CreativeReview

Björk’s virtual world

Björk Digital, an international touring exhibition of films and artworks created by the singer with various collaborators, arrived at Somerset House in London in August. It showed Björk continues to be a restless, experimental performer, and is one of the first musicians to explore VR in depth. Here, we talk to her, director Andrew Thomas Huang, and technical advisor Andrew Melchior about their work.

 

Interview with Björk by email, Monday September 12, 2016

CR: What appeals to you about virtual reality?

Björk: Probably the 360 sound options and possibilities for heightened synaesthesia …  lol. I’m very excited about that. What usually drives me towards making a special effort into other things than music is when you feel a potential to set up a unique merge between sound and vision that offers that extra special magic … so in short, I like that it can enhance music.

CR: It’s very early days in the medium – what have you (and your collaborators) discovered works best for VR filmmaking?

Björk: There have been a lot of discoveries in the last two years … hard to pick one out. But obviously a lot of the riddles are about the point of view of the viewer/listener inside the headset and the point of view of the performer. There is A LOT of freedom and it’s good to be careful and not go too freedom-y, as people can literally get seasick. In the last two years, what is possible has progressed a lot and we tried to include that, [though] limitations can be a real turn on sometimes. And then when they get removed even more so….

From Björk’s Black Lake promo by Andrew Thomas Huang.
From Björk’s Black Lake promo by Andrew Thomas Huang.

CR: Where to you see it going in the future? Do you think there will one day be the possibility of transmitting a live experience or a concert in VR?

Björk: Every tool has strengths and weaknesses and the trick is to find where they are. My instinct is that VR is mostly reinventing the idea of theatre – it has similar Wagnerian 360 pros and cons ha ha ha. Like in the opera: once you’ve got the elephant on the stage how do you get rid of it? Ha ha ha ha.

Yes, it will include live concerts and I think it will be huge in sport, porn and a VR Skype will be way more intimate and personal than the current one.

CR: Could you see yourself writing a ‘song’ in the future with VR elements in mind – so it’s written not just as a piece of music but as an entire experience from the beginning?

Björk: You must be psychic.

CR: Does your interest also extend to augmented reality?

Björk: Yes, but it is less like music, less immersive, more like a layer. Definitely into it but for a musician VR is so attractive because you have a closed alternate universe that you can make any way you want.

For Björk’s Mouth Mantra video, director Jesse Kanda filmed from inside a model of the singer’s mouth. Visitors to the Björk Digital show can experience a VR version
For Björk’s Mouth Mantra video, director Jesse Kanda filmed from inside a model of the singer’s mouth. Visitors to the Björk Digital show can experience a VR version

CR: You’ve always been associated with technology – can you talk a bit about how tech has benefited your life and way of working?

Björk: I actually don’t think I have more tech in my daily life than the average person but perhaps I have included it more in my work? I feel it is honest when musicians or artists write with the tools they use on a daily basis, like phones, apps, laptops and so on. While you’re writing it is too easy to sneak into the cave of 20th century and block out what’s happening now, but are you then dealing truthfully with the moment?

It is important that the artist helps define it and mould it. Because who else is going to put humanity and soul into it?

I’ve said this before but it is important to repeat it: we can be certain that the military, the B corporate world, the government and so on are going to use tech and I feel it is important that the artist helps define it and mould it. Because who else is going to put humanity and soul into it?

CR: How do you find the directors/artists you collaborate with? What makes for a good collaboration for you?

Björk: It really varies. I probably make my music 80% on my own, but with the visuals it has always been more 50/50 collaborative. It feels most exciting and special when there are people that have grown with you – people like, for example, Michel Gondry, Leila Arab, Arca, Andrew Thomas Huang and James Merry. That you just happen to meet and something clicks and you kinda become each other’s teachers. And you get to do many projects together so you grow inside the collaboration and push each other. But I’m not sure what that click is, you can’t plan it. Wild guess is that it is a lot about timing? That you meet each other at a time where you happen to be able to push each others’ buttons with no effort in the best way possible? How do I find them? Just like friendships, you just kinda know it with your gut….

Artwork for the Vulnicura album, by M/M Paris with portrait by Inez Van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin
Artwork for the Vulnicura album, by M/M Paris with portrait by Inez Van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin

CR: You’ve always been a central character in the films that you make – why is this important for you? Do you see your body as an extension of your art? How different is it performing for a camera compared to in front of a live audience?

Björk: Well I guess I surrendered to it a long time ago that as a singer-songwriter I am writing from my point of view and the aim is (even though I only rarely succeed) to make it so personal that it is universal. And I’m simply a stand-in for that human experience. So me appearing in every video is not necessarily about ‘me’. Each album for me has been about a different character that I define with simple symbolism, colours, textures and movements that I try to make towards the archetypal. For example, all the Vulnicura videos, where neon yellow is for emergency, lilac wax for ointment, red for the chest wound, black latex for the grief, black blood flowing in the veins, black lava and stubborn arctic plants trying to force themselves through….

Me appearing in every video is not necessarily about ‘me’.

And even though I’ve worked with many directors and photographers this goes through it all. I am a very limited dancer but I feel with the same gut instinct as the average person, I understand that there are certain symbolic movements that carry a lot of magic and power and can be transformative. The trick is to synchronise the movement with the sound with the image and some old shamanic shit kicks in. There are definitely certain movements I tried to include in most of the videos – sometimes I discover them while I’m touring, they seem to help a certain song. And then if I haven’t filmed the video yet, I will bring it into it. It is kinda hard to explain as I’m obviously not a professional dancer, this is more done from a very intuitive musician’s point of view, but I hope you understand.

Installation shot of the Somerset House show. Photo: Santiago Felipe
Installation shot of the Somerset House show. Photo: Santiago Felipe

CR: Have you ever felt any external pressure over the years, as a female artist, to make your body central to your image?

Björk: Yeah I’ve been aware of that pressure since I was a teenager and always resisted it if it limited me expressing my music. I feel as a singer I am very interested in sensuality versus sexuality and am mostly absolutely obsessed with sensuality in sound!! That it is inside the note you are hearing!! Not a hardened visual shell with no entry but something open, sonic lubricated internally. To keep my voice and my music sensual is the entry point – I am very willing to make a lot of effort to keep open, this has given me the majority of my highs and some of my most favourite moments!!

The trick is to synchronise the movement with the sound with the image and some old shamanic shit kicks in

I’m probably trying to avoid it but I suppose your question refers to the Las Vegasian, corset Western civilization vocabulary women have been embroidering communally for the last centuries and are often lured into adding a bit to in photo shoots? Ha ha ha ha. It has its moments but perhaps I find it a little overrated how sensual it is? It can be a hardened shell sometimes: coagulated and crystallised, can be a placebo for intimacy and a bit too obvious?

I probably choose to crochet my own sensual aural liquid … off road … lol.

CR: Can you talk about the new VR films you’re adding to Björk Digital as it tours?

Björk: I’d like to keep it a secret but there are a few coming up….

CR: Do you ever worry that VR and similar tech will make us isolated from each other
and turn away from communal experiences?

Björk: Not any more than the phone has … or letter-writing … pens? Spears? Guns? Or films … it only adds to the human experience.


Interviews with Björk’s regular collaborators Andrew Thomas Huang, director of films and VR works including Mutual Core, Black Lake and Stonemilker for the singer, and Andrew Melchior, her technical advisor. Both interviews were conducted by email, on Friday, September 9 and Monday, September 12, respectively.

CR: What appeals to you about virtual reality?

Andrew Thomas Huang: The more I work in VR the more I realise it is primarily a spatial medium rather than a temporal one. A lot of filmmakers try to approach VR cinematically as a 360 dome, but with the Vive [headset] out now it’s clear that the demand among users is to navigate volitionally through space. This allows us to be much more object-oriented in the design of our worlds, more like videogames. I got into film because I enjoyed art direction, set design, props and costumes, and in VR you can have fun with all those things and they don’t have to be removed from you on a flat screen, you can engage with them intimately.

Andrew Melchior: The sense of presence that can be conjured up using depth-based techniques to create ‘holograms’. I think also the empathy that can be developed for people and places. I think creatively and educationally these two facets are amazing opportunities for the future.

Björk Digital poster.

CR: It’s very early days in the medium – what have you discovered works best for VR filmmaking?

ATH: There is still a lot of ‘uncanny valley’ yet to be explored with interactive VR design. For instance, deciding what level of latency separation between your real-time movement and the game mechanics is a big factor in creating the sense of identification between your physical self and your virtual body. I’ve discovered that sometimes creating more separation between the mechanics of your real body and your virtual body can actually increase a sense of personal volition, ironically. For instance, imagine you are in VR and your POV is pre-animated, moving through a landscape – the result often makes people sick. But if you let people use their arms and ‘grab’ the landscape and pull it by swinging their arms, as if they were cross-country skiing, it actually allows people to navigate through space without getting sick. The perception gap is super ironic and strange.

Notget VR experience by Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones. Photo: Rewind VR
Notget VR experience by Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones. Photo: Rewind VR

CR: Do you find its limitationsB frustrating? Where to you see it going in the future? Do you think there will one day be the possibility of transmitting a live experience or a concert in VR?

ATH: I find it absolutely frustrating. Wearing a box on your face is uncomfortable. And there’s no easy distribution model for people to see it yet. There are few tools or plug-ins to make your work easy – it mostly has to be built from the ground up.

In the future I’m sure headsets will become optimised, smaller and eventually become contacts or something more seamless that we can’t think of yet. Perhaps they’ll be more like Magic Leap hardware that zaps images into your retina. There will also probably be more things like haptic suits and using the ‘internet of things’ within a room or furniture to react to your presence in virtual space.

Content-wise it’s hard to say where VR is going but one thing for sure is that our vocabulary for it is still in its infant stage and developing.

A live concert experience in VR is certainly already possible and imminent as Björk demonstrated in her live press conference [introducing the show at Somerset House]. Content-wise it’s hard to say where VR is going but one thing for sure is that our vocabulary for it is still in its infant stage and developing. Lots of people are talking about VR as an empathy tool, which is probably one of the most urgent uses of the medium considering the state of the world.

AM: Currently the solo nature of the experience is frustrating, yes. Shared experiences are just around the corner with the oncoming ’social VR’ offer, as is also ‘mixed reality’, whereby real world, augmented reality hardware platforms such as Hololens and Magic Leap start to become more widely available.

The technology is already there to stream live events into 360 VR films online to watch on headsets. The ability to move beyond the current offer of flat, linear real time video and into the realms of portraying true depth (parallax) in live streaming images and adding interactivity is tantalisingly close in the adjacent possible.

Björk’s show as it appeared at Vivid Sydney earlier this year. Photo: Santiago Felipe; VR version of Andrew Thomas Huang’s Stonemilker video.
Björk’s show as it appeared at Vivid Sydney earlier this year. Photo: Santiago Felipe; VR version of Andrew Thomas Huang’s Stonemilker video.

CR: What is Björk like as a collaborator – does she allow a lot of freedom of expression or does she come with very clear ideas of what she would like from a piece?

ATH: Working with Björk is an incredibly rich and rewarding experience. It’s one of the most generous and intimate collaborations I’ve ever had. Like any collaboration the level of feedback between each other varies depending on the project. During my video for Mutual Core, Björk had already finished Biophilia a year prior, created the app and had figured out who the persona was for that album, so she was pretty hands off and gave me free reign to interpret and add to her world.

Vulnicura was different in that I was brought in while she was still writing the music, so the visuals had to be developed simultaneously and I was responding in more real time to Björk’s ideas, so that was much more back-and-forth sharing and creating the work mutually between me, her and James Merry.

In our upcoming piece, Family, we are revisiting the world that we created 18 months ago, but further virtualising it – grounding the whole experience in Björk’s core heartbreak themes, story and the character that she created, expanding and re-interpreting James Merry’s beautiful embroidery designs that he’s been hand-making for her, and me orchestrating the mise-en-scène, choreography and overall rise and fall of the VR experience, along with designing the virtual sets, animation, characters, tools, etc. The collaboration between me, her and James has been as Björk calls it, a “triangle of fertility”. 

Björk Digital is at Somerset House in London until October 23
Björk Digital is at Somerset House in London until October 23

somersethouse.org.uk 


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