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How Shallow Coachella tripped the blackest black in the world



One of the most visually stunning performances at this year's Coachella was special, not only because of what the audience saw, but also because of what they could not see . Behind Gesaffelstein, the French record producer and DJ, was a monolith completely covered in Vantablack, a very rare, very expensive and rather fragile material made by Surrey NanoSystems in the UK. It's the blackest black in the world, erasing all visible features on a 3D surface and making objects very disoriented to the brain. Gesaffelstein's show producer Matthias Leullier laughs as he tells The Verge how difficult it was for his own team to be around him. "One of our sound engineers stood on stage and was in the monolith," says Leullier. "[He] became confused and lost his balance. He fell, hitting the surface, and I thought, "Okay, that's $ 20,000."

Gesaffelstein is colloquially known as the Prince of Darkness, but he made his informal title extremely extreme at this year's Coachella when he became the first artist to use Vantablack in a live performance. It was not easy either. The team had to visit Surrey NanoSystems in person, formulate the idea, create the set, spray each block of the monolith with 70 layers of Vantablack in a special application room, and design handling systems for the finished set.

The end result: a 30 meter high Vantablack monolith that can divide in half and release video screens and a wall of light. When you look at it, you get the feeling that Gesaffelstein is facing infinite darkness.

People in the audience at Coachella found that something was not the case while Gesaffelstein's appearance was pretty well registered. "That's why we were sober and thought we were Trippin balls," commented a spectator Twitter after learning about the Vantablack. "Do you remember, as I said, that was really expensive, because it absorbed all the light?" said another .

When I tell Leullier about these tweets, he is thrilled. "That's exactly the kind of confusion we wanted."

Vantablack is confusing because our brain is not ready to see total darkness when light is right next to it, as we would expect it to illuminate the dark object or space. "They were used to standing in a dark room in the middle of the night, but you are not used to seeing absolute blackness with lots of light," explains Ben Jensen, CTO of Surrey NanoSystems. "When you see that there is nothing in the light around you, your mind can be quite confused, and your perception of things like depth is seriously questioned."

To confuse the effect even more, the Gesaffelstein team gave the monolithic curves. On a 2D surface, the effect of Vantablack on the brain is a little easier to understand because it already knows it's looking at something flat. However, on a 3D surface, the mind continues to be confused because it knows that depth must be present while the object appears flat. This inconsistency can be quite upsetting. "Applying it to a three-dimensional surface changes your perception of the shape," says Jansen, "and you realize that something is different than you're used to."


The stage plan for Gesaffelstein's Coachella performance with Vantablack monoliths.
Image: PRG Scenic

Every part of the Set of Stones played this effect. Lights coming from behind the monolith reinforced the light absorbencies of Vantablack. And its performance took place on an open-air stage immediately after sunset, when there was ambient light. "That's why his set was at dusk," says Leullier. "At this point you could see the contrast best."

Gesaffelstein was also coated black. His outfit was not Vantablack. It was a reflective black who was supposed to lift him against the darkness behind him. The outfit was designed in collaboration with Balmain and consists of a range of materials, including velvet, metal, leather and sequins. "We wanted something to speak with the Vantablack & # 39; ", explains Manu Barron, manager of Gesaffelstein. "The glossy black against the Vantablack makes the difference clear."


Photo by Frazer Harrison

Vantablack is a brand name and Surrey NanoSystems manufactures various types of black supermaterials under this umbrella. There is the original Vantablack, Vantablack S-IR. Vantablack S-VIS, which was controversial with the artist Anish Kapoor; Vantablack VBx 1; and the Gesaffelstein type, Vantablack VBx 2. Most versions of Vantablack use a dense coating of carbon nanotubes that captures almost all the light falling on their surface. It works so that the light around the tubes is continuously deflected until it is almost completely absorbed. This makes it a useful material for industrial and space purposes, e.g. To improve the accuracy of star-trackers. But there are conditions: The application process is limited to smaller objects and all micro-cavities between the tubes can be damaged in direct contact.


A Vantablack spray chamber at Surrey NanoSystems.
Photo by Benjamin Males / Levitation29

However, VBx 1 and VBx 2 do not use nanotubes at all, which means they are more durable and better suited for large applications such as the Gesaffelstein monolith. This type of Vantablack consists of a light-absorbing coating which is suspended in a solution and can be sprayed on larger surfaces. Jensen did not want to say exactly what it is. "It's a completely new technology," says Jensen. "The coating is transferred from the gun to a surface and forms a nanostructure the moment it meets that surface. There is nothing you have to do if you have sprayed it. If you look at the structure up close, it looks pretty rough, but I'm talking about a thousandth of an inch. "

Jensen VBx 2 is more durable than other forms of Vantablack, but Gesaffelstein's team still can not handle it like normal stage equipment. It is technically manageable, but due to its very dry texture, a greasy finger can damage the optical capture cavities and is still prone to scratching. "It's not like a color. It's more of a crust, "says Leullier. "Our crew had a lot of problems with it because it is extremely dry. It's a bit like dust. If you put a finger on it, this will leave a mark. We had to have a special painter from London [at rehearsals] to repair him in case of scratches.

The team also had to think about the transport. How do you move a city-to-city show set when it can not be touched at all? Leullier developed a custom dolly system for the monoliths to ensure that they never come into contact with other surfaces while driving. He put special handling frames behind them so they would never have to be touched from the front, and Surrey NanoSystems trained a tour crew member to use the VBx 2 for on-road repairs.



Gesaffelstein's monoliths sprayed with VBx 2 at Surrey NanoSystems.
Video by Ben Jensen

"It was a lot, but we were so pleased with the results when we finally saw it together," says Leullier. Yes, it was worth it Yes, Gesaffelstein is a total artist, and it made so much sense that we had to do it, regardless of the limitations. "

Gesaffelstein just announced a tour with this production He will appear at the Governors Ball in New York City in May and hit several US cities in the fall.


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