Andrew Thomas Huang on Björk, MoMA and virtual reality

Björk has had a busy spring: Vulnicura, her ninth album, was released, the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened a retrospective of her career, and she has dabbled with virtual reality for the first time, releasing a VR film to accompany the song Stonemilker. Collaborating with her across all these projects was director Andrew Thomas Huang. We talk to Huang about the inspirations behind the work, shooting in 360, and the difficulties of domes, as well as how it felt when those MoMA reviews dropped…

Björk has had a busy spring: Vulnicura, her ninth album, was released, the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened a retrospective of her career, and she has dabbled with virtual reality for the first time, releasing a VR film to accompany the song Stonemilker. Collaborating with her across all these projects was director Andrew Thomas Huang. We talk to Huang about the inspirations behind the work, shooting in 360, and the difficulties of domes, as well as how it felt when those MoMA reviews dropped…

Huang first worked with Björk in 2012 for her Biophilia album, creating a video, Mutual Core, for the album’s accompanying app project. Whereas Biophilia is a concept album addressing the intersection of technology and nature, Vulnicura is deeply personal, chronicling the breakdown of Björk’s marriage to artist Matthew Barney, and the healing process that followed.

Björk worked on Vulnicura and the preparations for her MoMA show concurrently, and whereas Huang arrived late to Biophilia, contributing one of the final videos for the app, he collaborated with Björk from the early stages on both the new album and the gallery show. He created Black Lake, a large-scale installation for MoMA, and also made the album cover for the physical release of Vulnicura, shown top (the digital cover was created by M/M Paris). In addition, he shot the virtual reality film for Stonemilker.

 

Stills from the Black Lake film, by Andrew Thomas Huang. VFX by Wolf & Crow

 

The collaboration this time started with Black Lake, which Huang began working on with Björk back in October 2013. “She told me that Klaus Biesenbach at MoMA had been wanting her to do a retrospective for quite a long time,” Huang recalls. “She’s quite a forward-looking lady and she doesn’t typically think that way, of doing a retrospective, and she was quite nervous about it – she immediately brought up that problem of how do you hang a song on a wall. But it is a visual institution and she wanted a visual collaborator for it, and of course I couldn’t say no. But there was a lot of confusion in the beginning, I think we just dove head first into it without entirely knowing what would happen.”

Their ideas were ambitious from the outset, with Björk drawing inspiration from Bruce Chatwin’s book The Songlines, which explores nomadism and the importance of song to the Aboriginals of Australia. Björk saw links in the book with her own way of making music, and specifically the importance of walking and hiking in her creative process. “It perfectly set the tone for what we were after in terms of the connection between walking and weaving her music into the ground with nature, and the idea of needing to be in movement,” says Huang.

 

Concept artwork for Black Lake by Andrew Thomas Huang


From the start there was also a desire to shoot some film in 360, and to create an immersive environment with the work. “We had all kinds of ideas, of people on treadmills with [VR] goggles and a 360 projection around them,” says Huang. “We even had the idea of having an interactive floor where people could make song lines and her music would stop and start depending on their location in the room.”

One of the biggest challenges at MoMA was poor sound quality, with the space proving extremely echo-prone. To try and control the sound, Björk came up with the idea of creating a “giant egg” that would serve as a sound vacuum and contain multiple rooms and the 3D projection. This led to a period of Huang researching domes, as he attempted to bring the egg to life. “I learned a lot about domes,” he says, “and, ironically, how domes are actually terrible for sound, because the sound bounces everywhere. So, in order to create a properly acoustic dome, you have to have two domes, an inner dome and an outer dome… It became massive. It basically amounted to millions and millions. Then, as it became very clear what MoMA’s budget was, it just wasn’t possible.”

As well as budget, there was the complication of different industries colliding within the project, and the increasingly pressing need to make a decision on what it was possible to present. “There was a lot of pressure,” says Huang, “and a lot of just really awesome ideas, but… it was a record label, a film production company, and a museum all converging. There was a bit of culture shock with all of us.

“When she played [the song] Black Lake for me, it was very apparent that that should be the piece,” he continues. “It was just very clear to me that that was a scrolling piece that could live in a museum, it was very spatial. So basically that became the new commission that MoMA was going to fund us to make.”

Despite the team’s enthusiasm for 360, Huang decided to shoot the film traditionally, due to budget limitations. But to create an immersive environment the final work is shown across two screens, in a specially designed space created by architectural practice The Living. The room features walls formed from hand-stitched black felt cones, which are presented in various sizes, in response to the sound waves of the music.

 

Above, top: concept artwork of Black Lake installation by Andrew Thomas Huang; Images of the installation’s acoustic architecture, created by David Benjamin and The Living


The film was shot in August last year in Iceland and features Björk giving a raw and passionate performance. “It was really intense, emotionally and physically,” says Huang. “I’m asking her to relive her divorce on camera, repeatedly, over multiple takes, all the way until 5am in the morning. In the frigid cold, while she was barefoot.

“For her, it was kind of like, ‘I’ve been feeling this for such a long time, I need to get it out now, otherwise my performance isn’t going to be great’. So it was like, ‘right, let’s get it, get it, get it’. But wait, we have to get it in the cave, and we have to get it in the ravine, and we have to go over here for the fields… And you know, it was on an indie budget. It was very ambitious.”

Huang’s work on the album cover and the virtual reality film followed directly from Black Lake. “She came back to me because she [felt] that [what was shown in Black Lake] was only 50% of that character, and that there’s another 50% of this persona that she’s been in for this past year-and-a-half to two years, that is much more positive and resolved in itself. She invited me to do the physical album cover because I had been there with her on this journey. So we went back to Iceland.”

 

Above, top: Images from Family film, showing the Vulnicura ‘fossil’, which was inspired by the dress worn by Björk in the Black Lake film, designed by Iris van Herpen. CG model by Daniel Edery and Josh Suyemoto; Family film, by Andrew Thomas Huang, VFX by Wolf & Crow

 

A moving image version of the album cover, which features Björk fossilised within an Icelandic rock, her chest split by a wound or vulva, was released as a sort-of video for the song Family (shown above). Unlike the long process of Black Lake, the gestation for this work, and also the VR video for Stonemilker, filmed on the same trip, was swift. “We came up with this on-site narrative of the whole full story of Vulnicura, but in two minutes,” says Huang. “That’s why we insist that Family is not a music video, it’s more like a short film that shows both sides of that character.”

Stonemilker was shot using a camera rig custom-built by VRSE.works and fitted with GoPro 360 cameras. The project was conceived from a desire by Huang to complete some of their early ambitions for Black Lake. “To be perfectly honest, I felt really responsible,” he says. “I felt really disappointed that we couldn’t fulfil her original vision of doing something in 360.”

While they were originally planning to film the piece to accompany Lion Song, Björk didn’t think that the technology was right for that track, so it was switched the night before the shoot to Stonemilker. The location was also changed, with the film shot on the beach where Björk wrote the song.

“It was very spontaneous,” says Huang. “But I’ve found that that’s when the magic really happens with her, when you have those conversations and do a lot of improv, I think it kept it fresh and authentic. It is a naked album, it doesn’t have all the accoutrements that Biophilia had, it really is just her, with her hair down and beautiful flowing dress, just on the rocks. It almost felt more like a documentary performance act, rather than a music video that we were doing. Because of the 360 format, when you wear a good headset, you really do feel like she’s there with you. You look down and there’s her feet, and she’s looking right at you and her hands are right in front of your nose. It really is a great medium for intimacy.

“Actually we are all in the video, we’re just hiding behind all the rocks,” he says. “We all had to press go and then scuttle behind the rocks – we had no idea what we were capturing because it was just Björk and the camera, it was a very private experience for her, and she loved it.”

 

Concept artwork for the Vulnicura cover, by Andrew Thomas Huang and Björk

 

While the Black Lake installation has been mostly well received by the press, MoMA’s Björk retrospective as a whole has come in for quite the critical mauling, due in part, perhaps, to the curtailing of the team’s once-grand plans. “I understand why a lot of the reviews are the way they are,” says Huang, “but I also do believe that some are a bit unfair in that there was actually a huge amount of thought that went into [it].

“I think Björk is a terribly difficult exhibition to pull off,” he continues. “She’s so complex, the expectations are so high. I have a lot of respect for Klaus because I’ve seen him bend over backwards to make this happen in a way that felt authentic to Björk. He is pushing the museum to get a bit uncomfortable and do new things. The exhibition is for sure flawed, but knowing the story of what happened and being there in the ‘war room’ the day after, when all the reviews came out… Everyone was like ‘we worked so hard, what do we do now?’. There really was an earnest attempt from Björk and all of her collaborators to actually make something that was of them and from them, and I just think that was a really tall order. That’s my take on it.”

 

Trailer for Black Lake, by Andrew Thomas Huang. Executive producer on all Björk projects by Huang by Tamsin Glasson


The show raises interesting questions about the intersection of pop and art, and specifically the difference between the democratic nature of pop, which is usually available to everyone, everywhere, and the art experience, which is most often site-specific and can be expensive.

Fans have expressed frustration that Black Lake can only be viewed at MoMA, with only a trailer shown online, and that Stonemilker is limited to occasionally screenings. Huang promises that they are “trying to find out how to get this stuff out to the public” so hopefully there will be an opportunity for a wider audience to see the work soon, presumably online. He does make the point that Black Lake is designed to be seen in large-format though, and that something may be lost by a transferral to the small screen. “Black Lake is really this epic, nocturnal heartbreak opera,” he says, “you kind of have to see it big.”

Björk is on show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until June 7. More info is here.

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