Björk Digital, VR Exhibition @ Somerset House, London (Sept-1—Oct-23, 2016). Björk Digital—a touring exhibition showcasing the on-going development of turning Vulnicura into an entire album of interactive Virtual Reality “videos,” which has now reached its first European stop at London’s esteemed Somerset House after earlier incarnations in Sydney and Tokyo a few months back.
Every five-ish years technology’s relationship with music seems to leap into another frontier and double in capacity, usability and innovation with a whole new format, platform or “thing.” For Björk however, every five or so years just doesn’t seem to be quick enough.
Björk already has a very impressive list of technological firsts for a recording artist: Releasing the first DVD single (All Is Full Of Love, 1999). The first 5.1 surround-sound tour (Vespertine‘s world tour of opera houses in 2001). The first music video filmed especially in 3D (Wanderlust, 2007). The world’s first full touchscreen app album (Biophilia, 2011, which has since gone on to be introduced into the educational curriculum of several Scandinavian countries, and more due to follow.) So the image of Björk and a posse of tech-geek friends beavering away for new technological advances like an episode of the Big Bang Theory could be an easy misconception to make.
According the lady herself this couldn’t be further from the truth. She’s just been in a fortunate position to have said-geeks indulge her creative visions over the years. These tend to result in said new technological advance being thrust upon the public consciousness from out of nowhere, and usually with much applause and acclaim.
But what if said-artist goes through a traumatic divorce and delivers her most conventionally constructed album (by her standards) of straight forward beautiful heartache, melodrama and emotionally volatile anti-love songs (as per last year’s Vulnicura)? Where is the room for technological innovation there?
As the record industry slowly leaves behind the old idea of music videos per single from an album, the music video has undergone something of a mini renaissance in itself over recent years. While the immense visionary masterpieces (and budgets) of Chris Cunningham, Michel Gondry, Spike Jonez and co of 1990s infamy are well and truly over, many artists have embraced the video of nowadays as something of a creative, DIY challenge, unburdened by restraints of having to churn out an MTV friendly companion to a track that would sink without out a trace if it didn’t receive FM radio play.
Björk’s groundbreaking video work since her very first solo single (Human Behaviour, 1993) has been as vital an ingredient to her success as the tracks themselves, and it is here where Björk saw ample opportunity to develop Vulnicura further. Not technologically specifically. But in enhancing the scale of intimacy experienced in such already near-to-the-bone material.
And so we have Björk Digital—a touring exhibition showcasing the on-going development of turning Vulnicura into an entire album of interactive Virtual Reality “videos,” which has now reached its first European stop at London’s esteemed Somerset House after earlier incarnations in Sydney and Tokyo a few months back.
But this is where things already get rather confusing: We are not being presented with a finished, fully formed and functioning VR album yet. But rather a patch work of on-going development into what Björk clearly hopes will be a very slick and functional final product in a year or so. So why not wait until there’s a whole collection and finished project to show off?
Virtual Reality in itself though is a strange beast of a format. While it may have found a recent calling in the adult entertainment industry already, beyond getting a first-person virtual blowjob from your favourite porn star it hasn’t quite found a place in general film beyond gimmickry or a tool for Facebook advertising yet.
Whereas Björk’s vision of an interactive personal music school / album / midi instrument was tremendously realised as a collection of apps for Biophilia, Virtual Reality as a platform to showcase a song’s raw intimacy is going to be a hell of a lot harder to achieve, with no guarantee of success. Like a marriage perhaps?
While the four VR videos showcased here are all packed with Björk’s typical creative flare, vision, beauty and concept, the sweaty VR headsets with limited screen quality struggle to do them justice… yet.
But despite this, the tenderness of four Björk’s surrounding you as they sing the tender Stonermilker right down your ear on a desolate Icelandic beach reaches a new level of intimacy which it takes the brain a few moments to compute. While Mouth Mantra’s disorientating warp around the inside of Björk’s mouth leaves you intentionally unsettled and queasy.
Quicksand (a recording taken from the first ever live 360 degree VR web broadcast at last month’s Tokyo exhibition—another technical first for Björk) while still clearly in need of refining and further development, boasts some impressive digital light manipulation and CG imagery overlaying Björk as she stands performing the track in front of you in a surreal mask that comes to life throughout). However it is Notget, the least-developed video of the bunch, that makes the biggest impression.
Finally getting to rise off our swivelling stools like a boyband at a key change, these headsets hang from the ceiling in their own segregated booths and allow the user to actually walk around Björk’s centralised performance, as opposed to the performance happening around you while you remain seated.
Split into two sections, Notget starts with a simple black, glittery CG Björk singing in a hazy purple abyss as you wander around her. Sadly this portion is massively underdeveloped with very little life or a CG lipsync in place yet. However, as the song bursts so does our CG Björk, going from rather wooden Lawnmower Man into a translucent, growing neon moth-like being, letting off neon sparks as her expanding hollow body slowly engulfs you.
The surreal sensation of being absorbed into her body and looking up into her head from inside her chest amid the flurry of neon fireworks (as you yourself are stood upright without the support of a stool or any real directional anchor) is a mighty score for this whole experience. If the first half of Notget can be developed to compliment the power of the latter half, and indeed other further videos from the album produced in this free-standing style, this may just bloody work after all.
Prior to all these VR shenanigans, opening the whole tour is the Black Lake installation; A large room with dual widescreens either end, utterly surrounded in speakers, monitors and bass units. As the oh-so-sad 10 minute song starts and Björk’s melodramatic breakdown on the black Icelandic beach unfolds with both screens showing slightly different edits, the 5.1 sonic experience here is to die for. Different elements of the track poke you depending on where you literally stand or move within the room, and forces you to squirm and move around.
It is unclear if or how Black Lake will be converted into an actual VR video for the final VR album. But as an audio-visual installation that allows the audience the physical space to wander, Black Lake is a subtle (albeit melodramatic) technical and emotional triumph.
With an additional cinema room showcasing all of Björk’s music videos since 1993, several of the midi-controlled pipe organs from 2011’s Biophilia world tour dotted around tooting away, and a room full of iPads for you to explore the Biophilia app for yourself, that nicely concludes Björk Digital and reminds you just how truly multimedia music can well be.
Frustratingly, conga lines from one dark draped room full of stools to another with no real context or insight don’t exactly make for inspirational surroundings once the headsets come off after each video, or put Somerset House’s usually first-rate curation in a particularly good light. But, just how are you supposed to curate an experience designed to be enjoyed in the privacy of a headset and headphones?
Until we have the final VR album product in a year or so, all we have is Björk’s instinct to guide us and trust. While the niggle that Virtual Reality may well be a format not advanced enough to work for Björk’s vision is all too evident and justified here, there is simply no other artist pushing these envelopes that should rightly be pushed. So, whether it all comes together or not, Björk’s honest approach in literally allowing us to step in to the development stages for us all to see is another first for an artist who ordinarily only delivers polished finished goods. But in the context of Vulnicura‘s raw honesty too, this approach makes perfect sense.
More so though, to see technology visibly struggle and strive to keep up with the ideas of one unique human being, rather than the other way around, is worth the door charge alone. Björk, and the expression of raw, human emotion, waits for no format.