Q&A with Multimedia Artist Tupac Martir
Tupac Martir is a creative director and multimedia artist whose work is breaking new ground at the intersection of virtual reality and live performance.
Tupac Martir is the founder and Creative Director of Satore Studio. Vogue has described him as “the visual designer and creative director behind some of the most important events in the world.” He has provided production design, visuals, and lighting direction for the likes of Elton John, Beyoncé, Danny Boyle, the Coachella Music & Arts Festival, and Serpentine Gallery. Tupac is renowned within the fashion industry and has worked on groundbreaking shows for Alexander McQueen, Moschino, Alexander Wang, and Thomas Tait, among others. More recently, he directed and produced the award-winning performative reality piece Cosmos Within Us.
What is your origin story? Where did this all begin?
So usually what I do now — because everyone always goes into a big rant about who they are — my new way of introducing myself is to say, “My name is Tupac Martir and I’m an internet user.” But in this case, I think the best way to put it is that I am an artist and I am a creative director. I run two companies, Satore Studio and Satore Tech.
Satore Studio is a visual design studio for live entertainment, so mainly things like concerts, ballet, theater, opera, fashion, a lot of work with events and museums and things like that. Satore Tech, on the other side, is more of a lab for work in which we try to understand how to best integrate technology into the things that we do — be it a show or a film or a commercial or an art installation — while pushing the limits of what the current technology can do. Within that space, we work on realities, be it virtual, physical, augmented, mixed, or extended.
And you have had the pleasure, honor, and challenge of working with some pretty auspicious names, such as Beyoncé and Elton John. What are some of the highlights over the past couple of years?
Yes, we have worked with very high-profile companies, individuals, and artists, which is always a treat. But I think that some of the work that we have been doing ever since has been really good, creating our own pieces like Nierka, or taking over a cultural building like we did for Looking Outside My Window, or working with the likes of Moschino and trying to create new ways of seeing fashion. For the past few years, we have been the lighting directors at Fondazione Prada for a series of summer shows, using light as an art form, allowing it to live within the realms of a cultural space while also transmitting something with music — I think that is where it really starts to get to the core of what we are doing.
Is it almost a kind of theater at that point?
Yes, it goes beyond just being a concert or just being light. It goes to that place where it becomes a performance, it becomes an art installation. I hate using the word, but it becomes this immersive element that is not defined by one or two things, this transcendental element that exists now that actually would not exist if you took any of the other elements out. It is like being an alchemist. By putting all these different ingredients together, you come up with something that is not tangible or physical, but just exists at that moment. It is ephemeral, you have to be there to see it. You have to experience it, because the combination of all these different art forms put together creates this special moment.
This sounds like a good segue into talking about Cosmos Within Us, which we’re very excited to be able to share this year at FoST. Can you talk about how that piece came about?
So in May of 2017, we started exploring the idea of loss and how we could interpret loss in art. Being a live entertainment company, we wanted to bring live entertainment to the headset. What defined this quite heavily was the idea that we wanted to make the performance of the piece an actual part of the event, allowing you to see how everything is created and how all of us are working toward the experience of one single interactor, and that became the philosophy of what we needed to do. We needed to be the servants of the story, but we also needed to be the servants of the interactor.
Can you describe what the piece consists of?
Cosmos Within Us is a performance that happens in different realities. You have one interactor who is in a headset, and then you have an audience that is watching how the piece is being made.
I always divide the performance into two spaces. There is the performance space per se, which is where the interactor lives, and that is also populated with two dancers who we call the “shadow men.” The shadow men are in charge of taste, smell, and touch. At the same time, you have another group who are in charge of visuals and music, plus a string quartet, another performer on keys, and a sound engineer onstage mixing the whole thing live. In addition, there is a live voiceover actor, an Unreal operator, a camera director, and a sound designer who’s working with the sound engine. Finally, I am directing the piece in real time.
And your role is almost like conductor at that moment?
I always say I am the servant of the story and the keeper of the energy. The interactor is looking around and discovering the world, and I am managing all this energy to bring down the music, pick it up, add something to the scene, trigger a sound, play around with things. So, in a way it is almost like I am dancing from far away with the interactor, while at the same time conducting an entire orchestra of multidisciplinary elements.
So now we have a sense of the form, but what is the story about?
We are trying to understand loss — the loss of a loved one, the loss of a friend, the loss of innocence. So, it is the story of somebody who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, because if you have Alzheimer’s or dementia, you are losing all those things at the same time, and at some point you will lose them all. Cosmos Within Us is about a 60-year-old man who is suffering from Alzheimer’s and goes back to his childhood home to try to hold onto his last memories before they fade away.
By the time we debuted this piece, we probably had 27, 28 drafts of a script because it is such a delicate story and theme. We understand the heaviness of the disease. What we want the audience to come out with is a sense of hope and understanding of what the value of memory is, and our relationship to other people based on our memories.
Have you worked with Alzheimer’s organizations? What kind of response have you had with that community?
It was quite interesting. When we were doing user testing back in April of last year, we invited a few people who had family members with Alzheimer’s, and the response was, “I remember my grandma doing that,” or “I remember my grandfather doing that,” or “I remember my dad doing that.”
We invited the Alzheimer’s Society to come in and see the final piece, and they have now asked us to perform Cosmos Within Us at their national summit in the UK. They want to use it as something that people can come and see to have a better understanding of what it is like to have and live with the disease.
You’ve been touring around a bit. How has the piece evolved over time? Is it still a work in progress?
When we first debuted in Venice, we had one interactor and four people in the audience. By the time we moved it to London, we grew to 10 people in the audience. Then we took the leap to 110 people in Amsterdam, and we didn’t know if it was going to work. We were a bit scared, but that size gave us a completely different understanding of what the piece could be. By the time we met in New York, we grew to 150 with a full lighting rig, with all the performers, with a more precise choreography, with better camera movement and camera direction. Now we have a very good understanding of how the show can live with six performers or 50 performers.
Now there is more going, “This is the show that you get here, this is the show you get there,” just like any band would do. If you are doing it in a hundred-seater, your production is a lot smaller. If you go into a medium-sized concert hall, you grow, and then by the time you make it to an arena, you have your full production. It is a model that we completely understand, and almost every single touring company in the world — be it ballet, theater, concerts — we all understand that model and how it is actually something that can create financial stability. At the end of the day, part of what we are trying to do and innovate with Cosmos Within Us is this idea of how we can make it a sustainable business, and how we can create a model that actually allows people to see and to have different points of entry within VR.
In Amsterdam, and now in New York, there were a lot of people telling me they had never seen VR and this was their first experience. My response was “So what do you think?” The general response was “I love it, now I want to be in the headset, I want to know what is going on in there and how it feels.” That is exactly what we aimed to achieve. I love festivals, but at the end of the day we all know that if you stay in the festival circuit, you are only playing to your crowd. By stepping outside of it and opening it to a different type of audience, we are actually trying to open eyes into what is possible and what is happening. For them to go and say, “Well, now I want to see more of this VR thing, now I understand that it is not just games and there are also interesting stories that are being told, and an entire artistic creativity element that is coming out of this new medium.”
And are you working on new stories for this kind of hybrid VR and performance medium?
Whenever I talk to people, they are already thinking about how they can start working in the space that we are developing. I was with some people from the Phi Centre, and they were telling me how much they are already thinking, “Where are the next steps, who are the next creatives that are going to start getting into this?”
When I saw Robin [McNicholas] from Marshmallow Laser Feast, he had seen the show and he was like, “I love it. But my question is, what are you going to do next? Because I am sure you have a ton of learnings.” And the truth is yes, we have massive learnings, and from there we are starting to write and prototype a new piece.
Lastly, what are you looking forward to about participating in FoST?
You are seeing what people are trying to create and where the industry is going to be in five, 10 years’ time. That is the part that I am really amazed about. The crowd that it draws, the creatives that you admire, are creatives that you want to hang out with. You want to have a conversation with them, to see where they are in the world and what they are thinking.
I always say that the creative process is such a lonely place to be. We are usually at the top of the iceberg, and we are the ones breaking the ice to get to this new level, and there is nowhere to turn around to look at somebody and say, “Can you help me here?” Because everyone goes, “You are on your own, man. I have no idea.” But when you are in spaces like this, you can see that everyone is going, “I’m also lost, and this is how I cope when I am lost, by experimenting.” You create friendships around that.
That is the beauty of what FoST offers. It is allowing you to realize that you are not alone, and that everyone is going through the same things that you are going through, and seeing through their eyes what that journey is like, and what we can learn from each other of being on that journey.