We are all stardust in The Infinite

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Installation view — Photo by Melissa Taylor
Installation view — Photo by Melissa Taylor

A virtual reality (VR) exhibit of cosmic proportions opened at the Tacoma Armory last month. The award-winning The Infinite is an immersive look at the International Space Station (ISS), bringing visitors aboard to explore the corridors and exterior of the orbital research facility from the comfort of terra firma.

(Don't be fooled by the advertisements; the exhibit is not in SeaTac; it's in Tacoma proper, at the Tacoma Armory. I made the long yet comfortable trek on the 594 bus.)

Installation view — Photo by Melissa Taylor  

I'm not gonna lie. Space is pretty Gay, and they didn't downplay that at all at this exhibit. As if nodding to the void's vast ambivalence toward gender, the VR headsets transformed me and other visitors into ghostly, androgynous figures filled with stars. Sparkles drifted from my hands as I moved them, though I took care not to whack any of my nebulous neighbors. I was impressed at how well the headset could "read" the articulation of each of my fingers.

A voice emanated from another starry form, this one towering as tall as the room, briefing me on how to explore and what to expect. Walking around was strange at first, since I could see the floor (more stars) but not my feet. Soon I grew used to it, more or less, and I could feel my way through a transparent, full-scale model of the ISS.

Space explorers view of ISS from Space Explorers - The ISS Experience — Photo courtesy of Felix Paul Studios in association with Time Studios  

Globes with faint pictures were scattered around the station, and touching one would expand the picture into a panoramic, 3-D video of the spot. The nodes outside the station were often quiet, letting visitors pause and take in the view of Earth from orbit, which felt more expansive than in any photo. Nodes inside played commentary from the astronauts on board, set to a related slice of their lives up there.

Even if none of the astronauts were openly Queer (the only known Queer astronaut so far is the late Sally Ride, who was Bi), hearing them speak so dreamily of life, humanity, and the cosmos, with an ambient, post-rock soundtrack, was enough to set my Demi heart aflutter. These were daring dreamers, drifting 254 miles above the Earth, watching over all of us from afar. What could be more romantic? One of them even waved at the camera during a space walk, the first ever to be recorded for VR.

Mind you, the mood was somewhat soured by the sight of a docked SpaceX rocket, if only because it evoked in me the thought of a certain tech billionaire. But other than that, I had only a few complaints.

As a wearer of glasses, adjusting the headset to focus properly was difficult, and wearing the device eventually got painful for both my eyes and the bridge of my nose. I also encountered a bug that left me standing in black nothingness for a few minutes, after the ISS had drifted away for what was supposed to be a transition to another chapter. It was a simple fix for the technician present, though.

Installation view — Photo by Melissa Taylor  

After the VR experience was over, I walked through the exhibit titled The Universe within the Universe by Ryoji Ikeda. It felt somewhat shoehorned; it was "data-driven art," projected onto a ceiling and reflected in a mirror on the floor. The visuals were mesmerizing, but occasionally bright lights would strobe, and high-pitched tones would try to bore their way into my head. Those frequencies probably correspond to some property of nature, perhaps particle physics, but it was a jarring chaser to a piece about the beauty and wonder of the universe. For the sake of my senses and my sanity, I didn't stay in that room for long.

Stimulating the imagination was The Infinite's purpose, as stated by the promotional posters outside. NASA recognizes the value of art, the posters said, as a way to inspire people to support scientific progress and space programs, if not go to space themselves. To me, a literature major, it felt like a backhanded compliment from STEM to the humanities — still STEM-centric, but certainly better than not valuing art at all.

And I didn't find myself inspired to go to space myself, at least not right
away. Maybe I've seen too many other productions that explore not the wonder of space but the horror. Franchises like Aliens and Dead Space come to mind. Moreover, the inside of ISS was a clutter of cables, consoles, cabinets, and other devices; it made me feel far better about the state of my bedroom, but given that each bit of clutter was essential for surviving in space, a visit of my own didn't seem much closer.

I did find myself more strongly considering the purchase of a VR headset. Maybe the next generation of scientists will be otherwise inclined, but from at least one kid present, I didn't hear "I want to be an astronaut." I heard "We should do that again!"

Like VR, space travel won't be widely popular until it's cheaper and more comfortable. But for now, you can experience a bit of both at The Infinite. Since you can go as a group, it would make for a great date, and certainly a fun family experience.

The Infinite will be open at the Tacoma Armory through September. You can find out more by visiting https://theinfiniteseattle.com. Tickets for adults can be booked online for $24, with discounts for children, students, military personnel, disabled people, and the elderly.