'Just a big installation' is how visual artist Catherine Owens describes her work with U2, writes Deirdre Mulrooney.
'I don't look at it any differently than anything I do for myself. It's problem solving, visually. I've got an idea in my head, I've got to make a visual image related to that idea to express it, so the same format goes into doing things for U2 as doing them for myself'.
Elevation is her third collaboration with the band. For her debut on Zoo TV Owens came up with the imagery ('stuff') to customise those Trabants, lowered into the 1992 show as somewhat unorthodox lighting fixtures. At the start of their odyssey into the world of multimedia then, U2 and their chief concert designer since 1982 Willie Williams were looking for some 'interesting video work'. In a curatorial role Owens suggested Mark Pellington, the man who gave MTV its look, for starters. He collaborated on video pieces like the buffaloes in 'One', one of which resurfaces to swoosh its proud tail in the final encore of Elevation. He also created the original text piece for The Fly, recalled by Williams as 'this barrage of meaningless text all truisms and slogans'. His contribution had pride of place in the 'panic-inducing' first ten minutes of Zoo TV in which 'it was impossible to look at the band. There was this visual assault the like of which had never been seen before at a rock concert'.
Nine years later, Elevation opens hard to believe - just in house-lights. All there is to look at is the band. In a show that seems so low-tech as to be reactionary (relatively speaking) Pellington's handiwork is later regurgitated as vulnerable handwritten text with words like 'love me', and 'believe'. Likewise the whole tone of Elevation is a far cry from that cheeky Zoo TV rendition of George Bush Senior in the Oval Office singing Queen's 'we will we will rock you', procured by Owens from Rhode Island based performance artists 'Emergency Broadcast Network' (EBN). Here in 2001 she brings us Charlton Heston, (via CNN) pronouncing his pro-gun credo in his own words. No animation necessary!
With the 1997 big budget Pop Mart came their discovery of colour LED wall - technology which did not exist before they used it. At 150 feet by 70 feet their Canadian-made 'big bit of sculpture' (as Owens calls it) is still the biggest screen in the world. Williams threw her the gauntlet, saying 'either it was a fluke last time or else you really do know something'. To fill that mammoth screen Owens procured Roy Lichtenstein's fighter pilot sequence for animation by top animator Run Wrake; cleared the rights for Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe in record time; obtained 'unobtainable' Keith Haring material.
Typically Owens began her quest for animators by going to London Filmmakers Co-op and saying 'here's my brief: I want to find something that looks like sex but feels like technology. So what have you got?' She found John Maybury. Scouring trade magazines, she uncovered Vegetable Vision (who do visuals for The Chemical Brothers). 'People are never where you expect them to be', attests Owens, who attributes some of this flair for popular culture to her late father, synonymous with the Peter Owens advertising agency. 'They are always hiding under some rock somewhere'. She commissioned artist and UCLA lecturer Jennifer Steinkampf 'one of the very few people who make computer generated images look emotional' to do abstract pieces 'lots of tunnels and loops' for Pop Mart, and more recently a green milky way background to 'Kite' for Elevation.
Once she has gathered her imagery there is 'the dog and pony show'. That is: 'I'd go back to the band with my little bunch of wacky stuff, all really brilliantly made' she explains. 'I'd put the video on and they'd go yes no right vibe not right vibe'.
For Pop Mart, 'this grand experiment' which opened aptly, in Las Vegas 'none of us knew what we were doing', she says. 'We were absolutely putting our hands into the middle of the abyss and pulling out whatever was coming'. Lighting designer Bruce Ramus compares the Pop Mart sensation with 'sitting three foot away from your television, and having it strobing at you for three hours. We turned it off once or twice. Sometimes at the end of it you just felt numb. Just getting bombarded by this television. It was incredible and I loved it but I wouldn't say it was a show full of connecting moments. It was full of disconnecting moments'.
Feng-shui-ing the techno-clutter, no wonder the band set the mantra of 'no visuals' for Elevation, the sequel to their ultimate TV show. With a brief to maximise contact with the audience, and inspired by Adam Clayton's idea to put the audience in the stage Williams and Mark Fisher pulled off an ingenuous proxemic feat with their heart-shaped runway. It embraces those who queue the longest (and photographers) within. Proxemic innovators in the realm of the rock concert U2 were also the first band to use a b stage (a runway to an island out in the middle of the audience).
In reaction to the mind-boggling 'drive-in theatre' of Pop Mart, in Elevation 'the video is really just a piece. Everything else relates to lighting', says Owens who showed the band early animation work, and experimental stop-motion photography by Joe King. His b/w steel girders are projected as 360º lighting during 'New York' via an intricate system of PG projector and mirrors developed by Williams and Ramus.
Elevation's projected imagery is textural, not literal, with Vegetable Vision's Moiré patterns, and magical star-fields enveloping the entire audience in what could be the second act. Yet despite the Op Art feel of the whole environment moving, focus remains squarely on the band. They are individually visible on four non-intrusive b/w screens on high, sometimes zooming in on quirky out-of-focus elements of their clothing (inspired by the style of Williams' vintage photo collection). Later, gigantic handwritten lyrics for 'Walk On' scroll down through the auditorium.
The video element had to be one that wouldn't 'deaden the environment' explains Ramus. 'Not to abandon a role that they had begun' elaborates Owens, 'but to take it somewhere else', a video wall elevates late in the show (let's say the 'third act'). At 8 feet by 34 feet it is a sliver of its former self.
The 'completely thrilling' technological leap of onsite editing, allowed them 'to order up the video wall, and literally start typing in and colouring' on the Miami rehearsal stage. And three artists' work can merge in one song - like when a body outline provided by Vegetable Vision is mixed with a middle and background by Marcus Lyall to reconfigure those kitschy dancing girls in 'She Moves in Mysterious Ways'. In contrast to her previous curatorial function, Williams describes Owens' role here as alchemy.
Elevation seems practically Mennonite in comparison with its decadent predecessor. Nearer to the tiny meticulous tea-stained dresses of her own 'Self-Address': 'I thought for this tour that the whole direction would have to be handmade' says Owens. 'Everything would have to start off being very loosey-goosey, scratchy, black and white, low-tech, art college, but really goodS even though it would end up going into this inferno and be digitised up the wazoo'.
If there are any gaps, Owens contributes her own work. In Pop Mart it was her abstract line in 'Please'. In Elevation her handiwork is submerged into beam effect.
New York based Owens who has known the band since she was 18 comes across all Zen when she says: 'We know it's worked when people have watched some really powerful visuals and they've come away remembering the band'. Self-effacement doesn't bother her: 'It's a challenge being tenth down the line on the ego pole.'
U2's issue-driven agenda appeals to Owens whose Installations: Balls at Project Arts Centre; Self-Address at the Triskel; and most recently In, at the Hugh Lane Gallery, are mostly about women's issues. 'These platforms have to be challenged and reworked. I can take all that information back into the art world, and bring some of the art world information into their world'.
Appropriately the title for her next piece is 'Intersection'.
All Photos by Diana Scrimgeour. From Aung San Suu Kyi to child soldiers, a series of powerful contemporary political and cultural themes permeate the visual dynamics of the Elevation Tour. Many groups and organisations contributed to the acquisition of material.
Check the following links for further information on some of them.
The Free Burma Coalition
The Fund for Peace works to prevent war and promotes education and research for practical solutions. More at
Prospect Burma funds education for young Burmese, many of whom have fled the oppression of the present regime and live as refugees in many parts of the world. Prospect Burma seeks to help create a cadre of Burmese who will be able to run the country when democracy returns. More at
The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers advocate adherence to, national, regional and international legal standards prohibiting the military recruitment and use in hostilities of any person younger than eighteen years of anywhere in the world. More at