Radiohead Stage and Light Designer Andi Watson Monograph Review
A critical look at "Bullet Proof... I Wish I Was: The Lighting & Stage Design Of Andi Watson"
Foreword by Thom Yorke
This handsome blue monograph focuses on the work of Andi Watson, designer to the stars. Rock stars, anyway. Andi Watson's primary claim to fame is his long-standing collaboration with Radiohead, crafting and manning the stage for the band's touring show. Most fundamentally interested in light and its coordination with sound, his work would be classified as minimalist if it were not so overwhelmingly decadent. While the stage may be physically uncluttered, bank after bank of lights spin and shift as various digital projections are synced up to the music, all controlled in real time by Watson, sitting behind the audience in the control booth. In addition to Radiohead, Watson’s body of work includes sets for Oasis, Lenny Kravitz, the Arctic Monkeys and others and is presented over almost 300 pages of glossy, full-color pages.
There is always a bit of push-pull in books about media that is fundamentally about time or sound. The transformation into book-form will give the original a work an elegant static-ness, but it will distort the timing and meaning of the original. One of the most successful attempts to bridge this gap is Bruce Mau's design of Chris Marker's La Jetée (Zone Books, 1993). By inventive pacing of white space (or in this case, blue space) and dramatic juxtaposition of images, some full-bleed, some floating alone, a strong sense of narrative is reconstituted. Mau, writing about it years later, states:
… The translation from film to book would be a cinch, merely a matter of placing the images in sequence. I couldn't have been more naive or misguided. Because cinematic time differs fundamentally from book time, graphic techniques must be employed to create film effects.
Unfortunately, the design for Bullet Proof fails to overcome this. It is almost undoubtedly more an issue of time rather than ambition (one gets the impression that Mau, in those Zone days, had generous amounts of time to spend on book design), but the lengthy sections of stage shots are always in a filled modular grid. Running 1x2, 2x3, 2x2, or 2x4, the pictures seem to be arranged with no greater meaning than which look the coolest. And many of the pictures do look really cool; purply-blue beams cutting through green fog look as breath-taking as the various balls of exploding white light look unrealizable in our universe. But arranged in grid after grid, project after project, the book time locks everything down and an overwhelming sameness starts to set in.
Several times in the text, it is emphasized that Watson is preternaturally able to match song to color. However, no indication is ever given what song might have been playing at the time an image was taken. This lack of context is less of a problem in forms of performance where the actions on the stage might be discernible from a distance. Here, most of the time a band on a stage just looks like a band on a stage; tiny figures holding instruments under a digital aurora borealis.
The photos all seem to have been taken from Watson's booth, where he live directs the lighting. There was probably no intent to turn these archival elements into a book. Accordingly, the photos are all shot dead on. This seems to be at odds with Watson's own ambitions. For the set he designed for Radiohead's In Rainbows tour, he states: "Every single person...had a unique perspective, and it actually looked better thirty-odd degrees from center than it did looking directly on center." It is understandable—for that set he designed rows of thin columns, running from the rear to the front of the stage. It appears that video is often stretched across this "forest" (in the terminology of the book), resulting in strange, fractured, local phenomena. However, as these columns run parallel to our vantage point, we never get a full feel for them.
The text, often neglected or marginalized in monographs, is ensconced in light-blue signatures, well away from the photographs. Aside from a brief introduction from Radiohead front man Thom Yorke and the obligatory acknowledgements, the body of the book consists of three essays. The primary essay, by Christopher Scoates, is interesting. It is most definitely the sort of "establish-an-artist-within-a-particular-artistic-lineage" essay that is part and parcel in the monograph game. Here, Watson's work is firmly placed as a continuation of Moholy-Nagy's light sculpture efforts and Pink Floyd's laser shows. That said, there isn't quite enough to fully understand Watson's contribution to the field. Yes, he makes references to Cocteau's incomparable Le Sang d'un Poete, but what does the reference mean, in this recontextualization, other than Watson has terrific taste and the ability to digitally reconstruct a film from whole cloth?
Curiously, the following essay by J. Fiona Ragheb covers much of the same ground, although wrapped in more scholarly language and with appeals to more contemporary fine artists. She does talk more directly about the actual design process and quotes Watson in a more exacting manner. Even so, it is not really clear what his design philosophy is, assuming it exists. This should not be read as a demand that a monograph on some great designer or artist revolve around exasperating meditations on the popular philosophers of the day. It was not long ago, after all, when one couldn't attend a design lecture without the speaker swinging Heidegger about like a Louisville Slugger. Still, when you encounter a designer who explores the same, apparently fertile, creative microclimate with such relentlessness, you want to know a little bit about how they arrive at solutions, or manage to keep their work fresh, or overcome the inevitable fears of self-plagiarism.
The final essay by Dick Hebdige is the most stunning, despite the fact that it never directly addresses Watson's work. Instead, it runs through the history of modern music and light shows at an anarchic (although highly annotated) pace. An enjoyable read, it closes the text and strengthens the other essay retroactively, by eschewing high-art and focusing on the terrific baseness of drug-fueled musical experiences.
This strikes me as a tricky sort of book to pull off. To be wholly successful, it would require the complete coordination of every element. And, as might be surmised, it never does quite come together. Although all the players are more than capable—these are talented designers and writers at work—one never actually gets a feel for what it is to be present at one of Watson's shows or why his work is important enough for the treatment it has been given. Instead of serving as a definitive overview of a contemporary designer it will probably best serve as a sort of rock show gallery catalogue, more a memoir than a proper monograph.
You can purchase Bullet Proof... I Wish I Was on Amazon or on Chronicle books.
7 x 9 in; 288 pp;
full-color photographs throughout
Published in March, 2011
About the Reviewer:
Mark Watson studied computer science at the University of Saskatchewan. After receiving his M.Sc., he turned his attention to human-computer interaction, working at several high-profile research and design groups across Canada. After a year at Toronto's Institute without Boundaries, he started the Office For Integrated Design, a small, interdisciplinary design firm focussing on institutional work.
Since February 2010, Mark has served as the senior interaction designer at InViVo Communications. He can be followed on Twitter @totallyreal