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Geology Porn: The Science and Art of Bjork’s “Mutual Core” Music Video

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk was born and raised on an island that tectonic forces are ripping apart. Iceland is part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which separates the Eurasian Plate and the North American Plate. These two plates are drifting away from one another at a rate of about 2.5 centimeters (1 inch) each year. Most of the Mid-Atlantic ridge remains underwater, but Iceland was forced above sea level around 18 million years ago, most likely by an enormous mushroom-shaped plume of magma. The Icelandic plume is also probably responsible for the island’s intense volcanic activity and geysers.

Over the years, Iceland’s unique geology and diverse landscapes have appeared in Björk’s art in one way or another. In one of her most recent songs, “Mutual Core,” Björk uses geological activity as a metaphor for the volatility of an intimate relationship—a metaphor for intimacy’s friction, conflicts and rifts, as well as its seemingly unbreakable bonds forged in fiery passion; for the attempt to rearrange parts of oneself to better fit another; and for periods of relative calm punctuated by eruptions of emotion. The music video for “Mutual Core,” released this week, is a gorgeous, explosive and sensual imagining of tectonic movements.

Björk and her team chose Los Angeles-based filmmaker Andrew Thomas Huang to direct the music video for “Mutual Core.” Huang wrote the initial treatment for the video in London, where he visited geological museums for inspiration, studying the color palettes of rock collections and watching videos of magma ballooning from underwater volcanoes.

The video opens with crumbling layers of earth, reminiscent of sand art. Björk, wearing a blue wig, golden dress and a brooch she designed herself, stands in the middle of a sandpit, a piece of rock in each hand—chunks of lava rock that Huang’s crew collected on location in Iceland. Huang and his team gathered the sand from local mining sites: “In Iceland they have black sand everywhere,” Huang explains, “but we went searching for warm orangey beach sand that we thought would be more appropriate.”

Björk waves the pieces of lava rock over the sand, which shifts as though concealed dolphins are swimming through the grains. She buries the rocks, which emerge as larger floating boulders flickering tongues of overlapping turquoise, pink and yellow stone. The hovering rocks are puppets made from foam and covered in plaster, fossilized barnacles and various decorative textiles; the tongues are all computer animation. “I like using practical effects and puppetry as much as I can,” Huang says. “If it’s too digital, it feels dead. Björk and I were examining not just the act of tectonic subduction [when one plate moves beneath another], but also how it’s represented in science education. We always see strata [layers of sediment] laid out as colorful graphic ribbons. That was the impetus for the rainbow colors cascading over each other.”

The floating rock puppets embrace in a kind of kiss, their tongues pushing against one another like tectonic plates, so that one dives beneath the other. They separate and more rocks rise from the sand, somersaulting in circles around Björk. Most of these rocks are computer animations. “We had to calculate how millions of sand particles would cascade over rocks, which is an incredibly challenging thing to animate” Huang says. “Our technical director spent two months developing a system for rocks to kick up sand.”

Björk’s face appears in the rocks’ colorful tongues as they merge once again, this time more violently, bursting into flame, spitting magma and growing into a volcano that spews molten lava as the song reaches its first climax. In the next scene, Björk dances in the sand pit beneath a soft shower of ash and the rock puppets reappear with more fully formed Björk faces in their strata. They meld violently once more, forming a “mutual core” and morphing into an even larger volcano flanked by two Björk boulders sitting back to back, like a statue of Janus, the two-faced Roman god of doorways and transitions. “For this scene, we filmed Björk in gray makeup with pebbles stuck to her face for texture and tracked the motion of her face in CG. She also wore a headdress made by an artist with crystals and gems,” Huang says. “The rest of her costume is graphics. We wanted her to look like an Earth goddess. We were looking at a lot of Thai and Indonesian costumes and statues.”

In some scenes, Björk appears to spit magma from her mouth. In reality she was spitting out a mixture of ketchup and cake batter, which was later modified to look like red-hot lava. “Magma has a certain consistency, the way it flies and explodes. The crew experimented with various materials and decided cake batter and ketchup was the best way to do it,” Huang says. The crew also shot plates of the gooey combination from an air compressor and filmed the resulting splats and splutters in slow motion.

“Mutual Core” belongs to the album Biophilia, Björk’s most overt celebration of science, human biology and the natural world: song titles include “Virus” and “Dark Matter.” But this is not the first time that nature and science have featured prominently in Björk’s work. In “Joga,” Björk sings of “emotional landscapes” and the accompanying music video, directed by Michel Gondry, takes us on a breathtaking aerial tour of Iceland. Computer animation splits the country’s crust to reveal magma beneath. In “Oceania,” Björk sings from the perspective of the ocean, in whose waters all life began: “Your sweat is salty / I am why.”

“You might think, Who would ever make a song about tectonic plates?” Huang says, “But one of the things that makes Björk so genius is that she is one of very few artists who attempt to make poetry from science plus music. Typically we associate volcanic activity with anger or ferocity. Björk gets happy when she thinks of a volcano; she thinks it can be positive too. That’s something I hope came through in the video.”

About the Author: Ferris Jabr is an associate editor focusing on neuroscience and psychology. Follow on Twitter @ferrisjabr.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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