London’s Somerset House opens its doors to the European premiere of Björk Digital on Thursday.
The touring exhibition of digital and video works — the results of collaborations among the Icelandic musician, and several highly respected visual artists and programmers around the world — was previewed to press ahead of its public opening with a special visit from the singer, or rather her digital avatar. She was beamed into a news conference via a live motion capture avatar to say a few words.
The avatar itself offered a glimpse into a new upcoming VR video for "Family" that will premiere later this year, directed by Andrew Thomas Huang with co-creative direction by Björk and her long-term co-collaborator James Merry.
The showcase, featuring four videos, (a new piece will be premiered in each city), is an ode to Bjork’s 2015 album Vulnicura, in VR, and a bold demonstration of her will to push the boundaries of what is possible in music, art and technology.
From Iceland, where he now spends half his time, Merry — an English hand-embroidery artist — told CNN about their creative process : "With each album or project, Björk creates quite a specific universe for the character that inhabits the world she has built around it. There are always very precise visual references - colors, textures, moods, etc. really down into the details of things, both practical and emotional.
"Therefore when it comes to working on the aesthetics, designers or directors are usually provided with a lot of these references from Björk, invited into that specific world but given the space and nutrients to flourish and be themselves inside of it. It’s a very fertile and nurturing place to work from — hopefully always bringing the best out of everyone involved. I’ve really loved being involved on the recent work we’ve done with Andrew Thomas Huang, and also with Warren du Preez & Nick Thornton-Jones.
"Making new headpieces with Björk and then seeing how they transform and develop inside a digital world has been a really exciting and unexpected aspect of that."
A series of videos and VR experiences housed in individual rooms interconnected by bare corridors are the main event, there’s little fanfare around the simple stools and VR goggles laid out for audiences to wear. The magic really only unfolds once the goggles are on.
The video was directed by Los Angeles-based director Andrew Thomas Huang and filmed in Björk’s native Iceland. It sees her crawling and convulsing through dank underground caves lit by aggressive spot lights as deep blue digitally rendered molten ash and fire runs across rock surfaces. The film concludes with the musician spinning through the vast, greenscape of Iceland’s highlands in digitally enhanced cape that is plucked off her body into the sky.
The video is screened in a darkened room on two screens that face each other, allowing audiences to move around as the music and visuals wash over them.
Also on show is her recent work with digital artist and filmmaker Jesse Kanda who directed "Mouth Mantra VR", another track from the album, set quite literally within Björk’s mouth. A VR headset is donned to experience this piece that treats your senses to a pulsating, warping toothy experience not for the faint-hearted.
Further into the exhibit is "Notget VR," directed by Warren du Preez & Nick Thornton Jones. The piece focuses on a digital moth giantess that grows and towers over you as she transforms in masks by Merry.
Tech and freedom
Björk is widely regarded as a pioneer in the digital sphere. She’s embraced technology throughout her career.
According to Merry : "I really admire the pioneering spirit Björk has when it comes to new technologies, such as the apps and VR. It’s probably a natural reaction to be skeptical or cynical about any new medium or format, especially while they are still in the early stages. But I think she immediately saw the immersive potential with VR for intimacy and magic, both in terms of performance but also with sound and all the new ways that it can be placed spatially.
"No-one’s really figured that out yet and stepping into uncharted territory is always nerve-wracking but thrilling. I think it’s brave as an independent artist to put yourself forward and be the first to take these new toys and try to put emotion and spontaneity into them. If artists don’t do that, then who will ?!"
Writing on her Facebook page, Björk spoke of the freedom technology has allowed her : "On technology is enabling women to work outside the already formed hierarchical systems . the laptop arriving 1999 gave me a personal studio to make vespertine , the touchscreen 2006 helped me map my own idiosyncratic musicology outside the classical canon and reconnect it w nature and make biophilia , VR is helping making a new stage free of politics where sound and vision is swirling free in 360 fully liberated."