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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

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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