Road to Coachella – Blood, Sweat & Spectral Tears…

By Patrick O'Mahony — May 18, 2018

Our journey to Coachella started way back in 2014 when we were approached by the Festival to submit concepts for a large-scale art installation. It followed the Festival’s reputation for installations rocketing on the back of the iconic images of their giant spaceman that had circulated around the world.  This installation in itself broke new ground for so many reasons and provided a real driver for us to make sure we could be part of the Coachella family; something we now feel very proud to have achieved with Spectra.

So. Pencils sharpened, we were off … there were a few sleepless nights in the early years when we came close but no cigar and, in all honesty, I think initially our approach was wrong. We set out thinking “what would they love?”and “what will be the picture?”When we started to think more along the lines of “what do we want to do?”, “what best represents us as artists?” and critically “what would feel like it could only ever be for one Festival in the world, Coachella?”, it was only then that Spectra started to shine through from the shadows.

How to respond to the Festival’s setting was our starting point. We wanted to explore the relationship between the light and landscape, the shifting environment that this creates and how it influences those that journey through it.  The festival is enriched by beautiful sunrises and sunsets that roll across the landscape and it is these iconic explosions of colour that we wanted to capture in our design.  The second cornerstone to the creative was elevation. The Festival lives on a very flat polo field and for the first time outside of the Ferris Wheel we had the opportunity to take people to height, offering them a platform to enjoy a new perspective and see the festival in a different light. Midway through 2016 our submission went in and soon after Paul Clemente, the Festival’s Art Director, called to say that there was interest in the structure and could we start to the develop this idea. The door was open…

Over the next 6 months the tower fluctuated in height, width and fundamentally shifted from 7 separate levels to one continual helical ramp.  Whilst in principle it was a small change, creatively it made a huge difference.  It solved so many problems that I had been struggling with and it felt like the hallelujah moment in the whole creative process. It also proved a theory we have always stood by for many years – simply that creative ideas can be developed by anyone within the team.  Our wonderful structural engineer Darren Paine tabled this specific change although he probably later regretted it when he realised what was then required to deliver it!

So just under a year from the first design the contract was signed, with a rollercoaster journey in-between these two dates.  We were now officially going to be at Coachella 201. There was a moment when they asked us if we could be ready for 2017 but like Queen Bey herself we decided that 2018 was the year for us – not least because we had a 7 story building to design, fabricate, ship and build on the other side of the world!

The design process took many twists and turns along the way and pushed the whole team to the limit. One of the most enjoyable but challenging elements (and there were a few) within the creative and design process was selecting our 31 custom colours for the Spectra. Working with Perspex, we spent hours in their colour lab in the company of ‘Alan’. Alan is one of those people who just don’t realise how good they are at what they do. He has an historical knowledge of the product that is unrivalled and an insight into colour theory that blew our minds. I think he enjoyed scaring us in the first session by acting as some form of magician when showing how a red sample sheet could look like 7 different colours under 7 different lights. But how were we to actually move forward? We spent months layering up sides then standing back and arguing, stamping feet etc. and all for too long in a room with no windows.  However with Alan as the voice of calm our lucky 31 had made it through Judges Houses and were signed off and sent to the Live Finals. Surely they were going to be perfect – they had to be having cast over 200 to get to this point!

8 shipping containers later containing 200 tonnes of kit: 6,000m of LED; 4,400 individual parts; 54,000 nuts bolts and washers; 540m of flooring and with close to 2,400 man hours behind us, Spectra arrived in California. All we had to do now was build it… Our 30 strong team from the US and UK then started the herculean task ahead – erecting a 7 story building in under 1 month in 39 degrees heat. Quite a gear change from the test build back in the UK when it was -2.

What you often lose sight of within our industry is how good your crew have to be and how much is often asked of them in order that the curtain can go up on time. By this I don’t necessarily mean working 20-hour days, although there were some of those along the way, but the emotional investment required in the end result and what you are trying to achieve. When this commitment is shared you realise you are working with the best and it was our crew’s dedication and drive that ultimately made Spectra the structure it was on the opening day. (A surprise visit from Beyoncé and Jay Z when we were working one of those 20 hour days, also massively helped team morale and the push for the finish line!)

Suddenly it was the day before doors opened to the public. All plant was grounded until late afternoon due to high winds and storms, putting pay to any plans of an early finish. On receipt of the all clear we were soon back in our cherry picker baskets, sponges in hand. With the fantastic Roman riding shotgun with me – and Jim working tirelessly solo from his platform – those last 8 hours flew by with the final window cleaned at 04:30.

And then we were open. Which triggered the strangest thing – people actually went in it!  For over 2 years it existed across private sketchbooks, CAD drawings, engineer’s reports, design meetings, client updates and closed test builds – all under strict NDAs. No members of the public had ever engaged with Spectra – it had always been our baby. But now it belonged to c.125,000 people who had no knowledge of our Road To Coachella. It was time to let go, let the child fly the nest and celebrate everything we had achieved. Easier said than done. However also amazing to quietly walk amongst the crowds that flocked to enjoy Spectra and hear what everyone had to say.