Biophilia and interactive art

This article was first published in the February 2012 issue of Blueprint.

‘There was no way to buy interactivity until a couple of years ago,’ says Scott Snibbe, the media artist and filmmaker who has developed and produced the apps for Björk’s Biophilia album. ‘I was showing things in galleries and museums…in the MoMA and places like that, but I never really wanted to show in an art gallery.’

Since the early Nineties Snibbe has been working in interactive music research, many of his pieces containing a significant visual component. They often depend on the immediacy and minimal interface of a touchscreen, allowing users to control shapes and patterns derived from the natural world. In one well-known piece, Bubble Harp, the polygons and lines created by the user generates sequences of notes based on the length of the lines. The expense of the necessary equipment meant that the work found its place mainly in the experimental world of the gallery, where it was incredibly popular with visitors, or in academia, as advanced research in the field of computer science.

Snibbe’s mathematics- and music-based work were a good fit with Björk’s ambitions for Biophilia, its grand themes of the relationship between nature, technology and music and her experimental approach to song writing. The album had a relatively long gestation as Björk, with the music already written, searched for a way to present it visually, one capable of conveying the scope of her ideas. An initial concept for a sort of museum with one room per song was rejected as too difficult to tour. After that came the idea for an Imax film, to be done in collaboration with Michel Gondry, abandoned as he became busy with other projects.

And then, almost two years ago, the iPad came out. It was mass-market, there as a way to distribute its applications, and it had a close affinity with the specialised tablet devices which Björk had used to create Biophilia’s music. For Snibbe’s interactive pieces, too, it suddenly offered a way to escape the confines, and relatively limited audiences of the art world.

Bringing Snibbe’s approach together with Björk’s work, would mean the music might be experienced and played with by listeners in the same way it had been composed and recorded. Snibbe was invited to join the project, working with Björk and her designers M/M, to design three of the album’s apps, and produce the rest in line with the vision that Björk set out for each one.


Cosmogony, the main menu for the album, is one of Snibbe’s apps. It is conceived as a 3D galaxy, with each song represented by a star. On tapping the star and ‘entering’ it, users can choose how the song is played. You can follow a standard musical score, although this also has a degree of interactivity, allowing you to scroll back and forth through the song at the swipe of a finger. There is the music video and the interactive games and instruments which are the focus of the app experience.

It is easy to see the trace of earlier Snibbe projects in the Biophilia apps, in Thunderbolt for example, which allows users to define and then play the bassline. Swiping across the screen produces crackling streaks of electricity, whose length dictates the range of notes for the bass, while the angle of the line affects the speed at which the notes are played.

What is most enjoyable, and possibly addictive, is that with practice you can begin to master this ‘instrument’. This was the aim for the majority of apps, that they would have a sophistication that would reward greater engagement on the part of listeners. ‘You can immediately make some sounds but you can get better and become more musically adept and more sophisticated the longer you use them,’ explains Snibbe. Other apps change the order in which sections of the music are played, or allow users to record, loop and mix parts of the song. It demands active listening and an engagement with what you are hearing that a streamed playlist never will.

In inviting listeners to become part of the music-making process, the worlds first app-album may appear as a radical departure from the audio-only format of vinyl or CD. Instead, Snibbe argues, it is our current, passive consumption of music that is anomolous. Before the Forties, music was often purchased as sheet music, which could be easily manipulated by the player: made longer or shorter, words altered, new instruments introduced. Biophilia’s interactivity is more technically complex and therefore offers its users a lower degree of freedom.

At the same time, it provides a way to explore the bounds of the music being presented and a way of doing this that requires little musical education. This interactive art has finally found a purpose outside the rarefied environment of the gallery.

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