Previewing MGMT’s Guggenheim Performance Visuals

MGMT's lightshow designer, Alejandro Crawford. Photo: Mark Kates

If you’ve seen MGMT play live during the past year, chances are you’ve experienced the work of Alejandro Crawford first-hand. The Brooklyn-based video artist spent the bulk of last year on the road with the band, providing disorienting, ever-evolving video projections that served as visual backdrops for the band’s well-loved psych-pop jams. MGMT’s two forthcoming shows at the Guggenheim Museum  take place next week in conjunction with a retrospective of works (including a giant sculpture mobile hanging from the museum’s ceiling) by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan. Crawford has set out to build an “audio-reactive LED wall” that he will control from the stage, in time with the band’s performance. Hive sat down with Alejandro to chat about creating an installation for the Guggenheim, writing your own custom visualization software and hitting the road with an internationally famous band and a suitcase full of Microsoft Kinects.

How did you first start collaborating with MGMT?

I went to the University of Georgia in Athens and one of my closest friends, Hank Sullivant [of Athens-based band the Whigs], grew up in Memphis with Andrew, the singer. So, in undergrad, when MGMT was still sort of an avant-garde karaoke-type keg party thing, they would come to Athens and Ben and Andrew would spend some time down there and I got to know them then.

“While we are all still fetishizing interactivity at this point in time, sometimes it just sucks.”

Eventually, Hank and I both decided to move to New York at the same time and be roommates. Hank was in MGMT at that time, he was originally the lead guitarist and eventually left to do his own project called Kuroma. We moved in with James Richardson, who is the lead guitarist in MGMT now and was originally the drummer, as well as James’ girlfriend and Patrick Wimberly of the band Chairlift. I had just started at the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU then (full disclosure: the author is also a student in this program). I was doing ITP stuff and one of the classes I took my first semester was Luke DuBois‘ class and that was the first experience I had with live image processing performance. So we would all be hanging out and the guys would look over my shoulder at something I would be working on — at that time it would have been very basic psychedelic-type stuff. Anyway, a year later, after I had gotten a little better, they had started the Congratulations tour and I got an email from James from the road that said, “we were wondering if you would want to come out and do visuals for us”.

The Microsoft Kinect, which was originally designed as an accessory for the Xbox 360, has become a key part of the band’s live performance setup. How did you get the idea to use Microsoft Kinects as live video controllers?

I started touring with the band in September of last year and then through December, that whole European tour and some American shows as well, I used this basic video DJ software that my friend Alfredo Lapuz Jr. and I had written. And then after Christmas, I got my first Microsoft Kinect and started playing with that. Ben in MGMT also does a lot of coding — he’s a really smart coder — so we would always talk about all these computery-type things and at some point it obviously came up that it would be rad if we used a Kinect.

And none of the other band members thought that idea was crazy?

That’s the thing. They’ve always kind of given me conceptual carte blanche and have been really cool about trusting my ideas. I wrote this software that displays color stripes of different thicknesses based on the distance you are from the Kinect, so the guys, as they move around the stage, are entering and exiting different “color zones.” It makes it seem like they’re almost painting and pushing the pixels and the colors around the stage. And I’m on the side of the stage, playing psychedelic TV producer, going like, “camera 1, camera 3, camera 2″ and at the same time I can make the video feedback on itself and turn into crazy shapes and it’s all running through oscillators at the same time. So yeah, we just kind of went with that and to date, we’ve done maybe one or two shows in the States where we actually got to use the Kinect stuff, which is one of the funny things about it — for whatever reason, we’ve only been outside of the country doing that show, which is a shame.

Photo: Mark Kates

Given that the band’s Kinect setup is controlled by custom software, was it the sort of thing where you were constantly tweaking, based on what was happening nightly at the shows?

I romanticized the idea that we would do the show and I would somehow find the time to be in the hotel room tweaking a lot and furthering the code. That didn’t happen as much as I initially thought it would because you’re always contending with different situations, either technical ones or situational ones. Or you’re just tired or you just want to hang out or you’re in a place that you’ve never been before and you want to poke your head around for a little bit, at least. But yeah, there would certainly be nights where nobody would go out or a couple of us would be in a hotel room and we’d be playing with the computers and we’d add certain things. Or someone would say, “Hey, I turned around onstage tonight and saw this one thing that was really cool … could it look like this?” and then we would try to achieve that effect.

It seems like most musicians feel like their shows are slightly different every night, even if they’re playing the exact same setlist. Would you say that the same is true of your work with MGMT?

In terms of it being different every night, this band, more than others, likes to engage in almost a jazzier, spontaneous–but not like, a Phish jam kind-of thing. And I’m certainly playing along with them and freestyling when they’re freestyling.

A View From the Control Deck. Photo: Mark Kates

How did the opportunity to work with the Guggenheim first come up?

I just remember in hindsight, getting an email from one of MGMT’s managers that had nothing to do with what turned out to be the show but was more like, “Hey, you went to art school, do you know who Maurizio Cattelan is?” And then, a couple months later, I heard more about it and we went down to the Brooklyn naval shipyard with the people from the Guggenheim to look at all these sculptures that had just arrived in these giant shipping crates. That was when it became apparent that this was going to be a big installation. Around that time they also showed us a really small maquette of the hanging mobile, so that was, more or less, when we got to see what we were dealing with.

As an artist, how did you approach creating a work that would coexist and in some way, interact with Cattelan’s work?

We had a lot of conversations initially and we were all very aware of how Cattelan’s work was going to be displayed. I’m working for the band, so if they have any visions or ideas, it’s my job to do my best to execute those while also using my own intuition about things. Within the first couple of seconds, it was unanimously agreed that this was Cattelan’s retrospective and that the goal was not to create another piece but to envelop or illuminate his work — to make a terrible pun. So, we knew that we wanted to use light and we knew we wanted to use it in a synesthetic way.

What did you end up deciding to do?

Well, our idea went through a couple of iterations. At first, they wanted their sound split up and going to a bunch of different speakers and we were going to put giant dials on each speaker and every dial around the entire spiral would control a different effect. Then we got into that classic interactive design conversation about, “Well, how much control do we want to give people?” And it’s a very important conversation to have and is, I think, an underappreciated point. Because, while we are all still fetishizing interactivity at this point in time, sometimes it just sucks. In this case it probably would have just ended up sounding like shit, you know?

With all of that in mind, the idea went though several mutations but we always knew it was going to be light that reacted to sound, color that reacted to rhythm, all paired with motion and movement. And once we knew we were going to be using LED lights, it just all made sense. One way you can think of experiencing this kind of mobile or hanging sculpture retrospective is to work your way from the ground all the way up as you walk up the ramp. So, if you’re kind of going at your own pace and the band is playing and our installation is acting as a kind of moving spotlight on different parts of the architecture and on different parts of the sculpture … that just seemed like an interesting way to approach it.

Based on everything you’ve said, it sounds like these two shows are going to be quite different from what fans have come to expect at a MGMT show.

Yeah, well, it just made a lot of sense to all of us that this was a very special show and a very special venue, so to speak. And it has a very unique architecture. It was more of a question of how best to use the space, which I think is the right way to look at it. Because, from a purely pragmatic standpoint, inviting a band to play a rock ‘n’ roll show in the foyer of an art gallery such as the Guggenheim with the acoustics the way they are is asking for a logistical and aural nightmare. Maybe it sounds great but the sound is also bouncing off of everything and just sounds like a muddy wash. So we had to approach things very differently. It’s going to be a surprise for everybody when they get there. It’ll be an MGMT show, in so much as it will be very much the way they are but it won’t be …

Don’t expect to hear “Kids,” basically.

No, they’ll bring the jams! But don’t think of it as an MGMT show. It’s almost like you’ve been invited to see this really fucking cool sculpture through MGMT’s kaleidoscope.

MGMT perform at the Guggenheim on November 10 – 11.

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