Björk’s multimedia symphony, Biophilia, an experimental mix of science, music, and education

Under the Microscope

By Michael Barthel

Nearly two years after the release of Icelandic pop icon Björk’s eighth album Biophilia, it’s still going strong; but not because a series of hit singles have extended its lifespan. Rather, it’s because of the Biophilia Educational Program, a curriculum and museum exhibition targeted at 8-15 year olds that uses the imagery and ideas from Björk’s album, as well as a suite of interactive iPad apps that form a multimedia album of their own, to teach kids about music and science. The exhibit opened this past weekend for the first time on the West Coast at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, and Björk has slated four performances in connection with the opening of the Biophilia experience in LA.

Though in the past Björk’s albums and projects have blended a wide spectrum of creative forms (most notably in her work with partner Matthew Barney on Drawing Restraint 9), this is the first intended to have an educational purpose. In trademark Björk style though, the Biophilia Educational Program eschews mushy didacticism a la The Wiggles (“Hey kids, let’s learn about the solar system with Björk!”) for a pointed and original argument about how the structure of music mirrors the natural world, from the structure of cells all the way up to the motion of planets.

If you’ve downloaded the Biophilia suite, you’ve seen this for yourself. The app for Solstice, for instance, lets you draw lines that correspond to harp strings and produce different notes based on their length, then has you set planets in orbit that play each note cyclically at different times depending on the speed of orbit. In concert and in the exhibition, this is augmented by a new instrument, built by Andy Cavatorta, which uses pendulums to play the harp. It makes gravity visible, and shows how the rhythms of the physical world affect the way we make music.

None of these elements are unprecedented, of course. Benjamin Britten’s Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra used music to teach about, well, music (specifically the structure and associated tonal colors of an orchestra’s various sections). And science has been an inspiration to visual artists from Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp to Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca, a “digestion machine.” But Björk’s combination feels new. In part, that’s because it’s interested not only in the individual scientific ideas at play in the songs, but in an idea about science itself: E.O. Wilson’s “biophilia hypothesis,” which posits an innate connection between humanity and other living things. That’s a hard idea to get across in a single album, but when coupled with these explicit scientific connections (the app for Virus shows cells becoming infected, for instance) it makes Björk’s ultimate point far more digestible.

It doesn’t read as high art; it just seems like a really cool museum exhibit. Is it educational, though? The city of Reykjavik certainly thinks so; they’ve decided to use the Biophilia Educational Program in all of the district’s middle schools for three years. But a Kickstarter campaign launched earlier this year to fund the conversion of the pricey iPad app for platforms more accessible to low-income school districts failed to reach its goal by a significant margin, and some have criticized the program for being more like the kind of thing we’d like to be educational than what actually helps kids learn.

In the end, though, that’s not really the point of the Biophilia Educational Program. No one’s suggesting Björk’s album could replace traditional scientific and musical education. Its existence doesn’t distract from actual knowledge acquisition about astrophysics. But it is a concrete example about the possibilities of art. The BEP website quotes a Buenos Aires student’s reaction to the exhibit: “You feel free, freedom because you can express yourself as you want.” That’s no small feat. Biophilia, in all its various forms, manages to break boundaries between science, technology, visual art, and music in an avant-garde way, while nevertheless expressing itself in a traditional educational form that’s accessible to kids. It doesn’t read as high art; it just seems like a really cool museum exhibit. For the project to work on that level while also succeeding as art is a remarkable achievement. It’s unclear if anyone’s going to learn much about plate tectonics from Biophilia, but it does make a powerful statement about the interconnectedness of the different channels through which we experience the world.

  • Text by

    • Michael Barthel

      Michael Barthel

      Michael has written about pop culture and politics for the Village Voice, Salon, the Awl, and elsewhere. He is currently a columnist for Bullett, and is getting his PhD in communication from the University of Washington.

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