Dynamite with a Laser Beam

In the cacophony of voices opining on musician Kanye West, you might miss out on the fact that he is one of the great collaborators of his generation. His last album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy includes contributions by over 30 different musicians and producers, from Nicki Minaj to Elton John, and his most recent effort, Watch the Throne, is a joint venture with hip-hop icon Jay-Z. The WTT tour — circuiting Europe this past summer — was a real-time manifestation of that spirit: the co-superstars bounced off each other, performing of some of their biggest hits, then joined together for the musical equivalent of a pas des deux (at one point Kanye memorably raps the officer’s lines on Jay-Z’s 99 Problems). The show ended with an epic shoulder-to-shoulder rendition of Ni**as in Paris, which at the Palais Omnisports in Paris stretched to 55 minutes long.

Aside from the obvious pleasure of watching two masters effortlessly ply their trade, one of the treats of WTT is the result of a different type of collaboration: the set and lighting design by West, together with his design collective Donda. Musically West has a preternatural ear and an extraordinary ability to collect, sift and reassemble countless bits, samples and fragments into surprising and highly original constructions. As a creative director he transfers those sensibilities to the visual, mixing form, video, light and heat.

Through this careful curation and collage, West and his team created something that is at once pyrotechnic and uncommonly subtle. On the spectacular side, the set featured two square stages that magically rose out of the sea of adoring fans to form 50ft high video-screen-faced cubes. More subtle was West’s use of the laser beam. By clever positioning and movement, he transformed the schlocky emblem of stadium rock into something delicate and formally elegant. He shaped the beams to produce sharp, precise volumes so that the planes of light sliced the human form with the mathematical precision of an MRI. These luminescent veils were re-projected on surrounding screens, further dissolving the solidity of flesh into pure media. This laser architecture seemed to represent both a resplendent aura and a sinister, high-tech cage and so was, perhaps, the perfect manifestation of the contradictions of contemporary celebrity.

© Michael Rock