28 January 2002
'Just A Big Installation'
'Just a big installation'
is how visual artist Catherine Owens describes her work with U2, writes
'I don't look at it any differently than anything I do for myself.
It's problem solving, visually. I've got an idea in my head, I've
got to make a visual image related to that idea to express it, so
the same format goes into doing things for U2 as doing them for myself'.
Elevation is her third collaboration with the band. For her debut
on Zoo TV Owens came up with the imagery ('stuff') to customise those
Trabants, lowered into the 1992 show as somewhat unorthodox lighting
fixtures. At the start of their odyssey into the world of multimedia
then, U2 and their chief concert designer since 1982 Willie Williams
were looking for some 'interesting video work'. In a curatorial role
Owens suggested Mark Pellington, the man who gave MTV its look, for
starters. He collaborated on video pieces like the buffaloes in 'One',
one of which resurfaces to swoosh its proud tail in the final encore
of Elevation. He also created the original text piece for The Fly,
recalled by Williams as 'this barrage of meaningless text all truisms
and slogans'. His contribution had pride of place in the 'panic-inducing'
first ten minutes of Zoo TV in which 'it was impossible to look at
the band. There was this visual assault the like of which had never
been seen before at a rock concert'.
Nine years later, Elevation opens hard to believe - just in house-lights.
All there is to look at is the band. In a show that seems so low-tech
as to be reactionary (relatively speaking) Pellington's handiwork
is later regurgitated as vulnerable handwritten text with words like
'love me', and 'believe'. Likewise the whole tone of Elevation is
a far cry from that cheeky Zoo TV rendition of George Bush Senior
in the Oval Office singing Queen's 'we will we will rock you', procured
by Owens from Rhode Island based performance artists 'Emergency Broadcast
Network' (EBN). Here in 2001 she brings us Charlton Heston, (via CNN)
pronouncing his pro-gun credo in his own words. No animation necessary!
With the 1997 big budget Pop Mart came their discovery of colour LED
wall - technology which did not exist before they used it. At 150
feet by 70 feet their Canadian-made 'big bit of sculpture' (as Owens
calls it) is still the biggest screen in the world. Williams threw
her the gauntlet, saying 'either it was a fluke last time or else
you really do know something'. To fill that mammoth screen Owens procured
Roy Lichtenstein's fighter pilot sequence for animation by top animator
Run Wrake; cleared the rights for Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe in
record time; obtained 'unobtainable' Keith Haring material.
Typically Owens began her quest for animators by going to London Filmmakers
Co-op and saying 'here's my brief: I want to find something that looks
like sex but feels like technology. So what have you got?' She found
John Maybury. Scouring trade magazines, she uncovered Vegetable Vision
(who do visuals for The Chemical Brothers). 'People are never where
you expect them to be', attests Owens, who attributes some of this
flair for popular culture to her late father, synonymous with the
Peter Owens advertising agency. 'They are always hiding under some
rock somewhere'. She commissioned artist and UCLA lecturer Jennifer
Steinkampf 'one of the very few people who make computer generated
images look emotional' to do abstract pieces 'lots of tunnels and
loops' for Pop Mart, and more recently a green milky way background
to 'Kite' for Elevation.
Once she has gathered her imagery there is 'the dog and pony show'.
That is: 'I'd go back to the band with my little bunch of wacky stuff,
all really brilliantly made' she explains. 'I'd put the video on and
they'd go yes no right vibe not right vibe'.
For Pop Mart, 'this grand experiment' which opened aptly, in Las Vegas
'none of us knew what we were doing', she says. 'We were absolutely
putting our hands into the middle of the abyss and pulling out whatever
was coming'. Lighting designer Bruce Ramus compares the Pop Mart sensation
with 'sitting three foot away from your television, and having it
strobing at you for three hours. We turned it off once or twice. Sometimes
at the end of it you just felt numb. Just getting bombarded by this
television. It was incredible and I loved it but I wouldn't say it
was a show full of connecting moments. It was full of disconnecting
Feng-shui-ing the techno-clutter, no wonder the band set the mantra
of 'no visuals' for Elevation, the sequel to their ultimate TV show.
With a brief to maximise contact with the audience, and inspired by
Adam Clayton's idea to put the audience in the stage Williams and
Mark Fisher pulled off an ingenuous proxemic feat with their heart-shaped
runway. It embraces those who queue the longest (and photographers)
within. Proxemic innovators in the realm of the rock concert U2 were
also the first band to use a b stage (a runway to an island out in
the middle of the audience).
In reaction to the mind-boggling 'drive-in theatre' of Pop Mart, in
Elevation 'the video is really just a piece. Everything else relates
to lighting', says Owens who showed the band early animation work,
and experimental stop-motion photography by Joe King. His b/w steel
girders are projected as 360º lighting during 'New York' via an intricate
system of PG projector and mirrors developed by Williams and Ramus.
Elevation's projected imagery is textural, not literal, with Vegetable
Vision's Moiré patterns, and magical star-fields enveloping the entire
audience in what could be the second act. Yet despite the Op Art feel
of the whole environment moving, focus remains squarely on the band.
They are individually visible on four non-intrusive b/w screens on
high, sometimes zooming in on quirky out-of-focus elements of their
clothing (inspired by the style of Williams' vintage photo collection).
Later, gigantic handwritten lyrics for 'Walk On' scroll down through
The video element had to be one that wouldn't 'deaden the environment'
explains Ramus. 'Not to abandon a role that they had begun' elaborates
Owens, 'but to take it somewhere else', a video wall elevates late
in the show (let's say the 'third act'). At 8 feet by 34 feet it is
a sliver of its former self.
The 'completely thrilling' technological leap of onsite editing, allowed
them 'to order up the video wall, and literally start typing in and
colouring' on the Miami rehearsal stage. And three artists' work can
merge in one song - like when a body outline provided by Vegetable
Vision is mixed with a middle and background by Marcus Lyall to reconfigure
those kitschy dancing girls in 'She Moves in Mysterious Ways'. In
contrast to her previous curatorial function, Williams describes Owens'
role here as alchemy.
Elevation seems practically Mennonite in comparison with its decadent
predecessor. Nearer to the tiny meticulous tea-stained dresses of
her own 'Self-Address': 'I thought for this tour that the whole direction
would have to be handmade' says Owens. 'Everything would have to start
off being very loosey-goosey, scratchy, black and white, low-tech,
art college, but really goodS even though it would end up going into
this inferno and be digitised up the wazoo'.
If there are any gaps, Owens contributes her own work. In Pop Mart
it was her abstract line in 'Please'. In Elevation her handiwork is
submerged into beam effect.
New York based Owens who has known the band since she was 18 comes
across all Zen when she says: 'We know it's worked when people have
watched some really powerful visuals and they've come away remembering
the band'. Self-effacement doesn't bother her: 'It's a challenge being
tenth down the line on the ego pole.'
U2's issue-driven agenda appeals to Owens whose Installations: Balls
at Project Arts Centre; Self-Address at the Triskel; and most recently
In, at the Hugh Lane Gallery, are mostly about women's issues. 'These
platforms have to be challenged and reworked. I can take all that
information back into the art world, and bring some of the art world
information into their world'.
Appropriately the title for her next piece is 'Intersection'.
All Photos by Diana Scrimgeour.
From Aung San Suu Kyi to child soldiers,
a series of powerful contemporary political and cultural themes
permeate the visual dynamics of the Elevation Tour. Many groups
and organisations contributed to the acquisition of material.
Check the following links for further information on some of them.
The Free Burma Coalition
The Fund for Peace works to prevent war and promotes education and
research for practical solutions. More at
Prospect Burma funds education for young Burmese, many of whom have
fled the oppression of the present regime and live as refugees in
many parts of the world. Prospect Burma seeks to help create a cadre
of Burmese who will be able to run the country when democracy returns.
The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers advocate adherence
to, national, regional and international legal standards prohibiting
the military recruitment and use in hostilities of any person younger
than eighteen years of anywhere in the world. More at