In the past, being an ambitious band or musician meant coming up with new and exciting concepts for albums. With Biophilia, Björk has decided to reinvent the concept of the album itself. Her seventh longplayer, available both in classic album format as well as in a bundle of specially designed apps, is an interactive nature- and science-themed extravaganza of grand technological proportions. Famous art curator and historian Hans Ulrich Obrist caught up with the singular musician to find out how the touchscreen has permanently altered the way she creates and hears music.
Björk, your new album Biophilia took three years to make. Both musically and conceptually it stands out from the rest of your oeuvre as part of a larger multimedia project including specially designed apps. Tell me a bit about how you came up with the idea to transgress the borders of putting out a conventional album.
More than anything else, touchscreen technology has completely transformed the way I think about writing music. For the past few years, I’d been using touchscreens exclusively to perform, until one day I decided I wanted to explore the world of touch more deeply, because it’s so intuitive. That’s when I actually started writing music with them as well. I had been feeling limited by conventional computer programs with sequencing grids for a while; I felt like I was being forced into conventional time signatures against my will—even though you can do anything with computers, of course. But I needed to be able to both see and manipulate something that was the opposite of a grid. That’s also when I began writing and developing programs together with programmer and sound engineer Damian Taylor back in 2008. The touchscreen immediately offered solutions to issues I’ve wanted to solve since my music school days.
When did you attend music school?
When I was a child in Iceland, from the age of five until I was around fifteen. At the time, I felt like the teachers didn’t try enough to tap into my intuitive tactile sensibility. When I first saw the touchscreen, it brought me back to my childhood and my experiences with my own music. I was so excited to reenter a place where I could map things out compositionally as I experience them . . . while at the same time drawing a connection to nature.
So the touchscreen also inspired you to explore biological and cosmological themes?
Yes, strangely enough. The applications we designed connect a musical element to a natural one, like the shape of lightning being similar to an arpeggio, or double pendulums inspiring the relationship between counterpoint and melody. I was thinking about how somebody without a background in music would want to create music, how a child would explore the basic elements of composition.
Last time I was in Iceland I met up with the composer Magnús Blöndal Jóhannsson, who passed away not too long ago. He was a real pioneer for electronic music—much adored by people like Karlheinz Stockhausen. Was he at all a role model for you in terms of experimentation?
No, but he was brilliant. Growing up, my formal musical education was much more conservative. I mean, I’m happy I had it, but the focus was on performance, not necessarily on creating. It was about picking an instrument, practicing for ten hours a day, and then maybe in fifteen years, if you’re lucky, becoming part of a symphony orchestra. It certainly wasn’t empowering in the creative sense.
And what about performing Biophilia? The project combines so many different types of media that live, it would seem to extend far beyond the conventional concert context. How do you present that in all of its complexity?
A normal concert venue will work, but to show everything we’ve done, a museum might be better. We’ve actually gotten offers from a bunch of different museums after our premier in Manchester. There we did a small, stage-bound version of something that’s actually much bigger and more encompassing, spatially speaking. Since then, we’ve gotten offers from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Exploratorium in San Francisco, The National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo… which would all be great fits, I imagine.
It all sounds very educational…
Nothing’s been confirmed yet, but the idea is to use the nature-related apps and instruments we’ve developed as educational tools for children, and then develop exhibits together with biologists, physicists and astronomers. I’m fascinated by the idea of providing the kids with both the technology and the actual objects being discussed. As you know, the umbrella app for Biophilia contains individual apps for each song. I keep imagining the children getting to hold and play with real crystals, and then working with the app from “Crystalline”. The Exploratorium in San Francisco actually talked about developing a ten-room exhibit—one room for each song. San Francisco has one of the largest collections of natural crystals in the world.
So the project would be transformed into more of an exhibition?
Yes, in collaboration with scientists.
The transformation that you describe from one form of presentation to another seems so natural; it’s an almost organic evolution; an organic integrated learning system. Biophilia seems to be less about exact replication and more about changing and adapting to a host environment.
Very much so. I remember about a year into the project I had to stop myself from trying to control the direction the whole thing was taking and just let it start growing naturally. That’s when the best ideas started to take form. Of course, when we met all of the app developers and designers, the project took an entirely different spin.
Six years ago, you and I had a discussion about how to introduce your work into a museum context. The plans were approaching an advanced phase, but had to be put on hold because you were coming out with your album Medúlla. Now things seem to be moving again in that direction. What’s changed?
When we met up, I had been really excited about the museum idea, but I think wasn’t really ready for it; I hadn’t thought enough about how to present things in the museum context. But I would say our conversations from back then planted the seed for what I’m doing today—certainly in terms of how to “show” music and how to make it interactive. This is the first album I’ve done that really allows the listeners to actively immerse themselves in it. The touchscreen and the applications encourage a threefold interaction: between myself and nature, between the listener and the music, and between the listener and nature. The algorithms for the Biophilia apps allow you to not only to alter and rearrange the songs superficially, but also to completely mess with the song structure…while still maintaining the connection to the natural elements the songs deal with. The connection to nature, biology and the cosmos is a constant.
I remember from our conversations about interactive music that you were interested in doing an exhibition together with the French director Michel Gondry. He was supposed to do the projections for an installation with singers who line a long, dark corridor, I think.
That’s right—it was going to be a labyrinth lined with singers performing songs from Medúlla. The idea came about because, compositionally, the songs and melodies off the album are so interwoven. I was imagining the exhibition-goers wandering around and singing as well. I think that if I had conceived Medúlla as interactive from the very beginning, then it would have been easier to follow through with the exhibition. I’m convinced Biophilia has become what it is because the entire project is predicated on being interactive.
After the live premier of Biophilia in Manchester, half the people I spoke to thought they had seen a concert and the other half thought they had seen something else.
I would say that whatever it was, it was a compromise. We maxed out our budget a long time ago and didn’t have the funding to do all the stuff we had originally planned. I wanted the event to be really intimate and have people be more involved, and that’s why we set up the stage in the middle of the venue. Children who came by to test the applications when we had days off of performing were actually using the same touchscreens we were—the ones connected to the instruments. I suppose that made the actual performance area something other than a conventional stage.
Did you imagine lots of movement and mobility in the interaction with the audience? Was the performance supposed to take place throughout the entire venue?
No, more via the touchscreens. This is actually the first time in my life that I wrote songs sitting down, as opposed to being in motion. It used to always happen while I was walking, with the exception of Sugarcubes songs, which were more collaborative. I only realized recently how uncommon it is to not write songs or melodies with a guitar or piano. In the past, I always relied on the sounds of nature as a form of musical accompaniment for my singing. That’s why combining the songs with elements of nature felt totally natural. It wasn’t a utopian vision or some bizarre experimentation; it was perfectly normal for me to work with these sounds. And live, the touchscreen has allowed me to be able to focus completely on my singing, because the rest of the sounds I’m making are purely intuitive movements and gestures. It’s freed things up for me enormously.
I’ve had a chance to play around some with the Biophilia app and was struck by its multi-functionality; it’s an instrument, a game, an educational tool…
Don’t forget the animation. This was definitely a collaborative effort, but I would say most of the collaboration was for the visuals and programming. The music I did almost entirely by myself. I think the older I get, the more idiosyncratic I become in the studio and end up wanting to do the music on my own. I don’t know why, that’s just the way it is.
You’re still continuing to work with programmers, right?
You mean app builders? Of course. But this entire project was interspersed with some pretty big breaks, because I was so intensely involved with environmental issues in Iceland. Also, shortly before the bank crash, there was a good four-month period where I was over there petitioning against investment in the aluminum industry—which still continues to destroy Iceland’s geothermal resources, by the way. I was working together with a group called Náttúra on developing job alternatives in rural areas where the aluminum smelting plants would otherwise employ entire towns. We encouraged the people to start small businesses to promote a green economy. We also wrote a manifesto, which I gave to the Prime Minister.
I’d love to read that. Where can I get a copy?
It’s online, but it’s in Icelandic. The whole thing is really functional and straightforward. We wanted to avoid doing anything utopian or unrealistic, because people were already calling us idealists and accusing us of being clueless hippies.
Were you promoting a micro-credit system, like in India?
Not exactly. We were coming up with viable employment alternatives and amendments to Icelandic law in order to make it easier for people to start small businesses. For example, it was our idea to have smaller green business owners be allowed to hire people who were collecting unemployment and would continue collect unemployment even though they technically had jobs. This was actually made legal, back in autumn of 2008…
I remember all the international press coverage and how you set into motion some pretty big changes in Iceland.
I really wanted to go for it, you know? I felt like it was now or never… and then the bank crash happened, which was strange because this was the first time in my life that I’d been hanging out a lot with economists. All around us, people were losing their jobs, their houses, their pensions… It was very dramatic. There were all these abandoned buildings at the time because everything had gone bankrupt. And that’s when I had the idea of setting up a kind of music school. It was supposed to have ten rooms, which were to correspond to ten elements of nature. These would then help kids learn music theory and composition…
Each room would be like a chapter in an interactive textbook?
I suppose that’s one way to think about it… it was really about using one of those abandoned or unfinished buildings. Then the economic situation took a turn for the worse, and everybody who’d lost their savings gathered outside the Icelandic parliament demanding for the government to step down—which they did. People smashed pots and pans until all the ministers resigned. It was like 1968 in Paris. This happened to be at the same time that I realized that I was free from all of my contractual obligations with record companies, which was very exciting. I couldn’t stop thinking about the Internet and the endless possibilities of releasing my own work… in whatever form I pleased.
And that’s when the apps were developed?
No, first I was contacted by National Geographic, who were starting a record label and wanted me to be their first artist, which I immediately said yes to. At first, I was imagining an unconventional partnership; I wanted them to help me build the music school! But they don’t build buildings, so they suggested we do a 3D movie, which I thought was a brilliant idea. I ended up meeting all sorts of directors and film producers, but at some point the project became so huge and expensive that I retreated in a way. I started doing a lot of the work on my own, really DIY. I moved to Puerto Rico for eight months with my sound engineer and that’s when I really started writing the songs for Biophilia. At first, I was using a cheap little organ, as well as some midi stuff I got off of eBay—cheap touchscreens and a couple of Nintendo game controllers. Eventually, sometime in 2010, it became clear the 3D film wasn’t going to get made…
But you had already done so much work.
Yes, loads of it. In two years I finished all ten songs, including the application ideas for all of the natural elements.
What are the different elements featured on the album?
Let’s see if I can name them all… There’s gravity, tectonic plates, the human relationship to nature, viruses…
Yes—crystals, DNA, dark matter, cosmogony, lightning, and lunar cycles. Creation myths play a key role, too… What was incredible is that right after I finished all of the songs in the spring of 2010, the iPad came out. It was perfect timing.
So technology caught up with you!
Something like that… That’s when we started contacting some of my favorite app creators.
From what I understand, you sought out a lot of younger developers and programmers who were working on DIY music programs, is that right?
They were all different ages actually. But I contacted programmers who’d done some of my favorite apps—some musical but most not. I was in regular contact with the app designers, explaining the concepts behind each element and what needed to be included. These were then integrated into the “mother app” on “Cosmogony”, where each verse of the song is about a different creation myth: Native American, Sanskrit, Aboriginal, and modern science—which would be the Big Bang theory. After talking to a bunch of scientists I found out that many of them feel the Big Bang, at least as it’s taught in schools, is pretty outdated, very “twentieth century”.
The designer and developer Scott Snibbe was also involved, right?
He was the project manager. He oversaw the app development.
Were you in constant contact with scientists while you were writing the individual songs?
Not exactly. I wrote the songs first and then eventually contacted some of the experts for details. Most of the research came from watching university-level educational DVDs and reading books on my own.
So there was a huge amount of research involved?
Yes, but it was more fun than anything else.
I heard you collaborated with Drew Berry for the animation of DNA. He does such incredible visualizations of molecular biology. How was it working with him?
He’s quite an animator. I think our collaboration for the DNA app is the thing that comes closest to a music video. We actually have tentative plans to put together an animated video on brain functions—specifically, what happens in the brain neurologically when people sing.
It’s always fascinated me how important science is for art and vice versa. Lots of scientists utilize artistic renderings in order to better understand or visualize certain processes.
That’s true. But I would say that this whole project is about taking things that are kind of academic and transforming them into a three-dimensional, non-academic interactive experience. I’m sure the app descriptions sound complex and esoteric, but when you actually see and use these things, it becomes much clearer.
When I saw the premier in Manchester, it was the lightning that really grabbed my attention, but I’ve always been fascinated by Tesla. How did you come up with the idea of writing a song about electrical currents?
It happened during my research. At one point I was YouTubing non-stop and eventually stumbled on all these videos of people making music with Tesla coils. That was the beginning. More than anything, it struck me as something a child would enjoy, because it’s so dramatic-looking. When we did the week-long course in Manchester, showing children the instruments and asking them about their favorites, the Tesla coil was always at the very top of their list. It’s because it’s the most visceral and spectacular visualization of the sound, I think. It brings the listener inside the sound by bringing the sound outside in the form of visualization.
That reminds me so much of our discussions in Paris from a few years ago—having the listener not be an external entity but rather completely immersed in the music itself; an active, not a passive, part of the aural experience.
I think that’s why this current project had gone through so many different manifestations, from music school to 3D film to what it is today… At its core, the project is about inclusion.
Some people have the impression that the digital world creates only virtual connections and discourages live experience. But I think that couldn’t be further from the truth, and this project shows just that. Having seen the premier, it was clear that the live component is more important than ever when there is an increased emphasis on the visual.
I think people who download music have even greater interest in experiencing it live, because the physical process of going to a record shop to buy a physical object has been made more or less obsolete. That’s why seeing live music becomes the primary way to experience the music non-virtually. But the very idea of what’s physical needs to be redefined. All the record industry pessimism towards the disappearance of the physical is unwarranted, if you ask me. The meanings are merely shifting. You know, people will always hunger for physical experiences. Future generations will all be born with two arms, two legs and a sense of touch.
You mentioned before that you felt inspired when you realized that you were out of your contractual obligations for your record company. What kind of freedoms have the Internet and applications provided you with? Has it made you more independent?
Creatively, I can do so much more. Instruments in the form of applications are far less expensive and reach exponentially more people than the physical object. With apps, it feels like anything’s possible. I’ve experienced at least three different album formats, and the app and digital download is by far the least dependent on the music industry. It’s reintroduced something very punk back into music. After we finished the entire project we were able to pick and choose who we wanted to offer it to. All of the major labels were scared out of their wits—they didn’t want to touch something so different from a “normal” album. Then we thought about how welcoming Apple had been to us technologically, allowing us to release an app album in their store without “signing” to any label. They haven’t sponsored me and I’m not advertising them—they simply have a set-up which can distribute Biophilia; they combine all of the technology necessary to explore what we had created. Also, in 2010, the iPad was the only proper touchscreen on the market. But I’ve now decided to work with Universal and Nonesuch to distribute the physical CD. In the beginning I thought that no one would be interested in that anymore, but that’s not so.
Your inventions remind me of the work of Fluxus artist Alison Knowles. She’s been creating incredible musical contraptions since the sixties, and they’re all about exploring sound perception outside of an exclusively aural context…
Sound is experienced in so many different ways. That’s why I wanted to make both apps and acoustic instruments. It was important for me to emphasize the use of air, water, wind and oxygen to create sound. People shouldn’t perceive this project merely as a virtual phantasy world. They should see it as an exploration of the crossroads of electronic and acoustic sound—but from a different angle.
How do you fully realize this in a live context?
Live, the music is played on touchscreens connected to acoustic instruments that read digital information. In order to give people a better idea of how the instruments work, we’d actually like to create some short films for the crowd to watch before the concert.
Is it true that David Attenborough did the narration for the introduction to the umbrella app?
Yes. The BBC was doing a documentary on the making of Biophilia, which David will probably be involved in. We asked him at the very last minute about the app and he said yes on the spot. We immediately gave him the introduction and then recorded it the very same day—it was all very spontaneous.
He has a very calming presence.
Indeed. It always makes me think of the difference between American and British nature documentaries: American nature documentaries are usually much scarier, and the music is much more dramatic—even if the animals are totally harmless and unthreatening. An American documentary on bees would start out with a narrator exclaiming, “If one thousand bees were to sting you at the same time, you’d die!”
Do you think that European nature documentaries are generally more benign?
Less threatening, for sure. And David Attenborough always makes the situation seem hopeful and positive—at least regarding the relationship between humans and nature.
How did you come up with the title for the project?
I’d been reading a book by Oliver Sacks called Musicophilia, which is a collection of anecdotes about his experiences as a neurologist with sound and treating patients. I felt really inspired, and I then had the chance to meet him personally. But as a general matter, I’m fascinated by the visualization of sound, and how sound waves travel—even though my visualizations tend towards particle, not wave movement. On a macro level, sound moves like billiard balls; or even planets and solar systems. Pythagoras saw the cosmos similarly; he ascribed a note to each planet. There’s a long history of connecting our solar system to sound, because the music of the spheres is all about equilibrium and vibration. That’s why I wanted the website and Biophilia app to be set up like a galaxy. It’s the easiest way to explain how sound behaves in space.
In 1996 I attended a seminar in London in which a former major label A&R man taught us the methods needed to run our own businesses, take care of our own affairs and, essentially, become independent artists. He predicted the demise of the majors as a meaningful outlet for independently minded recording artists and urged us to start labels and release our own music, to learn about accounting and business plans. He was ahead of the time. Although I paid attention, I didn’t feel as if any of it applied to me. I had a ‘real’ record deal with a major label—I was in the middle of my 15 minutes of surviving in that environment. Little did I know that a few years later major labels would become obsolete, of no relevance to anyone trying to create innovative music.
The old system did have its advantages. Up until the end of the nineties, major record companies dished out big advances to artists, knowing full well that their future lay in investing in talent, thus supporting their artists while they created. If an artist didn’t recoup their investment they were dropped, and they could just walk away. The major label that no longer gives to get back is a pointless and purely exploitative entity. However I never shared in the opinion that major labels only ripped off; they paid a hell of a lot too.
That was the past.
Today things look different. Trent Reznor said it first: “We are the music industry”. The true meaning of this phrase has not even begun to sink in with aspiring and established artists at this point. The notion that somehow a force more powerful than us, outside of us, could bestow the success and income we desire is still prevalent, a residual memory of how the machine worked, passed on through generations. The reality is that we are the 99%. But where does that leave us?
A few years ago, the general consensus was that if you give away mp3s for free you would generate a lot of blog posts, perhaps even end up on The Hype Machine for a few days. This attention would get you gigs, recognition, a possible record deal with an independent label and ultimately earn you the money to continue making music.
One by one these opportunities failed to materialize for the independent artist. Statistics showed that small independent artists could neither draw enough punters to their shows nor get enough hype-generated recognition to convert blog coverage to money. Momentum would fail to build. The rent would go unpaid.
Social media, that purported savior of true music independency, turned out to be a smokescreen. Turning Facebook ‘likes’ into dedicated fans was manipulated into a marketing science and, as the internet distribution channels were blown apart by pirate sites, potential consumers wanted music now, with no effort, and—of course—for free.
I do not agree with giving your music away free—it devalues your art. Luckily the debate has shifted towards protecting your right to getting paid for what you’ve created. This, in my opinion, is a good thing. Sure, give away the odd mix away free if there is an incentive such as quality press coverage to do so. Otherwise let people buy into a valuable exchange between creator and consumer. Why? Like a certain cosmetic giant knows: Because you’re worth it.
What does the World Wide Web provide if not what it originally promised? A general sense of disillusionment has set in. How will the glorious internet serve us in pursuing our art in an environment where record label advances are nonexistent? Where we must be managers, agents, marketing geniuses, crowd funding administrators, publishers, accountants and, somehow, on top of all this, find time and energy to make music as well.
Many have fallen by the wayside; artists have chosen to give up, labels have closed down. The people who keep going are either the stubbornly determined or rich kids for whom daddy buys the gear.
Companies like Spotify have come along and are streaming our music, with almost no money filtering through to the smallest of independent artists at present. Major labels have edged back into the fray, their fingers back in the big pie once more because they are shareholders of the streaming companies. We need to find out how to profit from these developments which are in constant flux. We can decide whether we make Apple or Google richer by selling our music through them or use Bandcamp or other direct selling tools. If you have a large loyal following or extremely strong campaign (and only then) Kickstarter can be the most powerful way to achieve your goals. They are about to start in Europe.
The internet has rendered obsolete the all-powerful A&R man, the person on the other side, judging whether our music is worthy of getting released. This demise is not to be sniffed at. Now people on Facebook, Soundcloud and YouTube, as well as many other outlets, decide whether our stuff reaches a wider public. This is a truly democratic process and nobody can stop it from happening. It is our tool, and it is a powerful one. How this is utilized to build a business is currently unclear to even the most clued up analysts. Trust me: everybody’s winging it.
It is therefore up to all of us as independent artists in the digital age to truly understand that “we are the music industry”. We hold the ultimate power in our hands: the music.
Fast Food is a new, regular feature on EB.net by Thomas Schoenberger and Max Dax. Every Saturday you can read a new piece of a sophisticated ongoing conversation about cooking, traditions and how to read the menu of any given restaurant. It is a discussion about disappearing spaces and why so many chefs listen to Miles Davis’ so-called ‘electric period’ after an exhausting night in the kitchen.
Dax: The semi-legal Hafenstraße backdrop was essential for the restaurant’s founding myth. It is in fact only possible to pin down the story of the Restaurant Schönberger—and I know that this might sound redundant at first glance—because there is a story to tell. As opposed to, say, all those franchises of restaurant chains where no real story can ever to be told or written down. You need a story like this to make an inventory of a restaurant. I believe that you can approach a restaurant with a similar methodology and vocabulary as you classify, document and contextualize a piece of art. By talking about the Restaurant Schönberger we save it from oblivion.
Schoenberger: Let’s face it: We are very much aware of the fact that we conduct this dialogue about cooking not only in a public space . . .
Dax: . . . we are sitting in the Osteria al Bacco opposite the Geto Novo in Venice’s Cannaregio quarter. It is now 10 p.m. and we are recording this conversation with my tape recorder, a digital Olympus Dictaphone. There is five other guests in the osteria.
Schoenberger: Not only that. Even more important is the fact that we are fully aware of the fact we are conducting the dialogue in front of a virtual audience. Everything we discuss will be transcribed and published in this blog—before it will eventually be released as a book. Every mental leap and every cross-reference leads somewhere in this stream of consciousness. We chose the story of the Restaurant Schönberger as a starting point for this narration as we knew that we literally needed a heavily charged location. A space that serves as a proxy for the hundreds or thousands of spaces that we could have mentioned instead. Fast Food reports about the enjoyment that can be found in everyday occurrences such as dining, cooking and drinking. It repeats the idea that certain traditions must not be forgotten. As I said before: Every family-run restaurant with a story that has to close because a quarter becomes gentrified is a real loss. We have to defy perdition in the same cadence as the Hafenstraße squatters who couldn’t accept their street becoming an object of real estate speculation—that would have changed the face of St. Pauli forever.
Dax: I remember: At a certain point I had finished cleaning the string beans. You were still on the phone discussing something with someone I didn’t know. You had put on a record called “Pangaea” by Miles Davis—by the way my first introduction to jazz. I was sitting at my table, enjoying my white wine when the kitchen brigade arrived. I had to go then and we didn’t see each other for some time. Even though we had barely said a word, I associate this dizzy fall afternoon with the beginning of our friendship.
Schoenberger: For sure it was a memorable encounter. I still remember what I thought when you started to clean the beans. I thought: Here we have a guy who had no connection to me whatsoever except that he liked what I was doing. But the appreciation was mutual. I knew quite a bit about you because I had done my research. I knew, for example, that you had quit your work at Alfred Hilsberg’s. And I knew that you’d been Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s personal assistant and that you had—when you were still living in Kiel—suggested a caterer friend of yours in Kiel to order large amounts of Trebbiano from my Vertrieb trockener Weine. You had changed sides and become a journalist. I very clearly recall how I became aware of you and why I eventually did this research about you. One day, my maître d’ approached me and insisted that I read an article about the restaurant that he’d found in a newspaper. As usual, I resisted. I hate food journalism. It didn’t even matter if an article had been written about the Schönberger or about another place. I hated them all. The vast majority of journalistic pieces about restaurants or food are crap. They are written without any consciousness of tradition and knowledge of context. These articles usually, first and foremost, display the ignorance of their authors. It becomes even worse if the writers actually do know a bit about cooking. Most of their articles use language as a deadly weapon. They kill or hail chefs and restaurants with their writing as they are pretty class-conscious in the worst sense of the word.
Dax: The role of the critic has dramatically changed with the triumphal procession of the Internet and the availability of information in general. I totally understand your aversion against journalists whose job it is to professionally criticize. Nothing against that job description. Every now and then I read fantastic reviews. The way The New Yorker’s Richard Brody reviews “Shoah” by Claude Lanzmann, for instance, is just state of the art.
Schoenberger: The same goes for food critics like François Simon of Le Figaro fame or Maurice-Edmond Sailland, better known as “Curnonsky”. I don’t know how to put it: They were different.
Dax: . . . or take music critics such as The Wire’s Chris Bohn or, in Germany, Diedrich Diederichsen who successfully invented a brand new way of saying complex things in the German language. To me, these are real writers in a literal sense. But the profession of the critic is at stake today. Yes, we need people who filter for us—and they have to find ways to filter better and even more accurately than the stunning algorithms that Google or Amazon are using. But no, we don’t need point of view journalism anymore if the human being behind this point of view doesn’t have the time to fundamentally look into the complexity of a given topic. For decades now, I doubt the so-called objectivity of the critic. I always preferred the subjective aggregation of information and context that admits that nobody can know everything. It’s like that famous Socrates quote “I know that I know nothing”. I would never predicate anything else than that. As a consequence, an article about the Schönberger or any other place would have to explain contexts such as the tradition of the working man’s canteen, the tavern and the osteria to rightfully carve out the differences and the unique aspects of any given space. If you don’t integrate this knowledge and if you don’t display these rhizomatic connections, you’d run the risk of comparing a telephone book with a novel. Or, to refocus back onto the field of gastronomy: to compare the typical pizzeria in a German provincial town with a Napoletanian place that only sells two types of pizza vera.
Schoenberger: Well, my maître d’ didn’t allow himself to be put off. He insisted that I read your piece about my place. Your article was headlined “Remembrance of Things Past”, just like the novel by Marcel Proust. When I read that line I wanted to read the rest of the review, too.
Being a kid is harder work than it looks; it isn’t just about the politics of re-blogging. Los Angeles author and artist Kate Durbin has recently begun exploring the virtual world of teen girls, experienced through the medium of tumblr aesthetics. “Women as Objects started as I was observing how radical and amazing these teenage girls on tumblr are.” says Durbin. “Their entire community fascinates me. I love the way they encourage each other, share secrets, and even hate on each other so passionately…and the whole “it’s not IRL” issue just isn’t that big of a deal really, because these kids grew up on the net. It’s like a secret community that anyone can observe, and because the girls know that they are being observed, they have this awesome opportunity to utilize the medium of tumblr to become who they truly are/who they want to be. They aren’t limited by circumstances. In this sense they objectify themselves through the medium too. They use images of themselves, fixed/fucked in photoshop, turn themselves into quivering .gifs, etc, beg for attention in comments–but it’s all done totally willfully, instead of traditional notions of objectification of women where women are passive victims of the ‘male gaze.’”
Durbin reblogs the images and text that these girls post, creating an online archive for all the snippets that echo the immediate, the urgent and the brief; everything that being young is about. Sexuality, fashion and music are all here, along with more intimate pieces that reveal the true human behind the masses of pink-haired model photos. The result is a surprisingly honest portrait of what it means to be a teen: often awkward, seeking approval through visual desires, and, occasionally, refreshingly open. “The girls contact me sometimes. I never reach out to them directly, just follow them, so its up to them to read my page and figure out what I’m doing. Sometimes they are confused at first, but then they seem excited about what I am doing.”
Durbin’s fascination with these URLives is constantly expanding; next year she has plans to bring the project into the physical realm in the form of a book called Satanic Teen Blogging. “I just hope more people check out the project, and mostly that they check out these girls. They are truly inspiring, awesome, talented, and so open with sharing their lives.”
The author on Twitter:
Another year, another list and a chance to share what we though were some of the highlights of 2011. Here music & culture editor Daniel Jones picks his top five moments from a momentous year.
2011 was sick as hell, but in a really different way than 2010. For me, the previous year saw my ears soaked in massive amounts of music; it seemed wonderfully exciting, with new genres popping up and giving birth to new forms of expression in the visual world. 2011, however, was more about life in general, improving myself in various ways and growing as a person and in my personal taste. If I had to put it into some order, for example a list, it would probably look something like:
1. Best reason to question reality: Roseanne Barr calls me ‘dude’ and requests my opinion on the NWO.
Reality is so malleable.
2. Best pickup line: ‘You look like you have a really good tumblr.’
I do, actually.
3. Best life decision: moving to Berlin.
Since coming here from Brooklyn, I’ve become friends with so many amazing, lovely and creative people, fallen in love with a woman who is a constant inspiration to me, been a part of a mindblowing music and art festival, co-founded Berlin’s hardest dance party, and basically begun living the sort of baller-ass lifestyle a poor artist can only dream of in the hustle and grind of NYC. All this plus rediscovering my love for DJing, hard bass and live performance. EVERYBODY THRASH NOW.
4. Best key to future culture subversion/growth: Internet.
The idea of subverting subculture aesthetics and idealism has been a hot topic for the last two years, gathering steam primarily through the use of tumblr and the like. Existing formerly relevant but now-toothless structures such as punk or goth have been reimagined for the Now, taking aesthetically from bits and pieces of other existing subcultures (hiphop, r&b, rave etc) and combining to form something new without any of the outdated angst, social stigmata or cheese of the originals. The idea of a linear genre, of mainstream and underground, is no longer applicable for thinking forward. Internet symbology and our relation to the world becomes a key factor in this as well; no longer the refuge of nerds, the young artist feels a connection to the digital that goes hand-in-hand with their corporeal existence. A fascination with the early days of online culture is becoming more and more widespread, especially as nostalgia for the ’90s increases. My hand + arm looks weird as hell in that photo.
5. Favorite form of bullying: Complex Bullying.
“Bullying ranges from simple one-on-one bullying to more complex bullying in which the bully may have one or more ‘lieutenants’ who may seem to be willing to assist the primary bully in his bullying activities.”
I’m changing all my screen names to ThePrimaryBully.