Stranded in the Jungle--31

Björk and Chris Cunningham

ROBOTIC. It's cold, ice cold, and all the more seductive for that. I am watching Chris Cunningham's 1999 video of Björk's song "All Is Full of Love." Björk has always been the palest of the Ice People. But here she is whiter than ever. For in this four-minute video, Björk is an android. She is being put together on an assembly line, even as we watch. In place of skin, a smooth white fiberglass shell fits over her frame. This shell is composed of many separate plates. Some of them haven't been attached yet. In Björk's neck, in her arms, and on the side of her head, we still see the underlying circuitry. There are plastic tubes, and wires, and knots of metal and black vinyl. Björk's face is blank and impassive, a perfect mask. Her eyes, nose, and mouth are delicately modeled. Otherwise, the surface of her face is entirely smooth. Björk's eyes flutter, and her mouth moves slowly and precisely, as she sings of endless love: "Twist your head around, / It's all around you. / All is full of love, / All around you." Björk speaks English almost without an accent. But her pronunciation is oddly toneless. She sings the way I imagine an alien would, or a mutant. Her voice is ethereal, almost disembodied. It seems to float in mid-air, as if it had come from a vast distance. Shimmering washes of sound accompany these vocals. Densely layered strings play a thick, dissonant drone. Ghostly harp arpeggios rise out of the murk. The original version of "All Is Full of Love," on Björk's 1997 album Homogenic, has no percussion. Mark Stent's remix for the video adds a slow, synthesized beat. This steady rhythm grounds the song somewhat. But Björk pays it no mind. Her voice drifts away from any fixed pulse. She phrases the notes unevenly, now stretching them out, now shortening them. She hovers around the beat, without ever landing precisely on it. In Björk's singing, time becomes elastic. It seems to have lost its forward thrust. It no longer moves at a fixed rate. It dilates and contracts irregularly, following the modulations of the voice. Usually, we think of machines as being uniform in their motions. They are supposed to be more rigid than living beings, less open to change. But "All Is Full of Love" reverses this mythology. It suggests that robots might well be more sensitive than we are. They might have more exquisite perceptions than we do. They might respond, more delicately, to subtler gradations of change. It's just a matter of programming them correctly. At the start of the video, the Björk android is splayed out upon a long platform. Behind her, the walls are an antiseptic white. Other machines are busy working on her. Their flexible arms poke and pry into her. They attach a panel here, and tighten a bolt there. A cylinder turns, emitting a shower of sparks. A light flashes under an open hinge. Water gushes backwards, seeping out of the drain and leaping into the spout. Nothing is inert. Every mechanical object in the video turns on its axis, or glistens, or thrusts and withdraws. Every material substance flows, or splashes, or sputters, or spurts. We see all these processes in close-up. The video thus reveals the erotic life of machines. Why should Björk herself be any different? Soon, we see that there are two Björk androids, instead of one. They face each other, singing by turns. One holds out her arms in an imploring gesture. The other lowers her head bashfully. A moment later, the Björk androids are making love. We view them from a distance, in silhouette. They kiss, and slowly caress each other's thighs and legs and buttocks. All the while, the other machines keep on making adjustments to their bodies. Are the Björk androids so enraptured with each other, that they are oblivious to their own construction? Or does the process somehow enhance their bliss? In either case, their motions are so slow, and so stylized, as to suggest a superhuman state of grace. Everything about the video confirms this impression of ecstatic quietude. There are no fast camera movements, and no shock cuts or jump cuts. There are few colors to be seen. Nearly everything is a shade of white. The video's lighting ranges from a harsh white, to a muted blue-white glow, to a few white lines gleaming in the darkness. It's as if the world had been bleached and rarefied, and chilled to nearly absolute zero. Is this what it means to be white? Is this what it means to inhabit the digital realm? Perhaps, the digital is not the opposite of the analogue. It is rather the analogue at degree zero. The world of continuities and colors that we know has not disappeared. It has just been frozen, and cut into tiny separate pieces. These pieces have then been recombined, according to strange new rules of organization. They have congealed into new emotions, and new forms of desire. In its own way, the machine is also a sort of flesh. As Björk embraces Björk, the digital celebrates its nuptials with the organic.

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