ScanS → The Downs Program Guide Interview
Publication Date: September 2016
It’s been over three decades since Massive Attack was born, and Robert Del Naja is preoccupied by power. That’s not to say he’s hungry for it - quite the opposite. He is fascinated by exploring ways to distribute it. Of handing over editorial control in order to produce a musical experience befitting the creative democracy of the internet.
When I catch up with him ahead of Massive's first Bristol show in 13 years, he is in a measured mood. His well known humility is on show from the moment he picks up the phone, but there’s also a clarity and a drive; you can almost hear the furrowed brow. All of the band’s most recent output has been released via Fantom, their algorithmic sensory app that allow's users to remix material, from which Del Naja created February's Ritual Spirit EP. More recently he’s been touring again, and developing the visual elements of the live show - it’s this which forms
the bulk of our chat.
The show is the latest iteration of a longstanding collaboration with London-based art practice United Visual Artists (UVA), a collective founded by Matthew Clark who specialise in the manipulation of light. Brought together by their shared attraction to minimal aesthetics, Del Naja and Clark have worked on the evolution of the show for several years and it has become an indispensable component of the Massive Attack experience.
In essence, it involves the projection of data and often headlines lifted from local and international media. Most of these statements are stark human truths regarding socio-political crises, but they are occasionally juxtaposed against headlines taken from celebrity gossip rags which speak to our culture of distraction. If you've been to see Massive Attack in the last few years you’re as likely to have been made aware the Japanese military is on alert to shoot down a North Korean rocket as you are that Tiffanny from Celebrity Big Brother has eyed up her housemate Scotty's manhood in the shower and described it as ‘luscious’.
The show harvests information from the news cycle of a local destination at any given moment, but the technical
components are months in the making. “The actual writing of the piece will normally start six months before
rehearsals at least," Del Naja explains. “I’ll sit down with Matt and Icarus Wilson Wright and we’ll start to go over some of the tracks, some of the topics and the scenes and start to imagine it almost like a storyboard, and then there’s a period of programming. Once we’ve decided on the screen arrangement, we work out how they’ll write the script and the code. Ultimately you’re working with some seriously skilled code writers who are taking maybe a one-line concept on the back of a fag packet and turning it into a script that’s going to run a completely bespoke light show to suit a particular arrangement of LED's for 90 minutes.”
“For the last tour we designed an algorithm which took daily headlines and mixed them up,” says Clark. “You would get The Daily Star mixed with the Guardian. The results were hilarious gossip and political stories mashed together to make headlines you couldn’t have made up.” Del Naja expands on how the piece works from a structural perspective. “Each iteration of the show is slightly different. We started off with quite a monolithic, single screen, which we’ve recently gone back to, but what’s in front of it is almost like a search bar, like you’d find on any web browser.” The addition of the search bar blocks the visibility of other information, “The bar started to feel as if it was redacting information as well as displaying it. It became a negative space. We were using the idea of redacting information all the way back on Heligoland with the graphics on the sleeve, blocking out images and words and asking what would happen if you started to delete statements, say the opposite of statements, remove parts of statements. What would you then be left with that you understood?”
The Heligoland artwork is an apt comparison. Comprised of paintings by Del Naja himself, the series of works associated with the 2010 album were heavily influenced by his origins as a graffiti artist in early 1980's Bristol. He believes there's a clear lineage between then and now. “There is the evolution between painting statements on walls to displaying statements with light. Both are transient. Back in the day when we were painting you were lucky if a piece stayed on a wall for more than a few days before it was painted over. Paintings would appear on the sides of trains that were travelling through cities and images would flash before people's eyes and then disappear again, until they were captured by photographers. With the light show, it travels around, it appears for two hours in someone's hemisphere and then it disappears again. We've never displayed it, we’ve never captured it on video, we've never released it, it's never been a standalone sculptural art piece -in a museum. It just comes and goes. So it has that very transient nature, and it's only when other people see it, and they post it, share it and capture it, that it becomes something else. The most basic description of it is that we’re a travelling circus bouncing through town. There’s this eruption of light, and then two hours later, it’s all gone.”
Whilst many artists might balk at a sea of white screens at a show, for Del Naja the internet represents opportunity. His inspiration to work with LED came initially from a fascination with the work of Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima, but since its inception the show has taken on a life of its own. When I ask if it was designed to act primarily as a cynical critique of the modern media, he’s hesitant. “It started out as that yeah. But when we started with this show the internet was relatively new, whereas now with everyone so absorbed in its world the nature of it has changed. The danger is that it appears to the crowd as just another newsfeed or another blog. So we had to update it.” Clark concurs. “UVA’s collaboration with Massive Attack spans 14 years now. The distribution of information in the digital age and its consequence has evolved in ways that no one could have imagined since we started working with them. Our work has really been an observational commentary of this phenomenon.”
Rather than simply mirroring the world back at the crowd according to a series of preset functions, the show is built to adapt. Clark explains: “Some elements of the show are the same every day, but other parts are operated live by the UVA team and there are certain treatments which are driven by code to present a unique experience." Del Naja says: “It has evolved to develop its own language. Each version of the show responds to a previous iteration of itself." Translators for various regions feed in the issues which most concern them and the show is re-built for each local context. Eventually Del Naja would like to take this tailor-made approach further still. “The idea is to eventually try and get the show almost working as independent intelligence, using deep learning computation. We're wondering if the light show could start to create itself not unlike Fantom as it starts to remodel music with its software: can the light show start to remodel itself from the inputs we give it, and if so what form will'that take?”
Del Naja sees this as a chance to open up a discussion about the editing of information and the destruction of history. “In a sense the question is, is that more legitimate or as legitimate as a human being doing it, and what’s the difference? We’ve seen that information and culture has been constantly destroyed, burned and edited throughout history. That will now continue digitally, but that could be a positive thing because the democratisation of the internet gives everybody the ability to edit." He’s the first to acknowledge this new landscape also comes with a risk. “There’s that phrase, ‘the post-factual society’,' where everything is shared peer-to-peer and you don’t necessarily have to hear the truth, you just have to hear something. The truth is rewritten as it’s shared. It’s an interesting time we live in; we can see from the misinformation that was spread around the time of Brexit as a very recent example of how precarious that is. The idea is to question information, the sharing of information and our role in it that’s been a constant theme throughout the whole of the history of this project with UVA."
Focusing on modes of communication may feel like something of a step back from an artist world renowned for his activism, who has recently scored documentaries raising awareness about tax evasion, vocally raised awareness about the plight of refugees and stateless individuals, and gained copious attention for his vocal championing of the Occupy movement during its heyday in 2011. When we turn to the subject, a world-weary frustration is just about perceptible in his voice.
“The thing is with Occupy, nothing really came of it, did it? What’s changed? There was the argument when there were the protests against the Iraq War in 2003, that if we’d gone back week after week maybe it might have worked.
The Occupy Movement was the answer to-that, it was about staying in one place, to keep applying that pressure to affect change. But it’s difficult. Unless it turns into something legitimate, it’s hard to see where it can go, and if it does become something legitimate then it becomes conventional and then it has to abide by the rules it was initially fighting against. So it’s difficult. I’m not a politician, I could have become a councilor or tried to help the world in that way, but I didn't.”
Does he wonder about the impact of his own political messaging? “You do sometimes wonder about the aim -whether you’re preaching to the choir or trying to convert. I don’t want it to feel preachy.” Equally, he's aware of the limits of sharing a message to galvanise change. Take the image of a boy rescued from the rubble in Aleppo that circulated on the internet recently. Does he believe images like this can change things? “There will be a lot of people out there who will be affected by it and will be galvanised to do something but at the same time, once it’s been shared for 24 hours it’s sadly lost its power. There's a track during the show that uses all the flags of the factions fighting in Syria, and and you see that that these ideological struggles are being sponsored by foreign powers to create a perpetual state of civil war, and ever intensifying violence. In the light of that you understand why people would be fleeing for their lives, it’s not a matter of choice, it's a matter of necessity and I think we often forget that. It’s editorialised and in a sense you lose touch with the fact that it’s actually life or death. It’s on a completely different level than how we’re actually thinking about it. we’ve lost touch with that idea. There are too many different storylines that are circulating around at the same time and you don’t see it the way it really is.”
When it comes to presenting messaging for the show, he seems genuinely concerned by the idea of his own voice dominating the message, of becoming another editor in that process contributing yet another storyline. Perhaps this explains the urge to collate fragments of other people's words from around the media to create a collage of other voices rather than penning them himself; trying to subvert the tendency for a singular interpretation.
Escaping this singularity forms a part of everything Del Naja does. “The format of the album may be dead," he explains, “which is why for the moment we’ve been working with EPs." He mentions briefly some more new material they have stored - some collaborations with Young Fathers - but he holds back on the detail as for now his focus is on honing the format and successfully ceding the curatorial role to the crowd. “It's about ownership and power - who owns that process.
Fantom is really a prototype for the sorts of technologies that will increasingly play a role in music. I’ve been working for three years with a mixed reality start up in Miami called Magic Leap - we've been having a lot of discussion and plotting to try and create a visual album music experience that could work standalone and with the light show, using mixed reality glasses. The composition process is different, you’re feeding into multiple disciplines. We’re currently working on incorporating eye tracking. It’s about us not acting alone as curators or editors."
Written By Matthew Clark & Francis Blagburn