“We were sending each other a lot of videos of insects moulting,” says Family director Andrew Thomas Huang about working with Björk on the virtual reality experience based on the song of the same name from her 2015 album Vulnicura.
Featuring art direction by Björk and James Merry, the VR oeuvre was commissioned by Phoebe Greenberg and Penny Mancuso, from Phi, and Red Bull Music Academy, and premiered as part of the Björk Digital exhibition at DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art. “Like, this one video of a whip spider moulting from this black shell and it comes out and it’s this shiny, glistening, yellow, lavender and red thing like that’s this brand new creature. Total death and rebirth kind of stuff.”
Anyone who has been through heartbreak knows that it can feel like a death and rebirth situation. Both the song Family and the virtual reality experience of the same name, according to previous statements by the Icelandic artist and her team, try, “to capture with virtual reality the metaphysical journey of healing of a heart-wound.”
“Her lyrics are so incredible,” Huang says, quoting part of the song:
I raise a monument of love, there is a swarm of sound around our heads […] It will make us all part of this universe of solutions
“It’s true when you’re in heartbreak you’re desperate for solutions,” he says. “And here, the solution rises up in the form of music, in the form of this music goddess and she’s the solution, she finds the solution.”
How did the creative team use VR technology to share such an emotional and epic tale? Andrew Thomas Huang, who also directed Stonemilker VR and Black Lake (both of which are showcased in Björk Digital) says he’s always thinking dramatically. “How do I orchestrate the rise and fall of this thing so that it matches the song and fits the emotion, and stylistically, making sure we embrace the lo-fi look of games rather than trying to fight it,” he says.
“The song is so epic and transcendent and grand, you either go full-on production values or strip it down to something really futuristic that can keep up with the grandeur of the soundscape. In this case, we embraced the digital look to elicit an emotional effect.”
To help achieve this, he asked himself, “What is the mechanic that is the spine of the storyline?” In this case, “Björk is a woman stitching, or weaving, herself back together. So the mechanic becomes a matter of weaving, or weaving thread. And making sure we imply this weaving motion as you journey through the piece.” All this, he explains, while “still treating the piece as a traditional three-act experience. You start out in this heartbreak cave, and in the second act you journey to a moss plane where Björk is doing the hard work of lifting herself out of this situation, and then you have the transcendent third act, where we play with scale and she appears much larger. It’s the only time in the piece where she actually crosses through you. That’s one uncanny thing with the medium, you can penetrate surfaces; [things] pass through you.”
In the experience of the work, you, the viewer, grasp two HTC Vive controllers that become your hands and forearms, which also weave and stitch. You can turn and move, look up and down as you travel through this colourful universe. Björk sings, she weaves. She heals. And at one pivotal point in the storyline, she moves right through you.
“The most important thing is injecting emotion into your work, which means making yourself vulnerable,” Huang says about what he’s learned from her throughout their many collaborations. “And learning to be spontaneous when needed. Because as a director with an animation background and a person who is really cognizant of logistics, I plan everything, I storyboard everything… but there are times when spontaneity and making practice-driven work is needed. That was a big thing, learning to trust the process a bit more, even if it’s spontaneous and improvised.”