In the depths of London’s Somerset House two trends, one from museums and one from technology have collided with an exhibition that blends virtual reality and pop superstardom.
Björk is the latest musical superstar to have a museum show dedicated to her in the capital, something which seems to be becoming an increasingly popular way for cultural institutions to draw in the crowds.
But, unlike the recent exhibition dedicated to Björk at MoMA, or indeed other celebrity museum outings, this doesn’t focus on costumes, concerts or merchandise, but instead takes people into a virtual world using the latest technology.
Virtual Reality is the hot tech trend of the moment, with Facebook and Google investing heavily in the technology and a whole range of start-ups competing to lead this interesting ‘new’ space.
Bringing together celebrity and Virtual Reality could have been a complete disaster, and perhaps Björk is one of the only ‘pop stars’ who is interesting enough to pull it off.
I joined the first performance of the day for Björk Digital at Somerset House. This is the latest stage in a world tour which has already seen the exhibit visit Tokyo and Sydney.
Our group of twelve descend into the darkened basement of Somerset House where we were led through a series of digital performances. The majority of the which were using Gear VR headsets and some Bowers & Wilkins headphones.
Stonemilker was perhaps the piece which struck me most (it’s also available to watch on Google Glass), this very simple piece puts you inches away from Björk as she virtually cavorts around you on a desolate beach.
Filmed with only Bjork and a 360-degree camera, this feels incredibly intimate, and one can imagine how this kind of virtual one on one experience could be used to great effect for storytelling in a museum context.
One thing that did lessen the experience for me was the quality of the picture on the Gear VR, the resolution isn’t fantastic and makes it clear that this technology is still evolving.
A more challenging piece was Mouth Mantra, Directed by Jesse Kanda which was filmed with a tiny 360 camera inside Björk’s mouth and using a realistic model. This was as uncomfortable as it sounds and made me feel a little nauseous.
The most recent creation Notget allowed us more freedom. This was created by directors Warren Dupreez and Nick Thornton Jones working with UK based REWIND:VR.
For the earlier pieces we had been seated, but for this final piece using a HTC Vive VR we could stand and walk around, within reason.
Notget used a system of Kinect sensors to capture Björk performing and then transformed these into a breathtaking sparkling sprite. The performance was again incredibly intimate, with the viewer being able to walk through the glistening outline of Björk as she performed.
While freed from my chair I seemed to get tangled up, and spent a good part of this performance worried that I’d fall over and break the headset.
With the VR experiences behind us, we had the chance to sit and watch a collection of Björk’s music videos, and to decompress after the intense VR experiences.
Björk Digital wasn’t your usual celebrity exhibition, it was challenging and creative and shows an artist really willing to push the boundaries.
The exhibit also confirmed that Virtual Reality is starting to live up to it’s promise and I’ve no doubt that we’ll start to see impressive uses for the technology across a broad range of museums. I predict that we’ll see lots of VR headsets at our next conference.
If you are interested in how museums are using VR, you might enjoy this panel discussion on how museums can use virtual reality.
About the author – Jim Richardson
Jim is the founder of MuseumNext. He has worked with museums for over twenty years, and now splits his time between innovation consultancy for museums and running MuseumNext.