Interview: Artist Kenzo Digital on “Air” at SUMMIT One Vanderbilt

Bending infinity atop the NYC skyline in a permanent installation

1,000 feet above the streets of NYC, SUMMIT One Vanderbilt sets visitors atop the skyline in a way no other arts attraction has done before. With an intellectual structure and an emotional undercurrent, the artist Kenzo Digital‘s permanent installation Air is the beating heart of SUMMIT. Though it’s joined by two other experiences—Levitation (a knee-weakening enclosed glass ledge) and Ascent (a glass elevator that rises to One Vanderbilt’s highest observation point)—Air is more than a handful of social media dreamscapes; it’s an infinity-bending portal designed by an artist who questions light, time, space and gravity. Composed of several distinct artworks, the installation challenges visitors as it enlightens them. From innumerable reflections that slice up the city’s grid to an explosive rainbow trip upside down, and shifting faces set into digital clouds, Air‘s art all serves a purpose.

During our walkthrough of the multi-floor installation with the artist, he repeatedly asked us how we felt and why. Our answers varied from weightless to stupefied. To learn more about how Kenzo Digital achieved this, we spoke with the artist about the space, the development of each work and why guests should visit at various times of day and night.

Courtesy of SUMMIT One Vanderbilt

How did you feel when you saw the raw space for the very first time?

Soon after I got brought onto the project I requested to spend the night on site to really get a feel for the experience of that very specific vantage point from One Vanderbilt. At that time, there were no curtain walls so the entire space was completely exposed to the elements. This was around November so it was quite cold. Upon seeing the view for the first time, it immediately dawned on me that the vantage point from One Vanderbilt was uncannily similar to the vantage point of a recurring dream I’ve been having for 25 years. The recurring dream takes place in the circular, two-floor penthouse of a fictitious skyscraper in the middle of a mythological New York. So when I reached the top of One Vanderbilt and saw the view before me, I was struck with this vision. I immediately started connecting my recurring dream of 25 years to the concept of Air that would bring this idea to life based on this very specific location and vantage point.

Courtesy of SUMMIT One Vanderbilt

Can you share with us how you worked along the timeline—from the first discussions about the project to opening day?

We began work on the design in September 2019. It was an accelerated process to get everything figured out and resolve all of the technical details in advance of the intended construction start date, the spring of 2020. Then, of course, the pandemic happened. Day one of production was day one of the pandemic. It was an intense and sometimes scary process building under such uncertain circumstances. I spent most of 2020 in a CDC suit with a gas mask on, going through an abandoned Manhattan—in and out of various empty buildings where we were building prototypes and testing various things. It was an extremely challenging production environment, one that more resembled a science fiction film than an art installation production at times. Still, because of the pandemic context, the whole project took on new significance as New York was shut down and no one could do anything. The timing of releasing Air into the world is significant—the value of the work and its meaning is synonymous with New York coming back to life.

by David Graver

Did you do materials research? Technology research? How did you couple that with what your imagination was creating?

Technology has always been a part of my art practice, although I am not a technology-first person, as technology is merely a tool. And in this project, I actually wanted to make an anti-technology statement. Through the lens of sustainability, I wanted to create something that hypothetically didn’t require any kind of electricity—whether day or night—just through its reflection of the sun and at night, the ambient light of the city. It has evolved since then, but allowing nature to be the energy source for the experience has always been at the core of the idea. And sustainability is a pillar of what One Vanderbilt is built on, a true skyscraper of the future, so it is quite fitting.

Not all mirrors and glass are the same

There was a tremendous focus on materials in several categories. Initially, we had to understand what the impact of the mirror would be at that height in relation to the sun, how the space could accommodate the heat and light. Then, of course, there were the aesthetics—not all mirrors and glass are the same. From a design standpoint, there was a lot of work and engineering that went into optimizing the clarity and reflectivity of the glass and how it’s all put together so that the vantage point, weather, light and the movement of the sun at that elevation could have maximum impact across all seasons in all spaces to evolve the story and push the concept.

Courtesy of SUMMIT One Vanderbilt

From an engineering and material science standpoint, what we have built is categorically first. Obviously other infinity rooms have been built in the past, but this one required extra consideration into how the mirrors at that vantage point relate to the sun, sky and city, and also how to accommodate two million visitors a year. Additionally, the curtain wall glass is a very special kind of glass from Germany and is the purest and most clear glass in the world, allowing the most amount of light and color into the space with the least amount of reflection.

Beyond the materials, we did extensive development and testing for sound design, lighting design, wind movement, balloon-inflation balance, game engine development and design—all in service of extending the concept and story as far as it could possibly go. This was to create something that was really unique but, more importantly, something that I felt was more of a service to New Yorkers and people at large and allowed them to experience nature in a way that could only happen in New York—kind of like an inter-dimensional oasis or escape. Air is like a physical expression of the metaverse that converges the natural world with the built world.

by David Graver

Did you build miniature iterations to explore some of the mesmerizing effects that the art would have on larger scales?

We started with pre-vis and renders of certain key spaces to demonstrate the intent and illustrate the incredible possibilities of a fully mirrored, apparently structureless environment. After that, we built a fully mirrored prototype in a building in Times Square that allowed people to experience a small but very powerful version of the concept first-hand. This was during the pandemic—at a disorienting, vulnerable time for people. However, seeing how people were affected by the experience in the prototype, and what it meant to them in the midst of such a difficult time, helped us understand the value of what we were creating, which kept us inspired to persevere despite the many challenges.

Courtesy of SUMMIT One Vanderbilt

The artistic experience you created is one of both intellect and emotion. How did you work with these attributes? What were you challenging participants to do? What were you preparing them to do?

The experience of Air is a story that you live. It’s a story where you are the protagonist. As such, it is much less a story that I am trying to tell you and more of an experiential format for you to engage with the story of yourself. The story is about your relationship to nature, your relationship to New York City, your relationship to yourself and your relationship to time. Air provides the opportunity for each person to free themselves from the automaticity of mind and their habitual ways of relating to the world, allowing for a new openness and a kind of shared consciousness for a time.

At the same time, arriving in daytime versus nighttime and everything in between affects the mood and feel of the experience. On top of that, the variability of weather and clouds can change the dynamic radically. There is no such thing as non-cinematic weather at that elevation and vantage point, and to watch weather collide with the city and understand how the built world is connected to the natural world at such an incredible scale is a deeply humbling sight to behold.

by David Graver

Can you share with us a bit about the inclusion of Yayoi Kusama’s work?

Marc Holliday [Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of SL Green Realty Corp, the developed of One Vanderbilt] is a Kusama fan and came across the “Clouds” piece and wanted to include it. I’m also a fan and thought that this particular piece fit really well conceptually with what we were doing with Air and Summit. Placing her “Clouds” literally in the clouds, where the reflections reinterpret weather patterns, produces a compelling effect.

by David Graver

Visitors really must attend the explosive, mind-bending light experience. Can you talk about the development of this?

The whole concept of Air is that it is a living entity, and thus it is continuously expressing in unique ways through a combination of constantly evolving sound, constantly evolving nature, and as we move into the evening, the use of lighting design.

In the daytime, Air expresses the power of the sun in different and dynamic ways. It is unpredictable and often magical in its amplification of all the ways the sun and sky shift over the course of a day organically. When Air shifts to the nighttime, the form of expression changes. [Technology used in the installation] Air absorbs the colors of the sky, the city, the weather, and synthesizes them and re-expresses them back to you. Air at night is still the same concept as it is during the day, it is just expressing the life and reflection of the city differently and communicating a different relationship to time.

The time aspect is important to mention because visitors have discovered that lying on the floor is the most intense and powerful way to experience the story at night. By lying on the floor, you greatly reduce the presence of the view out the window, which puts you in a hypnotic, dreamlike state.

“Levitation” image courtesy of SUMMIT One Vanderbilt

Finally, the sound components throughout the entire space complement the visual experience. Can you talk about the partnership behind their development?

I’ve been working with sound designer Joe Fraioli on experiential projects for at least 12 years now—sound is critical to everything I do. In the most basic sense, the role of sound design in Air is to express that the space is constantly alive. To achieve this, we imagined what the elements of Air would sound like—the sound of a 1,100-foot high glass space impacted by wind, sun, sky, light, weather, city, through day, sunset and night. From a technical standpoint, the sounds are inspired by natural elements and the specific frequencies we used are ones which are known to be connected to the balance of human energy. For example, we incorporated recorded sounds of different shapes of glass being struck or “bowed” as one would with a violin, and then picked up frequencies from these sounds, which were historically used by Gregorian Monks to bring the mind and body into balance. Additionally, as a kind of hidden love note and ode to NYC resilience, some of the wind sounds we use are manipulated recordings Joe had recorded during Hurricane Sandy. Our intention was to have the full sensory experience work as one, so the sound was specifically designed as a kind of subliminal guide for the participant.

Tickets to Air and the SUMMIT experience can be booked online now.

Hero image courtesy of SUMMIT One Vanderbilt