bjork at nysci: learning to take chances


Many colleagues have asked about the why’s and how’s of bjork’s appearance at NYSCI.  Some of you have seen the NY Times article about this, which was pretty cool.  Dan Wempa, NYSCI’s VP for External Relations who really made it happen is kind of an guy, and he pointed out this review in SPIN, which I really liked.

Here is the story.  I hope it is interesting not just documenting this particular high profile event, but also how an institution like ours learns to take chances.  The story parallels in many particulars the unfolding of our relationship with Maker Faire.

As Bjork was finishing Biophilia, she expressed interest in making it a performance, and in doing that performance at several european venues along with 2 venues in the US, SF and New York (where she lives part of the year with Matthew Barney, the film maker of Cremaster fame).  Bjorks “people” reached out to science based venues in SF (the Exploratorium and the Cal Academy) and in NY (NYSCI and the American Museum.)  They sent random feelers into NYSCI and didn’t get a response until Rob Semper from Explo and Scott Snibbe, the artist who did many of the apps, suggested they contact me.  I was immediately enthusiastic, so we began discussions. Bjork came to  NYSCI and fell in love with our amazing Great Hall and effectively said “we will make this happen.” 

When Bjork says “we will make this happen” a cadre of people start working.  We had a production design in weeks, and the logistics and budget stuff got sorted.  Live Nation came on as the producer of the event, insulating NYSCI from any financial risks.  Dan worked through all these logistics and our operations staff put together a plan for dealing with this new audience.

During this same time, senior staff attitude ranged from neutral to bemused…why would we want this pop star at NYSCI.  There was one particular senior staff meeting where the CEO asked why this is worth spending time on, and Dan gave a very focused and impassioned response about how this will raise our profile as an adventurous, cutting edge institution and continue our work of broadening our audience.  Everyone agreed after that spiel that we should continue to pursue the possibility with Bjork.

All along, Bjork had been talking about integrating Biophilia with our exhibitions and programs. In Reykjavik, we learned, Biophilia was being integrated into the science curriculum.  About two months before the first show, the first discussions began about programming.  A small team of Karla Calderon, who is leading our maker work, Erin Thelen, and our Explainer team created a music and science after school club on the spur of the moment, with no funding, on top of everything else they are tasked with.  We recruited students through our NYSCI Neighbors outreach program led by Tania Tiburcio . The first camps ran this Monday, I haven’t yet heard how they went.

A few of us from NYSCI walked around with Bjork and a group called the Creators Project to look at specific exhibitions that could be highlighted to connect with Biophilia.  After an hour or so walkabout, we came up with about 10 exhibits that could be associated with the songs (with sufficiently elastic bands).  Dark Matter?  Well we have great cloud chamber that reveals invisible matter…Cosmology? the Eames planetary motion vortex reveals how planets orbit a central mass.  etc etc.  I wrote the labels, and I am still not sure if they are installed.

I couldn’t make the first show, but I heard it was a great evening of rich complex music.  Dan said that Bjork said that the Great Hall at NYSCI was the best place she had ever played.

Kudos to a lot of staff for energetic and positive attitudes about working across boundaries.

The moral of the story…taking chances can be powerful for audiences and transformative for the staff.