatsoever. But in a way, I’m not doing it for that reason. I’m working with VR because you can fly. It could easily disappear in the next couple of years. In fact, the early pieces, because technology has moved on, don’t work quite as well. You’re working in an art form which is transitory. But I’ve grown to like it more. It’s less able to be collected, less able to be displayed.”

Huang is more certain on VR’s future in the art world, believing that in comparison to traditional art forms, VR offers a more reliable conduit for artists’ ideas to their audience. “Every art form that takes shape is using certain media,” he says. “If we think about art as a way of communication, then the artist has some idea he wants to convey to you, but he cannot just grab you and put it in your head. He has to find the media and embed that idea into the art form. So it’s a process of encoding that message that you will decode in your own head. But there’s always have some misunderstanding. And I think VR is the human’s effort to try and make the decoding and encoding more effortless, more seamless.”

“I believe that when everyone flies to the moon, they’ll feel freedom” – Hsin-Chien Huang

Anderson’s studies on the nature of the mind – which her late husband Lou Reed introduced her to – also played a key role in shaping To The Moon’s blend of fantasy and reality, and the ideas behind it. “Basically it’s using your mind to look at your mind,” she says. “I guess that’s why I’m using this image of ownership (with the flags on the moon) because so much stuff is just crassly sold to us, we don’t really get a chance to embrace it. That is one of the unique things VR can do. Nature of the mind is so fascinating because it means you stop taking for granted all the things that are blowing your mind and you go, ‘wait, where did that come from and why is it there?’ and ‘why am I thinking about this?’ And the deeper question is ‘who are you?’ Most people have two or three stock reactions that they have when they’re presented with something. But I think that if you can learn to expand the number of ways you can react to something, you won’t have such a knee jerk reaction. That’s the idea of trying to expand imagery – so the idea of ‘wow, ‘I never thought what it looked like to be riding a donkey on a moon’.”

The process of working with VR has also admittedly forced Anderson to reconsider the ways in which stories can be told, given that no two user experiences can be the same. It’s dependent on how long someone wants to look left or if they want to move closer to something they’ve seen in the distance – there is no right or wrong way to view To The Moon. “I had to pretty much relearn everything I knew about how to use narrative because the story is being decided in another way by the person who’s seeing it – which I find completely thrilling,” she says. “I really find it wonderfully thrilling that people can structure it so much themselves. I think this feeling of freedom is so important because so much of culture is just presented to you, along with its supposed meaning and you’re supposed to sit there and go, ‘okay, that’s what it is and that’s what it means’. You don’t get a chance to go into it and go ‘what do I feel?’”

To The Moon will travel to Cannes Film Festival in May, and been shown alongside two of the artists’ other VR collaborations, La Camera Insabbiata and Aloft. In July, it will come to the UK, showing at Manchester International Festival which takes place from 4 – 21 July. “We will not only have the VR there, but we will have a projector and installation. So people can either go to the physical space or go to the VR,” says Huang. The pair also share plans to turn it into an opera. “It’s pretty far out in terms of how times and ideas go,” explains Anderson. “We’re also trying to use some of the images and sounds from VR in other forms, partially because of the reason that you may never be able to see them ever again if they are just in the VR world. It’s so awkward to show VR, it’s so uncomfortably still and you can’t really be in there for that long. It’s a tiny, tiny audience that will be able to see it. It’s very intimate and it’s all happening in your head.”

For Huang, it’s a feeling of freedom that he wants viewers to experience the most, and bringing that to a wider audience is an exciting prospect. “I believe that when everyone flies to the moon, they’ll feel freedom,” he says. “For me, the freest feeling you can have is when you dream that you can fly. And in VR you can fly on the moon. So, I hope that everybody has that experience, and is also able to escape from this world and into this VR even if it’s just 15 minutes.”

To The Moon was presented by HTC VIVE Arts at Art Basel Hong Kong in March