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 thirty 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—which circuited North America and Europe this past year—was a real-time manifestation of that spirit: the co-superstars bounced off each other in performing some of their biggest hits, then joined together for the musical equivalent of a pas de 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 fifty-five 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 fifty-foot-high video-screen-faced cubes. More subtle was West’s use of the laser beam. By clever positioning and movement of the lasers, 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 is a partner at 2x4 and director of the Graphic Architecture Project at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.