Björk — in the form of a ten-foot, shimmering moth queen — is towering above me, thrashing and cavorting, as I scramble frantically to sew up her wounds. She expands exponentially, until my head is lodged inside her belly, tiny golden flecks of moth dust fluttering around me. No, this isn’t a bad DMT trip (not that I’d know what that’s like…), this is the North American premiere of “Björk: Digital,” the Icelandic avante-pop songstress’ new virtual reality exhibition. And, as you may have guessed, it’s fucking weird.
Currently installed at Montreal’s DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art, presented by the Red Bull Music Academy, Björk’s exhibit is a technological and tasteful step forward from her oh-so-disappointing show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art last year. That project was universally panned for being a gimmicky, retrospective wank-job to the star. By contrast, “Björk: Digital” is an ambitious (though not infallible) attempt at exploring the ways VR can be used to enhance the musical experience, to make it something emotional and immersive. “As a musician, to be intimate is really important,” Björk said in an interview earlier this year. It’s no coincidence that the porn industry has embraced virtual reality. The penetration is really intimate.” Riiight.
Well, what’s more intimate than being deep inside Björk’s throat? (Not in that way, you slimeball.) “Mouth Manta,” one part of the new show, transports you into her gullet as she sings, her warped teeth pulsing and swirling with the beat of the ominous music. It’s an aggressively claustrophobic experience — one I unfortunately had to experience twice because I took my Oculus Rift off too soon.
The exhibit works like this: participants, in groups of 25, are taken to a series of rooms equipped with virtual reality headsets and headphones, which you strap on while sitting on swivel stools (and, as VR is a 360-degree experience, you’ll be doing lots of swiveling). The five main pieces of “Björk: Digital” are all based on music from her most recent album, Vulnicura, which chronicled her breakup with artist Matthew Barney. Appropriately, things get emo fast. One moment you’re surrounded by several Björks singing you “Stonemilker,” reaching out with their hands to draw out affection from a reluctant partner. (I tried reaching back, Björk! I ended up touching the dude sitting next to me.) The next, Björk, splintering into various forms of energy and light, rains down on you while wailing her bruised heart out (“Quicksand”). Intimacy achieved. This is oversharing at its trippiest.
Though, at times, the show trips over itself. Things went out of focus often. At one point, the sound cut out of my headset and I was forced to sit there for 3 minutes while Björk mimed at me. During “Family,” the mothy finale, the video encountered a glitch whenever I stepped too far away from the wall-mounted sensors. It was hard to lose myself fully in this digital underworld, given the slight clumsiness of the technology and the undeniable reality that having a chunky VR set strapped to my face made me feel like an off-brand Power Ranger.
But all this is fine. There have always been two Björks: a) the forward-thinking, celestial forest sprite capable of crafting genius soundscapes expressing startlingly direct emotional truths, and b) the weird lady in the swan dress. Where is the line between her extraordinary artistry and batshit absurdity? For her entire career, it’s never been clear. What has been clear, however, is her instinctual need to disassemble and reassess the world around her. Footage of her taking apart a TV in 1988 is evidence of the former; her foray into VR a testament to the latter. “Björk: Digital,” then, is quintessential Björk: part astronomical vision, part goofy video game, part science experiment. Is this a harbinger of the way future generations will watch music videos? To be honest, it’s hard to imagine anyone without a neckbeard trying this at home. Regardless, it made me feel strange, utterly confusing, supremely awkward things — things I’ve never felt before. And, as ever, that’s Björk’s goal.