Meet the Artist Behind the Dreamlike Sets of Madonna’s New Tour

The pop idol collaborated with the video game designer and worldbuilding artist Gabriel Massan.

Madonna performs during The Celebration Tour at The O2 Arena on October 15, 2023 in London, England. Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Live Nation.

Global superstar Madonna has collaborated with up-and-coming artist and video game developer Gabriel Massan to create an immersive set for her Celebration tour. The two-hour spectacle sees Madonna recreate some of the most iconic moments from her career. For the song Bedtime Story, for example, she and Massan have built a multi-dimensional fantasy world inspired by the original music video from 1995.

Madonna has been churning out hit albums ever since her self-titled debut from 1983, and she has never shied from experimenting with new technologies. An early enthusiast for NFTs, she collaborated with Beeple last year. Since the crypto crash, however, she has been on the look out for more promising ventures into the ever-evolving world of digital art.

Over the summer, Madonna rode her bike through London’s Kensington Gardens and turned up unannounced at Serpentine to try out Massan’s video game Third World: The Bottom Dimension, which remains on view through November 26. “She was really interested in the way I developed dreamy landscapes,” Massan said. “She wanted to swim, explore, and navigate through those different worlds.” It didn’t hurt that the game and its accompanying web3 tokens are powered by the Tezos blockchain.

Massan, who recently turned 27, described being “surprised,” to receive a DM on Instagram from Madonna just a few days later. “I kept very professional,” they remembered, and it wasn’t long before they were flown with their team to New York to meet the star in person. In the space of just 15 long days, filled with daily communication, the pair imagined a whole new fantastical dimension for the pop idol to inhabit on stage.

“It was really fun,” Massan said. “She has so much energy and was always thinking about how the work could evolve.”

Set design by Gabriel Massan for the song Bedtime Story performed by Madonna during her Celebration tour at London’s O2 Arena. Image screenshotted from Instagram with permission from the artist.

A fixture of the downtown New York art scene in the 1980s—she briefly dated Jean-Michel Basquiat—Madonna has a history of drawing on the work of visual artists.  The 1995 music video for Bedtime Story was itself inspired by painters like Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Frida Kahlo, Madonna told Aperture magazine. “There’s that one shot where my hands are up in the air and stars are spinning around me,” she recalled. “And me flying through the hallway with my hair trailing behind me, the birds flying out of my open robe—all of those images were an hommage to female Surrealist painters.” Costing a whopping $5 million, it is still one of the most expensive music videos ever produced.

Fast forward to 2023, and new emerging technologies have made it possible to create something even more otherworldly. At the start of the song, Madonna steps to the front of the stage, which rises up to become a raised cube. Projectors cover each side of the cube with Massan’s mesmerizing imagery, which extends to the surrounding screens. As Madonna repeats the chorus’s refrain of “let’s get unconscious, honey,” she lies back and writhes around as though in the midst of a sleepless night. Her movements are recorded in real time and linked to a larger-than-life avatar, which represents her consciousness. It repeats the same movements as it floats through the imagined realm of her dreams.

“It’s a special moment,” Massan said. “We wanted to bring something that would connect with the memory of the music video.”

Set design by Gabriel Massan for the song Bedtime Story performed by Madonna during her Celebration tour at London’s O2 Arena. Image screenshotted from Instagram with permission from the artist.

Growing up in Rio de Janeiro and later São Paulo, Massan, who now lives in Berlin, was obsessed with playing The Sims video game, and recorded their sessions to uploaded them onto YouTube. While studying video art at the School of Visual Arts of Parque Lage, their interest gravitated towards using 3D modeling softwares to make digital sculptures, and eventually Massan turned to video game engines to build worlds for these figures to live in.

Their biggest project to date has been the solo presentation at Serpentine, for which they built a world inspired by their own life experiences as a queer Black person living in post-colonial Brazil. “I’m really invested in understanding everything that emanates from the trauma of inequality,” Massan said. “How this system is created and how it develops and gets embraced by all the entities that are raised within the context of that inequality.”

Gabriel Massan, Third World: The Bottom Dimension (2023), © Serpentine. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

In the single player, multi-level game, the avatars inhabit a world in which a company known as “the headquarters” exploits the land and extracts its materials, leaving the fragile ecosystem under threat. An important aspect of the game is that players can choose their own adventure, with the game splitting into multiple diverging narratives. Will the players explore or invade Massan’s imagined world?

“My main goal was to gamify a sense of responsibility, or to criticize our ways of navigating the world,” Massan said. “We are using a technology to provoke new ways of thinking and creating empathy.” The game is accompanied by a multi-sensory exhibition with immersive site-specific sets and sculptures that transports the video game’s aesthetics into our earthly realm.

So can video games be art? Massan doesn’t believe that the practice now commonly known as “worldbuilding” is much different from the unique styles and vision that have always defined art history. “When I see a Monet, he had a context surrounding everything that he created,” they said. “I can really see the world that Monet is building.”

Madonna’s Celebration tour ends its European leg in London on December 5, before picking up in New York on December 13 and traveling across the U.S. through April 2024. Gabriel Massan’s Third World: The Bottom Dimension is on view at the Serpentine North Gallery until November 26.


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