Newsubstance’s Spectra lights up Coachella

Copyright Nenah Bondi

USA: This year’s Coachella commissioned the UK based studio Newsubstance to produce an art installation entitled ‘Spectra’ – a seven-storey pavilion that allowed festivalgoers to climb through spirals of colour and gain unprecedented views of the site.

The structure was one of six artworks commissioned for this year’s festival. Unlike the other works, however, Spectra is a permanent piece that will remain in place for at least the next three years.

A site-specific response to Coachella’s location in California’s Colorado Desert, Spectra both connects and contrasts with the landscape and sky, providing a relief to the flatness of the former while capturing and concentrating the colours of the latter.

Visitors climb a ramp that takes them on six revolutions of the structure to a viewing deck at the top. During the day, a succession of Perspex window panels bathe the space inside with intense colours and offer vibrantly colourised views of the surrounding festival grounds. At night, radials of LED cove lighting in the ceiling illuminate the panels, turning the tower into a solid beacon of dispersive refraction and throwing those inside into silhouette.

Newsubstance Creative Director, Patrick O’Mahony, explained: “The colour shift element in particular reminded Coachella’s organisers of an installation from the very early days of the festival, which they really loved.

“We didn’t want it to become known simply as ‘the rainbow tower’ – it’s called Spectra, so it made sense that people could actually move through the spectrum on each floor. As well as producing a more interesting end result, a major driver was that we didn’t want the viewing deck at the top to be just one colour. Instead, we have this effect where you can walk around and see the whole site shift through different looks.”

With public access such an integral part of the piece, the safety and comfort of those interacting with the artwork is paramount. Newsubstance worked closely with the Coachella team to ensure all elements of the tower were fabricated to meet US building codes.

The structure of the tower is comprised of identical steel sections, prefabricated at Newsubstance’s UK workshops. Each section – essentially two bays of the tower – is repeated 90 times, wrapping round on itself to form a spiral that gains one floor with each loop. The modular nature of the structure meant preliminary tests could be carried out using a single bay, before undergoing a full test build of one complete layer at Church Fenton airbase, near the company’s headquarters in Leeds, UK.

Each wrap of the structure features 31 custom cast Perspex window panels that together form one complete cycle through the colour spectrum, a cycle that repeats with each storey. As the windows spiral up through each level, the colours are offset by one pane to produce a staggered effect that echoes the natural angle of refracted light.

The addition of LED cove lighting into the structure allowed the character of the piece to change as night fell. Newsubstance selected an integrated scheme of concealed lighting. Prior to delivery onsite, each one of the 690 internal Kingspan roof beams – radiating in an outward pattern above the spiral passageway – was fitted with a strip of custom RGBWW LED tape, recessed into sections of aluminium extrusion.

A series of custom built DMX power supplies spread across a total of eight DMX universes enable the freedom to overlay pixel-mapped effects on to the whole tower. Although the strips are capable of producing a full spectrum of colours, the team wanted to avoid muddying the purity of the carefully selected Perspex panels. Instead, they explored the use of different colour temperatures of white light, subtly animated to produce gently shifting effects.

During Coachella’s daylight hours, all fixtures were set to 3500k, but as the sun went down and the light levels inside slowly increased, the scheme became more dynamic – fluctuating between 3000k and 5000k.

“We didn’t want to be running big disco chases or anything like that,” said O’Mahony. “Instead, we began with very gentle temperature changes in the white – almost as if the tower is breathing – then, later on, we would send very slow pulses up through the space. It was really interesting because whenever we introduced even the smallest effect, people inside the structure would respond to it instantly – it was very easy to control the mood in there.”

During the festival, the LED strips were augmented by dynamic spotlights placed on the roof of the tower. Eleven Robe Mega Pointe and 11 Robe BMFL fixtures extended Spectra’s presence up into the sky.

“The response has been amazing,” said O’Mahony. “We’ve had people messaging us and writing to us to say how much they loved it – including Coachella veterans, who have been coming to the festival for over a decade, saying how great it was to see the festival from a different point of view and in a different light.”