Indy Datta straps on the VR headset for a technologically bleeding-edge interpretation of the Icelandic musician’s bruising 2015 breakup album, Vulnicura.
I had two reasons for checking out Björk Digital. One, I hadn’t been able to land tickets for the singer’s Albert Hall or Apollo shows last week, because I’m not a wizard. And two, I think this is an interesting moment for the virtual reality technology that underpins the show. The likes of Facebook (with Oculus) and Sony (with PlayStation VR) have made big bets on VR, while sceptics look instead to augmented reality apps (like Pokémon Go) as the next potential paradigm shift in entertainment. And the two things converged in the uncertainty I felt in advance of the experience: would I come out of the basement of Somerset House feeling like I’d lived a 70’s science-fiction pulp novella from my youth, one in which a holographic clone of a world-famous musician staged a private performance for me inside my own brain, or would I just be suffering from headset-hair and the after-effects of motion sickness?
The first piece in the exhibition, Andrew Thomas Huang’s Black Lake, commissioned for MoMA last year, defers any answers. Two ultrawide aspect screens face each other across a dark room, the perimeter of which is sentried by loudspeakers. Each screen plays a subtly different version of a film in which the singer lipsyncs to the song, the 10-minute long centrepiece of Vulnicura, while picking her way through a blasted volcanic landscape as the sound mix steers the audience’s attention to one screen and then the other. Bjork’s performance is as raw, intense and unpretty as the music, but the installation is the opposite of immersive. I spent as much time watching other people to see how they decided where to look as I did the screens.
I should acknowledge that this alienation could as well be a curatorial feature as a bug, as the next installation, also by Huang, is the show’s most straightforwardly affecting moment. The song Stonemilker, even by the stark standards of Vulnicura, eschews more than minimal poetry in its rehearsal of the death of a marriage, opting instead for the bluntness of a diary entry, or the last desperate plea of a woman abandoned. The masterstroke of the piece is that, when you strap on the headset, you’re placed in the position of the abandoner, captive as the singer sings to you on a wintry beach, and as you naturally test the technological boundaries of your vision, and continually turn your back on her, spinning on your stool, she multiplies and reappears in front of you, demanding in triplicate, endlessly, that you show her emotional respect. But if you look out to sea, in the end she can’t follow, and instead of listening to her entreaties, you can tune into the distant roar of the waves.
This YouTube 360-degree video is the same film you see in the show (at the same miserly resolution), but the experience is transformed by the headset. Chalk one up in favour of the tech getting us closer to the music.
Make that two, because Warren du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones’s Notget, the only true VR I experienced in the show, is stunning, and a fascinating pointer to how technology could reproduce the immediacy and intimacy of live performance without in any way trying to replicate it. In Notget, the singer’s avatar is a graphic wireframe hybrid of a human being and some kind of winged insect, who starts out at about three feet tall, singing to you from down at your feet, but as the song (a rare moment of defiance and optimism in the midst of the album’s general despair, underpinned and propelled by martial drums) builds and grows, so does she, until at the end, she towers dominantly over you, in a way no other medium could reproduce. This is weird, thrilling, unique work.
I’ve skipped over a couple of the pieces, Mouthmantra and Quicksand – which make good but not hugely surprising use of, respectively, the surreal collision of 360 degree video and ultra wide angle endoscopy (from inside Björk’s mouth), and a Jeff Minteresque synaesthetic feast of e-fireworks, and I missed Family, I think, due to some confusing routing. The show ends with a room playing a loop of Björk’s music videos on a big screen, showcasing the wide range of artists she’s worked with. The pick of the clips I watched in my time there was Michel Gondry’s beautiful Bachelorette, which tells a different story to the song, but one which finds satisfying emotional resonances with it.
Gondry’s embrace of artifice in a low-tech medium, in his low-tech style, reminded me that contrivance is inherent to any artistic medium, whether you have to strap a headset on to experience it or not. The experiments of Bjork Digital will likely come to seem primitive fairly soon, either as the form is embraced and perfected, or as a retro cul-de-sac of tech-novelty that the corporate world couldn’t get consumers to swallow. It’s too early to tell which, but the work itself makes the question irrelevant.
Björk Digital is on at Somerset House until 23 October.