Illuminating Miss Grace Jones: Interview with…Chris Levine!

If you were fortunate enough to catch Grace Jones on the incredible Hurricane Tour over the past two years, you might have caught a performance of “Love is the Drug,” where a single green laser is refracted into dozens of tiny beams of light atop Jones’ head.

Chris Levine is the artist responsible for that installation, as well as several other lighting designs for Jones’ stage work. Having just shot a series of holographic photographs with the superstar, as well as the video for her upcoming single “Love You to Life,” the renowned 3D artist is now preparing to showcase his work with Grace Jones in “Stillness at the Speed of Light,” an exhibition at The Vinyl Factory in Soho, London that begins on April 30.

As he prepares for his showing, Levine was kind enough to take the time to answer some of my questions regarding his collaborative work with Grace Jones, both on stage and in his own media. Please read on to see the full interview!

What first brought you into contact with Grace Jones? Did she contact you?
I got a call from Philip Treacy, who was art directing her first live band show in 10 years. He asked if I’d like to light it. Due to timings, I decided to create some peak moments in the show rather than light it entirely.

According to various websites, you were responsible for the lighting/laser effects in Grace Jones’ comeback show at the Royal Albert Hall in London on June 19 back in 2008. What were the components that you brought to the show?

I created some laser installation pieces using high powered lasers and positioned the “Free the Beam”–a laser-pod sculpture–which projects mini lasers into crystal, as well as my visual echo piece that projects the word “Love” onto your peripheral vision.

Were those components included on her Hurricane tour that stretched over the course of 2009, or were they strictly for that one show in June?

Sure some of the laser work got “translated”–some bits more successfully than others.

Was the green laser that shines atop the mirrored hat on Grace’s head during “Love is the Drug” your idea? I thought it was a brilliant moment when I saw her on tour a few months ago!

Yep, that was me. I got the Royal Festival Hall to take all lights to black out when we did it first time. The laser coming directly down from above onto Philips crystal headpiece…the audience went wild. It was a magical moment–a kind of flash point. Grace was back! It has to be one of the best live shows I had ever seen by any artist. It was electrifying!

Now we’ve learned of the portrait collaboration, set to be displayed in April at the Vinyl Factory Gallery in London this year. When and where did this collaboration take place?

After the success of the live work, it was clear we had some kind of chemical reaction that needed to go further. We decided to do a 3D portrait shoot just to see what would come out of it. We shot in London at the end of 2008 with no end purpose in sight. We just knew the alchemy was right and that the results would be worthwhile.

This one’s a big question, so feel free to write as much as you’d like! How was it to work with Grace Jones? Feel free to include any particularly memorable anecdotes or creative breakthrough moments!

My God, nothing prepared me for what Grace would be like in front of the camera. She is so much more than a singer. We all know that. She is a performance artist; a legend. I was daunted at first–she has been shot by all the greats–how was I going to make any meaningful evolution in image making?

Did she have a lot of creative input, or did she allow you to style her as you saw fit?

It was a real spirited collaboration. I styled her. That is to say I wanted no fashion [apart from the now famous crystal bowler]. Just Grace’s body and emotion, lit using some highly organic light-form textures I had created.

Did you have any creative disagreements, or was it a very fluid experience?

We both surfed it and kept our balance together as we shot into space! I think we went to some interesting spaces and feedback from the limited amount of work that’s been put out there so far. It has been encouraging.

How long did you work together on this project (the portraits)?

The shoot itself went through the night. Grace is a night bird as you’d expect, and in that session I captured some awesome material. I had been tinkering with the images over time and shared some initial proofs in 3-D with Grace, and we felt we had to do a show.

How many portraits are going to be on display?

There are two main images: ‘Stillness at the Speed of Light’ and ‘Superstar’ as the show pieces, but because I shot them with moving cameras there are actually many images in the show–some composited into 3D light-boxes and others as sequences of images.

Can you describe the look of (and perhaps the process that goes into constructing) the 3D holographic portrait? I know a lot of my readers aren’t from the UK, so they won’t be able to see these prints and truly appreciate their effect in person.

I shot with a camera that moved along a track in front of Grace. Each pass creates a mini film as the camera moves from left to right. These images are then interlaced together, and a special lens is laminated on top of the print. This lens separates each image so that when you look at it your left and right eye sees a different image. The distance of the camera away from the subject is set such that each pair of images gives a stereoscopic view–without glasses. It’s called a lenticular image, and because its 3-D often gets called a hologram (which it isn’t). That’s an entirely different technology fraught with all kinds of limitations. Of course, the technology will evolve, but working with true holograms frustrated me.

How do you feel about the final product of this collaboration? Are you pleased?

Yep. I’m excited about the work but also nervous…Expectations are quite high.

Now what about the video for “Love You To Life”? Was that video drawn from these portrait sessions, or does it have a plot separate from that work?

Shooting the portraits involved moving camera and animated footage. It was a natural progression to take the project into video.
I was a bit freaked out when she first asked me. Of course I’d love to direct a video, but it would be my first, and what if, say, it didn’t quite work out? I procrastinated for ages, then decided to get a great team around me to produce it with me. I brought Why Not Associates into the frame who I’d worked with on a few projects.

Do you know when she plans to release this video?

I am going to show the directors cut in a couple of installation pieces in my show, and then the commercial video is to follow in a few weeks.

Thank you so much for your time, Chris!

“Stillness at the Speed of Light” will open on April 30 at The Vinyl Factory in Soho, London and run until May 14. You can now see a preview of the show here.

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