Data Distortion: The political visuals of Robert Del Naja and UVA
It’s been over three decades since Massive Attack was born, and Robert Del Naja is preoccupied by power. That’s not to say he’s hungry for it – quite the opposite. He is fascinated by exploring ways to distribute it; of handing over editorial control in order to produce a musical experience befitting the creative democracy of the internet.
The most recent output from the seminal trip-hop outfit (centred around Robert “3D” Del Naja and Grant “Daddy G” Marshall) was released via Fantom, their algorithmic sensory app that allowed users to remix material, from which Del Naja created February’s Ritual Spirit EP. More recently, Del Naja’s been touring and developing the visual elements of the live show. The show is the latest iteration of a longstanding collaboration with London-based art practice United Visual Artists (UVA), a collective founded by Matthew Clark who specialise in the manipulation of light.
Brought together by their shared attraction to minimal aesthetics, Del Naja and Clark have worked on the evolution of the show for several years. It has become an indispensable component of the Massive Attack experience. In essence, it involves the projection of data and headlines lifted from local and international media. Most of these statements are stark human truths regarding socio-political crises. These are occasionally juxtaposed against headlines taken from celebrity gossip rags, speaking to our culture of distraction. If you’ve been to see Massive Attack in the last few years, you’re as likely to have been made aware that the Japanese military is on alert to shoot down a North Korean rocket as you are that Tiffany from Celebrity Big Brother has eyed up her housemate Scotty’s manhood in the shower and described it as ‘luscious’.
When I catch up with Del Naja ahead of Massive Attack’s first Bristol show in 13 years – an enormous outdoor concert which included Skepta, Savages and Primal Scream as support acts – he is in a measured mood. His well-known humility is audible from the moment he picks up the phone, but there’s also a clarity and drive; you can almost hear the furrowed brow. As Del Naja explains, the show harvests information from the news cycle of a local destination at any given moment, but the technical components are months in the making. “The actual writing of the piece will normally start six months before rehearsals at least,” he explains. “I’ll sit down with Matt and Icarus Wilson Wright and we’ll start to imagine it almost like a storyboard, and then there’s a period of programming. Ultimately you’re working with some seriously skilled code writers who are taking maybe a one-line concept on the back of a fag packet and turning it into a script that’s going to run a completely bespoke light show to suit a particular arrangement of LEDs for 90 minutes.”
“Each iteration of the show is slightly different,” he continues. “We started off with quite a monolithic, single screen, but what’s in front of it is almost like a search bar, like you’d find on any web browser.” The addition of the search bar blocks the visibility of other information. “The bar started to feel as if it was redacting information as well as displaying it. It became a negative space. We were using the idea of redacting information all the way back on Heligoland with the graphics on the sleeve, blocking out images and words and asking what would happen if you started to delete statements, say the opposite of statements, remove parts of statements. What would you then be left with that you understood?”
The Heligoland artwork is an apt comparison. Comprised of paintings by Del Naja himself, the series of works associated with the 2010 album were heavily influenced by his origins as a graffiti artist in early 1980s Bristol. He believes there’s a clear lineage between then and now. “There is the evolution between painting statements on walls to displaying statements with light. Both are transient. Back in the day when we were painting you were lucky if a piece stayed on a wall for more than a few days before it was painted over. Paintings would appear on the sides of trains that were travelling through cities and images would flash before people’s eyes and then disappear again, until they were captured by photographers. With the light show, it travels around, it appears for two hours in someone’s hemisphere and then it disappears again. We’ve never displayed it, we’ve never captured it on video, we’ve never released it. It just comes and goes. So it has that very transient nature and it’s only when other people see it, and they share it and capture it, that it becomes something else. The most basic description of it is that we’re a circus with fireworks passing through a town. There’s this eruption of sound, information and light and then ninety minutes later, it’s all gone.”
While many artists might balk at a sea of white screens at a show, for Del Naja the internet represents opportunity. His inspiration to work with LED came initially from a fascination with the work of Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima, but since its inception the show has taken on a lif e of its own. When I ask if it was designed to act primarily as a cynical critique of the modern media, he’s hesitant. “It started out as that, yeah. But when we started with this show the internet was relatively new, whereas now with everyone so absorbed and interconnected, the nature of it has changed. The danger is that it appears to the crowd as just another newsfeed or another blog. So we continually challenge the show’s relevance and update ourselves.”
Clark concurs. “UVA’s collaboration with Massive Attack spans 14 years now. The distribution of information in the digital age and its consequence has evolved in ways that no one could have imagined since we started working with them. Our work has really been an observational commentary of this phenomenon.”
“There is the evolution between painting statements on walls to displaying statements with light. Both are transient” - Robert '3D' Del Naja
Rather than simply mirroring the world back at the crowd according to a series of preset functions, the show is built to adapt. Translators for various regions feed in the issues which most concern them and the show is re-built for each local context. Eventually Del Naja would like to take this tailor-made approach further still. “The idea is to eventually try and get the show almost working as independent intelligence, using deep learning computation. We’re wondering if the light show could start to create itself not unlike Fantom as it starts to remodel music with its software: can the light show start to remodel itself from the inputs we give it, and if so what form will that take?”
Del Naja sees this as a chance to open up a discussion about the editing of information and the destruction of history. “In a sense the question is, is that more legitimate or as legitimate as a human being doing it, and what’s the difference? We’ve seen that information and culture has been constantly destroyed, burned and edited throughout history. That will now continue digitally, but that could be a positive thing because the democratisation of the internet gives everybody the ability to edit.” He’s the first to acknowledge this new landscape also comes with a risk. “There’s that phrase, ‘the post-factual society’, where everything is shared peer-to-peer and you don’t necessarily have to hear the truth, you just have to hear something. The truth is rewritten as it’s shared. It’s an interesting but scary time we live in; we can see from the misinformation that was spread around the time of Brexit as a very recent example of how precarious that is. You read about Oculus Rift founder Palmer Lucky’s Pro-Trump ‘shitposting’ campaign and you recoil and fear for the information age. Ultimately, our aim is to question information, the sharing of information and our role in it.”
Focusing on modes of communication may feel like something of a step back from an artist world renowned for his activism, who has recently scored documentaries raising awareness about tax evasion, vocally raised awareness about the plight of refugees and stateless individuals, and gained copious attention for his vocal championing of the Occupy movement during its heyday in 2011. When we turn to the subject, a world-weary frustration is just about perceptible in his voice.
“Occupy has been described as a constructive failure, in that it taught us lessons about modern social activism, but it changed nothing. There was the argument when we were all protesting against the Iraq War in 2003, that if we’d gone back to Parliment Square week after week maybe it might have worked. The Occupy Movement was the answer to that, it was about staying in one place, to keep applying that pressure to affect change. But Occupy’s noble idea of a leaderless movement proved to be its downfall, as it became confused by its own lack of identity and lost its central cause. It became a stereotypical, incoherent lefty protest group and lost all power and support, playing into the hands of the conservatives and the banks. I guess you can argue that unless protest turns into something legitimate it’s hard to see where it can go, and if it does become something legitimate then it becomes conventional and then it has to abide by the rules it may be fighting against.”
“The truth is rewritten as it’s shared. We can see from the misinformation that was spread around Brexit as a very recent example of how precarious that is” - Robert '3D' Del Naja
Does he wonder about the impact of his own political messaging? “You do sometimes wonder about the aim – whether you’re simply preaching to the choir or trying to convert. I don’t want it to feel preachy.” Equally, he’s aware of the limits of sharing a message to galvanise change. “There’s a track during the show that uses all the flags of the factions fighting in Syria, and you see that these ideological struggles are being sponsored by foreign powers to create a perpetual state of civil war, and ever intensifying violence. In the light of that you understand why people would be fleeing for their lives, it’s not a matter of choice, it’s a matter of necessity and I think we often forget that. It’s editorialised and in a sense you lose touch with the fact that it’s actually life or death. It’s on a completely different level than how we’re actually thinking about it, we’ve lost touch with that idea.”
When it comes to presenting messaging for the show, Del Naja seems genuinely concerned by the idea of his own voice dominating the message, of becoming another editor in that process contributing yet another storyline. Perhaps this explains the urge to collate fragments of other people’s words from around the media to create a collage of other voices rather than penning them himself; trying to subvert the tendency for a singular interpretation.
Escaping this singularity forms a part of everything Del Naja does. It’s a fitting vision for a band borne of the sharing of ideas and music under the umbrella the early sound systems in 80s Bristol, the disruptive power of hip-hop at that time and the waning – but still powerful – influence of punk. For Del Naja, it’s simple that a desire for constructive mass participation on a political level should bleed into the artistic. These things are all connected. And yet still the humility comes out.
“Is there anything different in what I’m doing to sharing an article on social media or signing a petition?” The answer has to be yes, but the comparison shows a lot about the unease Del Naja feels about putting himself on a pedestal; of shouting louder than the rest. He wants their platform to be used to amplify the voice of the crowd as much as their own, and more than that he wants it to have a purpose. Occupy may not have brought power into the hands of the 99% all on its own, but the determination to make a difference is still audible in his voice, and any sense of frustration is due only to the scope of his ambition. Ultimately, when the show sets in and the messaging is underscored by a discography like Massive Attack’s, it’s impossible to see it as just another newsfeed. The data may be overwhelming, but there’s truth in there somewhere.
For more information, visit uva.co.uk/projects/massive-attack-collaborations