Emily Mackay had a preview of the Icelandic singer’s new head-spinning VR experience at London’s Somerset House.


You might have noticed that Björk isn’t that good at mundane, so it made perfect sense that on Wednesday (31 August), she launched her virtual reality exhibition, Björk Digital, as an avatar, beamed across the sea from a motion-capture suit in Reykjavik to London’s Somerset House. “I see myself as someone who builds bridges between the human things we do every day, and technology,” she said, iridescent wings and tendrils fluttering with each hand gesture.

And that’s long been her role: urging us to abandon cliched ideas of the human as something opposed to the technological – one warm and emotional, the other cold and clinical. As an exhibition, Björk Digital embodies that ethos beautifully, the advance of machines having finally allowed Björk to be completely plugged into a complete, warm and living sound-and-vision world of her own creation.

But as always with Bjork, the focus is on the still-emerging present.

As well as an exhibition, Björk Digital is an evolving work-in-progress. It’s centred around Vulnicura VR, which will take last year’s bleak, brave break-up record and grow, song by song, city by city, to become a full virtual reality album. The project is part on-the-hoof reaction to the original ‘Vulnicura’’s premature leak – a way to reclaim it and make it special again – and part response to the intimate psychodrama of the album’s painful subject, the collapse of Björk’s marriage.

Vulnicura VR is a rainbow bridge between some of the most beautiful virtual reality design from the most forward-thinking creative technology studios around, and some of song’s oldest subjects: love and loss. It’s a natural, but bold, progression from ‘Biophilia’, her 2011 app album, allowing her to combine music, art and technology in an even more intuitive, immersive, emotive way.

Two tips: there’s no cloakroom, so avoid bulky bags, but definitely do take something to weep into. Just walking around Somerset House (who, what with this and PJ Harvey’s fly-on-the-wall recording show, seem to be making a habit of excitingly outside-the-box music events) to see the five existing Vulnicura VR videos feels breath-held intimate, like a shared secret. Visitors are encouraged to absorb what they see as a small group, even though VR is so often a very private, in-the-head experience.

Guides will lead you quietly downstairs to a darkened room for the first video, ‘Black Lake’, directed by Andrew Thomas Huang and first seen at Björk’s New York MoMA exhibition of 2015. It’s more of an immersive experience than VR in the goggles-and-headphones sense, but it is very immersive. Viewers stand between two long screens, which project different scenes from the narrative you can see in the online 2D Black Lake video, and the Black Lake trailer.

At the beginning, on one screen, Björk is embedded in a rock, blue lava flowing like blood from a chest wound and down between her thighs. On the other screen, she’s in the depths of a cave, pleading towards the camera with mannered, ritualistic hand motions. It’s best to move around the room, looking from screen to screen, to get the full effect of the story’s multiple viewpoints.

The precise high-definition of the filming – the ravine shots were filmed by drones, snapping detailed pictures every two feet – and the way the music is arranged around you gives a sense of real, alive immediacy: immediate despair, immediate claustrophobia.

When Björk pounds on her chest, as if to restart her overwhelmed heart, you can almost feel the blows on your own ribcage. And when she begins to flail and flick her hair in Bacchanalian abandon to the taut beats that trigger the song’s emotional crisis, the wild sense of release is right there with you too.

‘Stonemilker’, also directed by Huang, has a completely different emotional tone. It’s experienced more as you would expect from VR; you are ushered in to a small room filled with swivelling stools, a headset and a set of headphones coiled on each. (The stools are quite tall, and I found that for us short folks, keeping one foot at least on the ground helps you feel more groundedly part of the VR world and less like you’re about to do an acoustic rendition of ‘What Makes You Beautiful.’)

With headset on, you are suddenly on Grótta beach, where Björk wrote the song, with the writer herself standing in front of you. But can turn completely away from her, if you like, to stare up at a lighthouse, or down at some waves; it’s head-spinningly real, and almost uncomfortably intimate.

There were many people involved in the making of this crisply real 360-degree scene: Huang, VR studio, renowned VFX studio Digital Domain. And yet as a viewer, the feeling is simple, natural, direct. As with ‘Black Lake’, the way the sound is arranged intensifies the feeling that you’re there, the close-miked, invisible string players circled around you, and Björk’s singing voice as close to you as her virtual face is. Or rather, several faces; as the song progresses, she splits into two, then three copies of herself, each urging restraint and calm with different gestures and expression. The effect is peaceful, but also highly likely to make you cry like an idiot.

And if that doesn’t upset you, well… in the belly of Somerset House’s New Wing, built in the Victorian era to accommodate an expanding Inland Revenue, something a lot scarier than a tax bill is lurking. It’s ‘Mouth Mantra’, a dental nightmare for which director Jesse Kanda put a miniature camera inside Björk’s mouth.

The results were messed around with and made into a 360-degree trip by Dentsu Lab in Tokyo, resulting in a raspberry-ripple body horror of distorted, swirling teeth and wet pink gum meat. The tortuous confusion emphasises the choking frustration of the lyrics, which give voice to Björk’s fears during a period of silence when recovering from throat surgery: “My mouth was sewn up… I was not heard”.

Sometimes you appear to be inside her closing throat, sometimes behind her UV-lit teeth, catching half a glimpse up her distant nose. Sometimes two rows of teeth seem to act like a proscenium arch, the viewer seated on the tongue to watch Björk dance furiously outside.

Back to less scary and less literal ways to get inside Björk’s head, ‘Notget’ is a standing experience, in which Björk paces endlessly towards you. She’s now a liquid metal being, a burnished, coppery purple, dissolving and eroding in glittering dust, her eyes burning yellow within a mask meant to evoke a “digital moth goddess”. As the song progresses, her figure grows and changes, the edges of her form illuminated in vibrantly rippling colour.

Finally there is ‘Quicksand’, another Dentsu Lab collaboration, previously part of the world’s first 360-degree VR live stream from the exhibition’s last stop in Tokyo, and now souped up with added post-production.

In it, Björk wears a 3D-printed mask designed by Neri Oxman of MIT Media Lab, on which animations are projected. Glowing threads stream upwards from her face, spinning into a sphere above her head, echoing the lyrics’ assurance that “a celestial nest will grow above”. As Björk sings, her body dissolves and reforms into fields of stardust and nebulae, the heavens hurtling around you. As with all the videos, it’s good to keep reminding yourself to be an active viewer – look all around, crane and peek to catch everything that’s going on.

And hopefully, there should be even more going on soon. The main Vulnicura VR video developed with River Studios – which seems to act, in the same way as ‘Biophilia’’s mother app, as a menu/umbrella to contain the individual song experiences – wasn’t on view at the launch, but its credits were printed on a wall at the end, suggesting that it might be added at some point soon.

And although some reports from the press conference seemed to suggest that a video for ‘Atom Dance’ would be at Somerset House, according to Björk’s press people, ‘Family’ is the next video nearing completion (so far there hasn’t been a new song added for London). For now, the five experiences are supplemented by a room full of tablets on which visitors can use the ‘Biophilia’ app, with the custom gameleste used on the ‘Biophilia’ songs to one side, and in another room, the MIDI-controlled pipe organ, which you’ll be able to play around with (it wasn’t set up for my visit).

Lastly, a mini-cinema shows all of the music videos from Björk’s long career on a two-hour loop, a gorgeous reminder/primer of all the steps forward she’s taken along this grand, and wonderfully unending, musical-visual-technical adventure.

Björk Digital is at Somerset House, London, WC2 until 23 October. Björk plays the Royal Albert Hall on 21 September and London Hammersmith Apollo on 24 September. Emily Mackay’s book in the 33 1/3 series on Björk’s ‘Homogenic’ is due out in spring 2017.