DANCE: The Sahara tent's hanging lights will sync up to the music. (Muti Randolph / The Creators…)
In one corner of the field at this year's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, fans will find an unlikely structure — a kind of ad-hoc cathedral. There's no atonement for a boozy weekend inside, however.
Instead, beams of light will cascade from the ceiling in a hall filled with ambient white noise. Pass through the light columns and you'll be awash in pieces from the orchestral, emotionally ravaged single "Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space" by British band Spiritualized.
"We wanted the light to be the sound," said Jason Pierce, Spiritualized's mastermind. "The objective was to get people physically inside the song."
The Spiritualized installation, called "Meet Me in the Chorus" and helmed by director Jonathan Glazer ("Birth," "Sexy Beast") and the firm Graft Architects, is one of many ways that the festival, starting Friday in Indio, will explore a radical new method of integrating live performance and three-dimensional art.
This year, Goldenvoice collaborated with the Creators Project — a joint venture from Intel and the saucy New York-based media conglomerate Vice encouraging cross-genre artistic and technical collaboration — to revamp the technical infrastructure of the main stage, the dance-inclined Sahara tent and various installation pieces to allow for greater artistic input. The intention is, as Pierce said, to make songs exist in physical space. They'll turn the festival's stages into performers in their own right.
"After the world economy collapsed, it really made us feel like the whole weekend has to deliver," said Paul Tollett, the founder of Goldenvoice, which produces Coachella. "By the end of Sunday you need to have gone through a range of emotions. The experience of the art and the ambience has to play a huge part in that."
The most prominent addition is the new skeleton of the main stage. Designed and operated by the British design team United Visual Artists (who have constructed sets for U2 and Massive Attack alongside installation and gallery work), the stage has accommodated ambitious live-show sets before — just ask whoever found Roger Waters' inflatable pig in their yard in 2008. But UVA's set makes the stage itself into a spectacle.
The stage will be constructed with a cube of controllable lights, with two wings that retract to open the front of the stage. Between sets, it will glow and shift patterns like a monolithic Rubik's Cube, programmed by the designer and Warp Records recording artist Mira Calix. During sets, UVA will deploy its in-house software to control half a dozen light effects that add depth and effect to a band's onstage presence.
"It's important to have a moment when the stage takes on a personality," said Matt Clark, founder and creative director of UVA. "Hopefully it can be iconic but still be modular and allow the bands to show their own personalities as well."
Top-billed acts including Arcade Fire, Interpol and Animal Collective, however, have incorporated their own lighting designs into UVA's modular stage. Interpol's Friday set will be the first to use a band's master-concept in the rig, and Animal Collective enlisted its experimental-noise peers Black Dice to direct a found-footage montage using UVA's modules to play with the idea of a stadium's Jumbotron. Arcade Fire's Saturday night headlining set will climax in a UVA collaboration with director Chris Milk, who oversaw the band's ambitious and unexpectedly moving childhood-nostalgia Web video, "The Wilderness Downtown."
"It's easy, though, to lose track of the humanity if you just start showcasing tech," Milk said. "I love the contradiction of cold high-tech that's incredibly emotional when used in the right context. It's essentially human nostalgia produced by the most advanced technology available today. Million-dollar satellites, photo-mapping cars, HTML5, a series of tubes — all to take you back emotionally to the place where you started."
As dance music has crossed over into pop and indie rock, the Sahara tent's light rigging will similarly entice novices and seasoned electronica heads. Brazilian designer Muti Randolph will re-cast hanging light panels — each synced in patterns to the music — from his São Paolo, Brazil, club D-Edge to an entirely new audience.
This kind of cross-genre artistic collaboration (one that turns the dancing-about-architecture adage on its head) is the goal of Creators Project, which has its biggest public palette yet at Coachella. It also represents a broader vision for Vice, which has transformed from a field manual of hipster contrarianism into a media business — flush with new venture capital funds — pursuing gonzo investigative journalism and, now, installation art and design.
"When we get back from shooting documentaries in North Korea and Liberia, this is the fun stuff we turn to," said Shane Smith, co-founder of Vice. "Art makes life better, and it doesn't have to be experienced in a snooty gallery."
And at this year's Coachella, both the sound and space can claim to be groundbreaking art. "Too often, live show technology is just about how big your screen is," Clark said. "We come from using negative space. We want to use it for a deeper understanding of the music."