There’s always been something a little otherworldly about Björk; if you told me you had proof she was a descendent of Puck and Titania, it wouldn’t exactly be a surprise. And in “Digital,” her captivating exhibition of virtual reality installations and videos (up until June 4 at The Reef, part of the LA Phil’s Reykjavik Festival), she is a shapeshifter. Over the course of seven videos, Björk (or one of her avatars) turns volcanic, reproduces like a paramecium, harmonizing and surrounding you on gorgeously abandoned shore, swallows you whole, spouts aurora borealis, turns incorporal—you can walk right through her—and ends up taking you on a 2001-styled oddessy.
The 90-minute show is part tour, part tasting menu: you are guided from room to room in groups, and each room comes with its own set of instructions—how to put on your goggles, seated or standing, in “Family,” work a pair of handsets that allow you shoot streamers, Spiderman-style.
Talking on a digital hookup from New York City (and appearing in the skin of one of her avatars), Björk, introduced by the Phil’s Director of Presentations Joanna Rees and Andrew Thomas Huang, her collaborator on three of the VR videos, explained she considered VR a way to make an even deeper connection with her fans. Experiencing the songs on VR, she was, was more intimate than listening to a CD. And as an artist, VR inspired some of the most spontaneous, improvised work she’s ever done.
There’s no narrative to speak of, but it does feel like there’s progression from room to room. You start out interacting with an app based on her “Biophilia” album; each song is supposed to teach a new aspect of musical theory. I only had a few minutes with it, and could have used a 14-year-old as a guide. Next you’re led into the room for “Black Lake.”
It’s not VR, but certainly immersive. Giant screens, surround sound. You’re encouraged to wander around; the images on the screens—Björk in a cave, a craggy shore, a field—are some times in synch, others not, the points of view change. And you’re very aware of the others around you. It’s two screens, fifty speakers, and some two dozen adults fumbling around a room.
That doesn’t mean it’s not eeffective. It’s an approach that feels operatic, made for both Wagnerian grandiosity, or crisp surrealism of Robert Wilson’s rapturous dreamlike productions. The scenery alone—shot just outside the city of Reykjavik
From there you move to stools for the “Stonemilker,” “Quicksand,” and “Mouth Mantra.” Not only do you move in space, but the sound moves with you. If you swiveled away from the Björk reaching out for you, her vocals moved from the front, to the side, then behind you. Finally, for “Family” and “Notget,” can you walk and explore the spaces around you. While I did not experience any nausea or dizziness, a feeling of wooziness for a while afterwards, more sensitive to the world around me. This might have been a late-blooming reaction to the VR, but I chose to believe it was the way Björk used it.
Björk’s performance at Disney Hall May 30th will take things to the other extreme. There will be no visuals or electronics, just her voice, and a 32-piece string orchestra. “There’s nothing to hide behind,” she said. “I feel naked.” She returns to LA to headline the FYF Fest on July 21, for a performance she promises will be “more celebratory and communal.”