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How Björk and collaborator James Merry brought Vulnicura VR to life

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“Healing from heartbreak or from [losing] a loved one, you literally feel like somebody tore your arm off, and the bone is sticking out – you have that amount of pain,” Björk says. “Then when you show it to your friends, nobody can see anything. So I was trying to use the VR to program what you can’t see, but it actually is physical reality for the person who goes through it.”

Vulnicura VR, released last week, makes the pain of Björk’s 2015 heartbreak album powerfully immediate. Watching fully immersive videos such as Notget in which she appears as a vengeful, fiery moth-goddess, singing out her frustrations as a dark and ominous squid-like creature circles over your head, fill you with a sense of her rage and despair. Jesse Kanda’s Mouth Mantra, in which the inside of Björk’s mouth becomes a claustrophobic, twisting hellscape, immerses you in her claustrophobic fear, and Quicksand, in which she appears as a celestial form guiding you up through stars and nebulae, brings you up with the rush of her recovery.

It’s the first true virtual reality album, in which each song experience is part of a bigger whole; a narrative arc uniting them all. Yet it’s not even Björk’s first attempt at creating one. Back in the 90s, when hype around the technology was hitting its first peak, she had tried to create a VR experience for her 1997 album Homogenic. At the time, many believed that VR was going to be humanity’s next big paradigm shift after the internet. The tech of the time, though, couldn’t fulfil the promise: too clunky and too expensive, it certainly wasn’t fit to form to the world that Björk wanted to build, and the project was shelved. For Björk, as for the rest of the world, VR went on the back burner.

Then, in 2013, the first Oculus Rift headsets were released. Björk and her creative director and right-hand man James Merry went to visit a few virtual reality specialists, including Max Weisel, who’d worked on her Biophilia app album, and CCP Games, producers of the massively multiplayer online game EVE Online (and a descendant of OZ Communications, a party in the shelved Homogenic project). In early 2014 they got their own Rift and set it up in Björk’s kitchen. Trying out the likes of Tomáš Mariančík’s Sightline, a game which plays with ideas of vision and perception, they could see that VR was ready for Björk’s ideas at last. “It felt like the technology had a momentum, that it was ready to be not just this kind of esoteric thing,” says Björk. “You could actually embody it and give it an emotional content and share it.”

The emotional content she had to share at that moment was, she felt, perfect for VR: Vulnicura, her very traditional heartbreak album, which documents her painful split from longtime partner Matthew Barney. In comparison to the big-picture abstraction of the science and nature-focused Biophilia, she found herself in “this kind of Maria Callas or Edith Piaf cliche role that the patriarchy has given women, which is: they are allowed to be powerful and strong if they self-destruct at the end of it, so they are not a threat”. Such a conventional narrative, she felt, with a relatively conservative musical form dominated by strings and voice, would hold its own in a rich medium like VR, which could become the vehicle for a journey of healing and empowerment. Although, she says self-deprecatingly, “it sounds self-helpy”, it’s based in firm science: virtual environments have long been used not just to train surgeons, but also in physical therapy and the treatment of trauma.

In 2015, MoMA commissioned Björk to create a new artwork for her retrospective exhibition, and with Andrew Thomas Huang, who’d directed the video for Biophilia’s Mutual Core, she set about trying to find a way to embody the song Black Lake, Vulnicura’s heart of darkness, in the gallery. Filming in a lava tube cave in Iceland, using HD cameras on drones, they worked to replicate the claustrophobia of both the ravine in Japan where Björk had written the song, and the descent into darkness and panic that it documents. The initial plan was to build a dome inside MoMA that would immerse visitors in 360-degree audiovisual experience. After many meetings and negotiations, it eventually became a dual-screen installation with bespoke surround sound and a near-replica of the cave where the video was filmed.

“People were actually crying in their headsets and very emotional. We could see what worked and what didn't work”

“It was just so complicated, a really simple idea changed like 20 times,” says Björk. “We really enjoyed that process… but me and Andy were just like, there’s got to be a way to do that spontaneously. We don’t need the museum world. VR, that’s the museum of the future. That’s a private museum for one.” While finishing Black Lake in Iceland, Huang borrowed a 360 camera, and he and Björk headed down to a beach on the small island of Grótta, the spot where Björk had written Stonemilker, to film her performing it. When the 360-degree video, in which multiple Björks sing to you and circle around you at intimately close quarters, was finished, Björk faced the problem of how best to get it to people: few actually own a VR headset, and galleries hadn’t proved the best fit for her.

“I was going like a pilgrim every week to Rough Trade Brooklyn, buying the last CDs in the universe, and we were like, how about we put headsets here? Maybe that’s the new home for VR,” she says. “I’ve been part of running a tiny record shop in Iceland since I was 14, so I am very interested in the community that’s around record shops, that you cannot replace with just downloading or streaming music. So we set up several VR headsets in Rough Trade, both in Brooklyn and Bethnal Green and that went really, really well. And then we were like, OK… one thing it’s really easy for musicians is to do a gig, sell tickets and then you pay for whatever you did with the ticket sales.”

A few months later, Björk announced the Björk Digital exhibitions, which added to Vulnicura VR, video by video, as they toured the world. “We were keeping one eye on VR technology and how it was progressing and one eye on what we wanted to make, seeing how they overlapped,” says Merry. That slow development – VR isn’t cheap to do independently – allowed them to road-test and tweak. “People were actually crying in their headsets and very emotional. We could see what worked and what didn’t work,” said Björk. “The first mixes I did of the music I was so excited about the 360, I was making everything fly around and that was just making people seasick.”

The sound proved to be one of the trickiest problems. “The first few trials we did, it was always like, OK, this looks great, but it sounds awful,” says Merry. Björk’s mastering engineers Mandy Parnell and Martin Korth set about nailing album-quality sound in a virtual reality environment. “VR audio is still uncharted territory in terms of standard approaches and best practices, so we basically had to invent our own methods to get to our goal, which was to realize Björk’s artistic vision,” says Korth. “The biggest difference is that there is no ‘mix’ in a traditional sense in VR, everything is dynamic and reacts to the head tracking and movement of the person wearing the headset. So the mix you are hearing is going to be different from the mix I am hearing and if you play it back twice, it is going to be different again.”

In Vulnicura VR, there are two types of sonic experience: 360 audio, with the listener at the centre and the sound and visuals arranged around them, and full VR experiences, where you move freely in a virtual space, such as Family and Notget, where Björk’s voice comes from her avatar in the virtual world. The challenge was to make this something that users could notice and experiment with by moving around, but still make it subtle enough so that the mix was always balanced. Each song has a unique spatial arrangement: in Stonemilker, the strings are arranged in a circle around you, while at the end of Quicksand, they rotate around you with the stars in the sky. “We did not necessarily try to reproduce reality with the spatial arrangements but rather use spatial audio in an artistic way,” says Korth.

Even with those problems solved, they faced the problem of sewing together the work of six different companies and six directors, on four different softwares, into one whole VR album. That Analog Studios managed to do just that is, says Merry, “a feat of magic”, but one that feels very natural as an experience. The home setting is the same spot in the Icelandic wilderness where Black Lake was filmed. As you enter, colourful threads fly, twining and snaking, over your head and spell out the album title; plants bloom under your cursor as you click on the ground. Similarly to Biophilia’s apps, each song is a point in the landscape that you move towards, each accompanied, as on Biophilia, by animated visual scores by composer and inventor Stephen Malinowski, and seven out of nine with VR videos.

The course through the songs charts a progression through heartbreak, from shock to rock-bottom to the stirrings of recovery, and also eases the viewer into VR’s potential. Most visitors to the Björk Digital exhibitions, says Merry, were trying VR for the first time, and beginning with the more naturalistic videos allowed them to adapt easily. “I tried to imagine if my grandmother or somebody would put the headset on and they hated VR,” says Björk. “And if I would first play them Stonemilker and then Lionsong, Black Lake, and go through all the songs … by the time they would get to Notget they would be like: ‘Yeah this feels organic. This is like drinking milk’.”

That arc also ensures the stress is on the cathartic emotion of the VR experience rather than the whizz-bang visual effects from the off. “I think the temptation is always to add fireworks in and birds flying through the air and everything moving and shifting,” says Merry. “But actually, with this album it was very clear that it had to be very empty and sparse. We actually wanted it to feel airless and claustrophobic… Björk was really insistent and rightly so, that that was all kind of done with the sound.”

For both Björk and Merry, the high point is Family, the newest video, directed once more by Huang. It very literally ties together all Vulnicura’s visual symbolism: you move with Björk through the underground tunnel of the lava tube, directing threads with your hands to sew up a vivid wound in her chest and finally – in a moment that feels both oppressive and exhilarating – through black sculptures of her wounded body, up towards the day and the light. Perhaps the most emotional moment is when the Björk avatar – who has been standing intimately close – moves through you like a ghost: it’s shocking and shivering, shattering a fourth wall that games and even VR experiences don’t usually break. “I wanted to tap into the metaphysical part of VR,” says Björk, “and what we were seeing in the audience of the VR exhibitions when they put the headsets on… people see the avatar from afar and identify, ‘OK, that’s over there,’ and then it would be walking towards you and you would see it from the point of view as if you are the avatar. And then we made it sew together its own wound and then it would stand up and heal, and the avatar would grow and go like twice the size… that seemed to be really effective to people when that happened.”

Those moments of powerful emotional release underline the great potential VR could have for the arts, one we’re likely to see more musicians tapping as the cost comes down and headsets become more commonplace. “I think in theory it should be much easier now to do it,” says Merry. “If we were making this now, it would be a piece of cake.”

“I think it’s going to be a lot easier to do VR in a few years and not cost that much money,” agrees Björk. “But I also don’t think everything should be in VR… I still love going to concerts with like a string quartet with no visuals – like oh my god, yes, I get breaks for my eyes, and I like hiking and listening to podcasts, and I can just use my eyes to take in the landscape, and then I want to go and watch like the new Star Wars movie in 5.1 sound and the biggest cinema in Iceland. I think we want variety.”

If nobody really thinks VR is going to be the future of everything anymore, Vulnicura VR still stands as an important milestone, a testament to the medium’s potential for art, and for emotional healing. Björk believes that it taps into deep-seated narratives from mythologies around the world: the hero who descends into the underworld and is reborn, and in Family, stories of giants and beings of light. “It’s in Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke, and in millions of tales, where you do some sort of psychological work on yourself, and your reward is you rise above the daily struggles and pain.” She chuckles. “I mean, only for a moment.”

All imagery courtesy of Björk.

Vulnicura VR is out now on Steam and Vive Port. Head to our store to purchase a copy of Björk’s Crack Magazine cover.

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