Making shapes with Björk and VR
Stare carefully at the pulsating swirls in the opening to Björk’s Pagan Poetry and you’ll be able to make out what appears to be a body mid-coitus, or a mouth, mid-fellatio. Later in the video, sewing a wedding dress to her skin, Björk sings topless, literally tied to this emblem of love. It’s hard not to wince.
The year is 2001, and Björk’s video for her song gets banned from MTV for well, you can probably guess. Directed by Nick Knight, the video makes a visceral comment on conventions of romance, subverting the expectation of the millennial music video (contemporary videos included low budget green screen visuals and lots of car-based drama). When the objective of a music video is to keep you watching, this one explicitly pushed you away. Björk was bending of the rules. One giant needle at a time.
I spent a lot of time as a child, and even now as an adult, watching music videos on television. Pre-internet, it was the only way I could listen to the music I wanted to (other than buying the single from Woolworths but, look, sometimes you just don’t know whether a Sophie Ellis-Bextor single is worth the 99p investment) and now, it’s a pop culture enthusiasm that keeps me turning on MTV while I’m eating dinner or going out. Lemonade, Endless, Drake’s killer moves in Hotline Bling, Rihanna’s blockbuster BBHMM – creations like these are still making waves reaching the zeitgeist, but it’s no longer essential for a musician to produce music videos to attract a large part of the market. They’re a treat, rather than a necessity.
Various ventures have attempted to reinvigorate the form: part of Tidal’s USP – along with high-fidelity music – was also to be a platform releasing exclusive video content. Except – bar that free trial you took out to listen to Beyoncé – I doubt that it’s been draw enough for most users. Artists still put time and money into them, but the reality is the views won’t transcend the streams, and the revenue certainly isn’t any higher. Conventional, short music videos are struggling. Unless you’re Björk, where your new ‘videos’ are given an entire exhibition at Somerset House.
From the hyper-real to the digitally abstract, the exhibition ambitiously explores the artistic value of combining music, video and technology. This includes an instillation, commissioned by MoMA that includes an audio space with numerous speakers in between two screens showing slightly varying films. Her music video for Stonemilker is also being shown via VR, along with three other VR videos – one depicting the inside of her mouth moving as she sings, another where she’s transformed into a “digital moth giantess,” and one virtual realisation of a live performance in Tokyo. The concerns of the exhibition follow the visual: the themes shift from intimate to obscure, exploring well-worn topics like heartbreak, along with contemporary themes of presence/absence through technology and the implications of VR and art. Her history in utilising different forms peaks in this exhibition – taking art, video, technology, music, fantasy, and weaving it all together.
It’s a unique show, but whether her artistic imaginings could switch up our engagement with music videos (in the way that Beyoncé did with the visual album) is still unknown. Arguably, VR has been used successfully in other musical iterations (such as the Philharmonia’s digital exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall) and it’s becoming more widespread. Not only that, but having a legendary artist promote a piece of work over the medium could draw those unlikely to try it otherwise.
But how mainstream could it really get? TV was TV, and the music video wasn’t much of a change, but VR? That’s alien. One thing to bear in mind with VR is how new it is. Commercially, it’s still in its early days, and most people working in the industry that I’ve spoken to recognise these design shortcomings. Even Björk refers to parts of the exhibition as a “work in progress.” Most producers and artists are often working with technology that is either only a year or two old, or has been created specifically for the project. Inevitably, this can produce issues – such as the audio dipping in and out, or the space seeming artificial. The headsets can be clunky, the graphics can sometimes feel basic, and purchasing a headset is going to cost (unless you use your phone in a Google Cardboard). You can immerse yourself in the video, but if there isn’t ambisonic audio or if the graphics limit your movements, then you’re constantly reminded of the artificial by tripping over the technology’s limitations.
Björk is a harder to engage with than a lot of the mainstream (see: digital moth giantess). That is not to make any qualitative statement about her, but whether a personal video of Björk on an Icelandic beach could convince young people to pick up a headset and watch a music video by Little Mix is disputable. They’re different artists working in different genres, but with high and low culture steadily fusing, why couldn’t we be watching Little Mix on VR in a few years? In this case, however, she might be a little niche to make the listener really subsume themselves into the video and thereby draw them in in any translatable way. The association might be more with experimental art than with conventional music.
Visual albums seems far more viable as a future concept – that high-end merging of cinema and music sustains a lot of listeners, and the longer format often demands more attention to narrative or theme. This translation of the format might exist more as an experimental stand-alone project than a reimagining of the form, but who’s to predict the development of VR as it becomes more widely used.
Artistic experimentation shouldn’t ever be solely rooted in market reinvigoration, so this impressive creation – the new technology, visions, animation and music for VR – is worth your time and ears regardless. The music video may be struggling, but if there’s one person who could shake up the status quo, it might just be Björk.
Check out the rest of Björk: In Focus, an exploration and celebration of our September cover star