Friday 22 July 2011

Björk’s Biophilia

In a short period of time the Manchester International Festival (MIF) has built a fast growing reputation as one of the most avant-garde, cultural festivals in the world. The city has strong artistic roots and an impressive list of artists in music, literature and the visual arts were born in Manchester: Morrissey, Ian Curtis, the Gallagher brothers, Anthony Burgess, L.S. Lowry, Peter Saville, Mike Leigh, Norman Foster, and Tony Wilson (‘Mr Manchester’) one of the founders of Factory records and the Haçienda nightclub.

The MIF, organised bi-annually, has invited and stimulated visionary artists from around the world including Kraftwerk, Steve Reich, Marina Abramovic, Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed to create new works and cross boundaries. No wonder that, for its third edition, the MIF was the perfect stage for the world premiere of Björk’s ‘Biophilia’ – a show that brings together music, nature and technology.

Born in Iceland it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Björk, one day, would be interested to undertake an entire project on nature, cosmos and science, as she comes from an island where the elements are omnipresent in people’s daily lives.

For ‘Biophilia’ Björk extensively researched areas where science and sound intersect. Thus, it’s understandable why she asked, Dr Nicola Dibben, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Music studies at the University of Sheffield who teaches science and psychology of music, to write the introduction to the leaflet that was given to guests before the show. Inside was an explanation about the concept and context behind the project. “Biophilia celebrates natural phenomena from the atomic to the cosmic, and presents musical sound as part of a whole”, Dr Dibben explains. Later text states that, there is a positive and contemplative message behind the show: “Biophilia’s celebration of scientific discovery and new technologies takes us forward into nature – the idea that, by combining nature with new technology we can create a more sustainable future”.

Inserted into the leaflet was an A5 floor plan of the live instruments of the show, containing a short description of their capability, by whom they were built, and in which song they would be played. The guests could study and admire some of the intriguing looking instruments with adventurous names, for example, ‘Sharpsichord’ (a pin barrel harp with two huge horns of an old fashioned gramophone player).

Some of the instruments were newly invented musical instruments commissioned by Björk, for example the ‘Pendulum Harps’ (four, three meter long harps that swing on pendulums powered by gravity) and ‘Gameleste’, an instrument where Björk had all the silver musical notes taken out of an old celeste and replaced with bronze gamelan bars for it to produce a richer sound.

The ‘Singing Tesla Coil’ featured in the first song of the night ‘Thunderbolt’. A large bird cage, lowered from the ceiling with two tesla coils, has been modified, so that their electric sparks could be pitched to create musical notes. The sparks are then controlled to play the arpeggio baseline of ‘Thunderbolt’. This instrument created a sound familiar to that of a fly killed by an electric shock when it encountering an electric fly killer. The effect was visually more spectacular than the sound it produced.

Another instrument producing a remarkable sound was the ‘Hang’ played by Manu Delago. This instrument is made from two deep drawn nitrided steel sheets that are attached together creating the recognizable disc shape (It looked a little bit like a wok). It is played with your hands and fingertips and produces an intimate, consoling and sweet sound. It’s a far cousin of the Caribbean steel drum, but it’s more layered, demonstrated by the virtuoso Delago in ‘One Day’.

In the press, ‘Biophilia’ is presented ‘as a multi-media project encompassing a studio album, apps, internet, live shows and educational workshops’. Björk stars on the cover of the August UK edition of ‘Wired’ with the bold headline: “Where Apps Go Next – Björk Reinvents The iPad”.

The concept is that the ten songs of ‘Biophilia’ come with an inventive app based on the theme of each song. Each app combines a natural element with a musicological feature. For example, the app ‘Virus’ works like this; if the user succeeds in defending a group of cells from a virus, the track stops; to hear the full song, the virus must be allowed to win.

In theory, the grandiose ideas behind 'Biophilia', the apps, and the newly invented instruments might convey the impression that the project is not easy to comprehend, perhaps even a tad highfalutin. As an artist, though, Björk has built a reputation of reinventing herself; successfully crossing boundaries with a back catalogue of combining futuristic technology and human warmth. In practice, ‘Biophilia’ is very accessible, playful, humane, which all comes naturally together.

Also, Björk has a fine ‘nose’ for choosing her collaborators and a talent for bringing new arrangements and instrumentation to her songs, shining a new light on her work. For her ‘Vespertine’ tour in 2001, she travelled the world with a Greenlandic choir, a harpist, the electronic duo Matmos and a 70 piece orchestra. This year’s line-up consisted out of an eclectic group of musicians: Matt Robertson (Electronics and Midi Instruments), Manu Delago (whom she introduced with self mockery "Manu Delago: on Hang and percussion and instruments of which I don’t know the names myself") and, in the role of Best Supporting actress, a 25-piece female Icelandic choir.

For each song the choir formed a new formation on the stage, positioned at the middle of the venue, which created an intimate atmosphere. ‘Crystalline’ – one of the new songs on the Album ­– had the cheerful energy and uplifting beat of Björk’s first hit ‘Big Time Sensuality’ that was sung crystal clear, with an infectious joy and enthusiasm, by the choir. The set list also included songs from the experimental album ‘Medúlla’ – an album constructed entirely around human vocal sounds. The songs ‘Mouth Cradle’ and ‘Where is the Line’ were performed by the choir in a pulsating manner, with a lot of spontaneity that came across much warmer than the album versions. The beautiful string lines of Eumir Deodato and Björk on the album version of ‘Isobel’ were fluently replaced by the singing of the choir and a crisp and strident drum riff by Delago, reminiscent of a military drum band.

‘Biophilia’ affirms that the MIF is the place on earth for avant-garde entertainment. The show contained cutting edge graphic screen projections of vector graphics such as D.N.A. strands, cells, the cosmos and cross sections of the earth. Also, the innovative ideas of how to approach and create music on newly invented instruments was inspiring, although, the ‘instruments’ of the show were the voices of Björk and the Icelandic choir.

Written by Thierry Somers
Picture Björk: Carsten Windhorst
Picture Pendulum Harps:, built by Andy Cavatorta
The Biophilia live show will travel to major cities around the world following the Manchester premiere.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Anthony Burrill

In May we posted an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist of The Serpentine Gallery (London) where he discussed his obsession for the titles of his exhibitions, the inspiration for our post later that month ‘Titles’. This post featured some artists whose titles play an important part in their work; in fact, are the work. Here is an interview with the graphic designer, Anthony Burrill, for whom the titles are also the work.

Anthony Burrill became renowned for a series of typographic covers for Wallpaper* magazine in 2008 'The Wallpaper work issue: Defying the daily grid." The covers featured slogans that included "Work More Live More" and "Work Hard & Be Nice To People", printed in traditional woodblock technique on bold colour backgrounds. In 2010, Burrill created a poster with oil from the Gulf of Mexico disaster: "Oil & Water Don't Mix".

Here, Burrill discusses the origination of the phrases, some of which resulted from eavesdropping on conversations.

“Work More Live More.”
This was commissioned by Wallpaper* magazine as one of a series of four front covers I designed for their 'Work' issue in June 2008. The other three phrases had a positive spin on the live / work idea.

“Work Hard & Be Nice To People.”
This is another phrase of the Wallpaper* series, that I overheard whilst queuing in a supermarket. An elderly lady, talking to the check-out girl, was explaining the secret to a happy life. The phrase struck a chord with me and hung around in my head for a couple of years until I made the poster. It has become very popular and is my most recognised work so far. I'm very proud of it.

“It’s Ok For Me To Have Everything I Want.”
I first found this phrase in a newspaper article about subliminal messages in advertising from the 1970s. I thought it was an interesting phrase, as I don't think it is OK for you to have everything you want. When I made the poster some people saw it as a positive comment on consumerism whilst, in fact, it is quite the opposite.

“Someday, someone may make a movie of your life. Make sure it doesn't go straight to video.”
This phrase was written by my old friend Chad Rea. We first met whilst he was working at KesselsKramer [advertising agency] in Amsterdam. Chad had hundreds of phrases and we decided to consolidate them into a series of books – the Booksmarts series, which was a personal project, with only a couple of hundred copies printed. Subsequently, we've put some of the phrases (from that book series) into prints and posters. I really like the phrase; it resonates with people in a positive way, whilst still conveying humour.

Burrill has also collaborated on a series of posters with the author Alain de Botton* – who discusses contemporary themes and subjects in a philosophical style – including slogans “Pessimism Is Not Always Deep” and “Optimism Is Not Always Dumb”.

The characteristic woodblock printing of all these phrases is completed by the company ‘Adams of Rye’ – a rare print shop of typefaces in East Sussex that produces print and posters in the almost extinct processes of woodblock and letterpress.

200%: How did you find ‘Adams of Rye’?
Anthony Burill: I moved from central London to live in the countryside with my young family. We live very close to the ancient town of Rye, which is very traditional. I noticed that local events were advertised by beautiful wood block printed posters. I found out where the posters were printed and, to my delight, discovered an incredible archive of traditional wood and metal typefaces in their archives. Even more importantly, the company have staff who master the skills to set and print using this equipment!

Interview written by Thierry Somers

Your house could use some decoration? Some of these phrases could feature on your wall at home or studio as they can be ordered as a signed poster from Burrill’s website, printed by ‘Adams of Rye’ on 100% recycled paper.

*Alain de Botton shares his thoughts about passion, the subject of 200% magazine, in our second issue.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Matt Clark

Al Gore’s film ‘The Inconvenient Truth’ (2006) was very effective and successful in bringing the issue of climate change to worldwide attention. Since Gore’s film, and of the various initiatives in the intervening years, raising the subject of climate change leads to a certain apathy amongst the public.

One of the reasons why United Visuals Artists (UVA), in collaboration with Cape Farewell, will bring climate change to the public’s attention in an emotionally engaging and interactive installation called ‘High Arctic’ at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London.

200% discussed with Matt Clark, Creative Director of UVA, how to bring climate change to the public in an engaging and non-preachy way; the interactive and playful component of the installation; the ignorance of people who believe that climate change is not occurring whilst the scientific facts are there; and Clark’s expedition to the Arctic, where he experienced climate change.

200%: Could you explain how the project started?
Matt Clark: We [UVA] were invited to submit an idea for a competition process to design the first exhibition at the National Maritime Museum for the new Sammy Ofer wing – a brand new space at the rear of the museum. As a source of inspiration for the competitors, an individual, nominated from within the winning company, would go on an expedition to the Arctic with Cape Farewell. When we won the competition I was the lucky one chosen. I was sent to a place called Svalbard, which is an archipelago of islands 400 miles south from the top of the North Pole and 400 miles north of Norway. At Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard, I boarded the ship ‘De Noorderlicht’, an 100 foot Dutch scooner boat with a Dutch crew. There I met my fellow crew mates for the first time, consisting half scientists and half artists. The idea behind Cape Farewell is to organise expeditions to these extreme places that are visual signposts for climate change and to inspire artists and scientists to create work that gives a fresh perspective on climate change. It’s more a cultural response to climate change than a scientific endeavour.

We sailed around Svalbard for three weeks and had an incredible adventure: we helped to sail the ship, we walked on glaciers, trapped across tundra and saw amazing species of sea life.
The isolation was also incredible as I have never been to a place where there is no civilization, not much wild life, no trees, no architecture, except for the archers hut. It was very difficult to gain a sense of scale and perspective. During the first two weeks, we also experienced midnight sun, which is where the sun barely gets under the horizon, so it never got dark – a very surreal experience. It wasn’t just a leisurely cruise. Sometimes it was also quite dangerous as we got stuck in sea ice and had to call for emergency services to help us.

The scientists were conducting scientific studies, including taking sea surface temperature. There was a scientist studying ocean certification and he was hunting for this magical creature, called a terrapod, which is a marine species that looks a bit like a snail, but with wings that flies through the water. This was found at the end of the trip. Within their shells, these creatures hold important information about calcification in the water.

The Arctic is very important for mankind as the ice acts as a huge reflector for the sun’s energy. As the ice melts, the sea levels rise, the extra heat from the sun will be trapped in the atmosphere, resulting in oceans being warmed up and then expanding. It’s not really the Arctic that will suffer, it’s more the countries around the equator line, the hotter areas of the World, some of whom are already feeling the first effects of sea level rising.

200%: What was the point of inspiration for the exhibition at the Maritime Museum?
Matt Clark: There was a moment that I recall vividly, when I was standing on these glaciers, which take fifty thousand years to form, surrounded by this complete beauty, when one of the scientist said to me “when your son is your age this won’t be here, this glacier will be gone”.
I felt a sense of loss, but also an overwhelming sense of scale and fragility. It is those feelings that I would love our exhibition to embody.

200%: How are you going to do that?
Matt Clark: We’re going to create an environment that conveys the beauty, the scale and the fragility of the Arctic, but it will be abstract. We’ve scaled the archipelago, digitalized it, with the landscape essentially being a monument to the Arctic’s past, set one hundred years in the future. There will be a sense of loss, but it’s not going to be a depressing “gloom and doom” experience, as it’s going to have a sense of beauty at the same time.

200%: That must have presented some challenges?
Matt Clark: Yes [laughs]. Before the public enters the exhibition space they are provided with a UV torch that doesn’t emit much visible light. As you enter the space you view a terrain of 3,000 individual monuments, pillars that vary in height, which represent the glaciers of Svalbard. The monuments are not white like the ice, but are grey to create a landscape of stone symbolising something to be remembered of the past and emphasizing a sense of loss.
When you point your torch on a monument the name of the glacier appears, printed in phosphor ink, for example, Telbreen, Portierbreen, Brombreen.

200%: UVA is renowned for its innovative and interactive installations. Is this exhibition also going to be interactive?
Matt Clark: Absolutely. Between the monuments there are several areas of ‘open spaces’ that contain smaller monuments in the middle. Ceiling-mounted projectors emit patterns of light onto these spaces. One of the projections is squares of light that represent floating ice. When you shine your torch on the light square they start to break into pieces and vanish. It’s as if your torch becomes the sun, which makes the ice melt. In another space is a projection of white lines. Here, when you shine your torch on the lines, they disappear and become black, creating the effect of a fast spreading oil spill on the water. With his torch the visitor can see the effects of global warming.

200%: Seems like an interesting device this UV torch. Where did you find it?
Matt Clark: We had to hunt high and low for these torches. These are used mainly for counterfeit purposes. A lot of security systems protect cash, vaults, with UV paint, which explodes when it’s being stolen. When a criminal takes the money he won’t see this paint as it’s fine powder. The police will use torches like this to prove that a thief has been exposed to that paint and stolen that particular money.

The museum wanted something high-tech, at the forefront of digital technology. We were keen to keep the technology low spec, as an act of symbolism of it being the only ‘gadget’ with which everyone can associate with a sea expedition like ours – everyone on the boat had a torch.

200%: Aside from Cape Farewell, were there other people with whom you collaborated on this project?
Matt Clark: Yes. As we wanted to create a sonic landscape we collaborated with Max Eastley and the poet and novelist Nick Drake. Max has been on several trips to the Arctic and has all sorts of interesting devices to record sounds below and above the ocean. Max has amassed a vast library of sounds that we are using for the installation, including glaciers carving, bearded seals, whales, various winds, birds, etc.

Nick was on our trip, during which time he was working on the poem ‘The Farewell Glacier’. He read it to the crew and it was such a profound and beautiful poem that embodied the same feelings that I had experienced. When we returned to London I invited Nick to the studio and asked him if he would be interested to work with poetry in an installation environment, for which he was happy to collaborate. He created an epic poem that is fragmented across this landscape.

200%: Is it also your intent to further enhance the public’s awareness on climate change?
Matt Clark: Yes, we have inserted around 60 speakers into our monuments to create voices within the archipelago, within the ice. The idea for that came from the local Inupiaq who believe that voices are trapped in the ice, their ancestors are trapped in the ice. These stories are told by a male and a female voice in a very neutral monotone manner, not biased or preachy at all.

200%: On what would you like the public to reflect following their visit to the exhibition?
Matt Clark: From the beginning the Maritime Museum didn’t want a traditional exhibition. They didn’t want a science lesson, but something immersive and something that appeals to a wider demographic. The idea is to create curiosity about these issues and present them in a non-biased and playful way, although the message is serious. We would like people to feel the excitement of entering the space, to go on their own expedition. We have created a multi-sensory experience that is as accessible to a four year old as it is to a 90 year old. That’s quite a difficult challenge. You don’t want to dumb down work but it still has to be engaging to a wide audience.

200%: The disappointing outcome of the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009 has led to a sense of apathy amongst the public regarding climate change. Does this in itself present challenges?
Matt Clark: Yes, I think so. The pitfall is to appear to be preaching, something of which we were acutely aware. This is not the aim of our exhibition. It’s actually a beautiful place in which to be; it’s about contemplation and experiences from this far away place, of which the climate issues are a part, but they are not the only part. I think as soon as you deliver information that has a prejudicial tone people switch off. Not everyone, of course, as some people are open to an understanding of climate change, whilst other people pretend it’s not happening. In my view, this is ignorant as there are many scientific facts* that climate change is occurring. Maybe it’s just human nature to make a change only when it’s too late. Hopefully, our exhibition will plant seeds and an emotional engagement through the atmospheric conditions that we created that will prompt people to make the next steps themselves.

200%: The public can make a contribution, but surely it’s governments who can make radical differences?
Matt Clark: Yes. Simon Boxall [a scientist of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton] who was also on our trip, is convinced that we need to contribute as individuals. Now, the scale of the issue, CO2 in the air, can only be addressed by governments producing clean energy initiatives. One of the Canadian states (Ontario), is implementing programmes to produce non CO2 emitting clean energy. Sadly, in times of austerity, investment in clean energy is not a priority for other governments.

200%: Did the Cape Farewell experience change your outlook on life?
Matt Clark: To be on a boat for three weeks with no opportunity to ‘opt-out’; to go to a place that is quite dangerous and to travel on the oceans,  something I had not done before, made me quite terrified. Questions such as, “will I be seasick, will I suffer from claustrophobia or acrophobia, will I get eaten by a polar bear”, all crossed my mind. Interestingly, when I discussed this with my fellow passengers most of them had the same fears, which makes you realize that you are just a human being and it’s quite natural to have these fears. The surprising thing is that none of those fears were justified. All of them were in my head.

My trip to the Arctic has given me increased confidence about myself and of interacting with diverse groups of people with whom I’ve previously had no connection. I also discovered, irrespective of vocation, whether artist or scientist, that we’re all searching for something but uncertain if ‘it’ will be there. Will the artist produce something worthwhile; will the scientist find the terrapod. We’re all searching for the unknown, which is part of the excitement!

*Sadly there are still people, including politicians, who consider global warming an "hoax”. 200% asked Simon Boxall, scientist of the National Oceanography Centre, University of Southampton, to provide 5 scientific facts that show climate change is happening. We will post the responses in a forthcoming post.

Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers with a contribution from Marie Drysdale.

‘High Arctic  – Future Visions of a Receding World’, Special Exhibitions Gallery, Sammy Ofer Wing (National Maritime Museum), 14 July 2011–13 January 2012