Björk on her inspirations : a drag queen, a videogame, a knitwear prodigy and more

The Guardian Guide, 2 septembre 2016

In this exclusive interview, as her exhibition Björk Digital opens in London, the pop pioneer reveals the artists making an impression on her

Björk is talking about the future in a way that only Björk can. Discussing technology and culture, she says that new times give us new tools but only we can decide what should be done with them. “Are we gonna be lazy or let them stimulate us to be expressive ? Are we going to create or destroy ? Doesn’t matter if it was fire, the knife, the gun, the atom bomb, tech, or whatever. These things don’t come with humanity or a soul. We have to put it there.”
Tears and technology : inside Björk’s virtual reality video for Stonemilker
Read more

This philosophy says much about Björk’s approach to music, always putting her emotions upfront. Throughout the 1990s she was increasingly drawn to electronica, wringing warmth from technology, challenging the notion from some quarters that machine music was cold. By 2001’s Vespertine she was doing everything on her laptop, and then with 2011’s nature-themed Biophilia she broadened the idea of what an album could be, releasing it as a multimedia app designed as a digital constellation. What at first seemed niche actually opened up the music : we could play with geological layers while exploring song compositions, and build drum machines from enzymes.

Nobody, of course, had done this before ; Björk tends to do things first. At one point I ask her about her collaborative processes, enthusing about the people she gives platforms to. “I don’t wanna blow my trumpet,” she says, “but just as much as I’ve invited guests and included other people’s things, I’ve also made things that didn’t exist yet.”
Now she’s being first again. Vulnicura, last year’s emotional wrench of a record that chronicled the bitter end of her a relationship , is on its way to having a pioneering accompaniment : a virtual-reality album experience. If Vulnicura was straight from the heart, in places almost unbearably so, its visual sister will take us even closer. In director Andrew Thomas Huang’s video for the song Stonemilker, you’re dropped on Iceland’s Grotta beach where she wrote it, so you can inhale the place as she moves around you in 360 degrees. In Huang’s Black Lake, meanwhile, you’ll find yourself in a cave, where Björk is spiritually rebornkneeling and repeatedly collapsing before beating her own chest and breaking free and levitating. And for the Jesse Kanda-directed Mouth Mantrayou’re shoved into Björk’s mouth, tripping around her tongue as she sings. Other artists talk about bringing us closer by letting us see their selfies ; Björk practically wants us to taste her saliva.

Björk Digital, an exhibition at London’s Somerset House, will be showcasing this work so far, among her back catalogue of music videos. She’s made seven VR videos now, and publicly exhibiting them for us people from the past who don’t have the necessary hardware at home is the way forward. “I really feel now those headsets are like a private theatre of anarchy. I have an enormous freedom, I can set up anywhere. And I’m noticing more and more that it is especially liberating for women since we don’t have to deal with the history of patriarchy or play any power games,” she says, comparing the process to the work of female video artists in the 1970s. “It is an open field, it’s wide open.”

She remains, she says, just as obsessed with acoustic concerns, and her upcoming London concerts, which will give us orchestral performances of Vulnicura, suggest a determination to balance out her current visual tech experimentation with an emphasis on the music. But still she moves forward, always wanting to bring us the future. She’s currently working on her next album, again with Vulnicura’s co-producer Arca, and now she’s made an exclusive list comprising the artists inspiring her at the moment. “I have a soft spot for visceral rawness and integrity,” she says of those who made the grade. “I like it when people are idiosyncratic and have their own world.” Sounds familiar.

You can bet that whatever Björk’s into right now will be big sooner or later, when the rest of us catch up. Yet even this collation, she stresses, is transitory. “When you sit down to write these lists it’s quite coincidental, what you remember. You could probably keep on writing lists all year and they would change every day.” We’ll try to keep up.

Musician : Serpentwithfeet

Unearthly gospel from NYC

“I was introduced to him by Leila Arab, my oldest friend and collaborator in England. We hung out a lot in Brooklyn and he took me to a gospel church, and stood in the audience with me. I was gonna be really cool and standoffish, being the agnostic person I am when it comes to religion, but in three minutes I was singing along with him to songs I’d never heard before at the top of my lungs. He’s so talented and so warm and flowing, there’s no stifled or stagnant energy in him. I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do in the future.”

Performance artists : Samantha Shay and Káryyn

The artist and composer’s Iceland-inspired art-opera Of Light is staged largely in darkness

“I saw the premiere of Of Light in Iceland about a month ago. They work a lot with vocals, which I like, blending together different vocal techniques from the east. When me and my mates were growing up as teenagers we wondered if there was even such a thing as Icelandic culture, Icelandic music, Icelandic art. It was a privilege to be from a generation that had to make it up a little bit. It’s been fun to see the next generation come, and people who have moved here, making music.”

Musician : Jeremih

Chicago’s R&B son
“When I DJ I always end up playing a few Jeremih songs. He has that purity and joy in his voice that Michael Jackson had when he was at his best. Out of all these R&B guys he’s my favourite, when I want a really pure, happy R&B song about celebrating life, I put Jeremih on.”

Actor : Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir

Radical stage star, who voices Marge on the Icelandic dubbing of The Simpsons
“She’s an Icelandic actress, my friend since I was 11, and we’ve always had good conversations about everything. She’s done a lot of lead roles on stage but she’s also been doing Punchdrunk sort of theatre, where she takes over abandoned buildings and has sets in every room and the audience walk between them. She bases it on what I like to call more feminine qualities like emotions or the psyche or symbolism, which inspires me.”

Director : Clio Barnard

Revolutionised the doc with 2010’s The Arbor, which mixed fact and fiction to tell the story of playwright Andrea Dunbar
“She has such a strong voice. She’s very stern, pure and stark. It was very brave what she did with the documentary format in The Arbor, questioning it and liberating the performers, giving them an interesting space to express themselves from. It blurred the lines between truth and non-truth. I’m excited about her next film, Dark River.”

Visual artist : Claire Hentschker

Her latest work is a surreal, scary VR map of Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining

“One of the things I like about working with technology that doesn’t have any baggage yet is that you can make it up a little bit. I like it when virtual reality feels punk and DIY. Claire’s piece Shining360 definitely has that feeling, it blew me away. She has a really fresh point of view on VR, which almost affects your brain like science fiction ; what is real and what isn’t becomes so blurry. It’s similar to Andrei Tarkovsky’s science fiction, which wasn’t about special effects or crazy space costumes, but about one reality that existed inside another reality inside another reality. What’s the dream and what’s not the dream ? A hundred years ago in cinemas people watched a train and ran out because they thought the train was gonna hit them. And people are having these experiences now with VR. It’s exciting to be part of VR and the people defining it.”

Musician : Klein

Obscurant Tumblr pop from London
A favourite of Mica Levi and Björk collaborator Arca, who Björk also reps for her “idiosyncratic, stubborn style”, and who sounds like Levi’s band, Micachu and The Shapes, deconstructing Kiss FM classics.

TV presenter : RuPaul

King of the queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race

“My assistant James Merry, who’s become my collaborator now, introduced me to it back in 2009 when we were in Costa Rica. I would watch it occasionally with him, then.ecently I was looking for something to watch with my daughter, and over the last few months we we watched all eight series. It’s uplifting how [RuPaul] builds up the queens, he gives them tough love and they blossom throughout the series. It’s really life-affirming. But on top of everything else it’s obviously hilarious. I know all the queens now by name ; we quote it left, right and centre.”

Musician : Rabit

Texan dance firebrand
“What I like most about him is he’s got his own character ; it’s 21st-century techno. A lot of things are the same, but when you hear his beats you know it’s him. It’s quite hard with something as abstract as beats to do that. He did some Vulnicura remixes for me. I just love his mood : it’s very severe and truthful somehow.”

Game designers : Robin Hunicke And Jenova Chen

Pioneering minds behind indie video games Journey and Flower

“I’m not really a gamer ; I’ve always found it hard to penetrate that world, to sit there with the gear. But before we did the Stonemilker video, my friends said, ‘Journey’ is a game you would actually like, it’s different to all the other ones.’ I tried it and loved it. I thought it was brave, it’s trying to map out a spiritual place. And it belongs in this medium, it’s not just murdering, killing and hell. I feel strongly about that. I’m up for murdering, killing and hell films and games and TV series being 50% of stuff, but now it seems about 95%, and I’ve had it. I’m not a purist that just wants rainbows everywhere ; I like dark stuff, and I believe that we have a lot of dark energy in us that we should deal with, I’m not a Pollyanna, but 50% is enough. The other 50% should be about constructive things, and the light. Another game Jenova and Robin did, Flower, you’re just floating above fields of flowers forever, and if you manage to touch enough flowers you create this synergy between them and you get a halo, almost like this enlightenment. It sounds hippy but it’s beautiful and profound. I talked to them and they were telling me how many people contacted them, that the games stopped people from committing suicide and got them through rough patches in their lives.”

Musician : Katie Gately

LA-based experimental electronicist

“She did a remix for Vulnicura about a year ago. She’s a really good engineer, she makes beats and sounds from a microphone point of view. She produces and makes all her own stuff. I heard her new album and it’s incredible.” Read Katie Gately’s Harangue The DJ interview.

Designer : Harry Evans

Central Saint Martins graduate and knitwear prodigy

“Yeah. I just thought I’d put some fashion in here. I guess I end up working with a lot of students. I’m not sure exactly why that is, maybe there’s something we give each other. He’s the latest one I’ve been excited about ; I’ve been wearing his sweaters. There’s an interesting slapstick between medieval costuming and a modern, comical angle. It just looks like fun to me. I like humour in fashion.”

Curator : Maholo Uchida

Tokyo-based producer of national and international exhibitions
“She’s been consistently supportive, she set up Biophilia in the Museum Of Technology [the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation] in Tokyo, and put up our VR exhibition. You should go to this museum, it’s pretty mental. It has a 20-year history of robots and all the latest ones are there.”

Poet : Crispin Best

Emerging London wordsmith championed by Faber
“A friend introduced me to him a week ago and I read one of his books. I wanted to throw something in here that I’d just discovered. How he plays with words, it’s immediate, he takes all the layers off so it’s just the core. I’ve only read that one book of his, but that’s allowed, right ?”

Musician : Sadaf

Iranian-born noise-maker

“She has a great energy and is attracted to chaos,” she says of the Brooklyn artist’s clash of pop and jungle. “She produces and writes all her music herself.”

Visual artist : Jordan Wolfson

Creator of anarchistic animatronics
“When I go to galleries, I find it hard that things are always cerebral. Maybe I’m a bit old-school but I like things that are emotional and visceral or primordial. Or maybe I’ve just been at so many music events where the main exchange or currency is feelings. [His recent robot sculpture] was so interesting to me. It was a physical thing that felt human, it had layers, it had sadness and death andhad a will to live, that fight going on, which I was hypnotised by, I could watch it forever.”

Musician : Jofriður Akadottir

Prolific Icelandic singer-songwriter
“I got obsessed with her band Samaris a few years ago,” says Björk, “and then it was amazing to see her do her own stuff. She’s surrounded herself with a really authentic community of friends. There are probably about 150 musicians in Reykjavik, and groups there sort of become the opposite of each other, like, ‘Oh, that singer’s dressed like that, I better dress the opposite.’ Such is the tight-knit scene in Iceland, she continues, that “you naturally develop individuality. Also, you’ll be in a classical band and an electronic band and a metal band, and that’s okay. Everything blurs into each other, which I’m sure you can hear in Icelandic music.”

Björk Digital is at Somerset House, WC2, until 23 October. She plays Royal Albert Hall on 21 September and Hammersmith Apollo on 24 September.

par Alex Godfrey publié dans The Guardian Guide