The word “liminality,” which broadly refers to intermediate or transitional spaces, evokes visions of New Age-y women with flowing scarves, armchair psychologists or insidious miracle drugs in Burgess-esque dystopias. There’s a bit of all three in “Liminality” at the Museum of Future Experiences (MoFE), a venue and production studio in Williamsburg for virtual reality and immersive audio storytelling. Meditation meets philosophy meets sound bath meets gaming meets Lululemon yogic retreat in a sprawling, enveloping experience that’s inviting and eye-catching, but too conceptually broad and self-satisfied for its own good.
You enter the space through a nondescript doorway off Grand Street, which leads to a lobby that offers a few micro-exhibitions for audiences waiting to embark into the liminal realm. On one side a “Virtual Boy” VR headset sits on display and on another, a chest of drawers invites audience members to explore its contents at their leisure. Issues of old pulp fiction magazines sit on top, along with magnifying glasses, and drawers reveal Rorschach tests and books on psychology and surreal art.
A guide who is reminiscent of a flight attendant greets the audience, preparing them for a sojourn into a place of “uncertainty, chaos and metamorphosis.” The room where “Liminality” takes place, with its walls of thick curtains, Ambisonic speakers set in towering obelisks and lounge chairs — each with a VR headset — set up in four rows around a central aisle, feels less like a theater than the antechamber of an Epcot ride.
Though is this even theater? Theater is perhaps the closest term to describe the experience, but even that is poorly suited; “Liminality” evades any one category or definition, though what else could we expect from a show that’s all about the in-between spaces in perceptions and realities?
So let’s just say it’s a theater of the mind. The 70-minute production is split into different segments, some of which are immersive soundscapes and audio performances, and others that are more guided meditations. These are interrupted by three short films that the audience watches via the VR headsets.
Stately gongs and dreamy swells of sound announce an introspective performance tailored by each audience member’s imagination. A narrator talks you through a guided visualization where you’re meant to find a field, trees and your own childhood self before floating off into ethereal realms. Warning: Your mileage may vary. Whether the exercise grants you enlightenment or a short nap depends on your own mental performance (my experience skewed closer to a siesta). Either way, the segment, which bookends “Liminality,” is the most pedantic and least interesting part of the show.
That’s more the fault of the script than the technical elements of “Liminality,” which don’t disappoint. The sounds are succulent and otherworldly; even the thunder and rainfall of a storm during an audio segment called “The Doldrums,” about a captain and crew stranded in the ocean, are rendered with such sonic dimension that I was surprised to find myself still perfectly dry and sheltered at the scene’s conclusion. The lighting, from the room’s shifting hues to the soft beams of the Edison bulbs in the overhead lamps to the ultraviolet gleam that gave the lettering of my T-shirt an iridescent nightclub glow, is phantasmagoric.
But it’s the VR-based segments that are most transporting. The first VR short film, “Life-Giver,” created by Petter Lindblad and Alexander Rönnberg, follows a family on a journey to catch the last transport ship off a dying, post-apocalyptic Earth. The second, “Mind Palace,” written and directed by Carl Krause and Dominik Stockhausen, is a sensual, impressionistic examination of the end of a relationship. The final VR film is “Conscious Existence,” created by Marc Zimmerman in collaboration with MoFE. It’s a sumptuously illustrated existential journey through earthly landscapes and the far reaches of space.
The vibrancy of the visuals, combined with the tactile vibrations of the VR device — rendering crashes and quakes — make for an experience that combines the immediacy of theater, the visual dialect of film and the technological rush of gaming. It all adds up to a strikingly immersive feat of world-building: You can survey a sky full of constellations overhead or turn around to see the rubble of a broken Earth extend toward a horizon. (Audience members who wear glasses, however, along with those prone to vertigo, may find all this Matrix-esque exploration tiring and discombobulating.)
The narratives are hit and miss. “Mind Palace” is gorgeously executed, but the elegant scenes don’t provide enough narrative context. A sentient pool of blood that ebbs and gushes around the two men implies violence, but what kind of violence? Literal? Metaphorical? It isn’t clear.
The sublime landscapes of “Conscious Existence,” with the purple and pink nebulae, swaying forests and carnivalesque pops and whorls of light, recall the transcendental filmmaking of Terrence Malick. The voice-over narratives are less impressive; the didacticism of the monologues exacerbate the self-consciously meditative style of the performances.
For all of the technical originality of “Liminality,” what ends up staying with you is the banality of the stories and themes. “Life-Giver” gave me flashbacks of every post-apocalyptic sci-fi film from the past few decades. An audio segment called “Death of a Cave Allegory,” a modern retelling of Plato’s famous parable, felt like an unremarkable excerpt from an undergraduate philosophy class.
That’s also indicative of the larger problem of “Liminality”: It aims to tackle a concept so vast and multifaceted, it has no clear definition of its subject or focus for its intentions. A liminal space can be twilight or purgatory or the realm of dreams. It can be the middle ground between immigration and citizenship, or a trans or nonbinary way of identifying sexuality. “Liminality” is both too large and too narrow, its smattering of narratives and sonic explorations only revealing all the other routes the show could take.
Though that’s the problem with liminality, isn’t it? The innate paradox: It can be everything and nothing all at once.
At the Museum of Future Experience, Brooklyn; mofe.co
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