I met Björk at Vivid LIVE and it was surreal

Icelandic auteur Bjork is in Sydney right now for Vivid LIVE, but not to perform – at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, she’s debuting a virtual reality exhibition – and DJing this weekend at two opening parties. SARAH LITTLE went to a press conference yesterday to find out what it’s actually all about, and left slightly enlightened but mostly still mind-boggled.

Yesterday morning in Sydney’s inner west representatives from various Sydney arts and culture publications gathered outside a closed door at Carriageworks. On the other side of that door: Björk.

I was one of those people. I stood nervously in the foyer waiting to be guided through a preview of her exhibition, Björk Digital, followed by a Q&A session with the singer herself. I was freaking out. Not only was I about to see this magical, Icelandic pixie woman with my own unworthy eyeballs, but I was also about to be immersed in new virtual technologies that have been put to work for the digital reincarnation of her latest album Vulnicura. That’s getting personal on two-fronts: Björk hasn’t been to Australia since 2006-8 (she can’t remember exactly), and Vulnicura is her artistic reaction to having her heart broken—she comfortably refers to the album as “the heartbreak saga”.

Bjork has long being at the forefront of putting out digital art to accompany her music, she collaborated with digital producers to make the ‘Biophilia’ app which links music and science because as she says, “learning musicology from a book is an offence to sound”. The app has been added to the curriculum in schools in Scandinavia and Finland and was the first app to ever be purchased by MoMA. This project is similarly at the frontier of digital technologies, with cameras and computers being purpose-built for the exhibition.

But why is Bjork in Sydney?

The world premiere of the exhibition is in Sydney, and, amazingly, it’s free. The answer may lie in the details: Björk Digital is the jewel in the crown of Vivid’s lineup this year. When the opportunity for questions from the media finally came she was asked what she thought of a festival, “that uses a city as a canvas”. Her reply: “I’m very impressed with this festival”. You hear that? Sydney has, unexpectedly, impressed Björk.

She then likened Vivid to Iceland Airwaves festival: that’s a pretty fat tick of approval. As to why her exhibition is opening in Sydney and why she decided to come for the opening, she said that Carriageworks was one of the few places which didn’t say “errwwww” to her bookings guy when he approached them about hosting a digital exhibition and DJ set. Still, her being here is something of a shock.

When the doors were finally opened we were ushered in to the world of ‘Black Lake’. ‘Black Lake’ is the fourth track off of her “only chronological album”. This is the first world that visitors will be immersed in when they enter the exhibition—we’re told people will be taken in groups of twenty-five. Two screens flank the long sides of a room within the exhibition space. There are over 100 speakers on the walls and ceiling and both screens play the ‘Black Lake’ film clip cued at different intervals. Björk is all around: she’s lying naked on the floor of a cave, kneeling in a cave and her voice is omnipresent. Artistic collaborator James Merry explains that the desired effect is that we feel like we are in the cave with her—provided we stand in the middle of the room. We are yet to see Björk, but we’re already all up inside of her business.

All I can think about while I’m “in the cave” is how did this exhibition come to be at Carriageworks in the first place? Why did she bother to come to the media preview and why has she committed to two DJ sets for the official opening nights? What the hell is going on?

So what exactly is Bjork Digital?

The preview went for fifty minutes and there were still two more works to see after ‘Black Lake’ (the rest were still being installed). Initially you couldn’t “see” anything, bar groups of chairs with headphones and VR headsets draped over the back. ‘Stone Milker’ is the first track on Vulnicura and was filmed in 360 degree virtual reality, hence the headsets. There are only a few working so I end up watching somebody watching the clip. They were turning around in their chair, presumably following Björk as she circled around in front of their eyes. The next work is ‘Mouth Mantra’, the penultimate track on the album, filmed inside a 3D printed model of Björk’s mouth; she would later jokingly add that she doesn’t want to “take full credit for hosting the tiny 3D camera in my body”.

We ended up in the ‘Black Lake’ room again, except she wasn’t omnipresent, she was just sitting delicately in a chair wearing a soft pink latex blouse, with a neck bow and billowing sleeves. I had bet a friend, just moments before Bjork arrived, that her outfit would also double as a soft sculpture. I was wrong; she was more pared-back than I was expecting. I think I was disappointed, although I don’t know why, because she was also sporting a pearl and gold wire headdress/facedress thing (simply calling it a fascinator doesn’t do it justice). We are told that it’s a James Merry creation, which makes sense.

There’s a strict no filming or photography rule when it comes to Björk: people with serious cameras were asked to leave them outside. When she first started speaking I could see that she was nervous, and why wouldn’t you be when you’re launching a body of work to a room full of critics: maybe she doesn’t realise how in love with her we all are?

Her wire head-piece betrayed her nerves, quivering when she quivered, but she soon started cracking jokes and philosophising on nature and digital technologies – my favourite came when she was talking about the intimate and “penetrative” character of visual reality. Encouraged by our chuckles, she repeated, “full penetration”. She answered everyone’s questions with grace and seemed so delicate and fragile in her strangely feminine latex top. And when it was all over she took a bow and endeared herself to me forever.

Björk, I still don’t entirely understand what you’re doing here, but I’m glad you came.

Bjork Digital: 4-18 June, Carriageworks. Free entry: RSVP here

Bjork Opening Party DJ sets: Friday, June 3 and Saturday, June 4