We talked to Björk about her education programme breaking into the Nordic curriculum
The Biophilia project has extended its tendrils into many unexpected areas. Its accompanying education outreach programme aims to encourage creativity, whilst using new technology as a gateway to science and music learning. This approach combines the use of cutting-edge apps based on Björk songs like “Virus,” “Crystalline” and “Moon,” with simple exercises designed to be engaging and fun, such as marking a balloon with dots and then blowing it up to illustrate the Big Bang.
The education programme went on the road as part of the Biophilia city residencies—runs of three to ten shows that took place in cities like New York, Paris and Tokyo—at which kids came in to see the new technology on the set of the show, and do workshops with the musicians. But the programme was born and developed in Iceland, with the help of a wide cast of collaborators, many of whom emerged from within Reykjavík’s education system.
“At the beginning I contacted the City of Reykjavík and the University [of Iceland],” Björk explains. “The city provided the teachers, the university provided the scientists, and I provided the project. I hired Curver Thoroddsen to be the head of teaching. And then it was me going, ‘This project could go ten different directions, who’s up for playing?’ When we took it on the road, we found new collaborators—science museums or institutions in different cities.”
And whilst many things around the Biophilia seem like an organic evolution, it was always Björk’s curiosity and will that drove the project in its various directions, be they technological or educational.
“I knew from the start that this would be the only album in my lifetime that would be philanthropic, and pedagogic,” she explains. “It tapped into that side of me. I think a lot of people who do what I do, for as long as I do it, decide at some point to either go into art schools and teach, or go into music schools, or they do lectures. Or, they just happen to pick up disciples along the way, in an obvious or non-obvious way. I was thinking about what to do, and decided to put all that energy into this one box.”
The first iterations of the project included a literal box—the Biophilia teaching toolkit, overseen by project leader Adda Rúna. This large flight case of equipment toured Reykjavík schools, containing app-loaded iPads and chargers, a USB microscope, and a suite of lesson ideas based around the songs on the album. But as the project grew international in scope, moving heavy gear around became less practical.
“We decided to try and put it all into a phone,” Björk says. “It was actually a big victory for us to get the Android version. When we were teaching underprivileged kids in Buenos Aires, in poverty-stricken areas, they obviously didn’t own iPhones and iPads, but they could then just turn up with a cheap smartphone and download Biophilia. It was the biggest explosion for the project travelling around the world.”
Whilst most teachers probably spend more time trying to get their pupils to put their phones away rather than using them in class, the approach met with positive feedback. “The science and music teachers didn’t have any props, but they could download everything there and then,” smiles Björk. “We got a big reaction from them, saying they could now teach about gravity and stuff without any extra tools. So now we’re trying to put all of Biophilia version 203 inside the app.”
Biophilia 203 is an advancement of the project designed to integrate it into Nordic school curricula. “It’s tricky, because the reason I went into it was that so much of music education is just sitting with a book and a pencil,” Björk says. “It’s ridiculous. And now, because of this new fund, and talking with all these specialists—super fun people, actually, like an astronaut woman from Denmark and an astrophysicist from Finland—we’re trying to almost capture the spirit of Biophilia and put it in a book. So it’s a contradiction, and I’m kind of fighting like a rebel teenager going, ‘Nooo!’ But there’s gotta be a way where you can suggest how the lesson is taught, without it being carved in stone.”
Björk is keen for the Biophilia education programme to remain a lively, stimulating, enjoyable experience that keeps the kids thinking, making and moving. “There are still games,” she says, with enthusiasm, “we’re trying to weave it into the text that the students have to stand up, and do things with sticks, and things like forming a circle, and each kid is a different note. Fun things that don’t cost any money to do.”
As the city-residency concert series moved around the world, the Biophilia project connected with many new institutions in each new place, giving Björk the chance to interact with a wide variety of people. “I loved it!” she exclaims. “I went for a meeting at San Francisco Science Museum—me and my assistant James were sitting at some long table to meet the other scientists that worked there, trying to teach average kids about space. I met totally different people and really enjoyed it. It was in the spirit of how we started doing it anyway—we didn’t really have a budget, we bought things on eBay and programmed ourselves with Macs—we went for nine months to Puerto Rico and just put it together ourselves. The whole thing was about putting a lot of energy out and seeing what came back. Now it’s a big collaboration with all these people—I don’t own it. It’s been really healthy for me, to let it be whatever it is.”
After such a long and intensive effort in bringing the project to fruition, Björk is moving on and working on new music, but she is still putting in time to help the programme continue to flourish. “I feel ready to tie a ribbon on it now,” she says. “We had a meeting yesterday at the ministry of education and I was laughing, saying, ‘Oh my god, I need like three coffees’—my head is totally in my next album right now, it was hard accessing that part of my brain again—the repressed pedagogy philanthropist person. And that’s totally fulfilled, I can tell you, she’s sitting burping somewhere.”
The Biophilia Archipelago
- Biophilia was the first album ever to be released in the form of an app, which offers an interactive listening experience
- The Biophilia Educational Programme offered the chance for kids to engage with the topics of the songs, both on the tour, and now as a classroom-based activity series.
- ‘Biophilia Live’ is a film shot at the last ever full Biophilia show in London, in cinemas now.
Quotes from participants:
“I want to make music based on nature” – Student, Manchester
“It’s taught me that any sound can make music, and how much science and music is related.” – Student, Manchester
“I have personally become interested in how apps and music programmes can be used to inspire music making rather than be just a tool to record compositions.” – Teacher, Manchester
Read more here.