Metaphysical healing- Interview with Björk
Björk has been particularly busy recently. She's been making a virtual reality version of her latest album Vulnicura, she's writing new songs for a new album and she's also directing an exhibition dedicated to the digital aspects of her work. Oh yes, and she's also performing twice at the Iceland Airwaves music festival.
Morgunblaðið journalist Árni Matthíasson met with Iceland's Björk Guðmundsdóttir.
Björk hasn't performed in her homeland for quite a while. Or, for five years to be exact when she performed three times at Harpa Concert Hall: two Biophila concerts and a larger concert in Eldborg main hall.
Her last album, Vulnicura, was released last year to rave reviews. Vulnicura actually appeared in three different versions, an original album, a string version and a concert version, all released in the same year. Her accompanying tour was cut short, to eleven concerts in fact, and recently she's been working on putting up an exhibition in various places around the world mixing progressive technology with music.
At the end of September, unexpected news. Björk was to perform at Iceland Airwaves, which starts tomorrow, and not only one performance but two, and her exhibiton, Björk Digital also opens this week at Harpa.
The exhibition titled Björk Digital is a virtual reality project where the audience can experience her music in a new manner, partly with the help of 3D technology. People can step into a virtual reality world constructed by Björk in cooperation with designers and programmers, and they can also experience an interactive multimedia work based on Biophilia which has been used to teach children about music and technology in many places of the world.
I met with Björk at the Nordic House shortly and our conversation soon turned to how common it has become to talk about digital technology as something foreign, void of emotion and proximity. Björk begs to differ. She sees little difference between watching a virtual reality video from reading a book. "You are carried away just as far, although obviously that depends on the quality of the book, " she says and laughs. "You're here but yet not here and you're being introduced to the inner life of somebody else or a life that somebody else is creating. It's always been like that, whether you're sitting by a fire inside a cave, making up stories, or going to a concert, I think the experience is very similar. When you read a book, you're creating that world yourself, you step into the book and create a world inside your head, with virtual reality it's a world that somebody else has created but that you step inside."
Björk explains that a book is comprised of letters which you have to interpret to build the visual world. "In that way, virtual reality is closer to films, where the visual aspect is given, virtual reality puts us in the same place as one hundred years ago, when there was that famous scene when people, sitting in a cinema for the first time, watched a train coming straight at them on the screen. They all ran outside, screaming. Then of course, you can make bad films, and good films."
Like a detective story
"What I find most exciting about this new technology is that it's like a detective story, you're solving problems as soon as you're working in it. It was fun when we were making Biophilia when I was using touch screens for the first time, before the arrival of Ipads, I thought, wow, here is a tool I can use to map out how I feel musicology should be. I'm very eccentric about my own musicology and I feel that it should be three dimensional. That base lines should be taught with a pendulum so that you can see and feel that it's something spatial. Kids get that as well, it takes three seconds for them to realise, yes, I see it, I know what a counterpoint is. It's therefore a really exciting time for virtual reality, before everything solidifies into some sort of mold. Now you can try to think about it as some side to all of us: instead of being an addition, like an artificial limb, and another artificial limb and then something else and something else, this works exactly the opposite way.
For me, it was like this: okay, I was in a band for ten years and then the laptop arrived and I could just be my own band. Technology isn't just an addition, it's something inside me which I can't express, but using this new technology, I finally could. When I got my laptop I didn't need a band anymore, I could do 90% of the work at home by myself and that became my world.
When a computer with a touch screen arrived the first thing I thought of was: Oh technology has finally caught up with us and with how I think about musicology, I now have a format for that. Now we have virtual reality which is ideal for the music video format and fits to that format better than a whole film, at least for the time being.
The benefit of virtual reality versus the YouTube video is that you are transferred to a place, in a 360 degree world where no one place is better than another. It can be compared to a theatre, a radical experimental theatre where there is no stage and suddenly an actor appears behind you, next to you, or in front of you. The language that we use in virtual reality is the one we use in the biggest punk theatre in the world."
A beginners course in metaphysics
Björk has been working on three dimensional footage with artist James Merry and they recently finished a virtual reality realease of the song Family from Vulnicura, something she considers her best work so far. "The song is about me having this wound here," she explains and points to her chest. "I want to sew it back together and then I get better in the middle of the song and do a kind of yoga pose where I jump into the air, through the listener and land on the other side. It's almost like a beginner's course in metaphysics and what you experience wearing your 3D glasses is something you cannot do on YouTube."
- You explain that as enormous freedom?
"Yes, and more than YouTube and MTV and all that, although it's great in its own way. This is something new and I think it's an opportunity for increased intimacy with the listener. I've said this a thousand times and I will say it again: it's about what you do with it.
There are various reasons for why I'm so enchanted with this technology. One of them is that I like gaudy things and like hanging out with nerds," she says and smiles. "When I see new stuff I'm like a crow attracted to someting shiny.
It's also that I've been touring for thirty years and I've had enough really. Or it's even been thirty-five years, it depends where you are counting from. I love touring but now I want to spend more time on recordings, and on writing music, and perhaps just performing at one or one concerts, not touring.
One other thing is that after cooperating with film directors for twenty or thirty years, depending on where you start counting, I've always had a few visual ideas for each song, ideas which I've told directors and then they take them and wrap them into their own ideas. I suppose you could describe it as me building a bridge between the song and the video. Now I have more precise ideas about what I want to have in videos and I have this fantastic collaboration with James and in all the videos we've made in the laast two years we've come up with the ideas and the director has then made the script and directed it. Virtual reality is in fact a stage where I can direct and we can do our thing."
At the beginning of last year an exhibition was set up at MoMA in New York dedicated to Björk, but the exhibition at Harpa has almost nothing in common with the MoMA exhibition. The only thing that's the same is the Biophilia part and the fact that all her videos will be screened, just like they were in New York. Björk says that she wasn't excited about another exhibition like the MoMA one. "I had been asked many times to take part in an exhibition but I had always said no. Because I didn't understand where pop was supposed to go inside an art museum. I'm not against it, or trying to be humble, or arrogant, it's just apples and oranges. There's a reason for why music works well inside a concert hall with seats and a stage and good sound. There's a reason for why you perform at Gamla bíó for instance and not inside an exhibition room at the Iceland Museum of Art. In the end I just said, ok, I'm going to look at this as an experiment. Some worked, some didn't."
I was almost just a guest, eating popcorn on the side of that MoMA show, there were ten experiments made and the one that worked out the best was a virtual reailty project. That's when I realised that this is what could become the future of the music video."
-Often when one looks back, one can see connections and threads that were once hidden. Did you get that with the MoMA exhibition?
"An exhibiton on the musician himself is a total blindspot, it's just a mirror of a mirror of a mirror of a mirror. I think it's better to set up retrospectives like that when the artist is dead. The answer to the question is: I didn't realise it. I just found it really scary to see lots of mannequins of myself and I had to trust that other people wouldn't find them scary, because they weren't looking at themselves. Maybe I'm not a good judge of that, I'm programmed for life being one big change, you don't want to hold on to something and keep repeating it a thousand times. When the exhibition was held I was going through the change when I didn't want to tour so much anymore and I could transform it into something positive. So I suppose I can answer with a yes, looking at it from that point of view."
As I mentioned at the beginning of the interview, Björk's Biophilia project has been used as teaching material all around the world and her concert tour was unusual due to the fact that Björk spent a lot of time in each city and supervised courses for children and held several concerts there. She says that working with children was enormous fun, especially spending long periods of time in each place instead of always being on the go.
"It can be fascinating to spend two days in each city and jetting between places but when you've done that for twenty years you think that you haven't followed anything through properly. I decided with Biophilia that instead of doing what I did with Volta, to perform 77 concerts in 77 cities, that I wanted to be in eight cities and perform ten concerts in each city as well as teaching for one month at a time."
"People have come up to me and thanked me. They've said that the album has influenced them, helped them deal with loss, not just divorce and separation, but just losing loved ones and loss in general."
You become better at connecting
- On Vulnicura you sing openly about a difficult experience. Did virtual reality give you some kind of tool to be able to distance yourself from these emotions in some way?
"Each album is very different. I only performed ten concerts from this album but it's also an album that's enjoyed one of the greatest successes of my career. People have come up to me and thanked me. They've said that the album has influenced them, helped them deal with loss, not just divorce and separation, but just losing loved ones and loss in general.
One of the things one gets better at with age is that you become better at connecting: here there are seven things that don't work anymore, here are four things you can water and here are a few branches left. It's really fitting to use virtual reality with the layers on the album because it' s so metaphysical, it has a healing quality which can be shared in a way that you can't do with a YouTube video. Virtual reality gives you a new access to the brain and if we use it creatively, new branches grow."
-You're working on a new album, and it's nearing completion, even though it's been a fairly short while since the release of Vulnicura. Usually you've given each album a longer time.
"I want to spend all my time composing and recording music and I've been doing that in the last three, or four or five years, depending on where you start counting. I also want to do spontaneous concerts here and there. In recent years I've been making tools so that I can express what's inside me so I want to have time to do it."
- Now we've been discussing virtual reality back and forth, returning to reality you're performing two concerts at Harpa. What will be on the set list?
"The Harpa concerts will be a sort of continuation of the concerts I held in London a short while ago when Björk Digital was set up at Somerset House. Before the interval, I'm going to perform the first six Vulnicura songs in the same order as they are on the record, and after the interval I'm performing various other tracks from my career.
When you just have strings and a voice for an entire concert there aren't a hundred things going on and simplicity gives me so much room as a singer. All of the songs slowed down and it gave me so much more room for improvisation, which is really fun."
Björk will be performing at Harpa on November 5th. The concerts are both sold out. For the entire Iceland Airwaves schedule please visit Icelandairwaves.is
The original interview in Icelandic appeared in Morgunblaðið, our sister publication on Sunday. Translated by Anna Margrét Björnsson.