If you're like me, Monday night was a bit like your Super Bowl. Let me back up- I respect and appreciate the Super Bowl for its establishment as the ultimate celebration of America's favorite past time (I know that's up for debate baseball people), but I'm not into sports. I watch the game every year...for the commercials and the half time show. I'm sorry, but it's true. So it should come as no surprise to anyone that the Grammy awards are one of the highlights of my calendar every year. In fact, my buddy Ryan of Beyond LD said it best:
Seriously, I LOVE the Grammys. There's the occasional spectacle (ahem Kanye) and sometimes the voting is questionable (Chris Brown for Best R&B in 2012), but the sheer pageantry of it, mixed with the risks performers are willing to take, and the collaborations you will never see again make it one of the most amazing parts of awards season for me. Monday was no exception.
I was one of those 25 million people who sat transfixed as performance after performance went across the stage at the Staples Center, each one getting (mostly) better than the last. Sure there were missteps and issues, as any live performance with that many moving parts will have, but overall I thought it was a superbly executed piece of musical theatre. As an Event Nerd, the one performance that stood out to me was obviously Lady Gaga's. Lots of people have written articles and posts denouncing and praising it- this is neither of those. There is already a great short film from Intel and Ruth Hogben, and an article in Vanity Fair outlining the how and why of the technology- this isn't that either. Last night was a defining moment in #eventtech that I'm hoping people really caught. Here's why.
Tech as Art
For years, as event producers, we've looked at technology as a necessary, albeit ungraceful part of the events we produce. We know that we need lighting to let things be seen, and can make it change colors and move to add some flair to the event, but ultimately many see them as necessary to the event in the way staplers are necessary for your desk. Add to this list of necessary evils projection, audio, and stage design and you've got a well rounded list of things that are often looked at as clunky but necessarily acceptable. Last night, Gaga and her team proved that technology can be used in artistic expression in the same way that movement is in choreography, or brushes are in painting, or notes are in musical composition. Last night, using a mixture of Intel's Curie chip for tracking and control, robotics, interactive projection, and 3D modeling, they showed tech as a palette and not as the club or hammer that so many have often considered it. As event producers, it shows us that we can look at the things in technology that we often try to hide behind scrim and pipe and drape, or tuck away in rafters and truss, as pieces of the show and not just things that enhance the "real show." In her own words, Lady Gaga said "there is magic that can be made with technology...you can actually create imagery that is otherworldly."
Control can be the greatest illusion
One of the coolest parts of the show, that I'll bet many people missed, was the way Gaga (or do we call her Lady?) was able to control elements of the technology with the way she moved her hands or formed her face. Instead of relying solely on the lighting and projection technicians at FOH to be the ones that control the looks throughout the entire performance, Lady Gaga was able to change things on the fly using the Curie system I mentioned earlier. Those two massive rings on her fingers gave her almost complete control of a number of elements of the performance, meaning they could change in real time based on how she was feeling and performing. Anyone who has ever been on stage knows that, even with the most well scripted performance, there is an element of spontaneity that MUST exist in order for the performance to have life, and for the performer to not feel stagnated and stifled by the experience of performing. That level of spontaneity is often quelled because you're still beholden to the pre set cues in the lighting console, or the fact that the projection has to fire at the exact right time. Last night, we saw what happens when you give the creative genius the ability to control even more of their creative process. What would happen if we took more of the creative process and put it in the hands of the performers? What if we created a series of elements they could play with and then let them loose (within a framework if necessary)? As event producers (or LDs or Audio techs, etc) we know what we know very well, but getting the creativity of a performer involved in what we do, might be a way to open up a whole new spectrum of possibilities.
Tech in Process
What made the technology most impactful to us, and most usable to Gaga, was the fact that the technology that she did use to control the performance was part of her regular process. She had markers on her face that adapted to how she moved it, and two rings on her hand that changed things around her as she gestured within the choreography. There wasn't much she had to learn about in order to use the tech. She just did what she does and let the tech enhance it. Sometimes, as event producers, and #eventtech enthusiasts, we can make the tech we use unattainable for those without the equivalent of advanced event degrees (if those existed). Making the technology a part of the process that our clients, guests, performers, and partners already understand means you make it easier for them to use it, and more likely that they actually will use it- and use it correctly.
Celebrate the Scientists
Intel and Gaga recognized that none of this would have been possible without the brilliant minds from around the world that came together to create new and enhance existing technology. They brought those brilliant minds, those scientists, into the beginning of the creation story, as opposed to going to them at the end when they had already decided what they wanted and were just looking to the "techs" to execute their creative vision. In the same way that the vision was cast to the choreographer, Richard Jackson, I'd imagine that the creative scientists behind the various technological elements were brought in near the beginning to contribute their direction to a work in progress. One of the biggest challenges that creators of event technology find is in being included in the process of creation. All too often, technology and the people who create it are seen as add ons, not as integral parts of what's being created. One of the mottos that we live by at The Event Nerd is "technology is the tool used to tell the tale, not the tale itself." Creating a great event is like telling a story, and each tool we use is a character. While we need to be sure to not make the tech the focus of the experience, it's important that the creative scientists who develop technology be allowed to be exactly that- creative. Bring them in early and watch as your event takes on a life you could not have imagined. They're as integral as your linens, scenic and stage design, or lighting.
While a tribute to Bowie, the performance was undeniably Gaga. She's well known for her over the top theatricality, and this was no exception. She looked at the technology as an extension of herself, and sought to find ways to showcase her vision in everything that was on stage. A once static piano was made into a dancing, almost sentient being through the choreography of robotic arms. Everyone and everything on that stage worked for Gaga and contributed to her creative brilliance. Meat dress or not, she's a creative powerhouse, and last night's technology played to that. Technology that seems disingenuous to an event, conference, trade show, etc. just doesn't work and seems forced. It's important to remember that, whatever we use, we must make it a part of the event and not just a cobbled on addition, lest we end up with some Frankensteinian monster that's a mish mash of five of the hottest techs that we just had to have at this year's...whatever.
In all, last night's performance showed us that technology can be more a part of the mainstream execution of events than it has been to date. Art and performance typically precipitate a change in popular culture, so I'm excited to see where this one performance takes us. Bonus: Intel has a 2 year contract with the Grammy Awards, so expect more awesomeness next year. In the mean time, if you didn't catch the performance, I've got it below, as well as the behind the scenes movie created to tell how it came together.
Stay nerdy my friends.