Sunday, 23 October 2016

Technological Intimacy

I've always liked Bjork, in the way that I love all women who push boundaries and refuse to conform. Somehow she has managed to stay absolutely herself, while simultaneously taking on different personas and reinventing herself over the years. From the early Sugarcubes days, to the egg-laying swan, through psychedelic, experimental music and to the imagining of new musical possibilities through technology.  As a post humanist I am interested in the links between art and tech, experimental practice, and new relationships between artists and the environment.  As a result #BjorkDigital, now showing at Somerset House, was a must-see for me.

This exhibition was an opportunity to engage with Bjork's latest work through the medium of virtual reality (VR). It takes tracks from her latest album, Vulnicura and immerses you in them; passing through the rooms in small groups, you are able to experience four different songs engaging with them on increasingly interactive levels.

The first piece is Black Lake, written about the singer's recent split from her partner, artist Matthew Barney.  It is shown on two large screens, which wrap the images of the Icelandic landscape around you, sound emerging from fifty speakers in the floor and walls.

As heartbreak songs go, this is perhaps the most personal and painful exploration I've ever witnessed. Moving through caves, volcanoes and moss-fields to a process of rebirth, Bjork emits an agony that is visceral, and reflected in the punishing landscape around her.  The physicality of heartbreak, although felt, is rarely explored or demonstrated in this way; this was a raw primal scream of anguish.  The glimpses of joy at the end, against the backdrop of green mountains and endless skies left a sense of hope and possibility.  It isn't always possible to go to a cave in Iceland when your heart breaks, but this made me kind of wish it was.

Next was Stonemilker, and this was our first opportunity to try the VR headsets, while perched
together on swivel stools.  The comedy potential of 25 people spinning silently alongside each other in a room gave me a slight sense of the ridiculous, but this was soon blown away by the intimacy of the experience.  Bjork appears next to you on a stunning Icelandic beach; you can follow her and explore the scene through a range of angles, spinning 360-degrees.  You get the sense that she is singing both for you and to you; it's a track that implores you to share emotion and be present.  I was glad to be able to blame the goggles for my watery eyes at the end, although I'm sure I wasn't the only one moved by it.

The final two tracks were even more immersive and intimate. Mouth Mantra, filmed inside Bjork's mouth, gives a whole new perspective on the human body; uncomfortable and graphic at times, but oddly compelling.  The psychedelic nature of this one (combined with a slight entanglement with the curtains) meant that this was the one occasion where I did feel a bit queasy.   In Notget, Bjork appears as a giant moth priestess; you are able to move around for this, attached by your headset and headphones to the ceiling.  As the music unfolds, the image moves around you, so that by the end you find yourself enclosed within her body. It was interesting to find that the friends I was with fully embraced this idea and dived in, while I could feel myself backing away, completely overwhelmed by the proximity and physicality of it.

This exhibition surprised me in many ways.  I'd anticipated being impressed by the technology but not moved by it. Yet the intimacy of the methods and potential for self definition and exploration, along with Bjork's capacity for vulnerability, stood out in a world that makes us hide ourselves and our emotions.   It is often said that we are mediated by technology, to the extent that we are not human any more.  Post human thinking, however, encourages us to '...unfold the self onto the world, while enfolding the world within...starting from environmental or eco-others and including technological apparatus.' (Braidotti, 2013).  #BjorkDigital has convinced me that embracing tech as an extension of the self, as a way to redefine our world and relationships, may actually enable us to be more human than ever before.

#BjorkDigital finishes today

Braidotti, R. (2013). The Posthuman. Polity Press.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Water boatmen

They say
that DNA
imprints on water
So when we swim
a million particles 
stream out behind,
like double-helix
microscopic sea horses
And we can never truly say
That we are not the water,
Or that the water is not us.

Yet we wander the world
Like water boatmen.
Skimming glassy surfaces
Testing the tension
Of the violin-bow meniscus
Where desire to live and feel
Can be heard as a low thrum between us
If we listen hard enough.

We want to walk on water
Skate over the warm reflections
Traverse the smooth shores
And ride the waves, when they come

Yet imprint we must
On life as in water
Seek possibilities knowing
We'll leave some part of ourselves behind
Or that we'll crack, and let the water in
Break the tension, break the spell
Change and merge
The plunge will come.
But if not now, then when?