Pixel Type On Massive Attack Video Wall
Sunday night I witnessed a memorable concert by Massive Attack in Vorst Nationaal. Wait, let me rephrase that – it was a freakin’ awesome show, one of the best I’ve seen in my lifetime. One could argue that some of their new material may not be up to par with the classic tracks from the nineties, but there’s no denying their live show as a whole is mind-blowing. What’s remarkable is that after twenty years they still have a unique and highly experimental approach to music and performing, shunning the “easy” road of commercialism. Dot matrix type and modular letters play a crucial role in the concert visuals.
A notable aspect of the Massive Attack live shows is that the band is mostly backlit, performing in almost darkness. Behind the band is a video wall unlike any other I have seen. Instead of being the conventional giant colour screen enlarging what’s happening on stage, the low rise touring screen upstage of the band is made up of 15 custom frames populated with 2 x 10 high stacks of 8 alternating strips of Barco O-Lite 510, forming a 15 metres wide and 3 metres high screen giving approximately 1440 pixels in width. The frames were designed and built by XL Video in conjunction with UVA (United Visual Artists). They bombard the audience with live text, abstracted video imagery, and graphics – all in simple monochrome white, red, and green. Halfway through the set a battery of Robe REDWash 3●192 LED wash fixtures are raised above the screen to tremendous effect, adding a new and surprising element to the spectacular lighting as their prominence increases towards the end of the set.
The visuals are designed by United Visual Artists, a British-based collective whose current practice spans permanent architectural installation, live performance, and responsive installation. Research and development is a core part of their process – enabling them to constantly explore new fields, as well as re-examining more established ones. They have collaborated with Massive Attack on previous live shows as well – their first project, and the model for the ones that followed, was the video installation for the Massive Attack 2003 concerts.
From the very smallest (atoms and molecules) to the very largest (star constellations), the show explored digital representations of information, filtering real-time news, stock-market prices, weapon shopping lists, spam emails, virus alerts and weather reports to create a ‘picture of now’ translated into 36 languages, all perfectly synchronised to the band’s computers.
In the current shows the visual treatments, created in collaboration with 3D, are the group’s most explicitly political yet. Flickering references to rendition flights, detention without charge and surveillance societies light up the stage and computer-controlled lights, also designed by UVA, are all in perfect synchronisation between the music and the visuals. This perfect unison is also controlled by the band’s drummer who triggers certain elements through electronic drum pads, adjusting the speed, and even allowing him to repeat certain segments to accommodate the live situation. Many of the statistics displayed on the screen come from an organisation known as Reprieve, who uses the law to improve and enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. Massive Attack had first become aware of Reprieve in 2007, in the process of scoring the film In Prison My Whole Life. Other text is plucked from local news sites and related sources, and particularly inspiring are the quotes about freedom during one song.
The type is alternatively dot matrix letters that are as high as one of those video columns, or large text that takes up the total height of the wall, resulting in striking horizontally striped letters. Most of the text is translated to the local language(s), which means the Belgian shows had alternating French and Dutch text. Unfortunately this presented a minor problem. Somehow the video screen couldn’t display the accents – quite common in French and Dutch – on the large caps, and they were replaced by underscores in words like “BELGI_” (the Dutch “België”), or “FANT_ME” (the French “fantôme”). Nevertheless it was an overwhelming visual and auditive experience.
The FontFeed is a daily dispatch of recommended fonts, typography techniques, and inspirational examples of digital type at work in the real world. Eat up.
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