Gesaffelstein’s been called the “prince of darkness” of electronic music for his all-black-everything aesthetic. Now he’s found a light-absorbing technology that takes it to an all new extreme.
It’s an old adage of the live entertainment business that bigger is always better. That certainly holds true for live music, which since it first went arena-sized back in the classic rock days has evolved into more and more overwhelmingly elaborate and oversized multisensory spectacles. Since the introduction of cheap, powerful, and portable digitally controlled lights and LED video screens, where even acts touring tiny rock clubs can now easily bring along a high-tech stage show, things have only gotten more outlandish. While pyrotechnics and flying drum kits were once sufficient to get the job done, today’s artists are creating experiences that involve futuristic gear like supermassive video walls and brain-melting 3D effects.
Most of them, at least.
Earlier this year, synth provocateur Gesaffelstein unveiled a new stage setup that flips the script on the rules of concert production. Instead of giving viewers the colossal, sensory-overloading experience that they’ve come to expect from a festival set, he’s given them…nothing.
Technically, Vantablack isn’t a color, because color is a quality of light, and what makes Vantablack special is that it doesn’t reflect any light.
Or at least what looks like a lot of nothing. Gesaffelstein has been touring with a stage set covered in Vantablack, a high-tech substance that’s able to absorb more light than anything else on earth, meaning that it’s blacker than any black you’ve ever seen. So black, actually, that you can have a hard time even telling that it’s there.
Technically, Vantablack isn’t a color, because color is a quality of light, and what makes Vantablack special is that it doesn’t reflect any light. It’s technically not a paint either–it’s composed of extremely small carbon nanotubes, which are sprayed onto objects in tightly packed formations, like dense, sub-microscopic forests. When light hits them the individual photons in the beam get trapped bouncing from one nanotube to another until they run out of energy.
Part of Vantablack’s allure is that it’s so rare. The nanotubes aren’t simply manufactured, but grown in a top-secret process involving several different machines and extremely high temperatures. It’s physically not something that you could sell by the can. Even if you could, Surrey NanoSystems–the British specialty coating firm that created it–probably wouldn’t. They work with extremely big-name clients like NASA, and signed a deal with superstar artist Anish Kapoor that gives him the exclusive right to use it for “creative arts” like sculpture. (Stage sets don’t count.)
People who’ve seen the show have reported having hallucinatory experiences while totally sober.
Since we see things by the light that reflects off of them, and since Vantablack doesn’t reflect any light, we physically have a hard time making sense out of anything coated in it. Our brains have a hard time dealing with gaps in our sensory input. In nature, even if things get very dark or very quiet, you almost never experience absolute darkness or absolute silence, so our brains evolved to expect almost constant audio and visual noise, even if it’s very subtle and in the background. Vantablack turns something you see into a big gap in your visual perception, and like rooms designed to be as dead quiet as our current level of engineering allows us, the effect will drive your brain a little loopy as it tries to make sense of why it can’t see anything in a space where it expects to see at least something.
“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,” Surrey NanoSystems CTO Ben Jensen told The Verge. “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.”
Which is part of the whole point of coating a massive, festival-sized stage set in the stuff. If seeing a hand-sized object coated in Vantablack is disorienting, having your whole field of vision taken up by something you can’t really see can feel like a supernatural experience. Since Vantablack defies your ability to sense depth, looking into it can feel like floating in a perfectly black void. People who’ve seen the show have reported having hallucinatory experiences while totally sober. (And his crew, which has to work around the stuff, has had to learn to cope with the disorientating effects.)
The other is that it’s something completely new. The crowd at Intersect Festival on Friday will be among the first people to ever experience what it’s like to stand in front of that much Vantablack during Gesaffelstein, and the particular sensation at the cusp of the mind and body that it produces. Sometimes, as they say, less is really more.