When you think about it, Hype Williams’ Belly and Homer’s Iliad are pretty much the same. At least, if you follow the logic of artist and creative technologist Kenzo Digital they are. As Kenzo sees it, any great song, film, or piece of journalism hinges on its creator’s ability to tell a story. Conflict, love, revenge, and the unrelenting fight for glory are the building blocks of an epic tale, an epic play, or an epic song. It all starts in the same place, and the medium brings the narrative to life. The move from Ancient Greek text to New York City gangster film took thousands of years. In the world of live musical performance, the move from a singer and a microphone to Kanye climbing to the top of a mountain to have a conversation with Jesus took more than a hundred. For better or worse, everything moves exponentially faster in the information age. Kenzo Digital isn’t caught up with the timelines, just how we experience them.
As an artist, his work traverses music, film, installation, and even robots. He’s the brain behind Beyoncé’s video-centric Billboard Awards performance in '11 and her record-breaking United Nations’ World Humanitarian Day 2012 project, “I Was Here.” He’s been the creative director for corporate heavyweights like Wieden+Kennedy and Jordan Brand, and collaborated with Kanye. Most recently, when he’s not busy creative directing one of the companies under Google’s robotics initiative, he’s working on pushing the boundaries of live musical performance. He's versed in everything from digital mapping to Oculus Rift, but you might be surprised to learn that he’s fundamentally anti-technology, sort of. His primary focus is always the story.
We met up with Kenzo Digital to talk about the state of art and technology, and what it all means for the kids who are just trying to see a killer concert. Check it out below, and stay tuned for more as he gears up to launch an agency dedicated to pushing the boundaries of live music experience this month.
Interview by Dana Droppo (@danadroppo)
How has the relationship between music and visuals changed in pop culture since you started out?
I’m a ’90s kid. Back then, music videos served as little featurettes that brought that world of music to life. You waited for a music video to premiere at a specific time on a certain station, like mini events. Nowadays you practically have to make a music video just to release a song. Sure, you have a music video for every song, but the quality and the craft have changed. The rate of consumption that the Internet created has driven down the ability to make a quality product. While I don’t particularly care for that aspect of it, I understand it’s a necessity.
The interesting thing that’s come out of it is artists really investing a lot of time and energy into their live performances. The artist’s ability to create an experience and a world that has its own physics, smell, and feel is new. Certain groups, like Phish, have a long history of really incredible live performances, but I think it’s really interesting to see that come to life with popular music in a powerful way.
The rate of consumption that the Internet created has driven down the ability to make a quality product.
You’re one of the people at the forefront of that change. If you could put logistics and cost aside, is there a project you’re dying to create?
I’m dying to create everything; there’s no one special thing I’m dying to create. I’m very excited and passionate about a myriad of things at any given time. It’s more about the cosmic lottery of what opportunity, timing, and technology is in front of me. What story am I thinking about, and how do they all come together in some magical way to make it actually happen? I wouldn’t even tell you the ideas if I could, because that would just ruin the surprise.
What’s the most exciting live performance you’ve seen?
To be honest, I’m not even a huge live music guy. You’re way more likely to catch me zoning out, staring into deep space, at a James Turrell exhibit at MOMA. That’s more my speed and my inspiration. I’m a lot more driven and inspired by things that have almost nothing to do with music. For example, the project I did with Beyoncé at the UN was more about time travel and teleportation than it was about music. It was about taking a space that has such a long history, and turning it into a living, breathing character.
There are a lot of live performances that I thought looked dope but I didn’t actually see. I wanted to see the xx show at the Armory in New York.
I had an opportunity to see it, and it was truly remarkable. Unlike any other live music experience I’ve seen.
I wish I could have seen that one in person—I was traveling at the time. I think it was really smart. They took a lot of creative liberties that don’t normally fly at your, sort of, run-of-the-mill live performances. You don’t have that kind of orientation in the middle of the space—I thought that was really, really dope. But, generally speaking, I love what Es Devlin has done with her opera work, and what she’s done with Kanye is always dope.
Is there a particular area of technology that has you hyped right now?
I think there’s a lot of interesting potential in virtual reality and immersive storytelling. A lot of my projects, even going back to City of God’s Son and Beyoncé, are about building a world, spinning the viewer into disbelief, and putting them in a parallel universe. Anything that gives me the ability to get more immersive—go into another dimension—is something I’m really excited about.
There’s so much psychology that goes into how a person enters a room. The way they enter the room sets up the expectation of how they’re going to feel, what’s going to happen in that room. Anything that gives me more tools to play with that, that suspension of disbelief—that’s really something I look for.
Coming back to City of God’s Son, if you could take it and turn it into something experiential, something live, how would you map that out? What are the puzzle pieces needed to put something like that together?
I honestly think City of God’s Son is exactly how it should be. It’s supposed to be kind of lo-fi. It’s supposed to be an MP3 that expands into an alternate universe that plucks at nostalgia and cinematic narrative. I would never do anything differently about that project specifically because it’s supposed to be exactly what it is.
I don’t want to give any discredit to the integrity of that piece. One of the things that I found really interesting about it was the formation of this sort of Greek tragic myth told through hip-hop samples. That seems to be something that pops up throughout your work as a way for you to build the narrative. How do you weigh the importance of the narrative itself versus the way it’s presented?
The story always comes first. The trick is really how you reconcile this Greek tragedy and the ways in which human drama has evolved as a language over centuries. That’s a pretty refined, heavily nuanced, and evolved language. How do you reconcile something that everyone has seen, been exposed to, and has an opinion on, with its antithesis, which is technology? How do you make one serve the other? At the end of the day, I’m always an artist and a storyteller first. Technology is always second. It’s not about trying to shove the newest trend of technology into the project. What’s the thing that you have to do this with? What’s the element that, if you take it out, it’s just an impossible task? There are a lot of really cool toys, but it’s much more about the story.
Can the technology and the story be one and the same?
Google hired me to be creative director for their robotics team, so I’ve been going on a deep conceptual vibe on creative applications in robotics. It’s really inspiring to connect with all of these different technologies, as their own art forms. I think that by the time I die, there’s no way I could predict what’s going to happen. Technology is evolving that rapidly.
Does any part of it freak you out? Are you afraid of tiny little robots running the world à la Ray Kurzweil?
I use a lot of technology in my work, but I’m pretty anti-technology, to be perfectly honest. I think that people talk about technology the same way they talk about religion, with this hear-all God factor or saving grace. Technology will only increase. Fast-forward 20 years and the difference between someone who loves technology and someone who doesn’t is that the first can complete a task in five minutes and the second, five hours. That even applies to being a writer. Technology closes the gap between speed and ability. It makes things faster. Is faster better? I don’t know.
What’s the most beautiful thing you encountered last week? Ugliest?
The best thing and worst thing I’ve seen this week is this idea I’m working on right now. One day I wake up and it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen. The next day I wake up and it’s garbage.
That gives us some insight into your creative process. To go further, if you’re sitting down with someone like Kanye or Beyoncé thinking about their next show, what are some of the first questions that you ask them?
I’ve been really lucky in my career and very privileged to get to work with the best people in the field. You really can’t ask for better collaborators than Kanye or Beyoncé—two people who not only have great visions, but also work their asses off. It’s very collaborative. You share and evolve. I don’t have a set protocol of questions that I ask. At the end of the day it’s always very much inspired by the music. I try to get at the spiritual center of the song. How do you amplify that in a really unexpected way? And then, how does technology factor into that to make it a really special moment? How do you use misdirection? It’s about multiple senses and stimulus, and each has a certain psychological effect. Finding out how to orchestrate, that is part of my process.
You really can’t ask for better collaborators than Kanye or Beyoncé—two people who not only have great visions, but also work their a***s off.
To add to that, I think part of understanding how to create the most value out of your work is very important. A lot of people like my work, or at least I think they do, but most of those people weren’t in the room when I did it. There’s a distinction between the experience in the room and then how you share that experience. There are millions of people who aren’t in the room, and you have to recreate that energy for people at home. When I think about creating, I’m also thinking about how to repaint as much of it as possible. And maybe add something that wasn’t in the live performance.
Is that something you do if you’re contracted to deliver a video of the performance as well?
For some projects the goal is getting a million hits on YouTube and making people just bug out.
That leads to one final question: If you look at the xx’s Armory show, that was 50 people maximum in the room at a time. A lot of people missed out on that. Beyoncé’s UN performance has literally reached 33 million views on YouTube and counting. What gives you more satisfaction, having total control over the live experience or reaching a critical mass of people?
I’m my own worst critic. If I’m proud of it and I’m happy with it then I don’t care if everyone sees it or no one sees it. On the flip side, I love the life of the Internet and watching something have a viral effect and explode in some scientific, freaky way. But, that’s not my formula for success. I would want that for all my projects, because I know clients want that. Ultimately, I’m trying to make this a group thing where we all win.