From September to October, Somerset House have been hosting an immersive virtual reality exhibition devised by Bjork, the eccentric Icelandic singer.
Dazed and Confused commented that ‘no other musician is as embracing of technology’s intersection with visual art as Bjork’. Perhaps they’re right. For my part I thought the execution was just a little…well…drab. To be frank.
I’m cynical about some things, less so about others. But typically I’m particularly open- minded on how technology can shape art, create multi-sensory experiences and help invoke lasting emotion. So I’d really I’d hoped for something a little less shallow.
Let me walk you through the experience. After queuing with 20 or so other cohort members, you’re led into a room with a cinema screen on both sides; two separate videos that don’t really correspond, are set to the same song. ‘Black Lake’ (which was commissioned by MoMa) is a beautifully-shot piece of work, set in the highlands of Scotland and directed by L.A. based filmmaker Andrew Thomas Huang. Not only is the song haunting, hopeful and nostalgic in equal measure, the setting is spectacular — no criticism there. But it didn’t seem that the technology was adding much. The sound-system (described as ‘state of the art’) was OK but a bit tinny I thought. I took it in…in the spirit of prelude.
The next 4 or 5 sessions (I can’t remember how many there were) were conducted in dark rooms, sitting on swiveling stools. ‘Stonemilker’, the next song (also beautiful) is a VR serenade; Bjork wisps around a windswept Icelandic beach giving the viewer a one-to-one. It’s quite personal, and a nice setting I suppose (lots of puddles and slightly overcast weather), but again the VR aspect didn’t seem to add much. Nothing much to explore, and the 360 panorama is quite samey.
You’re then led through a few brightly lit corridors by a guide (zero effort made to create a corresponding physical experience). You eventually emerge in an identical room, where you sit on identical stools, and put on identical Samsung VR headsets. This continues to happen three more times — which would be all well and good if there was even the smallest suggestion of narrative to join together seemingly disconnected songs and spaces.
I couldn’t actually watch the next song in its entirety. As far as I could tell, I was inside Bjork’s throat. Arguably, it certainly succeeded in bringing up some sort of reaction. Despite having 360 coverage (you can turn all the way around, look up, down etc.), nothing was really going on anywhere except dead ahead. All in all, it didn’t really feel as if the videos had really been crafted for VR, rather just transposed into the format.
There were a few more of these, and then to finish, one standing VR experience, which you could actually move around with your whole body (this did seem a little more made for purpose). Except there was nothing to explore, and I kept bumping into the person next to me. The song, ‘Notget’ (directed by Warren Du Perez and Nick Thornton) is beautiful – Bjork is transformed into some sort of huge pixelated Tron-type character dancing quite aggressively (and occasionally quite lasciviously) right up against you, lulling you further into the experience with the voice of a harpy. Though with a wrong move you sort of collide into her which causes portions of her body to fail to render, which is a little awkward.
Afterwards, you’re taken to a cinema room playing more Bjork music videos on loop, with everyone sitting on a threadbare carpet on the floor. It’s a bit like walking into Passing Clouds (RIP) on movie night.
There’s also a special instrument that Bjork commissioned, showcased in a small exhibition at the end. I managed to make an extraordinary high-pitched sine-wave based sound that I was relatively embarrassed about and couldn’t seem to turn off. Then there’s another room with a bunch of iPads in it with (basically) a Garageband piano that you can hit some notes on. The catastrophic compositions of most visitors was consistently in a Postman Pat meets Ross Geller style – it’s clear it wasn’t the most flexible platform.
Lastly (and infuriatingly) you are led into a B&W sales showroom with someone trying to flog you the headphones you’ve been using for the VR. Then, that was the end.
It’s probably obvious I wasn’t too impressed. My main point of contention was how badly the physical space was curated (empty corridors, depressing bland rooms), and the lack of storytelling as you moved through the journey. The whole point of digital and its role in art (especially in an exhibition context) is to add depth to the experience, not substitute it. I can do that at home.
The art world went crazy for this, but for me being given a bunch of VR headsets and watching music videos isn’t enough. The production was average, the Samsung headsets were pixelated and lacked focus (I’ve had a better experience with Google Cardboard), the headphones were great (urgh – yes, they flogged me a pair).
For me, Bjork Digital won’t stand the test of time, nor will it leave its mark as a milestone in physical/digital/musical augmentation, even if it is a nice opportunity to experience a bit of VR. Which is just a bit of a shame really.