One gloomy morning this week at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I was standing in a snaking, claustrophobic line–the first of many–for the press preview of a retrospective of the Icelandic singer Björk, when a woman with a heavy German accent said humorlessly and without the slightest hint of excitement, “This is drama. I love drama.” We were corralled in a tight hallway. There were 14 flatscreen televisions broadcasting various Björk performances–at an MTV Unplugged taping, at a concert where she played the album Homogenic in its entirety–and a lot of emotionless faces belonging to people working for publications for the most part under-represented at other MoMA press previews. This particular queue had all the enthusiasm of a breadline and its purpose was to retrieve a Volkswagen-sponsored “augmented audio guide.” In various press releases, much has been made of this “innovative technology,” which “creates a 3D listening experience by building on the combination of signal processing, location-based trigger points, and movements of each individual visitor to create a customizable experience for each visitor of the exhibit.” It turned out to be basically an iPhone with a pair of headphones plugged in.
This section of the show is called “Songlines.” A voice came through my headphones telling me, “Make sure you pause for thought.” Doing so, I thought the sound was a little low on my headphones, but I couldn’t find a way to turn it up. A woman narrator began speaking while I was standing in a room with a two-foot-tall statue of Björk, posing as she appears on her debut album in a mohair sweater, clasping her hands over her mouth in a gesture that is both solemn and sentimental. “Once there was a heart, a human heart that lived inside a girl,” the narrator told me.
“Look around,” a man’s voice said as I entered the next room, dedicated to Björk’s 1995 album Post. I looked around. I saw Björk’s red shoes from the “Hyperballad” music video. The woman narrator returned to tell me about “the girl” finding herself on a “circular path of hard cement…and then the electric lights came on.”
As I went into another room, this one focusing on Homogenic, the narrator said, “A song could be sung by a coconut with purple fur,” and I looked at the kissing robots from the video for “All Is Full of Love.” “She herself became a tree that grew love on every branch,” the narrator continued. When I left the room, the sound cut off and switched automatically to a different track–this one dedicated to the album Vespertine–and I realized that my special iPhone knew where I was in the exhibition. So, O.K., that’s not nothing, but I really can’t stress enough how much my “sophisticated Björk audio guide software” is just a regular old museum audio guide.
And now here I was standing next to a life-size mannequin of Björk in her famous swan dress from the Academy Awards ceremony in 2001.
The narrator in my special iPhone came back on and said, “The flickering fire that had inspired the songwriters had been replaced by the moving image of the home screen.” She said this without a trace of irony.
Scattered about the rooms were other bits of paraphernalia relating to Björk’s recorded catalogue, as well as pages from notebooks that offer revelations like: Björk changed a line in the song “Thunderbolt” from “The wind blows around my face” to “The wind stern on my face.” Also: Björk’s handwriting is not great. When my audio tour was over and I handed my special iPhone to a security guard, the experience registered finally in my mind as something similar to dining at a very crowded Hard Rock Cafe.
I then stood in another line to enter a theater that was playing a video for Björk’s new song, “Black Lake.” The line took about 10 minutes. Once inside the theater, it was about another 30 minutes until something happened. The room was dark, covered in black foam sound-enhancing cones that looked like rocks. Perhaps with some perspective, I’ll come to think of standing in silence for a half hour in a stuffy, pitch-black room with about one hundred members of the press, all waiting for a Björk video to come on, as an important moment in my life, though in the present it really felt like a waste of time. When a sweaty, desperate-sounding man entered the theater to say, “She’s coming! I’m so sorry!” I thought momentarily that this might be the way I go out. If I died at MoMA, would Glenn Lowry, the museum’s director, call my parents? Would he offer condolences, like the president reaching out to the family of a fallen soldier? Either way, I want my epitaph to read: “Dutifully Covered Björk Press Preview.”
What the sweaty guy meant, however, was more along the lines of “I’m so sorry to keep you waiting,” and by “she’s coming,” he was saying Björk’s arrival was imminent, and when she suddenly appeared in the room with Klaus Biesenbach, the show’s curator, it felt remarkably normal, even if she was wearing some kind of several-feet-tall cactus sculpture on her head and her face was obscured by black fabric.
“On behalf of the Museum of Modern Art,” Biesenbach said sternly, “I’d like to open and welcome our artist to this really experimental and transformative exhibition for the museum.” By “open our artist” I really was expecting Biesenbach to pull some kind of string on Björk’s cactus costume, revealing her face to us, which would unleash a thousand rays of light into the darkness and give meaning to the several preceding hours, but it was more or less a verbal typo. Björk, in a voice sweet enough to put into a cup of coffee, thanked a number of people, including “Marco” for “putting all the speakers in the right places.” Biesenbach then announced, again with as much optimism as a Brecht play, “And now I think we are experiencing ‘Black Lake.’ ” He exited the room with Björk, and about 80 percent of the journalists frantically followed. Björk appeared on screen, kneeling in a cave, singing about her “pulsating body” before pulsating her body against some of the cave’s rocks. I stuck around and watched the music video. It was…pretty good!
I retreated to a basement theater to wait for a press conference, where both Lowry and Biesenbach would speak. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud as I read a statement by Michael Horn, president and CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, in my press packet: “Björk’s entire career is characterized by an impressive experimental energy and extraordinary talent in speaking about the unspeakable…Inspiration and innovation equally power Volkswagen Group of America on the road toward the future.” Nicely played, Horn.
When Lowry appeared on stage, he called the show “complicated, exhilarating, and one of the most interesting projects we’ve had a chance to work on.” Was he being serious? Could he possibly believe those words, or does he just say that about all the exhibitions?
Benita von Maltzahn, Volkswagen’s “director of culture,” spoke next. I drifted off but I picked up on the following phrases:
– “But how can one create a platform to…”
– “Immersive experience”
– “German engineering”
– “A significant bit of Silicon Valley”
And so on. Lowry then interviewed Biesenbach. Watching the two men communicate was like bearing witness to a long forgotten Laurel and Hardy routine, polar opposites paradoxically working together in unison. Lowry is the straight man, all business, asking rational questions and in return receiving responses from Biesenbach like, “So I made it a future retrospective.”
I felt sad and embarrassed leaving the museum. Embarrassed for Björk mostly, who deserved better than this, but also for MoMA. That the country’s preeminent modern art museum is putting pop culture on a pedestal as a means of driving attendance is no surprise–this has been going on for years and has produced a number of very popular exhibitions (Tim Burton, Kraftwerk, etc.). I won’t fault an institution for embracing the masses and I can’t even hold their flagrant product placement–Volkswagen is as much the subject of this show as Björk–against them. Keep your doors open by any means necessary, but at least have the decency to call it like it is. “Black Lake” isn’t a “new immersive music and film experience,” it’s a music video. “Songlines” isn’t an “experimental sound experience,” it’s an audio tour. And the show is hardly a retrospective—it’s starfucking, something increasingly familiar at MoMA, and a failure even at that.