One week before U2, one of the biggest bands in the world, was set to enter the stage at Sphere, the new 18,000 seat, one-of-a-kind venue in Las Vegas, for a series of shows that celebrate their 1991 record Achtung Baby, show director Willie Williams doesn’t have music on his mind.
He’d rather talk about art.
“No-one ever applauds at an art gallery,” Williams, who has directed U2’s live performances for more than four decades told ARTnews. “That’s one of of the greatest things about these shows. The artists involved, and the band, will have instant feedback. When their installations start moving across the inside of Sphere the audience immediately becomes part of this extraordinary thing.”
Experiential or immersive art isn’t new. But Sphere is. Without being hyperbolic, nothing else like it exists. The closest thing is a mini-Sphere testing site, one quarter of the scale of the modern Las Vegas megalith, that was built in Burbank, California. The smaller version is where the band and the artists that they’ve invited to participate in their 20-day residency—Eno, Marco Brambilla, Es Devlin, John Gerrard, and the company Industrial Light and Magic—could see the futuristic venue they were working with.
Even the stage is, in a way, an experience. A monumental version of Brian Eno’s LED Turntable (2021), the stage uses an algorithm to slowly change colors, seemingly at will, throughout the show. (Williams admits to asking Eno if he could adjust the algorithm slightly. “From personal experience, green light is not flattering for men in their 60s,” Williams said.) He and the band want the residency to be an art show and an experience, as much as it is a concert. No small feat for a band already known for live shows that toe the line between spiritual event and spectacle.
For the technical fetishist: Sphere is 516 feet wide, 366 feet tall. It’s the world’s largest spherical structure. The main atrium has a volume of nearly 6 million cubic feet. Now on to the impressive parts: The curved walls inside the sphere are covered with 16K x 16K resolution displays, the highest resolution screens to have ever been produced. Brambilla, an artist known for using 3D imaging in public installations and video art, likened the resolution to nine IMAX screens combined. Inside, the temperature can suddenly change, the air can be scented and, according to Adam Clayton, U2’s bass player, the sound is miles ahead of any other concert venue the band has performed.
“This is more of a community-based experience than any concert has ever been,” Clayton told ARTnews, noting that music, especially live music, has never really been able to compete with “computer games culture,” and the draw of social media. But he sees much possibility with Sphere’s otherworldly layout and technology. “I think, if we get it right, the audience will be disorientated, they’ll be immersed. They’ll experience heightened emotional responses to the music and to the images. And that’s exciting to us because we think that’s the future of where musical performances will go.”
The contributing artists’ work will be on display in acts, as if at a theater production. According to Williams, the nature of the main performing space, with no corners and every inch part of a continuous display, means that, in the dark, the visitors can feel like they are in an endless expanse of space. Unlike the tourist-pleasing Van Gogh immersive experience or others like it, there is no seam where wall meets ceiling to break up the images.
Brambilla compared Sphere to virtual reality without the goggles. “I walked into the side near the screen, and I remember thinking ‘Wow, this is just so incredible.’ You have no concept of scale when you’re inside it,” he told ARTnews. “The stadium is huge, but it’s on a 45-degree angle, so everyone is close to the stage and to the walls.”
Brambilla’s video installation for the show, King Size, couldn’t be more Vegas. The star of the work is none other than the King of Rock and Roll and patron saint of Las Vegas, Elvis Presley, who’s waning career was given a jolt by a month-long engagement at the city’s brand new Hilton International in the summer of 1969. But it’s not just the mutton-chopped Vegas Elvis who stars in Brambilla’s piece. It’s multiple Elvises, in all of his incarnations, from every film, every televised hip shake and lip curl, all thanks to artificial intelligence.
The installation fits in seamlessly with U2’s exploration of excess, consumerism, and indulgence on Achtung Baby and the ZooTV tour that followed.
“The concept came to me so fast, after I was asked to work with the band,” Brambilla said. “If it’s in Vegas, let’s make it about Elvis. Let’s make it about the decline of the American empire. Let’s make it about the death of Elvis and the parallels between the heights of Elvis’s fame and memorializing him on this mythic level.”
Es Devlin’s contribution, Nevada Ark, is a comment on climate change and its detrimental effects to the planet. The video piece is comprised of sculptures of 26 endangered species specific to the state of Nevada. Shockingly, the list of endangered species in the state is 152 animals long. The Ark sprung from of Devlin’s installation Come Home Again which was commissioned by Cartier and is currently on the grounds of the Tate Modern Garden in London.
“What we wanted was to create the possibility of collective imagining,” Williams said. “On one level, we’re all terrified. It’s great, for the band, to get to your 60s and think ‘let’s do something entirely unknown, that no one has ever done and that has every chance of being a catastrophic failure. And watching the rehearsals, they’ve just aced it. It’s extraordinary.”
Williams said what he and the band are most looking forward to is the reactions during and after the show. He recalled his friend, David Harrington from the Kronos Quartet, describing what the feeling of releasing a new piece of music.
“It’s like a secret, you know, that only the people in the room are aware of. And as soon as you release it into the world, it’s out there. And I feel like we’ve got such a great secret here. To think that on Friday the 29th, 18,000 people are going to walk into a space no one has ever been before.”