Program director Curver Thoroddsen with kids during a Biophilia educational workshop in Oslo
Program director Curver Thoroddsen with kids during a Biophilia educational workshop in Oslo
Photo courtesy of Biophiliaeducational.org

Four Lessons From Bjork's 'Biophilia' Class at MOCA

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On Big Family Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, kids and family members got to take part in a number of art-related activities, most of which took place under canopies outside the museum. But inside something a very different program took place -- a short lesson as part of a curriculum housed within a collection of apps.

The Biophilia Education Program stems from the musician Bjork's instructive apps that accompany her "app album" Biophilia, which includes music, apps, installations and live shows. Program director Curver Thoroddsen says the program "takes the book out of teaching."

Bjork didn't show up herself, but over the course of the day, Thoroddsen and a few instructors led workshops based on her apps for the first time in Los Angeles. Kids and their families sat at tables listening to lessons that blended science with music in a very Bjork-like manner (think lots of bright colors, kooky songs and trippy visuals). This week, the team will head to Edison Middle School to teach the full program over the course of a few days.

The workshop at MOCA was only a small part of the overall program which uses apps on the iPad along with traditional (but more fun) lessons. For the workshop, slideshows were also used, along with demonstrations that called for volunteers. Edison Middle School teachers will work with the Biophilia team to create their lessons.

I sat in on a workshop amidst the excited moms and loud kids, and listened for what Bjork could teach me. Here are four lessons:

4. When starting an eclectic education program, start simple

In the beginning of the workshop, two teachers explained the concept of electricity. They talked for a few minutes about the periodic table and all the other facts I glossed over in school and then the fun part came -- making light. A cloth in the center of a table hid a teeny lightbulb, a square battery and two wires. Basically, the lesson was that once you clamped the wires down onto the battery and the lightbulb wires, you would help electricity flow and heat the bulb to a state of brightness. I thought about how I might use this skill -- while camping, during a zombie apocalypse, during a party when everyone got really drunk or bored -- but couldn't quite settle on the best use.

It didn't impress me as much as the rest of the lesson but that goes to show that if you're going to try something totally new -- the Biophilia program gets more interesting -- it's a good idea to start with the basics. The kids probably won't remember this the most but they at least know more about electricity if they didn't already.

3. You can't have a cool idea without the visuals to go with it

The program focuses only on music and science -- there was no art component to hint at the fact that the workshop took place inside an art museum. But the entirety of the program looks so distinct because of the carefully chosen colors and designs. When you play with the app, the music notes that appear at the bottom don't come up as regular ones -- they are Bjork-ified, with weird little lines through them and curves.

After the workshop, attendees could head to a nearby auditorium screening strange Bjork videos such as her MOCA TV "Mutual Core" music video and the music video for "Crystalline." Both look at times like acid trips but also like beautiful pieces of animation and graphic design. Inside of MOCA, the videos feel almost like the work of a traditional video artist because Bjork's vision for this app album is so consistently unique.

The auditorium was also showing clips of previous workshops. During a lesson in Iceland, an instructor uses one app to explain cells and a student asks, "Is this inside of Bjork?" Not realistically speaking but I'm sure if she could design her own interior it would actually be the spitting image.

2. My kids are going to grow up extremely accustomed to iPads

Since the program used apps, each ticket guaranteed an iPad per family. Though none of the teachers warned the kids to be careful with the gadgets or even how to use the touch screens. At first, I figured that it was because the parents knew what to do, but around the room, the kids were taking the helm and naturally maneuvering the iPad with their small fingers. They didn't seem fazed that such a technologically advanced object was given to them -- they obviously knew exactly what is was already. Bjork probably realized this, too. It seems I'll eventually have to explain to my kids the value of your regular, non-touch screen desktop computer.

1. You can use a Tesla coil as an instrument

If Nicolas Tesla ever constructed a list of figures or people he predicted would use his creations, Bjork might not top his list. But an app named Thunderbolt -- matched up to her track of the same name playing in the background of the activity -- tied together an explanation of static with footage of Bjork in concert using a Tesla coil -- a kind of electric circuit -- as an instrument.

The app basically lets users drag up to five fingers across the surface, creating lines that look like static -- or little thunder bolts -- that make buzzzing sounds in higher and lower registers. You can create a line or other shapes with your fingers on the app and the higher the shape rises, the faster the notes go and the wider the distance between fingers, the more notes that play.

Bjork actually allowed some students in Iceland to play the real-life Tesla coils when the crew was around. She's training the next generation of musical kiddos to see that you don't have to play boring, old instruments. You can just make music by controlling static.

Follow me on Twitter at @eva_recinos and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.

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