What The Vegas Sphere Says About Our Relationship With Art

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The moment I first laid eyes on the Sphere, from a cramped window seat on approach over the Las Vegas Strip, my airplane precipitously plunged what felt like between 90 and 300 feet. This was the variety of turbulence that makes people gasp and clutch their armrests, that threatens to pop open the overhead bins. It seemed a fitting welcome: The Sphere had already coaxed me into seat 26A on a flight partway across the country, and now it was pulling me toward its unmistakable, shimmering orb-ness with a final gravitational tug.

Thinking this way about a building is ridiculous, I know. But have you seen this thing? Quite literally, the Sphere is a large arena—a futuristic entertainment venue for concerts and other Vegas spectacles. But such a description undersells the Sphere’s ambitions. It is the architectural embodiment of ridiculousness, a monument to spectacle and to the exceedingly human condition of erecting bewildering edifices simply because we can. It cost $2.3 billion; it’s blanketed in 580,000 square feet of LED lights; it can transform its 366-foot-tall exterior into a gargantuan emoji that astronauts can supposedly see from space. This is no half dome and certainly not a rotunda. This is Sphere.

When I approached the Sphere on the ground, around dusk, the building awoke from its screen saver (an unpleasant advertisement for a Spider-Man video game) and began to emit a strange burbling noise. A semi-realistic animation of a womb-bound fetus appeared and spoke the words “This is not a rehearsal” before bursting into flames, flickering violently, and shape-shifting into the following series of images: a blinking eyeball, a thunderstorm, the ocean, some plants, the moon, more flames, all to the pounding drums and metallic guitar clanking of U2’s “Zoo Station.” Even in the context of the pulsing neon goat rodeo of the Vegas Strip, this was a sensory assault.

The kaleidoscopic display made a certain kind of sense, because the Sphere is itself many different things. It’s an arena, conceived by the Madison Square Garden Company in 2018, and home to an ongoing U2 residency. It’s a movie theater, too, like 42 and a half IMAX screens bolted together. (The filmmaker Darren Aronofsky has been screening Postcard From Earth, a documentary he made specifically for this curved megatron.) The Sphere is a new form of architecture, a billboard, a digital canvas for art, and it is a weenie—which, my colleague Ian Bogost informed me, is a term invented by Walt Disney to describe landmarks inside his theme parks that help orient visitors. Las Vegas is a city of weenies, and the Sphere is its most glamorous.

But, most important, the Sphere is a screen. The first time I saw video footage of the Sphere in action—from the warm glow of the little screen I keep in my pocket to watch TikToks on—I was captivated, even disoriented. I cradled my phone and watched the Edge peck out the first arpeggiated notes of “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Out of pitch darkness, the Sphere’s interior transformed into the Nevada desert at dawn, the sun rising rapidly in time with the song’s swelling major-triad riff. A series of cumulus clouds billowed like a white flag, and I watched the LED sun bathe the jubilant crowd in golden light, filling the air-conditioned venue with an emulation of the great outdoors.

All day, every day, I am surrounded by screens. Screens that greedily divert my attention and mediate my daily life, work, and a great many relationships. I am tired of screens, even resentful of them. I often tell myself that I yearn for liberation—a pure experience of walking through the world with nothing standing between me and my distractible little eyes. And yet, watching videos of the Sphere’s luminescence dominate the intensely famous Irishmen onstage—watching its splendor turn the rockers into wee, leather-jacketed ants—I felt an irresistible desire to stand in front of it and experience digital oblivion for myself. I wanted to see if the Sphere could help me learn to love screens again.

There are many ways to get to the Sphere. Within the corridors of the Venetian hotel, you can follow ominous signs that simply say Sphere, with arrows pointing east, and never step outside. I would not advise this: To truly experience the Sphere, you must watch it grow closer. Especially at night, you can appreciate its true weenie-ness as it attracts crowds like moths with novelty adult-beverage cups. I watched a group of 10 Strip-weary couples standing agape in the middle of the road, phones out, blocking one lane of traffic, fixated on the pulsating curved structure a quarter mile away. The moment reminded me of the scene in Independence Day when the UFOs break through the clouds over cities across the globe, causing pedestrians to stop and gawk at the sky.

The science-fiction vibe is deliberate. According to James Dolan, the entertainment mogul who financed the Sphere, the inspiration for the building came from “The Veldt,” a 1950 short story by Ray Bradbury. In the story, a wealthy couple purchases a fully automated house with a special playroom for their kids. The room’s 30-foot-tall walls and ceiling are made of a crystalline screen that can read the children’s imaginations and project lifelike images. The children are eventually spoiled, even hypnotized by the comforts of this technology; when their father threatens to turn off the room for good, the children summon a pack of lions that emerges from the screen and devours the parents. A cautionary tale about a murderous entertainment center would seem like strange inspiration for a new venue, but the intention is clear: The Sphere, at least in the eyes of its creators, is intended to immerse, even consume, the spectator.

Though the Sphere’s marketing pitch doesn’t explicitly mention being mauled by big digital cats, I got the notion that at least part of the allure of coming to the Sphere is a desire to be overwhelmed. Reportedly, the building has calming “sensory rooms” for patrons who experience vertigo or find the pulsing light show to be too much. What the Sphere is selling isn’t all that deep: It’s a huge, loud concert room where you can witness rock gods play the hits and watch a building facade pulse, jiggle, melt, and transform into thousands of shimmering colors. A bit like a roller coaster, the Sphere offers the thrill of feeling a strong and, most essentially, new sensation that you can’t get anywhere else.

All of this initially rubbed Willie Williams the wrong way. Williams, a stage designer who has served as U2’s creative director for 40 years, told me he wasn’t thrilled at the idea of the band taking up residency at a gimmicky Vegas arena. He didn’t want to cater to the building instead of constructing his own sets, and worried that the Sphere might overpower the band or make it sound worse. But U2 signed on to open the building with a months-long run. “This was entirely unprecedented territory for us,” Williams told me. “Not least because the building didn’t exist yet.”

Williams described a series of major technical challenges even after the Sphere was finished. The stage had no built-in lights to illuminate the band from behind. The sound system had a 100-millisecond delay—disorienting for a live audience that might clock the disconnect between what they’re hearing and what they’re seeing the musicians do. Then there was the screen. Despite the Sphere’s 16K resolution, Williams said the group couldn’t build any graphics at a higher resolution than 12K, and even this process was painstaking. The first time Williams’s team uploaded an animation for the Sphere, the file was so large that the building’s computers said it would take two weeks to render just 60 seconds of footage. (The show is roughly two hours long.)

Once the graphics appeared, Williams had to take special precautions to make sure the Sphere’s towering projections didn’t make audiences ill. “We had one animation—we called it the ‘mofo strobe’—where the entire sphere just strobes through a series of colors, and it became extremely clear absolutely immediately that we couldn’t do that to people,” he said, noting that the effect on spectators was “bilious.”

Walking into the arena at floor level is indeed a vertiginous experience. It is immediately clear that, despite its capacity, the Sphere is compact, intimate. I took my seat halfway up on the 100 level—about a quarter of the way toward the back of the arena—and still felt like I would be in spitting distance of the stage. Before me, the towering screen projected a fixed image that made it look like we were all inside some kind of ancient ruins. A DJ—part of U2’s warm-up act—came out and rode around the pit in a tiny neon car, spinning classic rock songs while double-fisting Baby Boomers anxiously tapped their feet. Like me, I could tell many of them had a hard time fixing their attention on anything while anticipating that the Edge and the Sphere might, at any second, snap into action and punch us in the teeth with a guitar riff.

When the lights finally dimmed, I saw no signs of queasiness in the audience of some 18,000 people. Instead, I noticed that the structure’s great power was its ability to compel nearly every human who stood before it to grab their phone and point it directly at the massive screen; it seems to exist for the express purpose of summoning other screens. When the band came out, a drumbeat shook the arena, and the Sphere’s display appeared to crack, revealing an ethereal halogen. I watched the Sphere appear to splinter and glow, not with my eyes or even my phone but from the glowing mosaic of hundreds of cameras capturing the moment all around me.

I don’t often take out my phone at concerts—actually, I’m one of those judgy snobs, rolling my eyes at point-and-shooters who choose to watch a show through a device rather than with their own face. My opinion, however, is irrelevant. Phones aren’t just a component of modern live music: They have arguably become the primary viewing lens of a performance. Documentation as a form of consumption is so embedded in concertgoing that it has a recursive quality. On YouTube, I’ve grown accustomed to watching phone footage of concerts, illuminated by the lights of thousands of other screens capturing the same home videos from different angles.

Occasionally the effect is more pronounced. For a moment this fall, my Instagram feed filled up with videos my friends took of Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour movie—video upon video of joyful theatergoers filming a film, sometimes catching moments where a Jumbotron projection of Swift is seen behind Swift herself. The phrase for this phenomenon is the Droste effect: a surreal type of imagery where you can view a picture within a picture, nested within a picture.

U2’s Sphere show, which revolves around the 1991 album Achtung Baby, is Droste-ian to the extreme. Bono appeared to be performing less for the crowd and more for the Steadicams circling the stage, which would then project his stylized image something like 100 feet into the air for people to then capture on their own screen. I found this, initially, a little depressing. At one point in the show, the Sphere morphs into a rendering of the Vegas skyline so pristine, I could almost forget I was indoors. It’s a dazzling image, and yet it brings up a cognitive dissonance that’s hard to ignore: tens of thousands of people oohing over and videoing a re-creation of a city vista that is immediately available to their own eyes in non–virtual reality just outside the venue’s doors—not even 100 yards away. Such is the power of the Sphere; at the exact moment you ask yourself What exactly are we all doing here?, the building morphs into a Dali-esque rendering of Elvis, your brain floods with dopamine, and you lose your critical faculties.

I asked Williams what he thought about engineering a spectacle that feels explicitly designed to compel people to take out their phone and point it at the stage for two straight hours. At first he seemed to align with my thinking. People don’t sing as loudly at shows as they used to, he argued, because they’re distracted filming. For Bono’s recent one-man show in New York, the pair had decided to ban cellphone recording to achieve an intimate effect, but, working on the Sphere, Williams told me he came to embrace the phones-up experience. “The vast repository of the record of my work is shot by people I don’t know,” he said. “And so not only do they become participants but also collaborators and curators of my work.” He described the Sphere residency as perhaps an extreme version of what live music has evolved toward: A “gigantic group project to archive these shows, one where we are collaborating with the audience and building a body of evidence.”

His response was kind of beautiful and genuinely disarming. Fixating on what we’ve lost in our modern screenland means ignoring the joy that comes from sharing your experience with others. And it means ignoring that participatory feeling—a 21st-century exchange between musicians and concertgoers that is still so novel that neither side seems to know precisely what to make of it yet.

If you look around, you get glimpses of what this relationship might look like. In recent weeks, I’ve been watching footage of Fred Again, a British DJ whose live shows seamlessly blend found footage shot on smartphones with clips taken off of social media. During his shows, huge LED screens hover over the crowd, at times projecting a live video feed of the audience shot from above. It’s the Droste effect on steroids, and a beautiful rendering of the alchemy that makes his performances feel so alive—a blend of music and media, of art and artist. “There is an argument to be made that theirs is the real show,” Williams said of the audience-shot Sphere footage that’s piling up around the web. “Because the actual show—the performance—is fleeting. It only exists in the form of these small clips that were taken by people we’ll never meet.”

If the Sphere is the future of live entertainment, it’s not because some version of the building is going to pop up in your town so that legacy rock bands can tour with their greatest hits in 16K. In fact, the Sphere may not survive in Vegas. Last week, the company running the building reported a $98.4 million loss in just the past quarter, and its CFO resigned.

But the actual business is somewhat beside the point. The Sphere is a distillation of an evolving relationship among art, artist, and technology—somewhere between a warm embrace of and a final surrender to screens. It is an acknowledgment and maybe even a tribute to the ways in which our screens have become extensions of ourselves and the way that documentation via these screens has become its own form of consumption and participation. Seeing is believing, but what the Sphere suggests is that documenting has become inextricable from living.

I wanted to be cynical about the Sphere and all it represents—our phones as appendages, screens as a mediated form of experiencing the world. There’s plenty to dislike about the thing—the impersonal flashiness of it all, its $30 tequila sodas, the likely staggering electricity bills. But it is also my solemn duty to report to you that the Sphere slaps, much in the same way that, say, the Super Bowl slaps. It’s gaudy, overly commercialized, and cool as hell: a brand-new, non-pharmaceutical sensory experience.

I waited all night to witness the set piece that brought me here. As the first notes of “Where the Streets Have No Name” rang out, my seatmate, a 60-something Londoner I’d met minutes before, leaned over in my direction. He’d gone to his first concert, he told me, almost exactly 43 years ago to the day—an intimate show at the University of Exeter by the same band standing onstage in front of us. His face was lit by the soft glow of his camera screen, and I noticed his eyes welling up. I looked around and saw the same thing everywhere: Behind all those screens was a sea of glassy eyes and joyful smiles. I leaned over to ask whom he was recording the concert for. “For me,” he said. “To remember how far the both of us have come.” He flashed a smile and turned back to the show. Then, I couldn’t help it. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and hit the little red button to record.

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