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INTERVIEW: Massive Attack's 3D
Lior Phillips , November 19th, 2015 14:01

As Massive Attack's Robert Del Naja, aka 3D, reveals a new artistic piece centred around a 1968 earthquake in the Sicilian city of Gibellina, Lior Phillips talks to him about the project and the conundrum of financing art; check out AUDIOGHOST 68 in full below

After an earthquake hit the Sicilian city of Gibellina in 1968, it was left in ruins of rubble, save for a network of cracks where there were once streets. It dissolved the dreams of an entire society, trapping a generation in the past and destroying the foundations that pointed to a solid future. The late artist Albert Burri was invited by the mayor to transform the city's tragedy into hope, and the result, 'Grande Cretto', is one of the world’s largest pieces of land art, measuring 8,000 sq. m. The village ruins were encased in white cement to preserve the only street plan remaining, and now the epic Cretto of concrete has finally been finished after three decades.

The ghost town gained a new skeleton and to celebrate the project’s completion, Gibellina is now hosting a string of events called 'Cretto Earth Fest'. The first featured Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja, 3D, who created 'AUDIOGHOST 68', an almost 50-minute piece which the man himself explains in more detail below - you can check out the project in full above. Perhaps you will find it opaque, perhaps the right reaction is silence. Either way, your ears will be full unforgettably.

I believe October 17 marked Alberto Burri’s magnum opus. People walked through the concrete land art like veins through a body, so was the extensive sound installation you created a declaration that life had arrived after so much death filled the region?

3D: Definitely, and it was just long enough for me to try and get as much of 1968 in as possible. To be honest it’s such an important year and so many powerful things happened, the fact that so many great movies and music was released in that year made it quite tough editing it down to capture a bit of a mood of that year.

When I started listening I heard The Bob Seger System’s 'Two Plus Two Equals What', then Johnny Cash, The Beatles, The Doors – and it was clear it was an ode to 1968 even without much information. You’ve had quite a year yourself with the publication of The Vinyl Factory’s visual history of Massive Attack and now this collaboration. How did this all come about?

3D: Through a friend of mine, Giancarlo Neri, who is an artist I’ve known for quite a long time. We’ve probably been friends for a good 20 years as we share common interests like music and Napoli Football club, and often meet to go to football matches in Rome. He had previously done a piece at Gibellina, which involved chairs and lamps on each footprint of concrete where the village once was. When the anniversary came about for the earthquake he was in touch with me and asked if I’d like to be a part of it and of course I was.

Apparently Alberto took decades to encase the white cement, but did the project ever seem too big and weighted to tackle?

3D: You’re right actually because when I was asked if I would be involved I started to read about the scale and size of the installation. I knew very well, knowing the guys involved, that we were making something work with limited resources, which is always kind of a good thing anyway, right? I was concerned as to how I was going to add music to such a big area and I wasn’t very sure that some of the solutions that had been offered to me were going to work. You think PA system, but there’s no way we would have enough technology on the site to make it work. So I got attracted to the idea of a smaller network of sounds and trying to create a radio network out of the site. Initially, we were going to use transmitters so I just thought of making an audio soundtrack instead of trying to make transmitters on a big speaker system. I was thinking why not small speakers like radios, then we transmit and tune all those radios to an FM frequency, then spread the sound across the whole installation. We then decided that everyone should carry the small radios because they’re then carrying the ‘light’ with them. Physically and metaphorically we tried to work on the radio idea with that in mind, so we used 250 radios in fixed position.

That’s a really clever way of troubleshooting that issue.

3D: It’s an interesting way of transmitting sound and also because you’re using a radio as a sense of time. There’s an ageless sense to radios; radio speakers in general are very much a constant item that we’re used to being around as opposed to a new piece of tech. The idea of transmitting to radio meant that the actual palette of sounds appealed to me more. In a way I could do radio and television broadcasts from that era properly then play with the sounds of FM tuning so you’ve got that spooky whistle that you can play around with and tune in and out of different worlds. That felt right for the idea of something of this nature because really, we are talking about a tragic event in 1968 and trying to capture that sense of history being replayed through the radio felt kind of romantic.

And how the track starts with the news service of Sergio Zavoli reporting the earthquake influenced the humanism behind it. The fascinating aspect of radio is how it transcended reading for a while. It builds from the oral tradition of learning how to speak by sitting with one another or listening to sounds on the radio.

3D: By distributing the sound the same way the light was being distributed by the participants weaving through the site, it was making it into a personal experience rather than what you do at a gig or at an event when you’re broadcasting sound from one fixed position and everyone has to face that sound and engage in the same feelings at the same time. In this way, as much as the audio was predesigned and it wasn’t happening live, the way people were moving around the site and experiencing it was as natural and personal as it possibly can be.

It might not have been broadcast live, but you chose to use live recordings. Like books, it became character-driven even when you're dealing with potentially dark topics; there’s humanism attached. This was a real event, not just some dude who plays music doing an art exhibition.

That was my biggest fear I said to all the people that they mustn’t put my name on it because then people would expect me to go and play music live and that wasn’t what it was about. This was more of a conceptual piece than it was a live music piece, but at the same time using live recordings as opposed to documentary archive when something can be described from the past, but from the future was a massive part of that. Cutting into the live recording, as you brought up earlier, makes it feel very immediate like it's still happening. Tuning into the radio makes you feel like it’s still happening around you and that’s really powerful.

Weirdly enough those first few moments sounded quite uplifting. I know you’ve explored the dichotomy of opposites before, how darkness creates light. You’ve explored this in your music and artwork too, like how the image from the Heligoland album takes obnoxious, dark imagery and makes it bright. Is that an intentional thing?

3D: Absolutely. I was at the mercy of everything that happened that year. I wanted it to be beautiful and sad and emotional and uplifting at the same time, and that’s really ambitious in any situation trying to get all those ideas across. A lot of it had to be topical, it was a big year for evolutionary change and a lot of the music was very protest-orientated so it was important to convey that. I was really lucky that that year Ennio Morricone was scoring all those films. There are very few composers who write cinematic music the way that guy does, and you get mixed emotions; it’s mastery of composition to turn something from a melancholic piece of memory into something transformative, and that’s the genius of the guy.

Though I’m sure it’s frustrating you can’t do everything, the compilation that you chose, even the song titles like Sly and the Family Stone depict how transformation happened within that year.

3D: Well, mixing Sly & The Family Stone into Ennio Morricone is pretty cool. [Laughs]

You’ve got Night of the Living Dead in there...

3D: And 2001: A Space Odyssey too. We were spoilt for choice and the list of songs was endless. Once you start to create the tone and mood you figure out what things will work, and what won’t. Then you have the time constriction and you’re concerned about concentration. If you stay with a song too long you’re putting too much emphasis on that song. There was no framework but you start to feel a framework for it.

Massive Attack really did invent a whole new framework, handling hip-hop and dance beats and shoving them into a cinematic atmosphere. I know this isn’t about you as an artist, but your interpretation shows how meaningful a through-line can be in the work that you do.

3D: That’s when the part of whatever I do stops and where your thinking starts and that’s an interesting moment. When you do these projects you go into it without thinking it’s just interesting to you in that moment and you don’t think of it holistically against everything else you’ve done. So for this, we spent six days in the studio focusing. You’re probably hearing something that I can’t hear because you make choices automatically you don’t know why. It’s your taste of what emotionally appeals to you and you don’t really think that someone is going to put the pieces together and link it to what appeals to them about the way you make music.

I know you were an artist before becoming a musician, and it’s intriguing how the conventions of a live performance are pretty different from making art: the artist comes out, plays their songs, comes back for an encore and that’s it. Do you ever find yourself bored by some of those conventions?

3D: In the end, if you take a process like the one I’m in - designing the new light show for the [Massive Attack] show next year – and already you see the narrative arc of it all and start to recognise the artistic theatre in it all and know which things go in which order and if there’s issues, and how you’re going to curb them, considering which songs work with which light structure, it’s all about that story. If one song is full of information maybe the next song should be gentler. There is a repeat of the past which could get boring but that’s just natural habit. That’s why I was really interested in working with Adam Curtis on the piece we designed for Manchester International Festival. It gave me a chance to break out of that kind of narrative. We had to work with music we had never worked with before and working out how to stage things behind giant projectors. It took us out of the fact that we were on stage. It was exciting because it was new.

It’s funny how different music is to making art - as a musician you stand there watching the reaction in real time on the crowd’s faces, as an artist you don’t necessarily stand there watching someone walk around your work.

3D: That’s kind of why I started doing the whole graffiti art thing back in the day. I never got to see people look at me and appreciate it, and half the time it would just disappear within a few days because it would be painted over. The reward was in doing it and the process of creating art and all the excitement and drama of that and what happened next. To be honest, I’m a drama queen, I’m an artist, I’ve got a massive ego, and so I’m not immune to that behaviour.

Ironically, Alberto Burri is known for fiercely opposing any interpretation of his paintings. It was art and “I see beauty and that is all."

3D: He would probably hate everything we did! [Laughs] To be fair he would have possibly appreciated the approach, because what it also did in terms of the actual piece is it gave an impression on what had been lost. This was the new way of experiencing his impression. We didn’t try to change it; therefore the memory of the village that was lost remained intact throughout the whole experience.

How do you decide on what will help you in a monetary way, and what is just art?

3D: I find increasingly as I get into it that I end up doing more stuff for less money. A lot of music for the last five years that I’ve been doing was for documentaries and it’s been for nothing. You become friends with or work for organisations that you believe in; you don’t think twice about it. It’s not noble, it’s just the situation. What you hope is that someone comes along and says: 'hey, I want to pay you to do something'. It’s quite easy to live in a world as a creative where you do everything for nothing. When you go on tour you do some gigs for a lot of money so it can pay for the little passion gigs you want to do. It’s all a big balancing act.

How do you feel about the UK mainstream media's current portrayal of Jeremy Corbyn?

3D: It’s hard to extricate yourself from anything the same way with extricating or balancing your view on Jeremy Corbyn’s economic approach. All of them follow each other’s fiscal policies and as much as Conservatives complain, a lot of problems during the financial crisis were caused by conservative fiscal policies prior to that. It’s very hard to untangle everybody from each other. We all become shareholders of the same problems whether we like it or not. Now at least, we are actively looking for more information to gain more insight on economic matters. It can be done, but it’s a constant balancing act.

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