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Inside Biophilia
DNA animation stills; courtesy of the artistCourtesy of Drew Berry

Inside Biophilia

Inside Biophilia

Art made out of DNA, crystal jumpsuits, magnetic liquid sculptures and MIDI-powered organs – introducing the brains behind Björk’s Biophilia

Taken from the August 2011 issue of Dazed in celebration of her retrospective MOMA exhibition. Read the rest of our Björk archive here

DREW BERRY: DNA ART FROM THE WORLD’S LEADING BIOMEDICAL ANIMATOR

Armed with two science degrees and training in the use of advanced microscopes, Drew Berry isn’t exactly your run-of-the-mill animator. The creator of the bio-inspired animations on Biophilia spends his days painstakingly poring over scientific papers before putting virtual pen to paper and recreating the vast worlds that exist within our bodies – microbes fighting infections, parasites replicating, proteins dividing… Dazed called him up to chat double helixes, digital creativity and Icelandic DNA.

You generally work from scientific papers and journals, but Biophilia is a little different. What was the brief from Björk?

Drew Berry: There was one song in particular that she sort of had marked for me, which was about her ancestry, her DNA and her thread of connection with her past. She had some ideas about how she wanted, like, beads on a string, or a long chain that links her with her ancestors, but when I heard the song I took my own interpretation of it.

Did you discover that there is anything unique about Icelandic DNA?

Drew Berry: Well, Björk did – she went to National Geographic and they did an analysis of her DNA and found all sorts of connections across Europe. But I didn’t really respond to that because I see a unity of all humans. In fact, of all living things on our planet – every living thing is all tied to DNA – so I skipped that and just wanted to look at a spiritual, ghost-like experience.

“Drew shows us that we don’t have to look far for the miracle of nature, it is right inside us” – Björk

Were you a fan of Björk before?

Drew Berry: Oh yeah. I mean, I had a crush on her when she was in The Sugarcubes! It goes back to being the age of 14, so this project is a total treat. And I’m just having a lot of fun. That’s the main goal for me – just to let loose and have fun and, as Björk described it, ‘go Jimi Hendrix on biomedical science’.

How has your field changed? Would it be much easier for kids to break into the field now?

Drew Berry: Yeah, it’s changed hugely – your typical standard Mac is basically capable of anything you want it to do. When I started out, the software was extraordinarily expensive… I mean, I had a $50,000 computer in the early days and $20-30,000 worth of software, and it still took me a year to complete a project!

Do you think this has changed the way science works?

Drew Berry: Scientists have always used art – I mean, Galileo used the telescope to look at the moon and then painted watercolours of what it looked like. It’s more that it’s so accessible to everybody now. What I’m doing is really nothing new – it’s just that the technology enables us to look down at what’s happening at a molecular scale. Computer graphics now are so sophisticated. It’s mind-boggling.

Björk: Drew is someone who has made scientifically correct animation of DNA… on this project, he has crossed the line beautifully into the artistic realm where he has animated gorgeous DNA but added some poetic licence... he truly has brought magic to our insides, and shows us that we don’t have to look far for the miracle of nature, it is right inside us!

Text: Chris Hatherill

ARON KOSCHO: CREATIVE SPARKS WITH THE TESLA COIL MASTER

There are some truly epic pictures of Tesla coil experiments online – mind-blowing images of purple electricity enveloping cars and striking humans in cages. But how do they work, and what exactly is their function? Aron Koscho, a pioneer in Tesla coil production and application, recently built a twin Tesla coil system for Björk’s Biophilia live show. “A Tesla coil is a special type of transformer that uses a resonant circuit to produce very high voltages. Think of it like shaking a flagpole in the schoolyard: you push and pull with the same amount of force but the longer you do it the more the pole moves from side to side.”

Having built his first coil when he was 12, Koscho has since started a business in building high-voltage equipment and pursued the industrial application of Tesla coils through his company, Applied Tesla Technology Inc. Proud to have made what he believes is the most reliable, and highest quality Tesla coil system available today, his ultimate dream is to build the largest Tesla coil in the world.

“The natural elements are the superheroes of Biophilia, and a Tesla coil allows you to invite one of them into your house” – Björk

The mystery and appeal of Tesla coils lies in the striking visual beauty of the ever-changing neon electric currents and radical arc shapes that form during experiments. One of the most common questions Koscho gets asked is whether the colour of the electrical currents can be manipulated. “It is possible to create some colour change near the base of the arc by the use of certain chemical compounds at the breakout point,” he says. “Other than that, it is governed by the gases in the atmosphere around the coil. Since air is primarily nitrogen, we get a purple colour to the arc. If the atmosphere were changed to say, neon, we would get a pink arc.”

The coil he built for Björk was a twin Tesla coil system that plays musical notes through its 1.5m-long electrical arcs. “The system is housed in a large aluminum cage and will be hung above the band. It’s a very cool effect.”

Björk: Early in the project, I came across Tesla coils. They seemed to be the core of Biophilia, especially the educational angle: if the natural elements impress a child with their power, then what better than lightning? I guess the natural elements are the superheroes of Biophilia, and a Tesla coil allows you to invite one of them into your house.

Text: Veronica So

MATTHEW HERBERT & DAVID PATERSON: TWO CUTTING-EDGE SOUND ARTISTS GO HEAD TO HEAD

Beat-making polemicist Matthew Herbert and Hollywood sound designer David Paterson are two sound obsessives drafted in by Björk to provide their particular craft to the Biophilia project. We got them together to talk about their different approaches. 

David Paterson: Björk described the sounds she wanted in a way that left it very open to interpretation. With the track ‘Mutual Core’, for example, she described how it was about magnetic attraction – which doesn’t really have a sound that springs to mind.

Matthew Herbert: I think she was looking for a lot of sub-bass; that hum of electricity and magnets and things that you see in movies. Magnetic attraction in real terms – what magnets really sound like when they come together – is actually quite a small noise. The weird thing with sound is we are still very unfamiliar with the basic language of it.

David Paterson: I listened to her lyrics and imagined them as little films – that’s how I would start. When you work on films what you are really looking for is what the emotionality of the moment calls for. One of the problems now is people expect a certain amount of drama. For example, if you’ve ever been in a fight and been punched or punched someone, you know that the sound it makes is not terribly impressive. But if you put a real punch into a film, people would be like, ‘What’s that?’ You are walking this line between what the audience expects and what things actually sound like.

“Auto-Tune is like an audio version of Photoshop. We are creating an artificial environment for ourselves that doesn’t reflect what is actually going on out there” – Matthew Herbert

Matthew Herbert: This is the big difference between the ways we both work. You make sounds the way people think they should sound. Whereas at times I feel like it is almost my social mission to try and keep the sounds I use as they actually are. For my next album, One Pig, I recorded a pig birth – the pig didn’t grunt or squeal during labour, but what you hear are some cows in the pen next door. I kept the sound in but if that was a movie it is very unlikely you would see a picture of a pig and hear cow moos! I think there is a real problem in the world where all our images are Photoshopped and tweaked. Auto-Tune is like an audio version of Photoshop. We are creating an artificial environment for ourselves that doesn’t reflect what is actually going on out there. From my perspective it is a return to those madly religious, pre-Enlightenment days, creating art that none of us can live up to.

David Paterson: I agree, we’re processing the soul out of our music entirely. That’s what I love about Björk‘s stuff – there is so much emotion in her voice that she strives to keep in. In both the music and film industries, the business has overtaken the art. She is in the blessed position of knowing that she can make art, and business will happen anyway.

Björk: I’ve known and worked with Matthew Herbert for 13 years now. He’s a real 21st-century renaissance man! David Paterson is an amazing sound effects guy who works for big-time movies. He not only provided incredible noises of planets in orbit, but even brought them in rhythm with each other.

Text: Tim Burrows

BJÖRGVIN TÓMASSON: CUSTOM-MADE PIPE-ORGANS FROM ICELAND’S MASTER CRAFTSMAN

Björgvin Tómasson has been building organs in Iceland for 25 years. Typically they are for use in church, not for international superstars to cart around the globe. And they definitely don’t usually have names like ‘Albert’. Here’s how Tómasson’s input on Biophilia came about.

How did you get involved with the project?

Björgvin Tómasson: Björk’s younger sister worked for me as a carpenter in the late 90s, so we met through her. Last summer she phoned me from London and asked me if I knew of any organs in Iceland which would be able to connect to MIDI. I knew of no such instrument. The next week, Björk came to visit my workshop at Stokkseyri, and our meeting ended with her ordering a customised instrument. That is where ‘Albert’ began.

“This instrument can play music beyond the complexity of most other organs. It may be small, but many hours were spent on its construction” – Björgvin Tómasson

And you also invented a completely new instrument?

Björgvin Tómasson: We turned an old celeste into a celeste-gamelan hybrid or ‘gamelest’, as Björk would refer to it. I collaborated with the talented cymbal maker Matt Nolan from Bath, England to make it. Björk had asked him to create new bars for the instrument, which would resemble the sound of the traditional gamelan.  I connected solenoids to each note for it to work with MIDI and also built a hammer for it.

How did building this organ compare to usual projects?

Björgvin Tómasson: Every organ is designed with a location in mind: usually you have the architectural structure of the church to consider. With this one, there were different elements to think about. For example, it should be easy to transport, but not lose its sound quality or the beauty of the craft. This organ only has 168 pipes, while the biggest organ I have built has 1,500. But this instrument can play music beyond the complexity of most other organs. The instrument may be small, but many hours were spent on its construction.

Björk: Björgvin is the only organ maker in Iceland and has already made organs in about 40 churches. When I met him and explained that I needed a pipe organ with MIDI, he was incredibly enthusiastic. He is a true craftsman.

Text: Tim Burrows

SACHIKO KODAMA: MIND-BLOWING SCULPTURES MADE FROM MAGNETIC LIQUID

Permeated by nanoscale particles of iron, ferrofluid is a unique material that looks like a shiny metal but moves like liquid. Forming sleek shapes and patterns when exposed to magnetism, it bristles outwards when placed next to a normal magnet, revealing the struggle between magnetic forces and surface tension. With an electromagnet, the effect is even more magical: the fluid rises up out of a puddle like some living creature, crawling up the flux lines along the metal’s edge, rippling and reforming like some alien being. 

“This fluid was placed in parts of the installation to express the desire and passion for life. Unlike machines, this installation reminds us of the energy pulsating in our own body” – Sachiko Kodama

Harnessing the beautiful potential that lurks within this dark, lustrous medium, Japanese artist Sachiko Kodama began exploring the possibilities with ‘Protrude, Flow 2001’ – a piece which reacts to gallery visitors’ voices to form infinitely complex and ever-changing, three-dimensional organic patterns. “I created dynamic movements and organic shapes using black lustrous magnetic fluid,” she wrote. “This fluid was placed in parts of the installation to express the desire and passion for life. Unlike machines, this installation reminds us of the energy pulsating in our own body.”

Kodama remains inspired by a love of nature instilled during her childhood in Shizuoka, in southern Japan. Drawing on everything from tornadoes to sea urchins, her ferromagnetic forms blend hard-edged technical perfection with natural forms. As she said on the occasion of the Device_art triennial in Zagreb, “the Japanese concept of ‘mitate’, relating to mimicking natural phenomena, is a useful method in trying to understand the occurrence of natural shapes” in her work.

Text: Chris Hatherill

STEPHEN MALINOWSKI: LSD AND THE ART OF MUSICAL NOTATION

Californian composer and inventor Stephen Malinowski was charged with the task of generating interactive animated notation for Biophilia, helping to develop an iPad app in the process. It is the latest step in a career-long obsession with changing the way we can visualise music, which all started on a mindbending evening in 1974. He took Dazed back to his drug-induced eureka moment… 

“I had taken LSD and put on Henryk Szeryng’s recording of Bach’s unaccompanied sonatas and partitas for violin. I got out the score to follow along. The result was that the notation seemed animated, as if it were dancing along with itself. The graceful shapes of the notes and the gestures of the music became a single thing. The progression from note to note seemed like footsteps.

“The next thing I remember is the chaconne from the D Minor Sonata. This movement starts slowly, but as it proceeds through the variations, the notes go faster and faster. The note that was currently being played appeared to be a single note head moving only vertically – not horizontally. It reminded me of watching a fishing bob riding up and down on the surface of an ocean of surrounding notes. 

“I had the idea of making a new kind of score that would be easier to follow while under the influence of LSD…” – Stephen Malinowski

“Then the pattern of notes started jumping wildly. I was amazed to find that my eyes were still able to track the motion. At that point, I put down the score, stopped the recording, took off the headphones, and said to a friend who was with me, ‘I’m afraid that what I’m doing may be damaging my eyes.’ He said he thought that was unlikely, so I went back to listening and watching. 

“Score-following requires you to not only direct your attention to the correct horizontal position, but to switch from instrument to instrument continuously and quickly, and integrate information from many disparate locations. Soon after, I had the idea of making a new kind of score that would be easier to follow while under the influence of LSD…”

Björk: I ran into Stephen’s animations on YouTube early on in the project. They were so inspiring and seemed to fit seamlessly into the project, so we asked him to collaborate. I had started working on my music book and was trying to bridge the gap between notation and MIDI. I feel Stephen’s work does so in a very elegant way, with a dash of poetic licence.

Text: Tim Burrows

ANDY CAVATORTA: PURVEYOR OF ROBOTIC MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS TO THE STARS

Andy Cavatorta was peacefully designing robotic musical instruments one day when Björk and Michel Gondry turned up at the MIT Media Lab, looking for ideas for Biophilia. After demoing his 31-note, electromagnetic harp (“It’s a bit hard to describe”), he found himself part of the team, and was assigned the task of creating four gravity-driven pendulum harps which will be played by Björk in her upcoming Manchester residency. Dazed found him hard at work with his team of mechanical engineers in a Brooklyn warehouse. 

What would your ultimate instrument be, no budget and no limit?

Andy Cavatorta: Oh no, that is a nightmare. Have you seen The Five Obstructions by Lars von Trier? The third obstruction he gives is ‘no limitations’. That’s the hardest of all. I’ve done a lot of thinking about music and robotics over the years, and I realised I’m really not that interested in robots, I’m interested in instruments. Because I don’t care what a robot feels, they don’t have anything to express. But finding new ways for humans to create expression is such fertile territory. I think it’s an idea that is very much of the moment. I see a lot of people working on this right now. The trouble is, I see very few people pushing really hard to make emotionally expressive instruments. Because it is very hard, as I have discovered.

“It's been a challenging journey to build a pendulum that plucks strings and is run by a gravity algorithm in an iPad, but we got there!” – Björk

Do you think people exploring more intuitive ways of making music, using game controllers and all the rest, will become more popular?

Andy Cavatorta: Oh yeah, most definitely. I think we are going to see two levels of that happening. One of them is we are going to see a huge proliferation of controllers that aren’t particularly expressive but are really fun and people love to use. And I think that a small subset of those are going to turn into highly expressive controllers that really allow people to play expressive music. Because the trouble with using a set of buttons is that it is very reductive – compare that to playing a violin. I’m hoping this might be one of these periods in time when a whole bunch of new musical ideas emerge that will become standard, new instruments – horns were basically just huge bugles for a long time, and then all of a sudden there was a process of mutation, in which they started having valves and slides. Hopefully we are in the midst, or on the first edges of one of those periods now.

Björk: I went to the MIT lab in January 2009 and again a year later. Andy was the one that seemed the most into combining cutting-edge technology with acoustic instruments. It has been a challenging journey to build a pendulum that plucks strings and is run by a gravity algorithm in an iPad, but we got there!

Text: Rod Stanley

MAX WEISEL: TEENAGE COMPUTER PRODIGY GOES TO THE MOON

In March 2010, while recording Biophilia in Puerto Rico, Björk’s friend, the Icelandic actress Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir, came to stay. One night, she told Björk a theory – that the moon’s gravitational pull moves spinal fluid, just as it creates the tides in the earth’s ocean. Although not scientifically proven (yet!), the poetic aspect struck a resonance with Björk and the idea became incorporated into the “Moon” app. Max Weisel and Björk’s assistant James Merry are co-creative directors with the singer on this app – here, the two sit down on Skype to discuss its development.

James Merry: It’s exactly one year ago that we first approached you to become involved with Biophilia, after Björk fell in love with your Soundrop app. I heard you thought it was a joke at first?

Max Weisel: Ha ha, I did. Björk’s manager initially just posted a comment on my blog. I thought it was fake so I called up the record label. When I realised it was real, I was ecstatic! I had just graduated high school and was fascinated with computer music and visualisation, so this seemed like the perfect project for me.

James Merry: Then, hundreds of emails, later we finally met for the first ‘app team’ meeting in Reykjavik. What are your memories of that?

Max Weisel: Well, it was actually my first time outside of North America. I was in awe of the people I was working with. Scott Snibbe and Theodore Gray had built software I used on a daily basis… and Björk is a huge musical influence. I was standing on the shoulders of giants.

“I feel everything’s much more attainable after seeing the things this project has created” – Max Weisel

James Merry: How has the process of collaboration with Björk been?

Max Weisel: Amazing. She has this ability to inject a concept into my head. With most people I’ve worked with, they don’t know what they want – or they are unable to show me. But working with Björk has been a completely different experience. This ability to make something so huge happen… I feel everything’s much more attainable after seeing the things this project has created.

James Merry: And after this project, what will your next step be? More apps?

Max Weisel: Deep down I’m still holding on to my childhood dream of becoming a rock star. Some day I hope I can merge both my lives and use my programming abilities to inform my music. I’d like to give Apple a run for their money and reinvent the user experience, but that’s a long way off.

James Merry: So, the next time someone leaves a comment on your blog asking to collaborate, you’d like it to be Steve Jobs?

Max Weisel: Not at all. I want to start my own company from scratch. Steve built his legacy… it’s his. I want my own!

Björk: Max is an 18-year-old programming genius. When I saw his Soundrop app, I felt it was the only app where you could really make your own musical structures. I have seen many children play with the gravity-run Soundrop and create natural rhythms out of something that would probably be impossible to play on a ‘normal’ instrument.

Text: Rod Stanley

STEFANO PILATI: KEEPING IT CRYSTAL WITH THE FASHION VISIONARY

Stefano Pilati is Yves Saint Laurent; it’s hard to separate the two. From taking the helm as creative director in 2004, the Italian designer seamlessly slipped into YSL mode with his effortlessly sleek, tailored approach to feminine-meets-masculine dressing. So it seems unfitting that such a designer should be linked to Björk, the indefinable and eclectic Icelandic singer: the pop star who wore a swan to the Oscars. But as the 46-year-old puts the finishing touches to Björk’s stage outfit for her Biophilia stage series, he talks to Dazed about his relationship with the singer, and it turns out the two have more in common than we first thought.

How did the collaboration with Björk come about?

Stefano Pilati: It happened naturally. I have long admired her work so the idea to collaborate proceeded organically. It was about the exchange and execution of ideas and inspirations. We worked on several proposals for jumpsuits – she wanted this silhouette specifically, a kind of uniform – so I sent various ideas, and in the end she focused on a shape from SS09. Based on this pattern, we did research into fabric, colour and embroidery possibilities, taking into account the vision Björk had for the look, which was something very much related to Biophilia, an aesthetic formed around planetary systems, crystal formations, the expansiveness of the universe. It was all done via email and telephone and a series of fittings in New York.

What motivated you and a house like YSL to collaborate with Björk?

Stefano Pilati: The result is at once symbolic of an idea of Saint Laurent – with the iconography of the jumpsuit – and Björk’s solar system of ideas for Biophilia. Björk’s bold freedom of expression, the interdisciplinary exploration in her creative enterprise, the otherworldliness of her artistic gestures – these aspects fuel a creative collaboration such as this, and give it a uniqueness that extends beyond the boundaries of fashion, music and performance.

“I dig into my brain and my dreams; I try to be as imaginative as I can” – Stefano Pilati

Do you ever take inspiration from music?

Stefano Pilati: Music can certainly inspire, but what is most evident is that it sets a mood, it gives an attitude to the air and it can eventually provide a context, an envelope, for fashion.

Do ideas of science and nature ever inform your work?

Stefano Pilati: The research I do for the collections is as much about fabric and silhouette and colour as it is about construction and the ‘making’ of the garment or accessory. There is a mathematics and science to the artistry of fashion that is essential to its success and impact, and it is what separates true luxury from the high street and fast fashion.

Where do you go to get inspired?

Stefano Pilati: I dig into my brain and my dreams; I try to be as imaginative as I can to find vehicles through which to express my fashion.

Björk: I met Stefano through a mutual friend. She was wearing an irresistable jumpsuit, and when I contacted him to try to make one out of real raw crystals, he was not only up for the challenge but spent weeks researching that natural element with fierce enthusiasm! My new crystal jumpsuit feels like it has gone through millions of years of development in a hidden cave somewhere.

Text: Kate Hazell

ROGER HIORNS: FROM COUNCIL FLAT TO CRYSTAL CAVERN

When artist Roger Hiorns filled a south London council flat with 75,000 litres of copper sulphate in 2008 for the work “Seizure”, he transformed it into an eerily beautiful, blue crystal-encrusted cave. Hiorns’ project became a key reference for Björk’s Biophilia and also won the artist a Turner Prize nomination. 

Did you know that ‘Seizure’ was an inspiration for Björk’s new album?

Roger Hiorns: No, this is the first I’ve heard of it! It’s always nice to get reflections on something you have done, but some reflections are better than others. It’s really lovely that Björk responded to my work in this way.

“I take great consolation in the fact that the beauty in the world is created by all of us, rather than trapped in a deity” – Roger Hiorns

Why did you fill a council flat with copper sulphate?

Roger Hiorns: It was about social death, in a way, and the failing of social and rationalist ideologies. I also wanted to explore the key ideas behind transcendence. I’m not going down a spiritualist route – I think the origins of transcendence came from a kind of Zarathustran tradition of leaving the body out so the birds could come and pick it. That was how the body became part of the environment and the sky. It was rooted in a very physical reality, which perhaps denies a sense of spirituality.

It explores transcendence?

Roger Hiorns: It’s a place where the unattainable can be glimpsed. It’s a desire that takes us away from the present, into a place of greater understanding and a place of attunement. What I’m trying to understand is secular transcendence. I take great consolation in the fact that the beauty in the world is created by all of us, rather than trapped in a deity.

Björk: I saw the London flat that Roger crystallised with copper sulphate – it was incredible!

Text: Karen Orton

 

SCOTT SNIBBE: GOING (LITERALLY) VIRAL WITH AN INTERACTIVE ART GENIUS

Steering the Biophilia project is Scott Snibbe, a digital pioneer whose artwork seeks to conjoin computing and interactivity. “I’ve always been obsessed with making the computer an extension of the human mind, making it interactive using movement, animation and sound,” he explains over a crystal-clear Skype connection. 

As well as working on the design of the mother app itself, and “Virus”, Snibbe and his team also developed a third piece called “Thunderbolt”. Drawing on the worlds of gaming, fine art and motion technologies, the universe of apps explodes the metaphor of the computer interface as an interactive cinema screen. “When you’re making computer software, there’s no limit in terms of physicality,” he says. “You’re basically working in a field of light with input and output, and the only restriction is your imagination.” 

“We will try to make people feel like they are inside the iPad, playing and listening to the apps” – Björk

With a list of collaborators including alumni from Adobe, Electronic Arts and leading figures from biomedical animation, the goal has been to challenge assumptions about the segregation of art from science. “One way to define Biophilia is a love of nature,” explains Snibbe. “More accurately, I think it’s about the infinity of nature in all its scales, and how music relates to that. People forget that maths is a way of modelling nature, and they overlook the beauty and joy of that.” 

Drawing inspiration from Yoko OnoSol LeWittJean Arp and John Zorn, the project has a high-art feel with a democracy of access. “We wanted the suite to have an intimate feeling even though the subject matter is so wide in its vision. What I always try and communicate is the feeling of what it’s like to be an artist – that pure, free-flowing creativity. It’s exactly the sensation you get when you tap into Björk’s world, so the whole project has a beautiful gravity at its core.”

Björk: One of the first apps I bought was ‘Bubble Harp’ by Scott Snibbe – it was very inspiring to see him include both the complex and the simple capabilities of the touch screen. He shared my vision of merging the music and apps, made two of the apps, became the project manager and will oversee the visuals live, where we will try to make people feel like they are inside the iPad, playing and listening to the apps.

Text: Stephen Whelan

Read the rest of our Björk archive here