One of the most visually impressive performances at this year’s Coachella was special, not just because of what the audience could see, but because of what they couldn’t see. Behind Gesaffelstein, the French record producer and DJ, was a monolith covered entirely in Vantablack, a very scarce, very expensive, and quite fragile material made by Surrey NanoSystems in the UK. It’s the world’s blackest black, erasing any visible features on a 3D surface and making objects very disorienting for the brain. Gesaffelstein’s show producer, Matthias Leullier, laughs as he tells The Verge how difficult it was for their own team to be around it. “One of our sound engineers was onstage and found himself in the monolith,” says Leullier. “[He] became confused and lost his balance. He fell, hit the surface, and I was like, ‘Okay that’s $20,000.’”
Gesaffelstein is colloquially known as the prince of darkness, but he took his informal title to extremes at this year’s Coachella by becoming the first artist to use Vantablack in a live performance. It wasn’t easy, either. It required the team to visit Surrey NanoSystems in person, pitch the idea, create the set, have each block of the monolith sprayed with 70 layers of Vantablack in a special application room, and construct handling systems for the finished set.
The end result: a 30 foot-high Vantablack monolith that can split in two and reveal video screens and a wall of lights. Looking at it creates the feeling that Gesaffelstein is standing in front of infinite darkness.
People in the audience at Coachella could tell something wasn’t registering quite right in their brains during Gesaffelstein’s performance. “This is exactly why we were sober and thought we were trippin balls,” one audience member commented on Twitter after learning about the Vantablack. “Remember me saying that was prob really expensive since it was absorbing all the light?” said another.
When I tell Leullier about these tweets, he’s delighted. “That’s exactly the kind of confusion we were going for.”
Vantablack is confusing to look at because our brains aren’t prepared to see total darkness when there’s light directly beside it, as we’d expect it to illuminate the darkened object or space. “You’re used to standing in a completely dark room in the middle of the night, but you’re not used to seeing absolute blackness with a lot of light around it,” explains Ben Jensen, CTO of Surrey NanoSystems. “When you see that nothingness with light around it, your mind can be quite confused, and your perception of things like depth is severely challenged.”
To make the effect even more mind-warping, Gesaffelstein’s team gave the monolith curves. On a 2D surface, Vantablack’s effect is a little bit simpler for the brain to understand because it already knows it’s looking at something flat. But on a 3D surface, the mind is further confused because it knows there should be depth, while the object appears flat. That inconsistency can be quite jarring. “When you apply it to a three-dimensional surface, your perception of the shape changes,” says Jansen, “and you recognize there’s something a little bit different than what you’re used to seeing.”
Every part of Gesaffelstein’s set played off of this effect. Lights coming from behind the monolith enhanced Vantablack’s light-sucking abilities. And his performance happened on an outdoor stage just after sunset when there was ambient light. “That’s why his set was at twilight,” says Leullier. “It’s when people could best see the contrast.”
Gesaffelstein was also coated in black. His outfit, however, wasn’t Vantablack. It was a more reflective black that was meant to let him stand out against the darkness behind him. The outfit was created in collaboration with Balmain, and it’s made of an array of materials, including velvets, metals, leathers, and sequins. “We wanted something that would ‘talk’ with the Vantablack,” explains Gesaffelstein’s manager, Manu Barron. “By having shiny black against the Vantablack, it highlights the difference.”
Vantablack is a brand name, and Surrey NanoSystems makes several types of super black materials under this umbrella. There’s the original Vantablack, Vantablack S-IR; Vantablack S-VIS, the one mired in controversy with artist Anish Kapoor; Vantablack VBx 1; and the type Gesaffelstein used, Vantablack VBx 2. Most versions of Vantablack use a dense coating of carbon nanotubes that trap almost all light that hits its surface. It works by continually deflecting light around the tubes until it is almost entirely absorbed. This makes it a useful material for industrial and space purposes, like improving the accuracy of star trackers. But it comes with conditions: the application process limits it to smaller items, and all of the micro-cavities between the tubes can be damaged with direct contact.
VBx 1 and VBx 2, though, don’t use nanotubes at all, and that means they’re a bit more durable and better suited for large-scale applications like Gesaffelstein’s monolith. This type of Vantablack is composed of a light-absorbing coating that’s suspended in a solution and can be sprayed onto larger areas. Jensen declined to say exactly what it’s made of. “It’s a completely new technology,” says Jensen. “The coating transfers from the gun to a surface, and it forms a nanostructure the moment it hits that surface. There’s nothing you have to do to it once you’ve sprayed it. If you look at the structure up very close it appears quite rough, but I’m talking about thousandths of an inch.”
Jensen says VBx 2 is more durable than other forms of Vantablack, but Gesaffelstein’s team still couldn’t treat it like normal stage equipment. It can technically be handled, but because of its very dry texture, a greasy finger could damage the optical trapping cavities, and it’s still susceptible to scratches. “It’s not like a paint. It’s more like a crust,” says Leullier. “Our crew had a lot of problems with it because it’s super dry. It’s a bit like dust. If you put a finger on it, it will leave a mark. We had to have a special painter from London [at rehearsals] to repair it in case of scratches.”
The team also had to think about transportation. How do you move a show set from city to city when it can’t be touched at all? Leullier designed a custom dolly system for the monolith pieces to ensure they would never be in contact with other surfaces while traveling. He put special handling frames behind them so they would never have to be touched from the front, and Surrey NanoSystems trained one of the tour’s crew members on how to apply VBx 2 for touch-ups while on the road.
“It was a lot, but we were so happy with the results once we finally saw it come together,” says Leullier. “Is it expensive? Yes. Was it worth it? Yes. Gesaffelstein is a total artist and it made so much sense that we had to make it happen, no matter the constraints.”
Gesaffelstein just announced a tour featuring this production called “Against the Night, Across the Time.” He will appear at the Governors Ball in New York City May and then hit various US cities in the fall.