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.
This article appears in the 07 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Three Brexiteers