Celebrate eccentricity and other lessons from Björk

A circle of screens showing constellations hang above the instruments on stage at the Craneway Pavillion
Seeing Björk perform live in San Francisco with this swirl of screens and instruments around her was a treat for the ears and the soul.

Last week, I got to see one of my idols in action in San Francisco, and every splash of electricity, every heart-thumping wail, helped affirm the creative and spiritual path I’ve been drawing up for myself. Many people have asked what it was like seeing Icelandic singer Björk perform live for the first time, so I’ve tried to distill some of the lessons I learned here. First, let me set the scene for you.

Björk has always had murmurs of volcanoes and snow-goddesses in her music, but her latest project, Biophilia, explicitly invites you to think about our place in nature as sort of a midway point between the cosmic and the microscopic. I’ve written before about the iPad/iPhone apps she created for Biophilia. It was something different entirely to see her perform the songs beside a harbour, with the almost-full moon rising behind her.

Man in swan dress stands outside with friends smoking
The obligatory fan wearing a swan dress outside.

It seemed right for my boyfriend and I to dress up a bit whimsically, considering she’s performed in a swan dress and an outfit made of tinkly red fingers of glass. We didn’t realize we’d be so out of place in the city where she was performing, though. Across the Bay from San Francisco itself, she’d set up camp in an old wartime assembly plant in Richmond, refurbished into a glassed-in pavillion overlooking the harbour. I’m glad we wandered around, because it helped us put the evening in context. Richmond is palpably poorer, more latino, and more black, than San Francisco. And while the pavillion was breath-taking to be inside, wandering drew my attention to the more sinister side-effects of the refineries and factories in today’s Richmond.

Meanwhile, we stood in line with digital artists, punk kids from Sacramento, and yuppie parents from Oakland. Once inside, we found a spot standing ten metres away from a small stage surrounded on all sides by fellow eccentrics, creators, and dreamers. The lights dimmed, a ring of screens lit up with videos introduced by nature documentarian David Attenborough, and a cage of tesla coils descended from the ceiling to join the enormous pendulum harps, drums, and pipe organ on stage. That’s when Björk herself came out with ruby platform shoes, a frizzed-out blue and orange wig, and a choir in tow to teach us this:

  • Celebrate eccentricity
    Songs about lunar cycles, and videos of starfish embracing each other, are not for everyone. Björk’s work kind of embraces her fearless, outlandish tendencies, though. As a consequence, she accomplishes things that a less daring artist would never get close to. What could I accomplish if I was less afraid of what people would say, or how they’d react?
  • Don’t give up on the impossible
    Like a giant child’s legs dangling under a desk, the pendulum harp she played was an invention from her own mind. It is literally four enormous wooden pendulums, and when before each one falls she can rotate a circular harp wrapped around its base to pluck a different note. It perfectly suits a song about gravity and Earth’s place in the solar system. She dreamed it up this incredibly complex thing,approached robotics experts and programmers, and gave the world something that never existed before. What else could we make if we looked at our audacious dreams and said, “Yes please, let’s create that”?
  • Comfort is an illusion
    Björk is almost 50* now, but she’s still creatively peaking. Sometimes her experiments don’t work, but she’s not afraid to skip most of the hits and habits that made her famous, to make space to try something new. I think a lot of artists get into a rut of continually reproducing their old stuff to make their fans happy. All the songs about viruses, DNA, and cosmic origins on Biophilia showed me that it’s often safer to let go of what feels comfortable though, because the meaningful and relevant ideas change a lot throughout our lives.
  • Go beyond aesthetics
    Frizzy wigs and tesla coils playing bass synths with lightning are cool, of course, but they’re only worth seeing if they add up to a message. Throughout Björk’s music, there are messages about the need to forgive yourself, to stand up and fight against injustice, to embrace where you fit into a landscape. M.I.A. and K’naan are two other incredible musicians who get that it’s fine to lure people in with sick beats and catchy melodies, but what keeps people coming back are layers of real meaning behind them.
  • Giving matters more than getting
    Generosity comes up a lot in songs like Undo and Generous Palmstroke. This was a theme we felt many times in San Francisco: the only way to create lasting, fruitful bonds in this world, between people, with the rest of our environment, everywhere, is to offer more than you expect to get back.

On top of all of these experiences, it was such a joy to be in that tightly knit little crowd. We serendipitously stood beside a thoughtful quantum physicist from New Mexico and his hilarious wife, an optical engineer who works with lasers, photographs reflections, and sings Björk’s Cosmogony with her daughter as a lullaby.

What was seeing Björk like? It was like being raised up by a sea of people not afraid of their passion.

*Oops! I accidentally aged her and said she was over 50 originally. My apologies for awarding un-earned years.

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Follow your nose

A waterfall marks the beginning of Cheonggyecheon stream in Seoul
Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon stream is a symbol of rising economic tides as much as urban renewal.

When you’re interviewing someone for a story, preparation can be a double-edged sword. Last month, I travelled to South Korea to visit a bevy of friends and taste as much kimchi and spicy pork wraps as I could. I brought my audio recorder just in case I found time to work on a story for Terra Informa, and in my last few days I found a place that seemed to ripe for narrative.

North of the Han River, I read, downtown Seoul was thinly sliced in two by an ancient stream: Cheonggyecheon. There’s a pretty well-established history that’s told of Cheonggyecheon’s life over the past hundred years: slums grew up around its banks, it became increasingly polluted as a home for laundry and sewage, and eventually the municipal government decided it was easier to cover the whole area over with a freeway than to clean it up. Then around 2000, Seoul’s mayor decided to lead the charge on rehabilitating the stream, and the city transformed it at great expense into a fashionable, healthier tourist attraction. The project bolstered mayor Lee Myung-Bak’s reputation, and helped catapult him into the presidency.

Like any good reporter, I wanted to be more than just a stenographer for this official narrative. I landed on two approaches for getting a fresh angle. First, I’d interview a local historian and ask some hard questions about what happened to the people who lived in those slums. It seemed like an obvious injustice that while they were told to move, billions of dollars were later poured into cleaning up the stream for tourists and nearby financial analysts on their lunch break. Second, I’d ask a scientist who studied water quality in Korea to give me context on how polluted other bodies of water are around Seoul.

I was able to arrange for Seoul’s city government to assign a storyteller/tour guide named Ho Park to walk me down the stream and answer some questions about its history over the past 600 years. I had my questions ready, and as we strolled past symbolic pieces of stone and renovated ancient bridges, I tried to press him on why the poorer residents were moved, rather than being able to benefit from a cleaner waterway themselves. While he gamely told me the name of a neighbourhood they’d been relocated to and tried to answer my questions, I could tell he was getting tired of them.

Finally Park said, “Have you ever been hungry?” I admitted that I hadn’t.

Then he told me a different story about Cheonggyecheon. Look at it from the perspective of the country after the Korean War, he said. Millions of casualties, both countries in ruins, and many of those left were desperately poor. South Korea didn’t have the kind of money to think about environmental health, he said. The whole country, and certainly its iron-fisted dictatorship, were focused on economic growth.

Models show off high-tech camping and climbing gear.
Models show off high-tech camping and climbing gear.

Today, Seoul is a mostly-affluent, sometimes futuristic city. You can swipe your RFID-enabled transit card to get on about a dozen subway lines that snake through the city, have your butt heated the whole way, and be right at home watching soap operas on your smartphone along with all the other passengers enjoying seamless 4G connections through the tunnels. When I first visited Cheonggyecheon, I wandered past a crowd of photographers gathered around a fake backdrop for a North Face photo shoot.

Now, said Park, was the time to think seriously about cleaning up air quality downtown and get carp and marsh snails back in the streams. Ecological health is a luxury for the rich, essentially.

It wasn’t the story I came for, and it wasn’t one I was comfortable with. But it was the honest perspective I found from both Park and the scientist, so it’s going to be the thread of my story. Sometimes, you have to be willing to toss out your well-prepared notes and follow your nose.

The One-Way Door

A man crouches to squeeze through a doorway out of a dark room and into the light.
The Room of No Return, Elmina Castle, Ghana

In the Elmina slave castle in Ghana, where men and women were held in hellish prison cells waiting to be shipped to the New World, there is a room my friends and I were taught to call the Room of No Return. There is a door out of this room where people were herded out to the boats, a one-way door. I have been thinking a lot about death lately, and I have been thinking about the one-way door.

Isaak Kornelsen’s death, and the cycling town hall it inspired, got me thinking about how a death resonates with the people left behind. Does it change the way they see themselves, the world around them, I wondered? Or does it just make them pay attention for a moment?

And after that, I kept coming back. I interviewed a forensic entomologist in Vancouver who explained how insects can tell stories for the dead: the age of flies in a body can date the time of death, the species mix can tell you the location a body was moved from, and the blood in an insect’s crop can tell you who… well, who they were eating. After that, my friend Alison and I organized a Shareable Neighbourhood walk to explore nature’s cycles of life and death (it hasn’t happened yet — that’s this Saturday). How do the trees and animals around us cope with the long, cold, winter in this climate? Which ones die, and which ones hang on, and how?

I’ve been trying to piece together why I’ve been drawn to these ideas lately, and the best I can come back to is the door. As JK Rowling showed so painfully in Harry Potter, death is at least a one-way passage for knowledge. We can never know what lies on the other side: a long drop and a short stop, or an ocean of possibility.

What does it mean to pass through a door with no hope of return? With no knowledge of what comes next? We know, of course, the grim life that lay on the other side of that particular door in the slave castle. But what if we were presented with such a door today, with no knowledge of what lay on the other side, and had the choice to take a one-way journey through it? Would we take it?

I watched the movie Solaris tonight, and it certainly asks this question. I think many great science fiction movies do, actually. Characters are presented with the choice to step onto an unknown, possibly transcendent, and possibly fatal path. There is no turning back.

I always get a tingle when they do.

Many of us live our lives with some certainty about the one-way door. It brings many people comfort to think that heaven lies on the other side, that all of our pain and wrongs will be erased and we can join the people we love again there. Others are just as certain that all that’s ahead of us is a future as a meal for insects. I don’t think it’s possible for us to know, no matter how many ghost stories I hear. But I think the answer we hold in our hearts matters.

If you were certain there a chance of eternal happiness on the other side, what matters more than getting there? Live your life without sin, do some good deeds where you can, and make right with your Creator, and everything will turn out alright. But what if all that’s on the other side is darkness? For some, that might mean there’s no point to living well. For me, I think it realigns life’s purpose.

If this is the only life we have, personal salvation doesn’t matter, but making this world better might. We may not have immortal life after this body expires, but we can certainly have an immortal impact on our community. If we are brave, we might embolden a whole generation after us. If we pay attention to our actions, we might make the water cleaner for our grandchildren. If we make space, new life might flourish in our footsteps.