‘A humanity/technology mashup’: the VR experience for Quicksand, from Björk’s Vulnicura VR album.
Björk’s co-creative director a talks about translating the singer’s Vulnicura album into an out-of-body virtual reality experience.
Artist James Merry, 37, has been working with Björk since 2009; they were introduced by a mutual friend while Merry was studying ancient Greek at Oxford University. He moved to New York to work with her, and played a vital part in her 2011 album, Biophilia, on which each song was accompanied by an interactive app uniting concepts of music, science and nature. Merry has remained Björk’s right-hand man through her 2015 breakup album Vulnicura and this year’s Utopia, as well as making her elaborate masks and headpieces. Their latest project is a full virtual reality version of Vulnicura in which seven VR videos by different directors follow Björk’s path through heartbreak and recovery in the Icelandic landscape, from a verdant valley into a dark lava tube and out the other side. Merry lives and works in Iceland.
Why did Björk decide to make Vulnicura into virtual reality? Most VR experiences focus on spectacle or action, and it’s such an inward, emotional album.
In 2014, we got an Oculus Rift headset and set it up in her kitchen in New York … she just got a gut reaction to it, and it also happened to really suit the nature and content of the Vulnicura album. It wasn’t a gimmick, it wasn’t like: “Oh, VR is hot, let’s force ourselves to do VR videos”; it was actually more like the weird, airless, almost suffocating and isolating early VR stuff we tried, she realised it could really fit these heartbreak songs... it was just a really good overlap between the medium and the content. I think people are still figuring out how VR is going to position itself in our lives, whether it’s for hardcore gamers who are in there for eight days without eating, or whether it’s a thing in the living room that you order stuff on, or a paintballing businessmen-bonding-trip kind of thing. It still has that fluidity, so I am glad our contribution is an attempt to offer some emotion and poetry and music.
What can people expect from Vulnicura VR?
I’ve been trying to make clear that it’s not a game. I think a Bjork video game would be amazing and I would wanna play it, but this isn’t it; it’s quite passive. You’re like a voyeur on this heartbreak album cycle. We’ve made seven VR music videos and accompanying digital scores, and the Vulnicura VR app is like a house to watch them from. You go into a cave at the lowest point of the album and then you come out of the cave for Family, when the healing starts, and then you end with Quicksand when the claustrophobia is gone and you’re in a more open space.
What’s it been like watching people experience it all over the world at the Björk Digital exhibitions?
The first one we did in Australia, it was amazing hearing the noises: there were people crying, laughing and gasping and people talking to Björk like she was in the room. For 80%, 90% of the people there it was their first time in VR. So I’m really happy that was their first experience. It’s so beautiful seeing tears coming out of the bottom of a VR headset. It’s like a humanity and technology mashup in a really beautiful way.
There’s a moment in the Family video where the Björk avatar seems to walk through the viewer – it’s quite unsettling.
Yes! When we were trying different builds of Notget with [video directors] Nick Thornton Jones and Warren Du Preez, there were also moments when you were inside the avatar, and because I’m a semi-gamer, I was like: “Oooh! Oh no! It’s glitching, you can see inside it…” and Bjork was like: “Oh my God! This is amazing!” That’s one of my favourite moments, when that avatar in Family stands up and walks towards you, and you float through it and watch it walking away; it’s the most emotional part of the whole album I think.
Bjork appears via a live stream as a motion-capture avatar during an event to publicise the Bjork Digital shows. Photograph: Santiago Felipe/Getty Images
Can you see more musicians going down the VR route?
For me, it’s a perfect medium for pop. I don’t wanna be in VR for the length of a film. I don’t wanna be in there for even half an hour, necessarily. I think a music video is perfect for VR. You dip in to this little self-contained world and have an experience with really emotional music and then you dip out again.
What other uses of VR are you most excited about?
Outside of art and music, I’ve been reading about people using it for post-traumatic stress, where you can program a situation and go back into it and relive it and reprocess it.
Do you still do art that’s unrelated to Björk’s projects?
I do have a side project where I hand-embroider my favourite plants and birds and mushrooms on to old Nike and Adidas sportswear sweaters. I probably have about 17 minutes every day to think about that, but I’m going back to Iceland tonight and tomorrow I’m pouring concrete and building myself a little studio at my cabin, where I can get back into my embroidery.
Vulnicura VR is available now for Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Valve Index headsets and is showing at the Otherworld VR arcade in Hackney, London, until 1 Jan