So this piece was actually written all the way back in February, when Björk announced the release of her current album, Vulnicura. I was asked by the HI arts and humanities website Sirkustjaldið to write some pieces of my own choosing about cultural points that interested. Alas Sirkustjaldið hasn’t quite worked out in the way I hoped it would. As well as translation issues (I know for a fact that the likes of Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant than the Sun with its lyrical tech-syntax will almost certainly NEVER be translated into Icelandic), but also other issues, like restrictive word counts (for a website magazine!) in some blind adherence to optimization metrics did grate a little. And even though this piece has been translated and edited for weeks, it still hasn’t been uploaded! not a good sign. Oh well.
Anyway, what really intrigued me about Vulnicura wasn’t the album themes of heartbreak, etc, more the digitally created artwork, her thematic clothing, and the fact that internet v3.0 producer Arca was co-producing with her. What’s interesting is how Björk has become fully immersed within the realms of the current internet aesthetic groups, labels and ideas. In the last decade, with the rise of dubstep, grime, and it’s offshoots, she seemed to be out of step with what was happening on the groud when it came to electronic and bass music. But now she is clearly in her element. And as the piece below states, one reason is that many of the influences of the new Hi-Tech indie aesthetic (to coin Adam Harper’s phrase) are ’90s electronic aesthetics and ’90s digiculture, something in which Björk was very much at the vanguard during that period. It interesting that Matt Barnes aka Forest Swords referred to her recently as their “Godmother” – The peeps at Tri-Angle Records and other places clearly look up to her as a guiding light/inspiration.
And it’s not as if she’s being a Madonna-like cultural vampire, draining their vitality in an effort to stay relevant. Her meshing of vocal samples and contemporary electronic tunes for a mix she did for Tri-Angle’s 5th Birthday Bash (in the basement of an old investment bank and sponsored by RBMA, but hey you can’t have everything!), is really, really good! She in her way is adding to the scene, not blindly subtracting.
For anyone who has an interest in trans-or-posthumanism, queer theory, or digitculture in general, then this is nothing new. It’s merely an overview of where the ground lies, and once lied. In any case, enjoy…
Long Live the Virtual Flesh
On the imagery of Björk’s Vulnicura and ‘90s Digiculture Revisited
By Bob Cluness
With the release of Björk’s new album, Vulnicura along with the video trailer to her accompanying video installation show at MoMA, both the album art and the trailer portray her as a bio-engineered form, as something or someone who is at once all too human, yet beyond the realms of anthropocentric embodiment and experience.
The image of Björk on the album cover shows her as a sensual and tactile cyborg, a mix of liquid flesh and nature-inspired wearable tech. Wrapped in a black latex catsuit, her legs look like cylindrical carbon fibre tubing while her chest contains a fleshy slit-as-vagina, an anti-cremaster designed for direct access to her heart/emotional nodes. She also wears a shawl with protruding shards extending out in all directions, providing a design that’s a mix of the spiritual (Benjamin’s “aura” reworked as Wi-Fi field), natural (the “dandelion seed” model), and technological (The shards as bioelectric sensors/mapping arrays).
Meanwhile the short trailer for her MoMA exhibition has her rising out from a dark abyss, as she lies in a moss covered rocky hole. Meshed with foliage, the camera zooms in to see a luminescent blue liquid ooze from her heart down a crevasse in her torso and out between her legs into the depths below.
Such imagery is a continuation of what has been a long running aesthetic of Björk for nearly 20 years now – The warping and transgressing of physical boundaries between human, nature, and the machine. The video to “Mutual Core” from Biophilia for example has rock layers and lava reimagined as organic blood and flesh, while the video to “Hyperballad,” portrays Björk’s physical body in stasis, while her mind explores a grainy, virtual TV world.
The music and the imagery surrounding Vulnicura is the most distinct meshing of flesh, nature and technology since her 1997 album, Homogenic. If terms of the music alone, both albums share an affinity in the use of strings and heavy almost suffocating electronic beats and processing, the sonic equivalent of what the lyrics in “Jóga” describe as “emotional landscapes.”
Old Worlds, New Pathways
But it is the videos accompanying the album that show a real equivalence between then and now. When Homogenic was released 1997, it was at a time of a long gestating confluence of social and cultural change based around technology, identity and conscious reality. The increasing speed of new technology, mobile communications and the internet, and the rise of globalised economies based on information flows meant the world was changing, accelerating; old notions of time, space and identity were suddenly becoming less fixed.
People began to think about where such potentialities of humanity and technology could take us. Technofuturist thinkers such as Ray Kurzweil, Eric Drexler and Hans Moravec espoused ideas on artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and robotics leading to philosophies of transhumanism, where humans would be augmented by technology to the point where the boundaries between what is human and what is machine would eventually disappear.
Meanwhile the work of queer theorists such as Judith Butler, and Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality from a black female perspective raised questions of identity that rejected the binary definitions of gender and sexuality. Identity was seen not so much as a fixed determinism, but more like a traffic junction; a multi-directional multi-causal flow of processes that meet and clash together. This led to seminal papers/books such as Donna Harraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, which espoused the idea of the feminist cyborg, a being that could cut through the binary paradigms of patriarchy, as well as ideas of feminism through affinity with mother-nature. The feminist cyborg, Harraway believed, could create new languages of embodiment and identity, breaking down the boundaries between human, nature and machine, and between the physical and nonphysical.
The idea of the body and technology in flux also found their way into popular culture. The music and culture of rave, hardcore and jungle ushered in a delirious sense of speed and light, a chemical infused cyber-derangement of the senses. Meanwhile, the cyberpunk novels of William Gibson, the Matrix film franchises, David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, and anime features such as Ghost in the Shell paraded ideas about reality, identity and gender in a fluid, posthuman age, where the flesh was a form of digital hybridism.
The Erotic Life Of Machines
Against this backdrop of transhumanism and virtual space, Björk and her video collaborators produced video narratives for Homogenic that tapped into this zeitgeist, asking questions about the potentials of our bodies in such a world. Take the video to “Jóga,” the first single from Homogenic, directed by Michel Gondry. We see numerous swooping shots of the Icelandic terrain before Gondry uses computer animation to tear apart and rearrange large chunks of landscape like an architect, before finally showing a digitised representation of Björk on a cliff top as she opens her chest to reveal an island in a digital ocean. As a video, “Jóga,” shows our material reality rendered into a computerised model that foretells of digitally rendered worlds becoming commonplace, from MMORPGs such as Eve Online and World of Warcraft, to terrain building games such as Minecraft.
Then there is the video to “Hunter,” directed by Paul White. The unfeasibly bright white background at the start has Björk literally blending into the background before eventually materialising for the camera shown as bald and asexual. As Björk moves, her entire image blurs, making it difficult to define the physical edges of her body. As the video progresses, she transforms into a computer generated model of a bear. But the transitions are not stable, often appearing as virtual elements protruding from her skin. Like “Jóga,” the video to “Hunter” considers the liquid, porous boundaries that exist between the physical and virtual, with Björk as a phantasm of flesh and digital imagery.
But if “Jóga” and “Hunter” were discursive hints at the possibilities of human/virtual/machine boundaries, then the video for “All Is Full Of Love,” directed by Chris Cunningham, represents a narrative representation of the cyborg that still resonates today. In the video we see Björk as a mechanized human, not born, but built by other robots. As she is being constructed, Björk looks on impassively before being joined by replica model of herself, whereupon they embrace, touch and kiss each other passionately.
In his essay on the video, The Erotic Life Of Machines, Steven Shaviro states that the video opens up the possibilities of what sort of posthumanity we could become. Cunningham does away with the standard sci-fi “dark noir” aesthetic of the likes of Bladerunner, instead opting for a world where “nearly everything is a shade of white” (p. 7). Björk’s features are reduced to that of a designed minimalism, with the barest of details to make her face recognisable to us. Her voice loses the dominance of interiority as the uneven phrasing of her words means that “time becomes elastic. It seems to have lost its forward thrust […] stripped of her humanity as it wavers and hovers, on the very edge of perception. In this way, it weaves itself a new, tenuous body” (p. 11) The result is a video that sees Björk and Cunningham “inventing and developing new forms of sensibility, ones that are potentially appropriate to our cyborg future,” (p. 11) where our old ideas of the boundaries between mind and are replaced with a model of being that we have only just begun to map.
Björk and her Aesthetic Babies
If it seems that Björk in Vulnicura is revisiting visual themes that she has trodden before, then she is not the only one. We’ve seen in the last few years an increase in discourse regarding technology and humanity, as the increased processing speed and power of computers and technology have brought old predictions such as artificial intelligence, deep learning, and the creation of the digital “self,” closer to reality.
As a result, we’re seeing various online aesthetic movements from Health Goth, Vaporwave and Seapunk attempt to re/formulate and re/map said ‘90s digiculture and queer theory aesthetics for our logged-in, hyperreal, technocapitalist present. A loose network of people based around PC Music, Ben Aqua’s #Feelings label and DIS Magazine, these groups have appropriated a myriad of styles, sounds and textures from the ‘90s from hardcore rave and console game music, to streetgoth and day-glo rave fashions. Along with K-Pop to footwork, it´s all blended into an exquisite, Ritalin drenched pastiches that are disseminated in a digital world where there are scenes, genres, language or geography do not matter, only ‘aesthetics,’
In his review of Xen, the debut album from Vulincura co-producer Arca, Philip Sherbourne describes this new thinking as thus;
This new thing is not a genre, exactly; call it a style, a sensibility, a veneer. It has to do with computers and digital sound and digital imagery. It has to do with representation and malleability, the idea that sound and image can be stretched and twisted and copied ad nauseam. It revels in digital gloss and grit, in bent tones, in smeared and frozen reverb tails. Extreme compression, schizoid pith: rap vocals broken down to monosyllables, a single “Huh” as metonym for everything that’s happened between the Sugarhill Gang and now. History reduced to a USB stick.
Arca, aka Venezuelan musician Alejandro Ghersi, is a person steeped in multiculturalism, queerness and maniacally flipped pop samples, his music displaying an elastic and fleshy, but indeterminate quality to it. Meanwhile his alter ego, Xen, “is not really a boy and it’s not really a girl, and her mere existence is kind of repulsive and attractive at once” Indeed the imagery of Xen in Arca’s videos and images (Made by Jesse Kanda) are of a fetishized sensual human form that seems to have erupted out of control, a form of digi-baroque if you will.
And at the centre of this all like a benevolent mother goddess with her little aesthetic babies sits Björk. For many adherents to current internet aesthetics see Björk as a trailblazer, an influential artistic totem who was espousing such ideas from the beginning. And for someone whose persona, and aesthetic was the byword for shifting identities, exploding synaptic overload and post-everything music, it seems that the digital world is finally catching up with Björk.
Further Reading and Viewing
Kimberle Crenshaw – Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against. Women of Color (1991) (Link)
Judith Butler – Gender Trouble: Feminism & Subversion of Identity (1990) (Link)
Donna Harraway – A Cyborg Manifesto (1991) (Link)
David Roben – Lecture: How Human Will Posthumans Be? (Link)
Steven Shaviro – The Erotic Life of Machines (On Björk’s “All Is Full Of Love) (Link)
Adam Harper – System Focus: High Speed Sounds to Blister Even Internet-Accelerated Brains (Link)
Adam Harper – The Fader: What Health Goth Actually Means (Link)