“It’s a sort of bridge building”: Björk on virtual reality, heartbreak and Björk Digital
by Thomas McMullan
“I think we’re discovering it as we go,” Björk tells me, in London, from Reykjavík, projected across a room in Somerset House, as a digital avatar bedecked in billowy cloth and sinewy growths.
We’re there to launch an exhibition – Björk Digital – showcasing the singer’s work with visual artists and programmers, pivoting on a series of music videos that make use of virtual reality. I’ve spent the last hour or so in intimate proximity with Björk. Close to her on a beach. Beside her hips. Sitting inside her mouth. And so it feels strange to be speaking to the actual artist now, motion-captured but more noticeably distant than ever.
Looming large and colourful, she talks about Vulnicura, explaining why her latest album was the perfect opportunity to push her work with new technology. “I think emotionally [virtual reality] really works with Vulnicura because it’s the oldest story of them all: heartbreak, which is a 10,000-year-old – probably older – story,” she says. “It could take this experimentation.”
My question is offered up to the avatar like a request to an oracle. How does physical performance change when you’re dealing with virtual reality and 360-degree film? “We’re still discovering where the physicality is, and how you’re invited into that world,” she replies, before telling me about the experience of watching fans cry and hold hands during concerts in Australia and Japan. The sheer emotion. The intimacy of being surrounded by sound. Can you replicate these things when dealing with a technology as private as a virtual-reality headset?
The experience she mentions by way of evidence is Notget VR, one of the music videos based on songs from Vulnicura. Using a HTC Vive, I was presented with a digital avatar of Björk, what I’d describe as a burnt-out moth totem, transformed into a pulsating nebulae of technicolour particles. “Love will keep all of us safe from death,” Björk sings as I stand beside her thighs, her body grown to gigantic proportions.
Björk hints that a future iteration of Notget VR will use facial-recognition technology to create an even stronger connection between the avatar and the viewer. She’s also exploring the ways sound can be used with virtual reality in co-ordination with a physical performance. “The arrangements I’m doing now for the new album, you can really exaggerate it with 360 sound,” she says. “I could talk for hours about this subject matter, but the short answer is we are discovering it as we go.”
The projects on show at Björk Digital are an excellent illustration of how the artist is tossing and turning on virtual reality, experimenting with movements, perspectives and viewer attention. Stonemilker VR, Björk’s first foray into 360-degree film, sees the singer on a windswept Icelandic beach. From a direction perspective, it’s clever in how it encourages the viewer to track Björk as she circles, before complicating this focal point when Björk is split into two or three figures. It’s difficult to communicate, but having a recording of Björk close to your face as she sings feels unlike watching the same thing on a traditional screen. It is – here’s that word again – intimate.
“There’s something about the 360 staging which is very theatrical,” says Björk. “There’s something about the moment when you put those goggles on your face that you’re immediately in a very theatrical world.”
Stonemilker VR puts forward one format, but Mouth Mantra VR puts forward something entirely different. The viewer is placed inside Björk’s mouth as she sings the song of the same name. The result is like a version of Samuel Beckett’s Not I from the inside, if it were directed by Chris Cunningham. If Stonemilker VR showcases one version of virtual intimacy, here is a vision of hyperreal physicality – the body reduced to a jittering contortion of gums and teeth. “Vow of silence/I’ll explore the negative space/Around my mouth/It implodes/Black hole,” she sings.
Elsewhere in the exhibition is Quicksand VR, an augmented capture of Björk’s live performance at Miraikan, Tokyo, and Black Lake, an immersive installation that uses two screens and surround sound to create a haunting interpretation of that titular song. As well as work from Vulnicular, there is a room dedicated to the custom apps and instruments made for 2011’s Biophilia album.
“When touchscreens first came we were touring in 2006, I was so excited. I thought I could map out for the first time how I felt about musicology,” she explains. “I never agreed with my music teachers…so it was a big turning point for me. [With
“When touchscreens first came we were touring in 2006, I was so excited. I thought I could map out for the first time how I felt about musicology,” she explains. “I never agreed with my music teachers…so it was a big turning point for me. [WithBiophilia] I tapped into that pedagogy part of me. I’ve always wanted to start a music school.”
The Biophilia app has gone to be used as a teaching resource in schools across Scandinavia, and Björk explains that there are plans to make a follow-up app, as well as a dedicated physical space in Iceland to house the instruments she and her team built for the album. This use of technology as a means to introduce new modes of education and production, and to challenge older systems, is something Björk touches on a number of times as she speaks.
“When the laptop came, I thought, oh my god, I don’t have to go to the studio anymore,” she explains. “I hate them anyway. They don’t have windows and they’re really expensive… For a woman, I think [digital production] is actually really empowering. Because I didn’t need the whole patriarchy of the studios and that whole universe to make my music.”
A beautiful home
Taken as a single exhibition, Björk Digital is testament to a tirelessly innovative artist. In the wrong hands, 360-degree film and VR technology could be little more than a flashy gimmick, used to push a few more album downloads. This emphatically isn’t the case here. Björk and her team of collaborators, particularly the director and hand-embroidery artist James Merry, show a keen engagement with the new visual and aural possibilities of virtual reality.
Perhaps most strikingly, Björk and co don’t simply plonk VR as a standalone instrument, but instead position it as part of a throughline of various visual and theatrical techniques, including traditional film and surround-sound audio. At the same time, Björk is keen to impress that these new techniques aren’t intended to be museum pieces. When Stonemilker VR was first produced, it was shown in Rough Trade record shops in London and Brooklyn.
“I was like, okay, maybe this is the home for the music video in VR,” she says, gigantic and otherworldly. “Record shops. Maybe that’s the future of record shops. But it was a little bit complex, so we understood we needed a sort of home for all the VR until people had the headsets at home. It’s a sort of bridge building, while the technology is growing. And Somerset House seemed like a beautiful home.”
You can see the beautiful home for yourself from 1 September to 23 October, at Somerset House in London. More information and tickets here.
Photo credits: Thomas McMullan, REWIND VR, Santiago Felipe. The Björk avatar used during the press conference was powered by 3D games engine Unity.