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At her MoMA retrospective, first comes tech, then comes Bjork

At her MoMA retrospective, first comes tech, then comes Bjork
Devindra Hardawar
Devindra Hardawar|@devindra|March 17, 2015 10:00 AM

There are two major takeaways from Bjork's much-anticipated retrospective at NYC's Museum of Modern Art: One, the vast majority of the exhibit feels more like a celebrity amusement park ride; and two, there's the occasional glimmer of ambition around the exhibit's use of technology. I suppose it's tough to contain an avant-garde pop creature like Bjork within the confines of a museum, even one that's already honored her in the past (a digital version of her last album, Biophilia, was the first app added to MoMA's permanent collection). But for someone who's embraced the exploration of technology in her music, it makes sense that the gadgetry used to enliven Bjork's exhibit ends up being the highlight of the actual exhibit.

Gallery: Bjork retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art | 5 Photos


Take Songlines for example, one of the retrospective's centerpieces. It looks like a humdrum, audio-guided walking tour when you're first handed a pair of headphones and a case-equipped iPod touch. But, this being a Bjork joint, there's also a touch of "magic" to it. As you step into the exhibit, a soundtrack featuring her greatest hits begins playing with a poem written by the Icelandic poet Sjon, a frequent Bjork collaborator. "Once upon a time there was a girl," it begins, like any good fairy tale. "Who sang and danced on the platform of a flatbed truck." And lo, there's her breakout video for "Big Time Sensuality" projected several stories tall on one wall in front of you.

As you progress farther through the exhibit, it quickly becomes apparent that the combination of words and music you're listening to isn't just an accident. You're actually being tracked by software that's interacting with beacons placed throughout the exhibit. It's as if someone's reading you a story and you're turning the page every time you walk past each new tribute to Bjork's career.

Bjork's 'Big Time Sensuality' video goes big at MoMA

Location-based audio cues aren't anything new for museums, but Songlines goes a step further by changing how everything sounds in relation to where you are within the exhibit. If you move closer to one of Bjork's fantastical outfits, for example, things will get a bit louder. That's all due to the RondoMotion, a tiny Bluetooth motion sensor from startup Dysonics, which is attached to the headphones. It places you in a 360-degree soundscape (think: VR, but for audio) that adds another level of immersion to the journey through the exhibit.

Dysonics' technology is intriguing; a company trying to change the way we hear music in a fundamental way definitely has my interest. Unfortunately, much of Dysonics' nuance is lost in the Bjork exhibit, where you don't have much time to ponder a single piece before you're forced ever forward by the crowd. And it doesn't help that the exhibit space is basically a series of narrow corridors, where everyone's stumbling around with giant headphones while completely unaware of their surroundings.

When everything clicks, though, Songlines sometimes feels like you're stepping into Bjork's memories. It's chock-full of costumes and props from her career -- there's the infamous swan dress and the robot models used for the "All is Love" video -- and the technology powering the exhibit adds a dreamlike quality to the whole affair. But at the same time, I wished the exhibit went a bit further to capture the wonder and chaos of Bjork. The Songlines experience simply feels more stifling than it should. How cool would it be to have a fully interactive audio experience across several floors? At the very least, I'd love to see a Bjork museum experience with as much imagination as Michel Gondry's music videos for "Bachelorette" and "Human Behaviour."

The devices used for the 'Songlines' portion of the exhibit

But there was at least one portion of the retrospective that felt distinctly Bjork: her epic music video "Black Lake," which is played in a custom-built room (designed by the NYC architecture firm The Living) consisting of 44 loudspeakers, two giant panoramic screens (they're significantly wider than traditional theater screens) and 6,000 computer-designed and hand-stitched felt cones. None of that is apparent when you first step into the room, though. Instead, you're walking into absolute darkness.

Imagine stepping inside a dormant Icelandic volcano, with black rock all around you, and you've got an idea of what the "Black Lake" room is like. Once the Andrew Thomas Huang-directed video starts, you're surrounded by those two enormous screens at either end of the room. It's an almost VR-like experience, since the ultra-wide screens envelope your entire field of vision (not surprisingly, Bjork's also working on an Oculus VR experience for her next video.)

Seeing "Black Lake" in this setting -- in a room where you can feel all the time and effort that went into building it -- is worth fighting through the crowds, lines and less interesting parts of the retrospective. It's an experience you can't have anywhere else, and it's also the one area where you can feel Bjork's touch the most. It's just a shame that the rest of the show couldn't reach the same heights.

[Photo credit: Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images (Black Lake theater)]
At her MoMA retrospective, first comes tech, then comes Bjork