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Imaginative, Immersive Video: Inside the Björk Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art

For one so fearless in front of the camera, the artist clearly had a statement to make about turning herself inside-out for a mid-career retrospective.

In a small, dark room full of prying eyes, the vulnerable and expressive musician and composer Björk was dressed as a cactus. The spiny ensemble was topped with a headpiece that may have made her indistinguishable in nature if it weren’t for those bedeviling elfin features that have been the one consistent hallmark across a multitude of personas employed throughout her career.

For one so fearless in front of the camera, she clearly had a statement to make about turning herself inside-out for a mid-career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Sure, she’d put her personal notebooks, costumes and talismans on display, but it was the musical interpretation of her inner self that she wanted examined in the galleries, not her actual, gentle self, clothed as it was in spines and contained in a room too dark for photography, even if it were allowed at the crowded March 3 media preview.

Installation view of the “Black Lake” immersive room at MoMA. Photo by Jonathan Muzikar.

The cactus was not available for questioning, but there were dramatic answers aplenty in the premiere of an ultra-widescreen projection of her gut-wrenching new video for “Black Lake,” a song from her breakup-fueled Vulnicura album, hastily released on January 20 after its contents were leaked online. Large and in high definition at the MoMA, the very publicly heartbroken Björk, reeling from the conclusion of her long-term relationship with artist and video maven Matthew Barney, could be seen banging her head against the floor of a damp cave and stumbling barefoot over black lava fields.

Reassuringly for fans of the dazzling reinventor, she was sprightly renewal personified in the latter half of the 10-minute video, which left the cold, hard landscape for a digitally created lush expanse of drone-gathered Icelandic video segments woven together by the video’s director, Andrew Thomas Huang. Her costume, too, was built in a digital atelier, her delicate, flitting form bedecked in a dress adorned with translucent tendrils, a light sea creature or insect escaping the fungus-inspired costuming used in the cave segments.

Bjork’s “Atmospheric Reentry” headpiece was designed by Maiko Takeda. Photo by Danny Clinch.

Björk will live on to create beautiful new work, the video seems to say, as her lifeless form floats skyward above her fortunately very picturesque Icelandic home. It is through video and photographic images from this gorgeous, barren landscape, and the imaginative cartoonish worlds that they inspired, that we have learned about Björk over the years, so it makes sense that we return to her origins for her anguished rebirth.

But it’s not just the video that tells this particular story in the MoMA-commissioned immersive experience designed for the “Black Lake” exhibit. The outsized video images fill two full walls of a specially built rectilinear viewing cave, spilling excess light across what the viewer slowly realizes is the soft, uneven texture of the walls and ceiling. Those surfaces, in addition to bearing the boldly unhidden 49 loudspeakers and subwoofers that comprise a specially designed and tuned 3D audio system, are festooned with 6,000 hand-rolled felt cones. Yes, viewers realized, gazing over the cactus’ head, this was the ultimate Björk cave, and it was just one high-tech feature of an exhibit that at the artist’s insistence was all about her music and video creations.

Album cover for Biophilia (2011). Photo by M/M (Paris), Photographed by Inez Van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin.

The non-digital, human part of the video was captured over three days in Iceland last year, during which time the barefoot and lightly dressed Björk endured cold and sang for each and every take. Lip-syncing probably would have fallen flat on this particular video setup. “It was quite challenging to get those two films up,” says Aaron Louis, director of audiovisual for the MoMA, who also happens to be a theater producer, musician and adjunct professor at Columbia University. “They’re both dual-projection, two widescreen HD images next to each other, which ends up being a 3.55:1 aspect ratio. They are actually two distinct films, and as Björk moves from one screen to the other, her voice travels and locates her on one side of the room, so people know to turn around.”

Two Canon short-throw projectors were hung on each side of the “Black Lake” viewing room, fed by a Dataton Watchout playback system. Dataton Watchpax media players push two channels of video to each screen, and they also serve timecode to a Barco IOSONO CORE cinema audio processing system that helps to place sounds precisely within the room. The music for the piece was specially mixed for the IOSONO system by Marco Perry of Immersive Audio, the audio designer for the exhibit.

Meanwhile, the digital component of the felt-enclosed viewing chamber includes not only Huang’s widescreen-ready composite video version of Iceland, but also the carefully calculated dimensions of the cones that soften the room both acoustically and visually. It is in this environment that the specialist design talents of David Benjamin and the team at his architecture and bio-computation firm The Living shine through. Architectural and visual effects software maker Autodesk just happens to have recently acquired The Living, and when the company was called on to design the “Black Lake” viewing room, it naturally opted for a collaboration with its visionary subsidiary.

Installation view of Björk at MoMA showing the swan dress (designed by Marjan Pejowski) that Björk wore at the Academy Awards in 2001. Photo by Jonathan Muzikar.

Working from raw footage and 3D scan data from the shoot in Iceland, and listening to early recordings of the song, the team at The Living made note of the key emotional experiences in the music, and set about building a room that would enhance the immersive experience of the exhibit.

From the room’s initial design phases, Benjamin explains, “we wanted a material that was soft and tactile, and we wanted to create an environment that performed with the sound in the best possible way but was not visually uniform, so it could offer different experiences. The undulating landscape would change from one side of the room to the next, but also it appears a little bit different when you’re up close or far away, and it changes with the light from the projected video.”

Acoustical engineers from the New York office of environmental design consultancy Arup worked on the space’s configuration, calling on the Arup SoundLab in their lower Manhattan headquarters for visualization assistance. SoundLab is an electro-acoustic demo environment that replicates the effects of different room designs and material choices.

In the end, those felt cones are anything but random. “We made a 2D sound map of the spectral analysis of the song and then we then framed the room by imagining that you’re on your back looking up at the ceiling and all of the walls fold out as flaps,” Benjamin explains. Then the audio waveform was projected onto an Autodesk model of the walls and ceiling to generate the peaks and valleys of the cones, which were translated onto flat pieces of felt that were laser-cut into several easily rollable patterns. Basically any 3D shape could be created in the software, Benjamin notes, but working on this scale, with 16,000 square feet of felt to deal with, it would be extremely inefficient to build them. 3D printing was also explored but ultimately rejected in favor of comparatively more expeditious hand-assembly. This was fortunate, too, because when Immersive Audio provided its requirements for placement of the 49 Bowers & Wilkins loudspeakers, design changes could be accommodated easily with a bit of unrolling and rerolling of the felt cones.

Album cover for


(2015), Björk’s ninth studio album. Copyright © 2015 Inez and Vinoodh.

Even with all this cone customization, the speakers themselves were left intentionally exposed, emphasizing the musical element of the room. “In terms of surround sound installations, we’ve never done anything so immersive, with so many speakers, and such a precise placement of sound within a wave field,” notes Aaron Harrow, MoMA’s audiovisual design manager. “It is a truly 3D speaker placement.”


The 3D treatment is also given to “Songlines,” a 40-minute audio tour of Björk’s musical career that abandons the standard “what you see here” format in favor of a fictitiously biographical and intentionally dreamlike narrative written by Icelandic poet Sjón and delivered by Icelandic actor Margret Vilhjalmsdottir. Antony from Antony and the Johnsons serves as tour guide. When “Songlines” visitors receive an iPod Touch, don their Bowers & Wilkins headphones and press play to start the unrewindable tour, he instructs, “You’ve been given a heart. Wear it on your chest. If you get lost, touch your heart.” But it’s not really that reassuring, because touching the heart only shows where you are in a progress bar. You can’t go back if you missed something.

Audio for the tour is triggered by Bluetooth beacons, specially adapted from Sound Journey software built by the California-based Electronics Research Laboratory of MoMA partner sponsor Volkswagen.

“Songlines” content was recorded binaurally, “so the visitor perceives the sound as outside their head, in a more spatial representation of what they’re hearing,” Louis says. Unlike the stereo recordings of the average audio tour guide, the binaural recording gives visitors “the sensation that they are in the room where the recording was made. The technology allows us to move beyond the basic function of delivering information and allows the visitor to be immersed in Björk’s universe.”

The music video screening room in MoMA’s Björk exhibit. Photo by Jonathan Muzikar.

“Songlines” occupies only a small amount of square footage, with the occasional blip of newly animated “video” treatments of certain album covers and a blinky LED wall with projected video from Michel Gondry, but it’s meant to progress over 40 minutes, which means that people in the small groups admitted on a tight timetable need to slow way down. “That was definitely Björk’s intention,” Louis says. “She wanted people to change their pace. It was a recurring theme: have the experience, don’t just take a picture and move on.”

Cinema Space

The same goes for the exhibit’s music video viewing space, which is filled with gigantic red sofas built for lounging while MoMA visitors take in more than two hours’ worth of Björk videos spanning eight albums released over the two decades of her career thus far. The sound system definitely outguns the video in the projection of some low-definition videos from the 1990s, but the resolution catches up over time as more recent releases explore cutting-edge content creation. Björk is as much of a video artist as she is a musician and composer, collaborating on eight videos with Michel Gondry, three with Spike Jonze, two with Andrew Thomas Huang, and many more with visionaries like Alexander McQueen and dozens of others.

The retrospective features more than 30 videos created between 1993 and the present. In some of her knockout years, like 1997, when she did five visual releases, the output is staggering.

So maybe it’s appropriate that everywhere in the multistory MoMA atrium we are accompanied by a gigantic, silent projected image of Björk prancing around and posing on a flatbed truck rolling slowly through Manhattan in her 1993 “Big Time Sensuality” video. Plain to see and hear, she is all New Yorker, all Icelandic, and all artist.

The Björk exhibition is on display at The Museum of Modern Art in New York until June 7, 2015.