Earlier this year, a film came out titled Embrace of the Serpent, which graphically and poetically captured the ravages of 1900s colonialism in the Amazon. It followed the true yet partly fictionalised story of a young shaman from a remote tribe called Karamakate, and his many dealings with European explorers who were often in search of an ayahuasca-like trip. At one point in the film, Karamakate is shown a photograph by an explorer, and it is the first time he has ever seen a photograph of himself. He is shocked and disturbed. He calls it his chullachaqui: a native term for "hollow spirit". "Everyone has a chullachaqui," he says, "which looks exactly like the person but is empty and hollow, a copy that drifts around the world like a ghost."
That line came to mind when I watched Björk deliver a press conference to promote the arrival of Björk Digital – an exhibition of digital and video works, that celebrates the collaborations on her most recent album, Vulnicura – at London's Somerset House. It wasn't Björk giving the press conference, exactly – it was a live-stream motion capture avatar of Björk that dominated the screen, donned in a computer generated moth-mask of violets and cherries, based on designs by the artist James Merry. Yes, it was Björk's mind and voice answering the questions, but the connection felt distant and cold. Long gaps and accidental interruptions occurred between questions and answers; uncanny movements saw the avatar often turn its back to the audience; there was a lingering sense of detachment. In essence, it was like watching someone having a Skype call with a really great screensaver.
Of course, this computer orientated approach isn't new ground for the Icelandic artist. Björk and tech go together like oceans and beaches. For years she has sought out the intersections where nature and technology meet, so that she can create art that shows us the path to a harmonious future, sometimes more successfully than others. Her 2011 Biophilia app has since become a large scale educational project, teaching kids to explore their own creativity while learning about music, nature, science and technology. It has now done three years at schools across Scandinavia and is becoming a very serious part of the curriculum. "Out of all of my projects, this one is growing the most," says Bjork.
Where Björk Digital (which has already toured Australia and Japan) fits into this career-long narrative seems obvious: she is seizing upon the rising prevalence of VR (virtual reality) – a technology being adopted by the movie industry, gaming industry, sports industry, fashion industry, psychology industry, and, yep, the porn industry – to explore how it can be used to enhance the experience of music and be deployed in large scale art projects. In Björk Digital the intention is simple: to use virtual reality apparatus (goggles and headphones) to create audio visual pieces that transcend simple music videos and become emotional and immersive experiences. In essence: if you've watched Björk's new videos on YouTube, you're only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
Her move is bold, not just because of the obvious boundary-pushing, but also because the current state of VR is unstable. As much as it is expanding at an alarming rate (Mark Zuckerberg has already bought the leading headset company Oculus Rift for $2billion, and if anyone knows what's up, it's usually Mark Zuckerberg), it is shrouded in both disappointment at one end and hysteria at the other. The brain is a gullible organ (the fact you even get motion sickness during VR despite being stood perfectly still is a testament to that), and many philosopher types are already worrying about the ethical implications of a world in which watching porn really feels like sex and violent games really feel like murder.
"Virtual reality headsets like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive will hit the consumer market this year and suddenly millions of people will be using them," explains Thomas Metzinger, a philosopher at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. "VR can induce strong illusions of embodiment, where you feel as if you own and control another body. We do not know what the psychological consequences will be."
At the other end of the spectrum though, are countless user experiences of VR generating little more than disappointment. Experimental experiences are shrouded in glitches, eye strain, boredom, limited graphics, and a difficulty to wear the sets for anything more than 10-20 minutes. Despite the views of academics like Metzinger, Zuckerberg predicts it will take ten years for the technology to reach mass market. So how would Björk Digital's early dalliance into this realm fare?
Well, first off, being in the exhibition isn't exactly an aesthetically astounding experience. If VR is the future of art, then art doesn't need huge historical galleries anymore – it just needs six stools, a shed and some dark curtains. The exhibition is split into stages, of which you're shuffled around in an Ikea-like flow. First, you enter a 360 cinema for "Black Lake", then you move on through a whirlwind of virtual reality experience after virtual reality experience, before you finish up in a cinema showing an endless loop of classic Björk videos, and then there's the final option of playing with the Biophilia app. I, personally, concluded the afternoon lying on my back in the cinema with my rucksack as a pillow, a bit overwhelmed, watching a 2005 video I'd completely forgotten about ("Triumph of a Heart") in which Björk ends up in an emotionally abusive relationship with a cat.
Yet despite being a little oppressive, Björk Digital has its eerily pioneering moments. Some of the most interesting points come when it combines two of the most prevalent current moods in Western culture: the rampant and accelerating neo-mania of the digital age, and the contrasting desire we all seem to have these days to return to nature and simplicity, which we see in the rise of things like wellness, mindfulness, clean eating fads, your mate who's decided to leave London and move to Suffolk, and organic produce (this is "the age of kale", as Ariel Levy dubbed it in the New Yorker). Yes, your head is draped in wires and equipment and, yes, you're transported into a completely digital and superficial environment, but the places Björk chooses to take you are natural and earthly. The dark and claustrophobic cave of "Black Lake", with its coal-like volcanic soil, is enhanced by the overwhelming 360 sound and miniature cinema you find yourself bundled into. For "Stonemilker" you're placed on a rocky islet, the icy sea lapping at your feet, a lighthouse in the background, Björk all up in your grill and shouting in your face.
In fact, one of the most affecting VR experiences comes during "Notget", which pulls you out of reality completely and puts you in some sort of black cyber abyss. In front of you is Björk, transformed into a digital moth queen, and marching on the spot; a shimmering glaze on her body, like phosphorescent plankton, her size growing and growing until she becomes a giantess, almost kicking my face off. As she grows, she changes, and her form becomes vividly reminiscent of the hallucinations people report from experiences on DMT and ayahuasca. She grows and grows, until she's ten feet tall, towering above me. I lean as far forward as the cable attached to me would allow and place my head inside her stomach – particles of giant moth Björk flutter around like I've just fallen into a bottle of Goldschlager. I look up, and can see the inner construction of her digital body, the caverns and contours leading to her neck and head. That bit was pretty cool.
Björk and I spoke on the phone after my visit to the exhibition. She described the virtual reality experience as "intimate", and I suppose shoving your head inside the torso of one of your favourite artists and then looking at her insides is quite intimate. But for the most part, I found the VR experience quite lonely and isolating; sensorily trapped in a world in which you are the only human witness. For many fans, this exhibition has substituted for the absence of a proper tour, but as far as coming anywhere close to the experience of a live show, it is a million miles away. I asked her what exactly she finds intimate about it?
"It depends what you watch," she says. "VR may be very isolating and scary, but it is also the polar opposite: there is intimacy, closeness. But for you to feel that, we have to create that. In the same way, books can sometimes be isolating, right? The book nerds in my family – if something bad happened they would just go into their room and read – they weren't exactly total experts in human communication. But with VR as with books: there will be horrible books and then there will be masterpieces that push all your buttons. Especially in music: when you can have someone that close to you playing a song to only you. It can be very touching; almost more touching than going to a gig in a way."
In a way, she's right. There was definitely something more intimate about me standing 3ft away from her on an Icelandic beach to standing seven miles away from the stage at her 2011 Bestival headline set, screaming: "Play 'Declare Independence'!" The fact of the matter remains though, that once you put the goggles on and enter the VR world, you are strangely alone, and you're not really witnessing anything spontaneous – you're simply watching a recording. Yet during our chat, one specific point keeps arising as quite important to Björk, and that is the potential of VR to let musicians and artists achieve something new in an increasingly difficult playing field.
"There are not a lot of positive things happening in music right now," she begins. "I was lucky, I was from the generation who got a house. But I'm watching kids in their twenties now for who the chances are grim. I have this theory which is that in the beginning, most systems want to be good. Communism and capitalism wanted to fix the world; then they became bad when they coagulated and crystallised into routines and bureaucracy, and the wrong people manipulated the systems with greed. It's always the same story on repeat. With the music industry, that has happened. But suddenly, I see solutions in technology; there are huge possibilities with VR and 360 cameras. A new musician could perform a concert from their bedroom, you know? To someone at the other end of the world! You could break through and liberate and do more intimate things. In the same way that Skype has done it: VR is 360 Skype."
When we talk at length about all this, it does becomes clear that it isn't really all about the VR for Björk, it's quite a lot about the audio. "People seem to be talking more about the visuals. I'm used to that. But I think the 360 sound is a really exciting thing for a musician. To put things in stereo can be compromising, but to put something into 360 sound so that it is all around you; that is breaking out of the limitations of previous technologies. New technology arrives and it liberates you, and helps you deliver things more as you originally intended."
Still, I couldn't help but think despite being an ambassador for what comes next, Björk was also using the futurism of her exhibition to shield herself from something else. "These abstract complex feelings / I just don't know how to handle them" she sang in "Lionsong", and when asked during her interview with Pitchfork in 2015 how she would perform the rest of the songs from Vulnicura live, she admitted: "I have no idea… there's no easy exit through. I wish. I would have taken it if I could. [long pause] It'll be emotional. I'm just going to have to cry and be a mess and do it." Throughout the summer of 2015, she would repeatedly cancel dates due to the intensity of having to perform it.
"[Vulnicura] has been different to all of my other albums," she tells me. "I wrote it faster than any other, and I wanted it over as quickly as possible. I did the least gigs I've ever done for a record, because I didn't like the moaning. So I did like twelve gigs. Maybe fifteen." Her tones changes: "I thought maybe there is a way? If I film myself singing those songs in VR, then I just have to do it once. I could put that on tour, instead of me. Meanwhile I could focus on more positive energies and write new songs. Instead of indulging yourself in negative shit, you should just make new stuff, it's much better. So I started doing that, and I have been ever since. Most of my time goes into writing the new album, which I'm pretty far with now."
Vulnicura wasn't just another addition to music's age old annals of heartbreak albums, often released long after the artist had overcome the pain. It stands as one of the most raw and immediate records ever written – in fact to use the term heartbreak seems trivial. It's fucked; it's tragic; it's visceral; it's an amputation. To listen to it feels like being first on the scene to a horrendous car crash. It's brutal honesty is only comparable recently perhaps to the bleak emotional nudity of Nick Cave's One More Time With Feeling. As Daisy Jones wrote for Noisey in June: "Never once does a track [on Vulnicura] reach a crescendo, but instead propels itself along, as if Bjork is trapped in an obsessive cycle, agonising over the same thoughts repeatedly."
It feels like Björk Digital was a means for her to promote one of her most successful albums in decades, without having to actually relive the pain and anguish that was the fuel of its conception. And that doesn't detract from the validity of the exhibition, in fact it adds to it: here lies a piece of art almost too powerful for the artist themselves. It opens up a strange and interesting path for the relationship between art and technology, that machines could somehow liberate artists from the crippling weight of extremely personal projects, and perhaps enable them to write more truthfully than ever. Björk had sent her chullachaqui on tour, so real Bjork could move on with her life – and who are we to stop her? – dropping in only occasionally to play a rare live show. She laughs gently when I say this, and replies, "You're not far from the truth."
You can follow Joe Zadeh on Twitter.
Björk Digital is at Somerset House until October 23.
All photos by Santiago Phillipe unless stated otherwise.