Björk wraps her soul with Virtual Reality at Carriageworks for Vivid Sydney

Adorned in a steampunk-esque head-piece made of gold wire and pearls, pioneering Icelandic artist and musician Björk addressed a small group of media ahead of her collaboration with Carriageworks and Vivid Sydney, an exhibition titled BJÖRK DIGITAL. “The music came first and it kind of had that sense of urgency about it,” she said, making reference to her universally acclaimed 2015 record Vulnicura, on which she has based much of the works in this current exhibition. “We then started to develop several visual things, and we just decided to surf that wave and let it be what it is”.

Those “visual things” she refers to have been wrapped with recent advances in technology, particularly Virtual Reality, to create the strange and wonderful immersive experiences that feature throughout BJÖRK DIGITAL, a project that has taken over the many spaces of Carriageworks and will be accessible to the public from the 4th to the 18th of June, as part of Vivid Sydney.

The exhibition is a build on last year’s wild display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but also including two world premiere VR works that further the artist’s expression through the epic scope of these developing technologies. Described as “immersive, large-scale, and intimate” the digital video works and VR experiences have been created by Björk in collaboration with some of the most progressive visual artists, film makers, and programmers in the world, threaded throughout the many spaces in Sydney’s transformative hub, sitting alongside extra treats like a cinema playing through selected pieces from Björk’s rich history of music videos, remastered with full 5.1 surround sound, showcasing the works of various film directors who have collaborated with her, including Academy Award winners from Spike Jones and Michel Gondry to Nick Knight and Stéphane Sednaoui.

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Björk addressing media at Carriageworks; photo credited to Santiago Felipe.

“It was actually a gradual development”, said Björk when asked about the origin of and idea behind this exhibition. “VR was kind of developing all around me… it became slowly apparent that this was something that would be a very natural home for [Vulnicura].

In working last year’s album, which she wrote in response to the breakdown of her marriage to performance artist Matthew Barney, into this exhibition Björk recalls getting to know the “character” of the very “specific format” that is Virtual Reality. “I was fascinated by how it both captures intimacy so well. You can be even more intimate than you are in a video or at a live concert. It’s just so penetrative…[no wonder] the porn industry has embraced it the way it has – it’s full penetration,” she laughs.

“I just thought as a musician, that’s a really exciting toy to have, to be able to be that intimate with someone.”

And indeed some of these virtual reality works are very intimate, one even taking you inside of Björk’s mouth (Mouth Mantra by Director Jesse Kandra), speaking to the various ways she has used this still young technology to bring in new perspectives to her music, accentuating certain parts of the drama and tragedy that permeates Vulnicura.

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Inside Björk’s mouth; image credited to Jesse Kandra

360 degree technology has also been drawn upon heavily in the video for Stonemilker, one of the highlight cuts from the album, which in the exhibition is illustrated as a windswept 360 degree film shot on location in Iceland by award winning Director Andrew Huang. 360 degree tech, to Björk, is “maybe wagnerian or like an opera” where “you can really play with the scale in the most theatrical way. More theatrical than film I think…potentially”.

Where these various advances in technology are taking the world is exciting to Björk; she lights up when talking about the unknown aspects of these tools, describing it as “this pioneer universe where people are still discovering things; they’re bumping into walls, making mistakes, having to discover new things they never had before.” To her, it’s a “natural continuity” of the music video.

These technologies also give Björk ways of transposing and channeling her love of nature, a great example being Black Lake, one of the installations that is seeing it’s Australian premiere after being commissioned by MoMA. Huang also handles the direction on this one, filming Björk in the highlands of Iceland and on a volcanic rock, resulting in a cinematic experience which has been split onto two screens that surround visitors in a pitch-black room, bolstered by a cutting-edge high fidelity sound system that helps the experience wrap the audience in the intended claustrophobic and visceral experience of Black Lake.

“It’s really close to where I live”, says Björk when asked about filming in this very natural environment. “It was slowly apparent that this album was all about going back home and healing, so it sort of had to have lava and Iceland nature in it – the sort of baron one…to kind of exaggerate the emotional state of heartbreak, which Iceland is very good at. So that’s kind of why we ended up using Iceland almost as a character in most of the movies.”

Also as part of the exhibition, visitors will get a chance to interact with and explore Björk’s immersive multi-media educational experience Biophilia, which is an app – the first to ever be purchased into the permanent collection of MoMA – that blends original music and interactive artworks with musicology, built by the artist in collaboration with designers, scientists, instrument makers, writers, and software developments, focused on exploration of the universe and its physical forces, processes, and structures. It speaks to Björk’s fascination with the pedagogical uses of technology.

When asked about the origins of the application, which for the past two years has been included in the curriculum in schools across Scandinavia – Björk says it began when she was working with touch screens during her world tour for Volta. “We were just using [them] to play live, but I was like ‘wow, now I can write music on this, this is finally an opportunity for me to map out musicology’, kind of how I wanted to do it as a kid in school, because I thought learning musicology from a book was just offense to sound”

“So I started mapping out each element in musicology – rhythm, counterpoint, chords, and so on – to whatever natural element was similar to it, in order for kids to get it quickly. For example, arpeggios are the same shape as lightning, so if the kid sees the lightning and hears the arpeggios at the same time, they get it, instead of reading it for 10 hours. That was the whole idea.”

Seeing as the app has been so embraced by local schools for the past two years, Björk has worked with teachers to gather information and data from Biophilia, something she says she will continue to do in order to make decisions about what to do next with it. In fact, they have collected enough information and experience to start making an advanced version of the app, which she jokes will likely be called something other than “Biophilia 2”.

The various applications of VR (and other tech) are important for artists to embrace, according to Björk: “Part of me, I’m very conservative and I like Icelandic old melodies and I’m very connected with the land; there’s a part of me that’s very pro-nature, but there’s also part of me that’s a bit of a magpie, I like shiny objects. I also think new technologies are an opportunity to update us on what is happening right now, in the world. Like it or not [groups] like armies, the military, governments, Google, the big brother…everybody is going to embrace it, so for artists to stick their head in the ground and say ‘I’m not going to’ I think that just means that there will be no things with the craft that will have humanity and will have soul. So I think it’s important for us to embrace, so we are on the same plane as the politicians, as the military folks and business money people.”

“The morality doesn’t come wrapped up into the new inventions, or the soul, or the humanity…we have to put it there.”

Playing with developing technology is also a means to push yourself and energise your creative side for Björk, who thinks that as an artist “[technology] brings out an interesting side in [you], while something is still being discovered it’s kind of like you’re entering the unknown and you can’t fall into old habits or old traps and just do things like how you’ve always done them. It shakes you up and you have to go kind of like blindfolded into the unknown, and discover not what you were 10 years ago but what you are now.”

“I think it’s very helpful, and I also think especially as a pop musician, I think there’s a certain duty to be using the same tools that we are using everyday – like texting your lovers or going on Facebook, this kind of everyday life – that should be the same tools that you are writing your songs with. It’s easy to kind of go back to the acoustic wooden things and close your eyes and decide that the world is evil, and ‘I’m not going to take part in it and I’m just going to go back into my cave and write my acoustic number.’

It’s just as well then that Björk is now part of Vivid Sydney history, being that the festival is all about artists wrapping pieces of themselves into new technologies and expressing them in unique, interesting ways. “I’m very impressed with this festival”, says says, likening it to Iceland’s own Iceland Airwaves in a loose comparison because it’s a festival that uses the city (of Reykjavík) as a canvas (albeit mostly for music) as “it’s not like you have to do a billion things in 48 hours and always feel guilty about missing something. I like that feeling that you walk around and then you bump into people and meet and make new friends. I think it’s a really natural, organic way to do it.”

To celebrate the opening of this very special exhibition, Björk will be curating two nights of music for fans at Carriageworks, DJ’ing through two extensive sets (both sold out; Friday 4th and Saturday 5th June), which is a rare treat for those who want to tap further into the artist’s free-thinking and experimental approach to music.

“I always DJ’d just for friends and then it sort of slowly became this part of me that maybe taps into when I was a kid”, explained Björk. ““I always wanted to have my own radio show — where I wanted to tell people about music like ‘Oh my God, this is really rare 70s (track) — they only gave out like three copies in Guatemala’ Just show off, you know, and be the David Attenborough of music hunting…You can expect some sort of a journey through my record collection.”

BJÖRK DIGITAL will run from Saturday 4th to Saturday 18th June at Carriageworks. Entry to the exhibition is free, but timed tickets or bookings are required for the VR rooms. Bookings are available online and onsite same-day. VR rooms are recommended for ages 13 years and over. Access to the Cinema Room is free and requires no bookings.

Head image a still from Black Lake, supplied and credited to Andrew Thomas Huang.