Reaching for the Screen in Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Lights in the Sky’ – Katheryn Wright

Abstract: During the Nine Inch Nails’ Lights in the Sky tour in 2008, Trent Reznor made use of two semi-transparent stealth screens layered in front of a third screen through which the band performed the second and third acts of the show. A stealth screen is made from reflective elements linked together like a chain, and can appear either transparent or opaque depending upon the lighting. When these screens appear onstage during the concert, attention shifts from Reznor’s body in performance to his physical interactions with the surrounding screens. The screens are not only spaces for the projection of images, but physical objects Reznor interacts with during the course of the show. Reznor plays a game of hide-and-seek with his audience using screens to reveal and conceal his body. The downstage screen also transforms into a touch interface, where Reznor experiments with its responsiveness. Both hide-and-seek and the play of responsivity in NIN’s performance echoes the everyday interactions people have with their screen technologies. As such, the NIN’s Lights in the Sky tour maps emerging bodily habituations forming through the materiality of the screen.

Nine Inch Nails performing ’31 Ghosts IV’ during their 2008 Lights In The Sky Over North America Tour.

“We may debate whether our society is a society of spectacle or of simulation, but, undoubtedly, it is a society of the screen” (Manovich 94). In this quote from The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich recognizes the central role screen technologies play in the digital era. This “society of the screen” has taken on new life over the past decade. A few examples: Mirjam Struppek organized the first international conference about the aesthetic and political potential of urban screens in 2005. Released in 2007, the Apple iPhone brought multi-touch technology to a mass audience; a multi-touch surface can respond to two or more inputs, increasing the functionality of touch screen (or trackpad) devices like the iPhone. That same year, American Express sponsored a program for cardholders during the U.S. Open where attendees were issued handheld televisions to carry around with them during the event to enhance the live experience of tennis. In 2008, life on a spaceship involved living through your own personal screen in the post-apocalyptic film, Wall-E. And, the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 featured Olympic gold-metal gymnast Li Ning traversing the inner rim of the stadium with a media surface unfolded to display images from the torch’s journey across China behind him.

These brief descriptions capture artists, scholars, entrepreneurs, and athletes challenging what the screen can do. Scott McQuire traces the migration of the television set from the domestic spaces of the home to urban spaces of the city, a shift that has developed alongside the rise of global networks and the mobilization of media (2). McQuire and Sean Cubitt argue that contemporary forms of sociality occur through the materiality of screen technology as an architectural façade, a virtual interface, or a personal companion (McQuire 48, Cubitt 105). Uta Casparay, Erkki Huhtamo, and Cubitt trace the material histories of the historical precursors to urban screens and outdoor advertising. Experimental artworks incorporating large-scale video like Krzysztof Wodiczko’s projections on historical monuments or smaller scale interactive pieces like Chris Jordan’s Chrono Beam (2011) has received recent critical attention in the way they interrogate the intersection between the embodied spectator and the ephemeral politics of public displays (Susik 113-114, 118). In addition to advertising displays and experimental art projections, experiments with emerging screen practices are also going on in popular forms of entertainment, especially rock concerts. Trent Reznor, lead singer and driving force behind Nine Inch Nails (NIN), has written and performed industrial rock music for more than two decades, and since the height of his popularity in the nineties has extended his creative pursuits to include digital imaging, remixing, online distribution, and most recently composing for movies including Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). Added to this list are his experiments with screen technologies.

For NIN’s Lights in the Sky tour, Reznor introduced a new twist to the second act of each concert by adding two semi-transparent stealth screens positioned in front of a third screen (Gardiner par. 10). Because a stealth screen is made from reflective elements linked together like a chain, the combination of projection and light cues can make it appear both transparent and opaque at the same time. These screens function not only as spaces for the projection of animations or images, but material objects Reznor interacts with during the course of the show. The screens in Lights in the Sky are an extension of the design concept for his previous tour, Live: With Teeth, where Reznor used a big screen to display video footage throughout the concert. Lights in the Sky (designed by Reznor and Rob Sheridan, the artistic director, with lighting designer Roy Bennett and the company Moment Factory) combines laser technologies, particle-based animation that runs off several Linux-based devices, choreographed staged lighting, a high-resolution  n, and the two semitransparent stealth screens. In addition to these major elements, the production includes a closed circuit camera system streamed live through the Linux-based computer terminal and preprogrammed song cues controlled by the artistic director and lighting designer via the motherboard.

The collection of screens, lighting, animation, and sound create a media environment that Reznor moves within for the rest of the concert. Trent Reznor’s body is the critical touchstone around which every element in the performance revolves. For fans, rock concerts are about being in the moment and presence of the star. Reznor’s introduction of stealth screens during the concert creates an awkward situation where the people there to see NIN perform live do so through a technological interface. When I attended a live performance on September 29, 2008 in Jacksonville, FL, there were two primary types of interactions that occurred between Reznor, the transparent screens onstage, and audience. First, Reznor engages in a game of hide-and-seek where the screen is used to both reveal and conceal his body from the audience. Second, the play of responsivity between his physical actions and digital imagery creates a visual continuity between screen projections and his body in motion that reverberates through the venue. These interactions at the concert echo the habituations people develop as they use the variety of screen technologies at their disposal, making NIN’s Lights in the Sky a compelling case study to explore a privileged moment in time and space when the cultural significance of the screen is in flux.

Hide-and-Seek

The lights go out as the screens lower across the stage. Spectators murmur and wait for Reznor to reappear and begin the second set, but he does not immediately come back onto the stage. Instead, a blue field of light begins accompanied by some drums and a xylophone. The silhouettes of Reznor flanked on either side by the other members of the band appear behind the transparent screen. Only after the instrumental section has been going on for a few minutes, additional light floods the stage and spectators realize which body belongs to Reznor.

In this opening sequence to the second act of the show, the stealth screen initially masks and then dramatically reveals Reznor’s position on the stage. During the “Greater Good” track from the album Year Zero, the downstage stealth screen displays what looks like a time-lapsed recording of bacteria growing, pulsating, in a Petri dish – a mound of digital particles. For the first thirty seconds of the performance, these animations appear onscreen while Reznor is nowhere to be found. Then, extremely subtly, Reznor’s silhouette backs into the stage in front of the left corner of the screen. Dwarfed by the vastness of the stealth screen, he faces the offstage wing crouched over in a profile position. He is barely visible and remains completely out of view to many. After several beats, the movement of the digital particles takes the shape of Reznor’s face; the extreme close-up is a video recorded by an offstage camera. During this segment, Reznor’s body overlaps the live feed of his physical image being projected onto the stealth screen. He appears onscreen and onstage at the same time. Reznor hides. The audience seeks. This game adds an intriguing twist for the audience who came to hear and see NIN in person. Rather than getting to see the band perform for the entire set, the lead singer disappears from the stage for fairly large chunks of time. They perform songs like “Greater Good” behind the stealth screen and out of sight from the audience. As such, Reznor controls how much the audience sees him, on and offscreen, during the show.

During the performance of “Survivalism” in the third act of the concert, a closed-circuit camera system installed around the premises records live footage of the audience and projects it onto the big screen. In what looks like a collection of monitors located in a security station, spectators watch themselves watching NIN. This sequence is about the ubiquity of surveillance technologies contemporary American culture, but the audience cannot hide among the screens like Reznor can. Even so, those watching can use their mobile devices to capture the live event as it unfolds in real time. Smartphones enable audience members to communicate ideas and information via text, voice, image, and video. They can send what they record at the concert to NIN’s website. Ironically, audience members also use these same devices to capture a better view than they have while standing, zooming in to get a closer look at the action. The power Reznor has over his visibility onstage dissipates as the territory of the media environment expands into the World Wide Web. Although Reznor plays with the audience in terms of his physical visibility, the overall performance hinges on its technological infrastructure. The production team cannot always manage software, and screens at the venue. Computer glitches continued to crop into the flow of the performances during the tour, including when I saw it. In Jacksonville, animations on the stealth screen kept flickering on and off and, during the final “Head Like a Hole” encore, the red “NIN” symbol flashing on the downstage stealth screen had a part of an “N” chopped off. These glitches form a digital reality outside of any single person’s control. Spectators have no influence over their bodies on display.

When Reznor plays hide-and-seek with his audience using the screens surrounding him, this communicative act challenges the implied materiality of screen space. Critical discussions about the spatial relations of the screen media emerge in apparatus theory of the 1970s. Jean-Louis Baudry argues that the screen is simultaneously a mirror and frame that produces ideological distance between the conscious spectator and the dreamworld of the cinema (352 – 353). Manovich echoes the logic of apparatus theory in his cultural history of screen technologies where he distinguishes between the classical screen (Renaissance perspectival painting), dynamic screen (film and television), and the screen in real time (computer) (96). In all of these cases, “The act of cutting reality into a sign and nothingness simultaneously doubles the viewing subject who now exists in two spaces: the familiar space of his/her real body and the virtual space of an image within the screen” (106). For Baudry and Manovich, the screen marks a border between two qualitatively different spaces that may speak to each other in dynamic in provocative ways as decades of compelling scholarship in media and cultural studies has proven, yet they remain separate. The screen is important in as much as it frames the point-of-view of someone looking through it at whatever movie or show they happen to be watching.

Reznor’s game challenges the implied separation between real and virtual space that Baudry and Manovich trace in their respective theories. Establishing a connection between the spectacle and spectators through the screen transforms the display space into something more than a window frame to a virtual world. Reznor uses to the screen to shield himself from view, and to reveal his presence to the crowd. The juxtaposition between the stealth screen’s transparency and opacity highlights the basic attributes of its materiality. Its surface conceals and reveals as much as the edges frame what is on it. The stealth screen is like the cape a magician uses to hide the bag of tricks from the audience. The turn, however, is when the onscreen spectacle bleeds into the physical space the screen occupies. Through hide-and-seek, Reznor occupies a modular media space. So, too, do audience members who use their screened devices to get a better view of the show. Media scholar Adriana de Souza e Silva explains how “from the merging of mixed reality and augmented spaces, mobility, and sociability arises a hybrid reality…a hybrid space is not constructed by technology. It is built by the connection of mobility and communication and materialized by social networks developed simultaneously in physical and digital spaces” (265 − 266). She describes what others have called augmented space, simulacra, computer-mediated reality, or multimedia environments: concepts with varied connotations that attempt to describe the blending of physical and digital spaces. Reznor experiments with what communication feels like within these spaces that De Souza e Silva among others attempt to explicate. Ironically, the space between virtual and actual space symbolized by the screen for Baudry and Manovich seems to migrate to the body of the user, who in the case of the Lights in the Sky performance is Reznor and not the audience watching him.

Responsivity

A white field of particles fills the screen at the beginning of “Only” from the album With Teeth. A small opening grows out from the center to reveal Reznor’s body. The closer he moves toward the screen, the larger the opening. He walks across the stage, and the opening follows him. He moves upstage and the opening closes.  The field gives way to a violent streaming of digital noise that momentarily reveals the rest of the band playing behind Reznor. The white field returns to view. Again, Reznor paces across the stage as the opening follows him wherever he goes. The drummer comes out onstage and lights up a series of boxes by touching each individual square.

This transitional sequence leads into the performance “Echoplex” when the initial beat he establishes by touching the boxes merges into the song’s introduction. The drummer returns at its conclusion to deactivate the light boxes.

In these two instances, the onstage stealth screens transform into touch screens when lasers running along the back of the screens indicate their position. The animations generated in real-time record their physical movement in relation to the screen to produce the illusion of a haptic interface. Even if the performers do not actually touch anything, the sequences establish a sense of continuity between onscreen and offscreen through the responsivity of the screen. Responsivity refers to the quality of the digital connection between onscreen and offscreen. The screen interfaces of popular technologies like the iPhone react to the touch of a finger or pen. Touch screens work by layering two surfaces with an electric current or laser beam sandwiched between them. When somebody touches the surface of the outer screen, the flow of the current or beam is interrupted and signals the device to react in that particular spot. Slightly different from the touch screen, the remote responsiveness of game consoles like Nintendo’s Wiimote and Xbox’s Kinnect depend on a remote sensor or motion control. Reznor experiments with both types of responsiveness during the performance.

Reznor draws the second type of responsivity for the performance of “Terrible Lie” in the third act. At this point in the show, the three screens have changed position. The stealth screens have been raised to allow for Reznor and the band to move more freely on the stage. However, they remain staggered so as to continue to project images, although intensities would probably be the better term at this point given that approximately 90% of what is onscreen are bursts of color and light. Amorphous red, orange and yellow particles flash on the three screens in the same rhythmic patterns of the song. These animations translate auditory and haptic cues (rock music performed live can be felt just as much as it is heard) into visualizations. These sensory translations, like synesthesia, extend the aesthetic possibilities of live performance. Reznor becomes connected to the (digital, screened, animated) world through the responsivity of his onstage environment. The responsiveness between body and screen draws disparate elements of the performance together into a single rhythm during the course of the show.

During the concert, Reznor appears to cross through the frame of the screen. Even though he never actually steps through it, the animations create the illusion of breaking through the screen’s surface. The stealth screen offers a way to cross the frame that separates the spatial reality of the viewer from the virtual space of representation. The formal separation between real and virtual space plays a pivotal role in Western aesthetics. Writing about this divide, Anne Friedberg traces the cultural history of what she calls the “virtual window” to Renaissance perspectival painting, where the viewer is situated in front of a framed surface. Reznor challenges this tradition by linking the physical and digital through his body. Although screens continue to situate the perspective of the viewer towards onscreen content, Reznor temporarily acts as a node through which the onscreen and offscreen converge. Reznor frames the visual content for the audience by moving towards and away from the stealth screen. He determines the path of the real-time particle animations during the show. Still, he never actually crosses through the frame of the screen. This crossing is an illusion; Reznor remains trapped behind the screen in order for that illusion to work. To cross the frame of the screen is transgressive within the field of modern aesthetics, much like breaking through the imaginary “fourth wall” of the stage, but the interplay between screen and body during the concert translates into an optical effect for everyone watching where Reznor is, himself, on display. Like a painting or film, this performance can only be accessed through a proscenium, a frame, which separates the spectacle from those watching it.

Similar to the responsivity of the touch screen, the integration of sensory components during the show cultivates a sense of continuity between actual and virtual through Reznor’s body. He acts like a remote control for the live action onstage, altering the sense of presence throughout the venue. Every aspect of the concert feels connected, and nobody can get out of it because the surveillance cameras make everyone visible. This feeling of connection continues when video recorded with mobile devices extend into online archives after the concert. The attempt to capture the “live” experience through media by fans reinforces the responsivity that Reznor draws on throughout the second and third acts. After each concert concludes, NIN’s website archives fan videos and chats in an effort to collect the individualized performances together into the broader context of the tour. Like the multiple elements of the live show combining through the responsiveness of the screen, information comes together through the human-computer interface. Mobile devices enable spectators to participate in the concert by recording and archiving the live event. The website clearly organizes its galleries according to concert and tour dates so visitors can easily navigate through the streaming videos. The feeling of connection cultivated through the play of responsivity during the show was reignited when audiences come together to construct their own narrative about the tour through the documentary Another Version of the Truth: The Gift that was produced by fans and distributed through NIN.com.

From my perspective in the crowd, interacting with his audience through the stealth screens seems almost like a spiritual experience for Reznor, who is the obvious centerpiece around which the hybrid reality is constructed. He stands behind the screen and soaks up the spectacle while the audience looks on. For me, however, the experience was ultimately frustrating because the spontaneity and singular intimacy of a rock concert, that feel and smell of bodies cramming next to you in a collective push towards the stage, is lost. We were left watching NIN interact with cutting-edge screen technologies onstage without access to it. Even though the animations and lighting cues were generated live, the concert began to feel closer to performance art (like one of Wodiczko’s projections) than a rock concert. It is the same feeling I have when I watch someone text at the table at lunch, for instance. The person is there, but not in the same way as they would have been otherwise.
Screens for Sale

The Lights in the Sky tour combines industrial-alternative rock, live performance, new media technologies, real-time animation, ticketholders, critics, and fans like myself into a symbolic act of a body reaching out to touch the screen. The game of hide-and-seek and play of responsivity represent different ways people interact with the screens around them. A commercial for the Blackberry Storm smartphone released in November 2008 (and running throughout the following year) illustrates how the appeal of interacting with a screen interface, much like the games Reznor plays, stems from the symbolic act of crossing through its frame. This commercial sells the idea that by simply touching a screen you can connect more efficiently, immediately, and directly with what’s important in your life. The multi-touch interface allows users to make contact with their social networks through a phone, yet the commercial itself acknowledges the reality of the interface, the semi-transparent field at the center of the composition, as the primary point of access. Reznor stands behind his stealth screen; the woman stands behind a rectangular plane and faces forward as she navigates through the textural space of the graphic user interface. Different from Reznor’s live performance, however, is what happens afterward. Animations like the boy with a kite, rock concert, and photographs explode from the frame rather than being projected onto a screen. Touching the interface releases the three-dimensionality of life as it unfolds in real time. The advertisement suggests all we need is a Blackberry Storm to make our experience of the world more real, an ideology that continues to shape narratives about technology in the 21st century. Still, the promise represented by the screen remains tempered by the frame of the television set or YouTube video player. The life falling out from the flat plane, activated through touch, can only be perceived by sitting in front or standing behind another screen, another interface.

Being connected and simultaneously in sync with each other through actual and virtual space creates a sense of presence rooted in the modularity of media space. This spatial arrangement appears to situate the body as a locus of control, benefiting artists like Reznor who embraces the emancipatory promise of new media technology and multinational telecommunications companies like Research in Motion Limited (RIM), the makers of Blackberry, who hope to sell the need to connect with others by touching a really cool screen on your smartphone. Still, like anybody who uses a smartphone will eventually find out, Trent Reznor’s ability to control the terms of his physical interactions with the screens around him is a fantasy. His financial investment, celebrity status, and social positioning coupled with the obvious fact that he and his band are the only people allowed onstage during the concert make him a privileged participant. Reznor chooses what to release on the website. Reznor manages the NIN’s brand. The title of the documentary is called “the gift” because he released high-quality digital recordings to his fans so they could make the documentary. Still, this fantasy – the fantasy of control and connection – is something that commercials for new media technologies ranging from smartphones and video games to Project Glass from Google X continue to promote. Reznor’s onstage encounter with his screens during the Lights in the Sky tour represents a time and place when this fantasy was just beginning to enter into the mainstream, when the potentiality of hybrid reality is being tested within the volatile boundaries of popular culture, and before the games Reznor plays were written into the teleological narrative of technological change.

 

References

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