As producer of the immersive Björk Digital, a touring exhibition currently at London's Somerset House focusing on the sensory overload of virtual reality, Katie Vine is responsible for turning a complex artistic vision into a reality. Created by Björk alongside a host of cutting edge filmmakers including Andrew Thomas Huang and Jesse Kanda, it pulls the audience out of the mundane and into a heady world of visual simulation and musical escapism. Having previously worked with the Icelandic genius on the expansive Biophilia project – a David Attenborough-assisted music/education/wig spectacular – at Manchester International Festival in 2011, Vine is well placed when it comes to imparting advice to anyone looking to enter the world of exhibition production and curation.
How did you get into the world of producing and curating exhibitions?
My background is in theatre – I was Company Manager at Royal Shakespeare Company and at Royal Exchange Manchester for over 10 years. In 2007 I was incredibly fortunate to be asked to work on Manchester International Festival (MIF) as a freelance producer, returned for MIF09 and have worked full time there since 2010, currently as Touring Producer.
Tell me more about the work MIF does.
The Festival presents new works from across the spectrum of dance, theatre, visual arts, digital works, contemporary and classical music, and often encourages artistic collaboration. All of these art forms have their own language and operate in different worlds. Through my experience working with MIF, I act as the conduit to be able to help these worlds communicate with each other. For example, we’re currently touring our MIF15 commission contemporary-ballet Tree of Codes, a collaboration between the choreographer Wayne McGregor, visual artist Olafur Eliasson and musician Jamie xx.
What personal attributes do you need to work in that world?
You need to be prepared to work hard, work long and unsociable hours, maintain a sense of humour, attention to detail, be knowledgeable, resourceful and ultimately enjoy the work.
How did you come to work on Björk Digital?
MIF’s relationship with Björk began when she presented her multimedia Biophilia project in a world premiere at our 2011 Festival with a 24-strong Icelandic choir, specially invented instruments, introductions by David Attenborough, captivating footage of the natural world, working Tesla coil on bass, all in the found venue surrounds of a Victorian Market Hall. She then returned to the Festival in 2015 to perform the European premiere of Vulnicura. So when Björk’s team approached us to help them produce the world premiere of Björk Digital in Sydney and assist in touring the exhibition, it was a natural progression of how the Festival could continue and develop that relationship.
How do you go about refining the scope and scale of an exhibition like this? How involved is Björk in the actual exhibition itself?
Björk is heavily involved in the exhibition and has curated all the work that you’ll see. She casts her artistic eye across all aspects of it, from the artwork and collaborators to the way the work sits in the gallery as well as how the audience experience it.
Do you need to be quite strict with what can work and what can't in terms of space and scale? Can an exhibition be too overcrowded?
The exhibition has been designed and curated for a specific amount of people to go on the journey at any one time so there is no overcrowding. The exhibition has been curated by Björk as a linear journey, beginning with 25 people travelling as a group, experiencing the work together but also as individuals, and ends in a chill out and relaxation type space where visitors can spend as much time as they’d like. Everyone involved in Björk Digital felt it was extremely important to maintain an intimacy for the visitor throughout the exhibition.
What are some of the practical issues with producing a show that's got interactive elements such as VR videos and such like?
Although Björk Digital has been housed in the beautiful surrounds of Somerset House in London, Carriageworks in Sydney or Miraikan in Japan, as a VR exhibition it’s about the experience the visitor has while wearing the headset. We need them to be blown away by the artwork that they see and the technology they are using to be immersed in it. Working with such a new and developing technology has been a challenge but luckily some of the relationships we’ve built with HTC Vive, AMD, Intel, Bower and Wilkins and the like have been really crucial in helping us get this amazing artwork to people that wouldn’t usually have access to this type of tech. When [MIF] first worked with Björk in 2011 we were able to take the Biophilia technology, some of which you’ll see in the exhibition, into schools across Manchester. Those school children were the first in the world to explore the Biophilia app and use Björk’s new music ideas and technologies.
Why do you think someone like Björk works in an exhibition context? There aren't that many modern pop stars who people would pay to see an exhibition about are there?
If you’re attending an exhibition about an iconic artist, it’s likely the visitor will be familiar with the kind of work that the artist creates. With Björk Digital it was vital that the visitor would be able to experience Björk in a unique way. You may have seen Björk live or listened to her music but in this exhibition you can explore the world of Vulnicura, stand on a lonely Icelandic beach with her singing Stonemilker, and climb into her mouth as she sings Mouth Mantra. Exhibitions such as Björk Digital and the recent ‘David Bowie is’ are successful because these are not only artists with an impressive breadth of work but also artists that have a vision, push themselves into new areas and experiment within their art-form. Björk has always tried to push at the envelope as an artist. I think she sees this exhibition as the next logical step in advancing the way in which we consume music and art.