Icelandic singer, songwriter, and superstar Björk is known for carving her own wondrous path on Earth, from spanning multiple music genres to embracing cutting-edge technologies in her albums, concerts, and style. On June 28, at 8 p.m. in Tokyo (7 a.m. EDT), she blazed another trail by performing the first 360-degree, virtual reality (VR) livestream on YouTube with her song “Quicksand” from her album Vulnicura (One Little Indian Records, 2015). The event was held at the Miraikan, Japan’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, one day before the venue’s opening of the 18-day “Björk Digital” exhibition, which includes a theater outfitted with VR technology for audiences to experience music from Vulnicura and a cinema room to listen to 29 songs—newly remastered in 5.1-channel surround sound—from her catalog.
What’s immediately striking about Björk’s “Quicksand” performance, aside from her lithe, powerful voice and avant-garde costume, is her mask, which was custom designed by the Mediated Matter group at the MIT Media Lab in collaboration with 3D-printer manufacturer Stratasys. The mask is one in the Rottlace series of masks designed by the group, which is directed by Neri Oxman, an associate professor at the MIT Media Lab who is also a groundbreaker in the fields of architectural design, digital fabrication, and material ecology. ("Material ecology" is a term coined by Oxman that describes an interdisciplinary area of study in material science, biology, and design.)
Rottlace is a cognate of the Icelandic word roðlaus, or “skinless,” which sounds counter to convention purpose of mask, but in this collection of masks, the juxtaposition becomes clear. When Björk dons the mask for her performance, her musculoskeletal system—the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and connective tissues—that controls and modulate her voice appears to surface, exposed from underneath the skin.
According to the Mediated Matter group’s design statement, Oxman with researchers Christoph Bader and Dominik Kolb designed the mask to express “the face without a skin,” creating a new identity with origins from the artist’s facial structure. Each mask in Rottlace incorporates “tunable physical properties recapitulating, augmenting, or controlling the facial form and movement behind them. … [C]onceived as ‘muscle textile,’ the masks are bundled, multi-material structures, providing formal and structural integrity … to the face and neck.”
To create the Rottlace designs, the team first 3D scanned Björk’s head, resulting in a point cloud of curvature vectors. The team then modified the directional field to distinguish between the primary and secondary curvatures, assigning areas with a high degree of divergence as the rigid, bone-like support structure from which soft collagen fibers will emerge, emulating the connections between muscle and bone, bone and bone, and muscle and muscle, with differing degrees of weave density. At least a dozen mask designs were presented to Björk, who selected one to be printed for her live performance.
The mask was 3D printed by Stratasys using multi-material printing, which allows for synthetic materials with specific mechanical properties to be distributed in a geometrically complex construction in a single printed object. The mask combines three print mediums with varying rigidity, opacity, and color that were determined by geometric, structural, and physiological constraints.
To create the multi-material print file, the team had to parameterize the selected mask design. The team assigned material properties through custom software and heterogeneous-material modeling workflows to ensure a gradual change in flexibility and translucency in the mask. Every fiber was assigned a specific print material—or precise mix of materials—based on the fiber’s distance to the rigid support structure. The support structure was also “parameterized based on geodesic distance to source points around the neck area,” according to the team.
The final mask has an opaque, semi-flexible support structure that changes in stiffness around the neck, and mostly semi-translucent fibers with varying flexibility based on their distance to the surrounding support structure. It also looks quite fantastical and, dare I say, comfortable.
Björk is no stranger to collaborating with high-tech innovators in architecture and design. For the artist’s 2015 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), in New York, she and MoMA chief curator-at-large Klaus Biesenbach teamed with David Benjamin and The Living, an Autodesk Studio, to design an intricate custom environment in which museum visitors experienced a video performance of “Black Lake.”