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In “Björk Digital”, you become the singer's ex-lover – and there's no looking away

Björk's new experiment takes music of claustrophobic unhappiness and shifts it into a relentless, dynamic world.

The virtual-reality headset, like the suitcase, has been surprisingly slow to evolve. Björk’s 3D show at Somerset House is experienced, as it might have been in 1994, through a mini-computer strapped to the head: visual effects are enhanced by turning one’s neck from left to right, resulting, for the unlucky, in what is known in the business as virtual-reality sickness. The industry has been threatening 3D music for years, predicting a new kind of intense, interactive experience between you and your idol. I recently stood on a VR stage in place of the guitarist in a leading rock band. One day, you will play producer and sit behind a VR mixing desk, barking at Elvis to do another take. On that day, I don’t doubt that the headset will still slide off your face like a waterlogged frog mask. At Somerset House, you are told to sit down before putting it on, lest you become disorientated and fall over.

“Björk Digital” is the latest experiment in the “visual album”, comprised of songs from 2015’s Vulnicura. Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Frank Ocean’s Endless were cryptic multimedia packages designed to dominate online debate: artists are constantly testing out ways to extend the period during which people are talking about their new record, which currently stands at about one day.

In Björk’s case, the extended life allowed by a visual album has an aesthetic meaning, too. Vulnicura was her break-up record (written after her split from her ex-partner Matthew Barney). At the time, people were shocked by its bleeding heart (“I am one wound, my pulsating body/Suffering be”), which was laid open on a landscape of relentless and tormented strings. “The story is mainly just me moaning, and the instrumentation is always the same,” she said recently, appearing (of course) as a ­virtual-reality avatar. “Björk Digital” takes music of claustrophobic unhappiness and shifts it into a dynamic world.

Passing from room to room and putting on new headsets (totally unnecessary – you could watch the whole thing on one), you get a personal audience with a series of increasingly confrontational and unnerving “Björks”. On a blackened Icelandic beach (in the song “Stonemilker”), she keeps disappearing playfully behind your back. In “Quicksand”, she forms and explodes herself in a firmament of sparks. I took a gulp of fresh air and moved my head around to see what else was going on in the edges of the scene. If you look directly down, you find yourself hovering, bodiless, over a screaming black hole. For the final 3D song, “Notget”, Björk’s avatar resembles an ancient Thai devil. It has no regard for personal space, hovering kissably close before swelling into a colossal, feminine figure and overwhelming you with its bosoms (3D porn is a hot area for software developers).

The break-up album, like the letter written in despair to the ex-lover, is the last appeal to a person who has stopped listening. In “Björk Digital”, you become the ex-lover, the one-on-one intimacy forcing you to ­engage. It does what other “visual albums” have so far failed to do, making the meaning of the music more explicit rather than obscuring it. The whole thing is strangely simple. It reminded me of the intense connection you had to pop promo videos years ago, when you waited all week to see them on ITV’s Chart Show and watched them without two-screening.

As if to make this point, the exhibition ends with a conventional 2D screen showing all Björk’s fab videos from the Nineties onwards – the Alexander McQueen one with the crocodile (“Alarm Call”) or Chris Cunningham’s mesmerising “All Is Full of Love”, where you recognise her in the figure of an amorous crash-test dummy. “Björk Digital” doesn’t feel any more sophisticated than these – it’s just another experiment, and most of Björk’s experiments go right. Shame she didn’t design a headset.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 08 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Three Brexiteers

Photo: Getty
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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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