Björk has been on the cutting edge for so long that it’s hard to imagine the edge without Björk. Her relationship with technology, both analog and digital, is as much about curiosity as is it aesthetics. Even as far back as 1988, in the midst of her Sugarcubes days, Björk can be seen disassembling a television set to see how it operates and, as she says, puts her in “all those weird situations.”
The new exhibition Björk Digital, now on at London’s Somerset House, takes stock of the Björk’s experiments with immersive digital technologies. Among them are Black Lake, a 10-minute immersive audiovisual installation and music video from her recent album, Vulnicura, that debuted at MoMA. Björk also conducted a press conference before the show’s opening, in which, with the help of a team from Unity, she donned a motion capture suit to render herself as a real-time virtual avatar.
Equally notable in Björk Digital is Stonemilker VR, a collaboration with Los Angeles-based filmmaker Andrew Thomas Huang, in which viewers are transported to an Icelandic beach for a private performance—viewable in 360 degrees—of Vulnicura’s opening track. The show also features Mouth Mantra VR, in which Björk collaborated with Jesse Kanda to create an immersive experience of her mouth. And Notget VR showcases Björk as a giant virtual moth mutated by masks designed by embroidery artist James Merry. It reminds viewers that all is not completely digital in her world.
Marcos Sanchez, Head of Global Communications at Unity, tells The Creators Project that Unity was really there for technical mocap guidance, and that Björk’s team did the heavy creative lifting.
“Motion capture itself isn’t new, but doing it live with Björk remotely in Reykjavik and the press in London was unique,” he says. “Björk was in a studio in Reykjavik and was wearing a motion capture suit from Xsens. Using special sensors, the suit is able to track the position and orientation of Björk’s body as she moves.”
Sanchez says that Björk’s positional data was then streamed in real-time through a direct internet link to a computer, running Autodesk’s MotionBuilder, based at Somerset House. This piece of software maps and scales the motion capture data to a virtual skeleton comprised up of joints and bones, which could be of varying sizes.
The position of the bones was then streamed again in real time and applied to a virtual 3D Björk avatar running in Unity. As Sanchez explains, Björk’s team used Unity to display the final character, rendered live with lighting, shadows, and different camera angles.
“CG effects such as the haze applied over the wound in the character of Björk’s chest and the movement of the tendrils on her arms can also be applied using Unity in real time,” says Sanchez. “The motion of the character on screen at Somerset House [exactly matched] what Björk [was] doing in Reykjavik—there was no pre-recorded animation used. There was [also] a live audio and Unity feed from Somerset House to Reykjavik and so Björk could see what her character looked like on screen and was able to hear and respond to the questions in the press briefing.”
James Merry, maker of the embroidered masks seen in the Notget VR experience, says that embroidery was one of the early visual references Björk had for Vulnicura. Merry says that Björk imagined “stubborn Icelandic plants, growing and stitching a wound closed.”
“I got really excited by that and started making small pieces of embroidery for her as we made the first music videos,” says Merry. “I think the first things I made were some stockings embroidered with Icelandic ‘blóðberg’ for the Black Lake video, and an embroidered latex headpiece for her birthday present. Then it just all grew from there, eventually manifesting in all the headpieces for the tour.”
Merry’s process, quite the opposite from the digital and virtual technologies, is classically analog. In fact, he’s never even used a sewing machine in his work.
“For me, one of the appealing aspects to work in such an ancient and traditional medium is how open that makes it to quiet subversion,” Merry says. “Particularly with the materials I am using—embroidering into latex with neon threads, and the juxtaposition between machine and hand on my embroidered sportswear series. Transformations and metamorphosis are recurring themes throughout my work, often exploring notions of contrast when things collide and coexist : animal versus human, urban versus rural, traditional craft versus new technologies.”
All of the pieces he has made for Björk have been handmade and custom-fitted just for her. As he explains, there has been a considerable evolution in the materials and techniques he has used : “The first pieces were predominantly hand-embroidered lace and latex, quite soft and feminine,” he says. “Then I began to add more beadwork and detailing in pearls. I then started using wire—in my mind, a sort of three-dimensional embroidery, bringing the threads off the face and float in mid air. And now I’m moving into translucent plastics, but still with embroidered details.”
To bring Merry’s embroidered masks into the Notget VR experience, directors Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones, in collaboration with REWIND:VR, used Microsoft Kinect sensors, motion capture, and videogrammetry to gather point cloud data on the full details of the masks and costumes worn by Björk. The result is that Merry’s physical creations become an ever-evolving swarm of virtual particles that alter Björk’s giant virtual moth avatar.
So while Björk Digital maps out the Icelandic artist’s forays into virtual realms, Merry’s work reminds anyone interested in Björk’s work that the analog is just as important. Her costumes, masks, props, and indeed her body, do not play second fiddle to VR worlds. They are all part of a cohesive whole, where multiple technologies, from fashion to digital avatars, are used to extend Björk’s ever-branching imagination.