In recent years, Björk, accompanied by Icelandic musician Bjarni Frímann
Bjarnason, has been expressing her unique sound with a new orchestral style. For this year’s ＜Coachella music festival＞, Björk partnered with her longtime co-creative director James Merry to bring to life an inventive stage production that utilizes the latest technology.
During a Björk concert in Japan in March, just a month before ＜Coachella＞, James met Kaoru Sugano, a longtime creative collaborator of Björk’s. The two discussed how they could use 3D printing to create two masks for Björk to wear for her Coachella performances. Subsequently, Sugano invited secca inc., a craftsman group based in Kanazawa City in Ishikawa, to the project as experts in 3D printing.
Qetic recently conducted an email interview with the creative trio to learn more about how they joined forces.
▼Table of contents
Björk’s creative view colored by two masks
──Please tell us about the “Bergmál” mask that Björk wore during the first week of Coachella.
James Yes, the inspiration for this particular mask was to make something that would radiate outwards from the head, like a soundwave frozen in air. I spend a lot of time sculpting these pieces in 3D software – playing with particular forms and shapes until they produce something I find interesting. So it is often a mixture of accident and intention.
For the Bergmál headpiece I was exploring spirals and trying to produce a shape with one continuous edge that would rotate around its own axis, folding back in on itself many times. Once I had created that form I realised that it looked like a soundwave, so I pushed it further in that direction knowing that it could fit well into Björk´s sonic world.
────I feel that the word “Bergmál”, which is also the title of this mask, reflects some kind of unique Icelandic values. What do you think about the word “Bergmal” and its values? Do you ever experience those values while living in Reykjavik?
James Bergmál has always been one of my favourite words in Icelandic. It literally translates to “mountain language” – because of the way an echo bounces down a valley, as if the mountains are speaking to each other. I love that image evoked by the word. I have lived in Iceland for almost 10 years now, but the culture still reveals itself to me bit by bit – through the language as I learn it, the books I read and the music I listen to.
3D data of “Bergmál” worn by Bjork during the first week of Coachella
──Next, I would like to ask about the “Ossein” mask that Björk wore during the second week of Coachella.
James The form of the Ossein mask was a product of many experiments in the 3D sculpting phase, and turned out to be one of the most complex things I have sculpted. I was amazed that it was even printable. My intention with the references and inspirations was more concerning the texture – I really wanted it to look like cartilage or fishbones, something with a very organic translucency to it.
──I see, so the distinction wasn’t made intentionally. The characteristics of this mask are clearly evident from the source of its inspiration, but I think one of its characteristics is that it turns blue when exposed to a certain type of ultraviolet light, in order to reproduce the glow of living organisms underwater.
James I had originally planned for these masks to include some LED lights, moving around and flashing inside them like an underwater sea creature. However, early on in the sculpt I realised that this was going to be difficult to achieve without sacrificing a lot of the design elements, so I decided to use UV light instead. I had used UV threads a lot in some of my first early embroidered pieces, which glowed under certain stage lights – so it was an aspect I was keen to revisit in the 3D printed iterations. I´m very happy we ended up going in this direction, as this gave the mask a more organic and bioluminescent feeling (wheres LED might have become too “disco”!)
The completed work of “Ossein” was performed during the second week of Coachella. Glows blue when exposed to UV light
──These two masks were created with the secca team. How did you feel when you actually held the mask that they had created?
James I was totally overwhelmed! Their meticulous craftsmanship and alchemical ability to make some beautiful textures really brought the pieces to life in a way I could never have expected. I travelled to Kanazawa to visit them and it was such a great experience – getting to know them personally and professionally was a lot of fun, and I am so proud of what we made together.
──This time, you used 3D printing to carve these two masks. What is your thought behind incorporating these new technologies into your design project with Björk?
James Since I started making masks, I have always moved between different mediums almost unintentionally just as a result of wanting to evolve my designs. At first they were all embroidered, then I started to use wire and beadwork, then silicone sculpting, and then into metalwork and silversmithing. 3D printing was a very natural extension of that journey, particularly as I had also started to 3D sculpt and programme my masks as AR filters.
I really enjoy switching between the physical and digital worlds when I work now – and I find that the two disciplines can accompany and enhance each other, rather than compete. The last few masks i have made have come out of a back and forth between the two, designing by hand in quite a traditional silversmith practice and then putting that into 3D sculpting software and manipulating it there, and then back again into the physical world.
“Honey Ossein”, a different color of “Ossein”, was also 3D printed by secca inc.
Björk, who is currently on her world tour, wore this mask during her performance in Lisbon.
──Generative AI is currently gaining popularity around the world, but many people question its existence. As technology develops. What do you think about the future where technology coexists with art?
James I think we have lived with AI for a while now, as an integrated function of all sorts of softwares and technologies that we didn’t necessarily call AI until recently. But rather than perceive it as a threat, I take it more like a challenge – if your concepts or aesthetics can be so easily replicated by an algorithm, then I would rather use that as an impetus to keep evolving and think of something new that the machine can’t do.
99.99% of the AI art that I have seen is quite homogenised, unless someone is doing something clever with it or incorporating it their existing practice rather than just relying on it entirely. As with any other tool or technology I am most interested when an artist finds their own idiosyncratic way to use it and lean into the glitches, making the nature of the medium part of the artwork but bending it towards their own world.
Kaoru Sugano x secca inc. Tatsuya Uemachi
secca’s ingenuity that does not spoil the emotion brought by creation
──When you started the production of the masks did you start with the design presented by James?
Sugano James is responsible for the overall art direction of the project and the design of the masks. James presented us with a concrete design that was digitally sculpted using 3D data, and we were responsible for how to make it a physical 3D print with the quality that Björk and James wanted. I was involved as a technical director, and the secca team was in charge of production, and they demonstrated their craftsmanship to the fullest. We follow a process where we make adjustments to areas that need to be carefully adjusted during implementation, such as the strength of the live performance, without damaging the original design, then print them out and refine them.
──Did you have a concept for each mask already decided when you received the 3D data from James?
Sugano If anything, we had a specific design image from the beginning, and we started by figuring out how to make it a reality. James was the one who directly discussed the concept with Björk, but I was able to fully understand the important parts of the concept from James’ design. It doesn’t look like a digital design at all, it feels very organic. The design is inspired by things that are close to living things, or rather things that are natural. Based on my experience with previous projects with Björk, I knew from the beginning that even though this design was implemented using the latest technology, I had to make it look extremely organic and not give the impression that it was implemented using the latest technology. I think we started off by properly aligning our understanding with the secca team.
Uemachi What really deepened our understanding was when James came all the way to Kanazawa, where we are based. By talking to him in person, face-to face, we felt like we were able to figure out what quality we should improve on and what we should propose. Just like his attitude toward this project, he was very polite and careful about how he treated us. During our exchanges, I learned that the beauty of Iceland’s natural beauty that he sensitively observes on a daily basis is a source of inspiration for him, and that the beauty in nature is an expression of himself. I could feel that he was trying to embody that through his costume. It feels like part of your skin rather than something you wear. That’s the kind of costume James and Björk were looking for.
──Were you able to print the prototype with a 3D printer when James came to Kanazawa?
Uemachi Yes we were. By the time James came to Kanazawa, the secca team had had detailed discussions, adjusted the data, and printed out samples. While analyzing the rough data we received in advance, we realized that there were many parts that were physically difficult to reproduce. It was only 0.3mm thick, and there were parts where I thought it would break if I moved it around during a live performance. We also create works using 3D modeling on a daily basis, but when we look at the parts that we thought were beautiful on screen, when we hold them in the actual space, we find that they are far from what we imagined, and there is a gap between them. It is a series of tasks such as filling in the information, printing it out, and checking it again. When James came to Kanazawa, he was able to see the test printed samples and was able to give his opinions directly. We were able to share a concrete image of how we wanted the product to look and fine-tune it, allowing us to make solid adjustments. For example, we said things like, “If we want to make it look that way, let’s keep it thick here and make it thicker in other areas”, and we worked out what areas we couldn’t compromise on and where we could compromise.
────Sugano-san wrote on Instagram, “the 3D data sent by James was beautiful in every way, and secca was just amazing!’.
Sugano As Uemachi-san mentioned, when we looked at the data, we felt that it would be difficult to achieve the strength of the masks due to the relationship with the material and shape. There were some parts that needed some work to make sure they would be fixed. This is because both masks were designed by calculating backwards from an ideal picture surface, so it was assumed that if things remained as they were, it would be physically difficult to put the masks on the face in the first place. Despite this, the secca team has taken the initial inspiration and implemented it in a way that enhances it without compromising its design at all. I felt that secca’s ingenuity was wonderful in that respect.
In addition, this mask cannot be completed simply by printing it out with a 3D printer; it requires a considerable amount of manual labor by craftsmen in order to achieve the ideal appearance, including texture and transparency. It is not something that can be learned in a few days. It is difficult, even for experienced engineers, to realize the designs and concepts conceived by world-class creatives such as Björk and James without sacrificing any of them. In other words, both digital engineering skills and artisanal manual skills are required. In addition to having experience and an understanding of the work, you also need the ability to not give up to the limit, which is a psychological thing. The secca team was perfect in all aspects, so we owe Uemachi-san and his team a huge thank you that we were able to make it happen this time.
────Uemachi-san previously said that when secca produces crafts, it strives to achieve an expression of art and functionality as a product used in everyday life. I thought this story might have some similarities to that.
Uemachi That may be the ultimate thing. For example, when it comes to tableware for everyday use that is mass-produced, the people who use it and the situations in which it is used are diverse, so in order to satisfy each person who picks it up, it may be necessary to reduce it to an average design to meet the diverse needs of each person who uses it. This time, I made it just for Björk, so I focused on how she could concentrate on her performance at her best, and I was most conscious of making sure the mask didn’t create noise. If the mask itself were to break, or come off during the performance, something would be ruined, including the time and value of the experience for those attending the concert. That’s what I was most afraid of, because it will effect matters even after the show.
“Whether it moves your heart or not”
James Merry and secca’s common language
──So, Sugano-san, when you first became involved with Björk in the music video for “Mouth Mantora” in 2015, is there anything that stands out to you through that experience?
Sugano First of all, the most important thing is being very careful and taking the time and effort to make creative decisions. The music video for “Mouth Mantra”, which I helped out with, was a very difficult idea to visualize the inside of the mouth. The live video for “Quicksand” that I also helped out at
Another thing that struck me was when I asked Björk about the relationship between art and technology during our conversation was that, she told me that she really likes incorporating new technology, and she gave examples of traditional instruments that have become commonplace in modern times, such as the piano and violin. She says, “when the piano and violin were created, they were the latest technology”. As for the piano, the technology itself was treated as the subject matter of a song. However, in modern times, the use of the piano is rarely the main theme of music. At first, the use of technology may be touted and become a theme, but before you know it, the technology will disappear and only the music and the emotions it brings will remain. She says, “When it comes to expressing emotions, playing the violin in a certain way allows you to express your emotions. Performance methods and expressions have been cultivated over a long period of history. In other words, the violin is like an old computer. What artists have to do is express themselves by using the tools that we take for granted, which are unique to the era in which we live. I think it’s an artist’s job to put their heart into technology.” Those words really impressed me and stuck with me.
björk: mouth mantra
björk : quicksand [VR] (360°) live stream, tokyo, japan [surrounded]
Sugano Björk’s attitude toward technology is the same when it comes to creations that use cutting-edge technologies such as 3D printing, which is the specialty of the secca team. One of the reasons we invited secca to join our team was because, even though they are skilled at creating things using the latest technology, they do not emphasize that as the main aspect for the final product. It is obvious that there is new technology behind the scenes when you understand the process by which the design was created, but the intervention of technology never comes before the design. I thought that this really matched the feeling I had gained through my communication with Björk.
──That sounds like a very important and interesting topic. When we previously interviewed Uemachi-san, you said that using technology is not the purpose for expression, but rather, technology is primarily a tool for realizing expressions.
Uemachi Yes. We are also conscious of the exact same thing, whether it moves our hearts or not. I think this is the most important point that creates value. Therefore, I view things in this order: experience is necessary to move the mind, and things exist as interfaces for that experience. We learn from what people in the past have done and make use of it, but if we just do the same things as people in the past, we won’t create much value. The times are changing, and the sensibilities of the recipients are also changing, so if we pursue new experiences, experiences that fit the present, and experiences that we want to deliver only to that person, we will inevitably find ways that people in the past could not choose. There are often hints. For example, if 3D printing existed in the Edo period, I think it would definitely be used by craftsmen and artists. If there are tools in front of us that people in the past couldn’t choose, and if there’s a destination beyond that that people in the past couldn’t reach, we should actively try them out. We are working with this attitude.
What impressed me when I worked with James this time was that even though we each have different identities and values, we can connect non-verbally through creation. It was difficult for me to communicate verbally because I can’t speak English well, but I think we were really in sync with each other in terms of what we think is beautiful and what moves us. This may have been a big realization that I gained behind the scenes of this activity.
Sugano I am the creative director of the entire project for over 90% of the work I am involved with, and secca is of course in the same position, and they usually work on their own signed ideas and creations. Secca is by no means a company that only handles technical direction and 3D printing. This time we were not the ones leading the project; Björk is the creative director and James is the artist and designer. What Uemachi’s realized is something that was possible because someone else was leading the project rather than himself. The question was – how can we support the creations of a rare artist like Björk and make them realize what they want to do? Although the thinking process is different than usual, we take what Björk and James want to do very seriously, and want to understand their vision, and then help them implement it. It was new and a lot of fun. The vision we all had in common this time was what kind of emotion we wanted to convey to the audience through our creations. The secca team that I know are good at expressing this, and I think they have world-class talent when it comes to achieving this. I wanted many people to know this fact.
It’s extremely rare that a project by a world-class artist like this involves a domestic craftsmen like secca who are well versed in traditional Japanese techniques that have been passed down for a long time and are able to handle cutting-edge technology. I hope that by conveying the greatness of secca’s participation in a world-class project with a different approach from their usual main work, they will be able to shine a light on it from a different angle than usual. If people understand what kind of valuable work they do, their recognition will expand. I’m sure more and more people will become interested in their products and work, and I sincerely hope for that.
Interview：Hajime Oishi, Kenji Takeda
photos by @santiagraphy
mask design & 3D sculpt @james.t.merry
mask production @secca_kanazawa
3D printing support by DMM.make
mask technical direction @suganokaoru
producer : reiko kunieda
orchestra : hollywood string ensemble
björk dress @noirkeininomiya
led sound reacting dress @claradaguin
silver skirt @weishengparis
bjarni frímann top @maisonvalentino
bjarni yellow outfit @rickowensonline
James Merry is a visual artist from the UK, now based in Iceland where he has worked with Björk since 2009 as a frequent collaborator and co-creative director on her visual output. He is primarily known for his hand embroidery and mask-making, and has collaborated with institutions such as the V&A, Gucci, The Royal School of Needlework, Tim Walker, Tilda Swinton ShowStudio and Opening Ceremony.
Creative Director/Creative Technologist
Handled advertising projects for NTT, Mori Building, Suntory, Honda, and Shiseido among others; creative director (expert in digital technology expressions) for live performances such as Tokyo’s presentation at the Rio Olympics/Paralympics Closing Ceremony and the Japan Show Act at CeBIT in Germany, featuring actor Mirai Moriyama, as well as music videos and live performances for globally famous musicians including Perfume, Ringo Sheena, Brian Eno, and Björk.
Recipient of multiple awards, including two JAAA Creator of the Year Awards, the Titanium Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions, considered the highest award in the advertising and design industry, the highest- ranked D&AD Black Pencil, four ACC Grand Prix Awards (Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Award), the Grand Prize in the Entertainment Division at the Japan Media Arts Festival, and so on.
Recent projects include the Mori Building brand film “Designing Tokyo,” Perfume Live 2021 “polygon wave,” the Shiseido 150th anniversary commemorative “From Life Comes Beauty” campaign, “Endless Dawn” for Suntory Natural mineral water, and so on.
Born in 1983 in Kani City, Gifu.
After graduating from Kanazawa College of Art, he joined Nikon Corporation and was mainly responsible for planning and designing new products.
Questioning the abnormal consumption cycle of value accelerated by the capitalist economy, he established secca inc.
At secca, he aims to create new value by identifying future questions from his unique perspective and creating new products and experiences that respond to those questions.
Currently, he is mainly responsible for creating the concept for each work while promoting secca’s unique management.
Part-time lecturer at Kanazawa College of Art/Invited lecturer at Shanghai Tongji University, etc.