'1,000 Heads Among the Trees' at MAP

You are a visitor in a dark, strange, near-deserted town in this computer game. You can walk, run, crawl, and jump (though you don't often need the latter two; this is a low-energy game) along dusty nighttime roads, snapping photographs and writing notes in your journal. The time of day never changes; you're stuck in the night time with an orange moon and yellow streetlights.

There's a pervasive sense of unease or dread here; crickets chirp and cars zoom by in the distance, but you never see them on the road. A few people mill about as you walk through the town's center—some of them sit alone on benches, or stand at the edge of the road looking out onto a field. Others are speaking to each other, and when you approach them they run in opposite directions. Occasionally you stop to talk to some of these people, which takes you to another screen where you click through the photos you've taken and—if you're talking to the right people—you learn more about Cachiche, this Peruvian town that you're in, which is full of ghosts, suspicious alleyways, legends, and descendents of the witches who founded this place.

Everything unfolds slowly and feels sparse and a little creepy. You stumble upon things that don't make sense by themselves: an unmarked warehouse stocked to the ceiling with branches; shells of narrow homes that store countless large, white sacks. There's a bar on one side of the town that you can't find a way into, but you can stand outside and listen. Someone called El Brujo describes Cachiche as a place with a "large cone of energy" and tells you about a Jarjacho—a ghost who lives in the field and wears a sack over his face. At best, all you get are snippets of information about Cachiche and its stories, rather than a full history—which is better, and it's seemingly how the artist experienced it, too, when he visited the town. Many of the sounds, stories, and conversations are from that visit.

A major disorienting factor here is that you navigate this dreamy place from a first-person point of view. This is perhaps my being an actual non-gaming noob, but first-person games have always been hard for me to maneuver in, because you have no peripheral vision, no sense of where your virtual body is in space. It's hard to get used to navigating a virtual self with buttons instead of sensing or glimpsing things around you. This may be incidental, but it adds to the confusion and lack of awareness as you wander around this reconstruction of Cachiche.

You decide to take a cab to the south side of town. And then you keep going, to some lake, which is strangely illuminated, glowing green. Then you get back in the taxi, because it seems like all you can do is look at the lake and take photos. You go to a lagoon and then to a place called La Casa del Diablo, with steep hills, a house you can't enter, and another large, run-down structure with a tile floor. You don't find answers here either, but it's all pleasantly dizzying, like a fever dream.

'1,000 Heads Among the Trees,' Aaron Oldenburg in the Maryland Artist Registry Juried Exhibition at Maryland Art Place through March 26

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