Everyone knows Neil Armstrong’s first words from the moon, but Buzz ‘Lightyear’ Aldrin’s are better: “Beautiful, beautiful,” he crackles across a quarter of a million miles. “Magnificent desolation.”
The two phrases – carefully scripted slogan against spontaneous awe – dramatise different historical perspectives on the landings. On the one hand, it looks with 50 years’ hindsight like an imperialist landgrab: the Americans made sure that one fifth of the world’s population witnessed them planting a flag on the moon, and even the rhetoric of universal humanism in which it was couched – ‘one giant leap’, and all that – is straight out of the Cold War propaganda playbook.
On the other, Aldrin’s unexpected lyricism suggests that the felt importance of long-term national-security strategy is diminished by the revelation that your country is one blurred fragment on the surface of a ball floating through infinite space. So I like to imagine him blissing out on the precipice of a crater, oblivious to his NASA-issued pH meter, a space-age descendent of Caspar David Friedrich’s wanderer.
This jarring irreconcilability of human and cosmic scales inspires To the Moon, the second collaboration between the avant-garde musician Laurie Anderson and filmmaker Hsin-Chien Huang. Commissioned by Manchester International Festival and hosted by the Royal Exchange Theatre, their ‘immersive virtual reality experience’ opens with a reminder (via the more old-fashioned medium of chalk-on-board drawings) that the race to the moon was an in-the-scheme-of-things stupid and wasteful exercise in ideological one-upmanship that the Soviets really won anyhow. And then, having got that out of the way, it straps visitors into VR headsets and transports them to the surface of earth’s barren satellite to experience the ultimate trip.
In its basic premise, the work is strikingly similar to Antony Gormley’s recent Lunatick, a collaboration with the astrophysicist Priya Natarajan at London’s 180 The Strand, which used data from NASA to give virtual cosmonauts the opportunity to hop around a painstakingly rendered lunar environment. They adopted the positivistic position that an experience is the sum of the sensory information it provides to the brain, so if the virtual moon looks exactly like the real moon, its gravity is perfectly calibrated, and all the stars are in their right place, then you will feel as an astronaut does. By contrast, Anderson and Hsin-Chien’s infinitely more affecting work uses a variety of creative means – sound, symbolism and narrative – to imagine the psychological effects of a shift in perspective that reduces human civilisation to the status of dust clinging by static to the surface of a distant balloon.
Anderson and Hsin-Chien’s cosmos accommodates twinkling messages in the stars (‘DEMOCRACY’), a quixotic journey across the lunar landscape on the back of a donkey and the symbolic death and rebirth of your astronaut-avatar. The moon is not here a geological curiosity or next frontier but instead a yardstick against which to measure human grief (we must undertake the journey alone), love (it revolves at one point around a rose-shaped cluster of galaxies) and hubris (Anderson’s voiceover says that she is drawn to the stars because ‘we cannot do them any harm’).
In Speak Memory (1951), Vladimir Nabokov describes this compulsion to ‘draw radii from my love – from my heart, from the tender nucleus of a personal matter – to monstrously remote points of the universe’. To the Moon also tests human feeling against astrological phenomena whose very remoteness seems comprehensively to undermine the significance of human feeling, and yet is unable to erase it. During times of crisis – whether personal, political or ecological – this is curiously reassuring.
Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang’s To The Moon runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, through Saturday 20 July 2019. Click here to book
Online exclusive published on 19 July 2019