by Lynn on March 19, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Virtual Reality at the Toronto Lighthouse Artspace (1 Yonge). Runs to May 29, 2022.

Created and directed by Robert Lepage

Based on the book by Alberto Manguel.

We must be curious about our ‘changing’ world. I was curious, in an ‘eye-brow-knitting’ way, about the “Immersive Van Gogh” exhibit produced by Lighthouse Immersive at 1 Yonge Street (the Toronto Star Building), Toronto, Ont. In it you are in a huge room with expanded images of Van Gogh’s paintings snaking along the four walls and the floor of the room. All to the accompaniment of blaring music, including Edith Piaf for some reason. The colours and images popped in a distorted way.

 I hated every minute of it. It’s ‘art appreciation’ for people who don’t go to an art gallery; or who do go to a gallery, only to stand in front of a painting and then take a cell-phone picture of the painting, never to look at it again. Hideous.

So initially I looked askance when I got a notice of a new virtual-reality ‘show’ playing at the venue (a different part of the building). But, my curiosity was pricked when I saw that Robert Lepage, theatre creator par excellence, was creating the show based on Alberto Manguel’s book The Library at Night. The premise is that the viewer would be immersed in the virtual world of 10 libraries both real and imagined. Being immersed in a library makes more sense than being immersed in the bombardment of exaggerated images in a painting.

I was invited to a media preview. We were instructed to arrive 10-15 minutes before the start time because they would start at 5:00 pm sharp. Wonderful. I love that. Starting on time. Those in attendance waited in a large room with screens situated around it that projected a paragraph of information about each of the libraries we would ‘experience.’ The problem was that the paragraphs describing the libraries were shown for only about 10 seconds before the screen showed the next paragraph, which was not enough time to read properly.  It would have been helpful if we had 30 or more seconds to read each paragraph. I asked someone if the change from one paragraph to another could be adjusted, slowed down. The person said she didn’t know, nor did she offer to find out. Exhale.

“Show time” was nearing. I was anxious, eager and waiting at the exhibition entrance for 5:00 pm. I’ve waited for two years for theatre of any kind to come back. I don’t want to have any seconds wasted, waiting.

5:01 pm. Nothing.

5:02 pm. Nothing.

A person dressed in black, walky-talky in hand walks by, looking official. “When are we starting? It’s past 5:00 pm.? I enquire.

I’m told she’s waiting for the all clear to enter the space. We’re all there and ready. It’s technology. You would think they could start on time. But no.

5:06 pm we enter the space. EXHALE!

We enter a room that is a replica of Alberto Manguel’s library. It is dimly lighted. We are told not to touch anything.  When one looks at the illuminated shelves of books one sees the books are arranged in a way that makes sense to Manguel and that in itself is interesting. Books in various languages are next to books on Geology which are next to science books. We don’t have time to linger because the lights go down on shelves and illuminate other parts of the room. A display case is eventually illuminated to show three treasured books; a child-hood favourite, a first edition, and a book given to him by a noted author. There are windows in the room with rain gently dropping outside.

Albert Manguel’s voice describes his thoughts on libraries. He says that a library is like a forest and other representations. His voice is measured and lilting. His thoughts are poetic and deeply considered. We are told we can get the Virtual Reality head gear and the earphones needed for the next room in the bench that lines the wall with the windows. We are to take the head gear into the next room and put on the stuff while seated. We are told we can adjust the Virtual Reality head gear and the ear phones. We can adjust the focus of the VI head gear by a small dial at the front.

The next room is dimly lighted again, with trees (the forest) around the room. There is stuff on the floor—pages, leaves, we have no time to linger. There are wood tables in the room and wood swiveled chairs at each table, with lamps on each table for illumination. I take a seat at a table and put on the VR head gear that fits snugly over my head and nose and pushes down on my facemask. Then the ear phones go on over that that pushes down further on my nose and mask so that I can’t breathe. I don’t think that’s right so I make further adjustments.

When I put on my head gear a 360° view of 10 symbols appears. I’m not sure how to begin the narration or what library begins. We weren’t told.  Do I look at that “N” there? Will that start it? It does. Nautilus is the fictional submarine in Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and on it is the library of Captain Nemo. The whole picture is created by ink drawing animation. Sea images float by the huge windows of the submarine. The library is around the whole room. There are images of Captain Nemo showing someone the library.  Alberto Manguel provides the narration as he does for all 10 libraries.

After about 10 minutes the tour of Nautilus is finished. I wonder how to go to the next library. Have I accidentally looked at the “N” again, because the segment on Nautilus begins again. I take the head gear off and say that I’m hearing the segment on Nautilus again. The gentleman sitting opposite is too. We are told by people there to help that there are buttons at the side of the head gear that will take us to the menu. Menu? I press small buttons. Nothing. A woman takes my head gear and that of the man opposite away and brings other head gear. This works.

The narration for each library is on a loop. When each segment is completed the city where each library is/was (both real and imagined) is noted under each symbol. The depiction of each library varies from the animation of Nautilus to what looks like a virtual depiction of others.

The majestic Admont Abbey Library in Admont, Austria is all dappled light on the floor, huge, high shelves with monks silently perusing books. We are directed to look at four statues in corners and what they represent.

The walls of the majestic (the libraries almost all seem majestic) Library of Congress in Washington, D.C slowly rise up in our view. If you look down you are peering into an abyss that is disorienting. If you then swivel around in your swivel chair, that adds another aspect to the disorientation. One grips the arms of the chair so as not to lose balance and fall out!

The ancient Library of Alexandria, Egypt has all its ‘books’ written on scrolls. When the library caught on fire the scrolls perished easily in the flames. I almost expected to feel a blast of heat as the flames shot up higher and higher. But this Virtual Reality experience doesn’t come with extra sensory experiences.

The Library of Parliament in Ottawa, Ont. is fascinating. A huge book takes pride of place in the visual representation of the library. This book doesn’t belong in this library, we are informed by Alberto Manguel’s narration. It is the Audubon Book of American Birds, 1831-1835. (not absolutely sure of the dates). The book is about 3’ x 2’. In the image a woman approaches the book from behind it. She looks at ‘me’, smiles,  puts on a latex glove and opens the book to the first page of a painting of a blue bird. A blue bird appears in the library and alights on a railing near the book. The woman turns the next page to another bird and that bird also appears to fly into the library. Gradually the library is a twitter with birds chirping and flying around the dome at the top and in the room as well. Then the woman turns the page to a painting of a large, formidable looking owl. The huge owl appears on the on the top of the book. The owl peers at me. The woman beside it smiles out. I almost expect the owl to take flight right towards my face. I wonder what my reaction would be if it had.

There is no doubt that Robert Lepage is a masterful creator of theatre and this kind of technology is right up his imaginative alley. His visual representations of the libraries are absolutely dazzling. But I find ‘theatre’ or VR that dazzles is the lowest kind of engagement because it just doesn’t involve the audience. It just impresses them momentarily. A hollow experience.

The Library at Night is dazzling to be sure, but frustrating because of little information. Tell the folks that the narration is on a loop and no buttons need to be touched. Have the projections of the blurbs of each library be programmed to change every 30 + seconds so the public can actually read the whole blurb. Start on time.

To truly ‘experience’ a library, no matter what time of day or night, go to a library and I would suggest a beautiful one such as the Toronto Reference Library. Take a book from the shelf, find a comfortable chair and read it, entering the world of the book, immersed in the beauty of the place dedicated to books. 

Presented by Lighthouse Immersive/Luminato Festival.

Runs until May 29, 2022.

Running Time: 1 hour.

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1 maja March 27, 2022 at 7:20 am

Thank you. This reminded me of the time I brought our 10 yr old granddaughter to the “Van GO” (Makes me crazy to keep mispronouncing the name) Immersive and she recoiled with a headache and explain she just felt sick. I could see that she was feeling assaulted by the experience. I wish we had brought her to the art gallery instead. This technological exploration is becoming tedious for organic live artists like myself and so many others.