Björk is in Manhattan for the time being, but her avatar showed up in Los Angeles Friday as a surprise guest at a press confab to preview “Björk Digital,” a virtual-reality art exhibition that’s having its west coast premiere in downtown L.A. through June 4.
“Woo-woo!” exulted an enthusiastic Björk, waving her arms after one of a handful of reporters inside the exhibit’s host venue, the Magic Box at the Reef, inquired whether the colorful, surreal image being seen on screen via Skype was really a live representation of Björk. (Director/collaborator Andrew Thomas Huang, who was present in the flesh, assured the assembled that her avatar was indeed a live motion-capture feed.)
“Part of the idea of this project,” said Bjork, “has to move with the exhibition in as simple a way as possible —the fact that it was just headsets that you put in an empty room, and the magic all happens inside the headsets. So we on purpose put nothing on the walls.” “Björk Digital” has been exhibited in a few cities worldwide, but the L.A. engagement represents only its second installation in the U.S., following an American premiere in Houston last December.
“My intention also is to reach intimacy with the listeners, and to show that there are so many different ways of being intimate,” she said. “And one of them is the VR. In certain ways it’s distant for sure, but in certain ways it’s even more intimate than a concert and even more intimate than a CD.” That can be attested to by attendees who experience Björk’s in theirs, either as a realistic 2D figure or a computerized 3D animation.
Ushers shepherd ticketholders in small groups from room to room, which offer increasingly immersive experiences. The first room puts a virtual toe in the water, as patrons spend a few minutes playing around with a “Biophilia” app on iPads. Then the show really gets underway in a space where a video for “Black Lake” — or two separate but closely related videos, actually —can be seen on a pair of ultra-wide screens on opposite sides of the darkened room, which is decked out with 50 surround speakers.
Then begin the VR experiences, at first in 2D. “Stonemilker,” “Quicksand,” and “Mouth Mantra” all unfold in rooms with 24 stools each, allowing everyone to spin in a circle, at will, to take in 360-degree views of Björk by the Icelandic seaside, or in a starfield… or from inside of her body. “Mouth Mantra” was filmed inside her mouth, offering a tongue’s-eye-view perspective of what Jonah or Pinocchio might have felt like, albeit with trippy special effects turning her teeth into swirly dominoes. (Warning: it’s during the literally cheeky “Mouth Mantra” that virtual-reality virgins may be likeliest to feel a little queasy.)
The climax of the exhibition comes as patrons are herded into two-person booths for a pair of 3D virtual reality videos, “Family” and “Notget,” this time standing up, with the headsets tethered overhead to keep you from wandering too far or bumping into your stallmate.
After that comes the last “experience”: a room with a lot of floor pillows and a two-hour loop of Björk’s older MTV-style videos. Even her earliest video work was groundbreaking, but watching something in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio after what’s come before is a little like leaving Wonderland and settling down in front of a kinescope.
Actually, there’s one more unofficial room: the merch space, a paradise for anyone who wants to pick up posters, T-shirts, deluxe vinyl, or, especially, her new “34 Scores” book of sheet music for piano, organ, harpsichord or celeste, currently available only at the exhibition.
“With the score book coming out now, that’s also another side of me in which I’m trying to be even more intimate with people,” Björk explained. “They can stay at home and play their piano and sing along with my songs… with their loved ones, which we sort of do a lot in Iceland, especially after a couple of drinks — or maybe it’s more screaming than singing, actually.”
“Björk Digital” is being presented in conjunction with the L.A. Philharmonic, which is bringing her in to do a sold-out, one-off show at Disney Hall on May 30. There won’t be any screens at that show, just reality-reality, she explained.
“I kind of am very fond of extremes, as you probably noticed,” she said. “So that’s going to be a 32-piece orchestra and me singing, and there’s going to be no electronics; I decided to have no visuals, so it’s just all about the ears. And then I’m going to come back in July with Arca, with a 15-piece orchestra” — for the opening night of the FYF Festival in Exposition Park on July 21 — “and we’re going to perform sort of stompers, if you will. That’s going to have a lot of visuals and surprises and special effects… and more celebrational and outdoorsy and festive.”
She’s spending the year performing in three different styles or settings, not counting the digital exhibition. “I do these orchestra shows, which I feel are very intimate, to sing for two hours with just the strings, which is actually double harder and double more intimate because I can’t really hide behind anything. It’s very naked. And then I also really enjoy especially doing those festivals with Arca, where we play more of my old songs … and it’s kind of more of a communal experience where you can lose yourself.” Björk has also toured as a DJ, representing “another side of me, which is music nerd. I’ve got a pretty big record collection, and I’m doing four-hour-long sets where I will start with world music or classical music and it’ll be a journey and usually end in some high-energy R&B bouncing or techno… I’ve been trying to break it up and not do it always the same way, and stay vulnerable, but also stay excited.”
And after all this: “I am right now starting to work on my next project. And it probably happens not on earth, partly. I don’t want to give too much away, but yeah, probably, mm-hm,” she said, chuckling as she cut her virtual revelations short.