Artist MARCO BRAMBILLA is impossible to pin down. He directed a blockbuster at the age of 28 and immediately retired from Hollywood. He made a notorious music video that isn’t a music video. He is a discontent of consumer spectacle, but his films demonstrate a polished form of maximalism that has become the envy of marketing departments. His newest project in collaboration with NASA is a virtual rocket launch in the middle of Times Square. He is a success story for the emerging practice of brand patronage. But Brambilla himself describes the process as a tightrope walk.
“WE’RE GOING TO PLAY IT TWICE. SO YOU CAN TAKE IT ALL IN.”
The lights of the screening room faded to black and a projection rolled. It started in Hell – a swirling soup of bodies and reballs that undulated to the eerie clarinet of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – and began scrolling upwards.
I reclined back into a plush armchair and indulged in the complimentary bags of cookies and miniature bottles of water as my eyes darted amidst the ornate 3D landscape of Marco Brambilla’s Civilization (2008). The first in a three-part series of video collages called Megaplex, Civilization is a Dante-esque tour from Hell to Heaven stitched together using over 350 loops from iconic films. As the collage levitated into Purgatory, I lifted my 3D glasses in order to take notes on the cascade of pop culture references at play, but was greeted by a blast of refracted light that caused me to put down my pen. The possibility of “taking it all in” seemed futile. I was in the clutches of a masterfully crafted sensory overload.
This was not the first time I had seen Civilization. For six years, the video has been a micro-landmark within the gentrified plains of Downtown Manhattan. It is permanently installed in the elevators of the Standard High Line Hotel, the self-anointed cornerstone of a neighborhood that has, in the course of two decades, transformed from a red-light district into a cobble-stoned Sex and the City theme park. Mounted in semi-reflective black elevators, Civilization floats up towards Heaven and down towards Hell along with the Standard’s hotel guests. In the after hours, it serves as a portal from the streets to the gilded 18th-floor lounge known as the Boom Boom Room. On more occasions than I would like to count, I’ve found myself in one of these elevators, basted in champagne and squished amidst a throng of blazers and cocktail dresses, spotting the likes of Clint Eastwood as he floated by in the fray of Civilization. I never knew that this conversation piece was a work of art by a man named Marco Brambilla. It seemed more like an organic component of the growing landscape of post-9/11 New York – another facet of the neoliberal wildlife that had emerged from the dust along with the High Line, Citi Bikes, and the Freedom Tower.
As Civilization ascended into Heaven – where Michael Jackson boogied under the flexing muscles of Arnold Schwarzenegger – it became clear why Brambilla had generously offered to screen his fllms for me in 3D. Civilization and its sequels – Evolution (2010) and Creation (2012) – are a far cry from the blown-out VHS quality that has become associated with video art. In terms of surface texture, Brambilla’s hyper-sensory, hyper-referential, hyper-everything statements are more akin to James Cameron than Bruce Nauman. They demonstrate a deep affinity with the eye-drenching showmanship of special effects, which is apt, considering that Brambilla’s career began with a brief foray into Hollywood.In 1993, a 28-year-old Brambilla made his directorial debut with Demolition Man, an action flick starring Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, and Sandra Bullock. Part shoot-em-up and part satire, the film takes place four decades into the future, in a prosperous Californian megalopolis where impolite language is fined by the government and every restaurant is a Taco Bell. Violent crime has been eradicated, and the police no longer carry weapons, leaving cryogenically defrosted 90s cop (Stallone) and cryogenically defrosted 90s criminal (Snipes) the opportunity to run amuck and blow up everything in sight. It was Brambilla’s first and last feature-length film.
We’re now almost exactly halfway between the year Demolition Man premiered and the future that it depicts. And it seems as though certain elements of that dystopia have become startlingly accurate.
MARCO BRAMBILA: Absolutely. Demolition Man was about the idea of a society that’s become so politically correct that there is virtually no passion left. I think it’s very interesting how we’ve already gotten to that level of political correctness. Part of it is the fact that people communicate via emails and texts. Everything is traceable. I remember when I moved to Hollywood from Canada, I would meet with an agent, and I would hear them talk about a film. And the way they would describe the film – even if it was the worst possible film imaginable – would be to find one good thing to say about it. The language never really offended or criticized, because you never really knew who you would be working for. I’m very outspoken. I don’t really edit what I say, and it was unusual to be in a place where everything is “Excellent!” I think that was on my mind when we were developing Demolition Man. I wanted to relate what I had seen, moving to Los Angeles and seeing this culture within the film business.
Is that what caused you to move away from Hollywood after Demolition Man?
It was really the film itself. I didn’t like how some of the action elements became so dominant. The genre kind of overwhelmed the lm. I like science fiction, but I don’t like action films. I don’t think I had ever seen an action film at the time. I used to watch just European films.
And then all of a sudden you’re making a blockbuster with Sylvester Stallone.
I had never even seen a Stallone film! I was very naïve about the whole process. I would be in Stallone’s trailer during his previous movie talking to him about how Demolition Man was going to be about this idea of good and evil. It would function on all these different levels, and it was going to have this very political edge to it as well. And they all said, “Great, we love it!” But, in the meantime, the machine is actually about something else. Making that kind of film, you’re signing up for something actually quite different than self-expression. Demolition Man was the highest budget ever given to a young director. I think David Fincher had the same kind of budget on Alien 3 – it was about 70 million dollars at the time – and I was 28.
But that comes with strings attached …
Yes. So I finished Demolition Man, and I had developed a bunch of other films. But then I just thought, “If I stay on this track, I’m going to find myself older, probably more wealthy, but I’m not going to be happy.” I mean, there are great directors who really love making those movies, but it’s not my thing. I find it more interesting to make something that maybe isn’t a movie – something that maybe isn’t two hours long, something that maybe isn’t meant to be seen in a movie theater.
AFTER WATCHING DEMOLITION MAN sink into the quicksand of its own genre, Brambilla took refuge from the studio system. In search for a space in which he could operate as an auteur, he eventually reemerged in the field of visual art. With early film installations such as Cyclorama (1999), Brambilla embarked on a new critique of the utopian farces that he had once lampooned in Demolition Man. The installation depicts the slowly spinning panoramas of nine revolving restaurants from across the United States. Captured without their clientele, the empty restaurants reference the atmospheric emptiness inherent to the promise of luxury. It is a case study in the existential dread induced by marble lobbies and other five-star purgatories.
The alienating yet immersive nature of commercial user-experiences – from professional gaming (HalfLife, 2002) to mega-malls (Cathedral, 2008) – has become a reoccurring theme in Brambilla’s work. However, his critique of spectacle does not cast stones from outside. With his use of epic scales and cutting-edge postproduction, Brambilla addresses the isolation of consumer experiences through their own language.
Your Megaplex series uses Hollywood film as the source material for a type of mega-baroque video collage. Did that concept develop out of your own experiences in the film industry?
At that time, when I made the first piece – which I think was in 2007, or 2008 – mainstream cinema had changed into something that was much more about marketing and production value than the content itself. It had become more driven by spectacle and driven by sensation. In 2004, about half of the studio films that were being made were based on a theme park ride, or a sequel, or a toy. It made me think of what happened with theatre at the turn of the 20th century, when theatre was becoming more about spectacle – when they were doing things like burning ships on stage. I looked at that, and I looked at what had happened to film – which is also what caused me to leave the film business – so it was quite personal. The dialogue, the content, and the characters that populate mainstream film have become largely interchangeable – the car chases all look the same, they develop new technology to allow you to smash buildings, or have characters fly through the air. And special effects houses will reuse those effects because it is more cost efficient. You’ll find that films get released with virtually identical sequences in order to work with that technology. So what was going on in the 70s – where you would have these very original methods of telling a story – has kind of gone out the window. So I thought it would be interesting to create something that was an epic on top of an epic. Something hyper-sensory. So now we’re going to take the 200 biggest characters, the 200 biggest explosions, and put them onto a canvas. I wanted to see how saturated I could make it before it alienated people. Where’s that threshold? What’s our threshold for attention?
In what sense do you see the project as being a critique of spectacle? It’s such a spectacle in its own right.
The subversive element of it, for me, was to make it as polished, as bombastic, and as 3D as a Hollywood film. It had to be seductive in order to be alienating. I think there’s nothing emptier than candy-colored, glossy things. You’re left with this idea of, “I’ve moved great distances, but I haven’t gone anywhere.”
IN MEGAPLEX, BRAMBILLA’S approach to the showmanship of a new generation of mega-blockbusters was to craft a spectacle of his own so oversaturated that it pushed viewers to the brink. His executive plan for doing so was to take Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling, stuff it with Pop, fracture it into the composition of Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, and place the entire concoction on a treadmill. It is a gesture that mourns the death of cinematic content by erasing its very possibility. Megaplex is a critique of excess achieved through maximalist means. Or, to use the biblical mode of Brambilla’s delivery, it is a Tower of Babylon imaged on the edge of collapse.
The Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht was once an advocate for smoking in the theater. He posited that a screen of smoke reminded viewers that they were sitting in a room, witnessing something artificial. Evolving with theorists such as Guy Debord, Brecht’s views mutated into the avant-garde commonplace notion that immersive media is the right hand of Capitalism. Pop music and Hollywood showmanship were ways of distracting the masses from social reality. However, in a 21st century context defined by user-generated content, this take on popular culture comes across as orthodoxy bordering on self-hatred. The strategies for consumer persuasion, and the cross-platform opportunities fostered by the commercial media complex, have advanced to a point where no one can appear untainted in such a purview. The coercive spectacle feared by those in Brecht’s lineage has become ubiquitous and invisible.
Yet, as I sat marooned in the 3D terrain of Brambilla’s Civilization, I was reminded of my copy of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967). The cover pictures a buzz-cutted theatre audience from the 1950s with 3D glasses glued to their faces, docilely casting their minds into a sea of Technicolor. Brambilla portrays Megaplex as a spoof on that condition, as a work that explores the alienation effect of blockbuster imagery by pushing it beyond its own limits.
It is a critical strategy embodied by the Accelerationist radicalism, which implies that the only way to overcome capital is by encouraging capital’s own tendencies towards self- destruction – to push the speed of the machine until it breaks or, in the case of Brambilla, to create an “epic on top of an epic.” But the paradox with art that operates under the banner of Accelerationist critique is that it can become impossible to discern critical practice from the power that it criticizes.
In fact, if the strategy of pushing the machine forward were to be executed succinctly, it would seem unnecessary even to make the distinction between artist and adman.
As an artist who tends to work on epic scales, do you find it difficult to create aesthetic shock in this current media environment? What can still surprise us?
For me, it’s about creating a disconnect between the visual and the emotional. If there’s a perverse source of detachment between those two states, an image that you’ve seen a million times in everyday life can be transformed into something more disturbing and more sensual. Because everything is so targeted in other communication, an authentic experience is much harder to find now than it was before. Everything is calculated and branded. It’s become so effective to give people exactly what they want before they even know it.
You’ve created various artworks that were commissioned by brands – Hugo Boss, Ferrari. How has that guided your practice?
Working with a brand is like being handed a loaded pistol – you hold it to your head, you flip the chamber, and you better make sure that what you’re doing is exceptional.I only work with brands when my sensibility connects to their sensibility. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a brand as a benefactor. I think some of the politics within the art world itself are perhaps more vulgar than with brands. And the work I make is quite expensive to produce. When I’d like to experiment with a new technique, it’s very hard for me to nance that on my own. Brands have enough resources to help you nance those experiments. So it’s kind of like research and development.
Do you see a coalescence happening between art experiences and brand experiences?
Yes. I think that brands are looking for a way to connect with their demographic. And, in the case of luxury brands, their demographic is now collecting art. Of course, 80% of these collaborations are disastrous. 80% of these collaborations are just the result of artists wanting a paycheck.
Have you been able to avoid disaster? You mentioned having a loaded gun to your head…
Luckily, in the last two or three years, I haven’t had that kind of experience. But I’ve had a couple of experiences where I go, “Oh my god! What have I agreed to here?”
AS I EXPERIENCED CIVILIZATION on a big screen in 3D – while remembering its screensaver-sized twin in the elevators of The Standard – I wondered whether Civilization had turned into one of Brambilla’s “disasters.” Yet, for the most part, his portfolio reveals that he has grown adept at operating within mainstream infrastructures without compromise. In 2010, Brambilla was approached by Kanye West to direct a music video for his single “Power.” Eschewing the title of music video director, Brambilla responded with a video collage featuring West at the center of a gilt-framed kinetic painting, surrounded by a composition of marble pillars, fashion models in Classical garb, and sword-wielding warriors. The video was 1: 43 (less than half the length of West’s song), and when Brambilla was approached by the likes of Katy Perry and Justin Bieber to do a follow-up effort, he blanketly declined.
Brambilla’s brand alliances are driven as much by mutual fascination as they are by financial gain. He describes the relationship between artists and brands as a new type of patronage, one which not only involves funding, but a co-mingling of imagery. In 2011, Brambilla approached Ferrari with the desire to create a piece about the phenomenology of Formula 1 racecar driving. The Italian automaker granted Brambilla a budget and allowed him access to their archive of Formula 1 footage. The result was another 3D video collage entitled RPM (2011). Set to the whine of superchargers, the film is a spiraling mélange of speedometers, stainless-steel valves, and pit crews that conveys the experience of terminal velocity. The film was not a Ferrari commercial – no black stallion logos appear on screen in RPM – but seems completely inline with the high-octane imagery of Ferrari’s marketing department. Evocative yet fundamentally ab-stract, RPM is the advertising version of a concept car: a well-produced moodboard of what automobile commercials could look like in a decade.
On Brambilla’s website, films such as RPM, POWER, and commissions by brands such as Hugo Boss and The Central Park Conservancy are archived under “Projects,” as opposed to another tab labeled “Work.” Looking at both categories on the page, it is difficult to discern between the two modes of practice they delineate. As a creative mode, the “Projects” tag points to the larger grey area that is slowly forming between art and branding. It is a Zoroastrian cultural landscape – one that promises both apocalypse (Louis Vuitton bags by Cindy Sherman) and utopia (Ikea laundry bags by Dis Magazine). At times, Brambilla’s 3D master-productions corroborate the conspiracy theory that the field of visual art is slowly becoming the R&D wing of the luxury industry.
Although it is yet to be seen whether it will be led under “Projects” or “Work,” Brambilla’s most recent piece is a public video installation made in collaboration with NASA and the Times Square Alliance. Brambilla states the piece will be his last sponsored work for the foreseeable future, and in a sense, a large-scale rocket launch in the mid- dle of Times Square is an apt way to go out with a bang. Upon commission of the work, NASA gave Brambilla access to its lm archives as well as the opportunity to direct a cameraman on the International Space Station. The Times Square Alliance then chipped in by allowing him to utilize 54 billboards in order to create a “virtual launch pad” for his endeavor. In keeping with his interest in spectacle, Brambilla decided to take these two infrastructures and distill them into their most epic modes. He used his source material from NASA to concentrate on the moment of countdown – the nail-biting phase of anticipation that has forged the Space Program’s most iconic (and disastrous) media mo- ments. Focusing on the countdown then allowed Brambilla to mesh his subject matter with Time Square’s history as the television mecca of New Years Eve. He decided to stage Apollo XVIII as a countdown to midnight, a rocket-fueled build to a metaphorical ball-drop – and space mission – that never happens. Like many of Brambilla’s works, the public installation uses the artist’s command of showmanship to posit a critique through anti-climax. It builds energy, only to point towards a void.
What was it like looking through the NASA archives?
It was great, because you were able to see the full-length footage from the small clips that were shown on television. We were able to look at ve-to-ten minute clips of rockets taking off, or a transmission from an astronaut, or people in mission control. The way I remember it as a child watching television is very different from seeing the more technical aspects of it – and also the more casual aspects of it. One of the elements I’ve used extensively were the engineering tapes I found. They have high-speed cameras aimed at the rockets in different positions to see if anything goes wrong. If there’s a puncture, or an explosion, they need to know exactly what it is that second. The engineering footage has these really rapid ID cameras embedded into the lm, and we were able to get that material and use some of the actual engineering tapes.
It seems as though one challenge that comes along with working on the subject of space travel is that it’s such quintessential Americana – it’s classic Hollywood and it’s also this golden era of 60s broadcast media. We’ve seen so many images of NASA in so many different forms to the extent that it verges on kitsch. How did you go about penetrating through that over-saturation of space imagery?
If you’re able to use those iconic images in a different way, it makes for an iconic work. This piece represents a count-down. The format of it is just like a stock-ticker scrolling across all the screens in Times Square, which obviously refers to the stock tickers that are already in Times Square. So I did a lot of work to reformat the imagery that we had seen before into something fresh and new. We wanted it to be a non-linear countdown. Using the mission-control thing, it goes, “Two-minutes and counting …” then, “30 seconds and counting …” then “55 seconds and counting ….”
The audience sees this completely random approach to time and technology, and it confuses you. It plays with the idea of anticipation. The idea of potential. The idea of the American dream. The idea of the self. Whatever. You’re constantly coming back to this video transmission of Frank Borman, who was the commander of the first mission that went to the moon, but never landed. And he’s in the video loop, and he’s constantly anticipating this moment of departure, which may or may not happen. I’m using this imagery in a completely different way, both visually and conceptually.
Conceptually, what guided your approach to Apollo XVIII?
After NASA gave me access to their archives, I found that I wasn’t really interested in making something that would be documentary. I thought it was more interesting to use NASA as this kind of time capsule – as something that represents the “terrestrial era” of exploration, from Christopher Columbus through to NASA. What would a mission from the terrestrial era look like in our current electronic era? How would it translate in this era of surrogate experience? Physical exploration is not the discovery phase of anything now, so I thought it would be interesting to contrast the concept of the Apollo program with the present-day concept of discovery. I wanted to show the work in a viewing environment that would be nostalgic of when we did land on the moon. I remember finding these images of the moon landing, with people looking at TV screens in shop windows, and that sort of thing.
So it almost focuses less on exploration than the secondary media experience of exploration …
Well, a big part of the installation is Times Square itself. The final part is people showing up in Times Square and posting the piece on their Instagram. And then it spreads, and the documentation of it really stems from that.
You’re also hijacking the world’s most famous advertising space.
I was approached by a few brands – a couple of really big brands – to help sponsor the piece, and we chose not to work with anyone. Central to the piece is the fact that it’s interrupting the regularly scheduled noise of advertising that you find in Times Square. It then represents something very spectacular, but it actually serves no purpose other than to build up to anticipation and promise – much in the same way that advertising does.