2016 has been tipped as the year of Virtual Reality, but it might also be fair to call it the year of Björk. The eclectic and elusive singer and artist has been pretty busy over the last year leading up to and following the release of her album, Vulnicura, which charts her heartbreak post-breakup from artist Matthew Barney.
After the success of Biophilia and its series of related apps and educational programs, Björk opted to move into yet another emerging technology with Björk Digital, in an attempt to continue pushing the boundaries of art. It’s entirely unsurprising that the Icelandic musical behemoth is one of the first musicians to dabble in Virtual Reality.
First previewing in Sydney, Björk Digital is an exhibition curated by Björk and includes a number of Virtual Reality experiences as well as cinema rooms, instruments, and the opportunity to play with the Biophilia apps. It debuted in London on the 1st of September at Somerset House and will be on until the 23rd of October, so we went along to see what Björk is doing with VR.
The exhibition itself took place in some of the back rooms of Somerset House on the banks of the River Thames. The first film, Black Lake, was a ten-minute music video directed by LA’s Thomas Huang, originally commissioned by MoMa for the Björk exhibit in New York. The experience consisted of the video split across two screens with surround sound, the audience standing between them, watching a heartbroken Björk crawling and walking through an Icelandic landscape. The song has been described as a ‘ten-minute Björk diss track’ and functions as just that, but a great deal more multi-layered and emotionally aware than you might expect. Björk has said herself that she finds the song impossible to listen to, as she goes through cycles of heartbreak, direct attacks on her ex, and then comes back around to acceptance.
The second experience, Stonemilker, was a full VR experience, using the portable Samsung Gear VR headsets. We were given a small introduction to the equipment before watching the video, which was a 360 degree filmed experience featuring Björks singing to you on an Icelandic beach. The singer encouraged you to experience the full 360 experience within the film itself, by walking out of your immediate field of vision, prompting you to follow her around the location. The film was playful and one of the more technically accomplished experienced, with Björk getting louder or quieter depending on your proximity to her. Perhaps the most impressive was the use of rotoscoping to enable the singer to be performing in front of you and behind you at the same time.
The second VR video was Björk’s Mouth Mantra, for which she had released an immersive (and pretty trippy) video last year; in which the viewer gets all up in her mouth to watch another Björk singing outside. The VR experience was a version of that, but more disorienting and perhaps impossible to sit through for viewers who had already been a bit grossed out by the video itself.
The third and fourth experiences, Quicksand and Notget, were similar but simultaneously wholly different. Quicksand featured a whole, ethereal Björk, singing out her pain as sand poured from her mouth. It was one of the more completely immersive experiences, allowing you to watch Björk come apart and back together as she sang about forgiveness and healing; while still completely chewing out ex Matthew Barney. It was our favourite experience that engaged us the entire time – something which surprised us considering it was created for the lower specced Samsung Gear VR as opposed to more advanced HTC Vive, used in the final experience.
Notget, the final experience, was the most immersive and technically accomplished by far. The viewer was placed in an all-black room with their headset and headphones, and left to explore the space with one other person. Using the cutting edge HTC Vive headsets, excitement was high as we were led into the experience. The video itself featured a (probably) true-to-size Björk, naked and covered in black glitter paint with gold horns. It was bordering on satanic, and pretty cool. We were then invited to walk around Björk as she fragmented and came back together, becoming a neon beast by the end; and further cementing her status as literal goddess. However, for some the experience didn’t start at all or cut off early; which was incredibly disappointing considering the video had that much more potential to be really immersive and an experience above and beyond the rest of the event.
The final portion of the exhibition, the cinema, was not working on the day that we went. The volunteers working that day let us know that it would be around 15 minutes before it started up again, and that we could play with the instruments and Biophilia apps until it was ready; both of which were apparently a part of the exhibit. After a while it still wasn’t ready and while they kindly told us we could come back whenever we wanted, it didn’t quite feel worth it to watch music videos readily available on Youtube with surround sound.
While the exhibition had its moments of brilliance, there were aspects that were so limiting or disappointing that it made it difficult to get fully involved; which is essentially the entire point of Virtual Reality. With some aspects breaking or the cinema not working, it made it hard to enjoy completely. 2016 is the year of Virtual Reality but it’s worth recognising that it’s an emerging technology, and forgiving it for its growing pains. Despite all of that, there’s one thing that remains true – Björk is still a genius. Even after decades of musical and technological innovation, she remains keen to play with any and every new technology that becomes available to her. She moves away from her rigid musical routine to play with Virtual Reality alongside her most emotive and open album yet; she has fun with a technology that we need to remember is really fun and just about teetering on its baby steps. The visuals and sound of the experience were ambitious, glorious, ethereal – just like the woman herself. It’s just a shame that her ambition is that much bigger than the technology allows, and it’ll be wonderful to see what she can achieve when things move on a bit. If nothing else, Björk is once again doing things first.
Björk Digital is at Somerset House in London until October 23; entry is £15/£12.50 concessions. www.somersethouse.org.uk