Few will be surprised to learn that Björk admits she can be something of a control freak when it comes to her musical output.
“When I make my music I am a bit of a tyrant – it is my world and people follow my vision,” she says with a giggle. “But with the visuals it’s more of a collaboration.”
It is visuals, mainly, that have brought Björk to Somerset House. Her new exhibition, which opens on Thursday at the London venue, presents the visual universe she has created, primarily through 360-degree virtual reality videos, to accompany Vulnicura, her most raw and emotionally exposed album yet.
Speaking at the launch of the show, the eccentric singer appeared not in person but on screen in the form of an ethereal avatar, created for the video for the album track Family, which is among those to debut at Somerset House.
The Icelandic performer has long embraced the possibilities presented by new technology, and Björk Digital showcases how she has used it to enhance her creative expression. While it is still a work in progress, Björk is on her way to creating the first VR album with Vulnicura, filming a different 360-degree video for each track, each using a different director.
“I see myself as someone who builds bridges between the human things we do every day, and technology,” she says. “So when the laptop came, it meant I didn’t need a studio any more. I hate them anyway – they don’t have windows and they are really expensive – but now I can write my music wherever.
“For a woman, I think it is really empowering because I don’t need the whole patriarchy of the studio and that whole universe to make my music. Instead of doing a small proportion of it myself, I could go all the way up to doing 90% of it myself.”
In a departure from her previous album Biophilia, which was recorded on an island over three years and only released when the whole vision of the album was complete, Björk describes the expanding visual universe of Vulnicura as driven by “experimentation and improvisation”.
This was partly due to what she describes as “the urgency of the topic” – she wrote the album in response to her heartbreak at the demise of her relationship with her longterm partner Matthew Barney – but also because the album was leaked before it was complete. Instead of panicking, she says she and her team “surrendered, decided to release all of it and just improvise as we went along”.
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“The visual side of Vulnicura has been a very slow plan … I think emotionally it really works because heartbreak is the oldest human story of all, so it could take this experimentation,” she says. “Each song has a different format and a different director. I think that helps because the story is mainly just me moaning, and the instrumentation is always the same, just strings and beats. So to get different points of view with different directors and different technology … I think it suits the project really well.”
Björk Digital has already been to Tokyo and Sydney and will travel to four other cities. In each new location, Björk will add new songs to the show until the VR album is complete.
The exhibition opens with a screening of the video for Black Lake, which was originally commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and is presented across two vast screens and with stereo surround sound. The footage, filmed on the black volcanic rocks of Iceland, is supposed to capture the claustrophobia and darkness that Björk felt when she wrote the song in the middle of the night, suffering from jetlag and feeling like she had hit rock bottom.
The singer says : “There is something about the drama in Vulnicura that I am almost embarrassed about because it is so over the top.” But she feels that the theatrical, immersive nature of virtual reality video, watched in 360 degrees through a headset, suited the drama of the album.
Also on interactive display is the pioneering app that Björk created to accompany Biophilia, which includes song lyrics and programs to compose with custom-made digital instruments. The app has since been used in Icelandic and Scandinavian schools to teach music to children and Björk envisages that Biophilia will eventually be realised as a physical house that will contain the instruments she created specially for the album.
The only problem with VR for Björk has been the fact that most people still do not have access to the technology, which was a key motivation in her displaying the work in Somerset House and other art galleries around the world.
“We understood that we needed a home for all the video apps until people have those headsets at home,” she says. “So this exhibition is almost like bridge building while the technology is growing.”