“Art Evolves”: On the Future of Live Events with Shadi Assadi and Adam Hummell

Issue 4 | Metamorphosis

A baby named Shira grabs a microphone and lets out a low rumble, echoing like an aural kaleidoscope into my phone. Her parents, artists and DJs Shadi Assadi and Adam Hummell, laugh and tell me this is the message their nine-month old cherubic daughter has to share. She loves this effect. She can’t get enough of it, they tell me. As new parents in isolation, and having their work and art impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, any bit of joy and discovery is a comfort to them both. 

Discovery and the ongoing evolution of art is what keeps both Assadi and Hummell enamoured with their work, even during a time when their visions cannot be fully experienced in-person. Based out of Montreal, Assadi and Hummell have been diligently working away for years to give audiences the best live experiences. A fateful call in 2016 led them to work on the visuals for Beyoncé’s Formation World Tour. They’ve also worked on Madonna’s Super Bowl Half-Time Show in 2012. For the Somewherelse team, Assadi and Hummell collaborated on the Absolut Nights tour with Ryan Hemsworth in 2016 and Red Bull Music Festival’s 3 Days in Toronto in 2017. They also recently worked on Billie Eilish’s When We Fall Asleep tour.

Animated GIF of Shadi and Adam's Work

Assadi and Hummell’s origins began in part as DJs in Montreal in the 2000s with the collective Peer Pressure before moving their artistic energies into live shows. But this bit of history is foundational to their ongoing creative and visual work now: both are adamant that the experiences they build for audiences are deeply personal and cannot be separated. “Mine and Adam’s background in DJing has a lot to do with our interests in nightlife and stage production and lighting production. I love design and how the whole environment works together. The experience of it is what draws us because we have our own experiences as artists on the stage. Those two things together, those environments and experiences, they’re all tied together. There’s no one kind of singular thing. It’s really an amalgamation of everything,” says Assadi. 

There is a specificity to their very detail-oriented work. Hummell speaks so cerebrally about it; how to build and scale for different experiences in different venues, ranging from small clubs to stadium tours with major pop artists. In an interview for Red Bull’s Music Academy, Hummell once said “We don’t want to manipulate the audience, we want them to understand almost immediately what’s available to them, where to go, where not to go.” Expanding on this to me now, he says it’s important to view a concept through the lens of the person experiencing the show. If it requires something as simple as a sheet of black paper and some tape in the darkness to hide that one little detail that’s distracting and kicks you out of that element, that’s when we get out on our hands and knees to make sure that all of those things are taped up and hidden. So the audience, when they experience artwork, it’s very natural for them.”

Hummell then says: “with an experience, you don’t get to take it back.” And I’m struck by this sentiment for a while afterward our call, even now as I write this story. That fusion of personal and visual, sensory and memory; they are all so tightly wound up into a person, carrying that experience with them whenever they go. And yet, right now, all we can experience in our homes without the space to gather, are those precise memories from before. 

What happens now when these two artists are house-bound, like the rest of their peers and other artists who perform in-person? What life do they think they are going back to when this is all over? 

First, they tell me it’s hard to predict, and offer no concrete answers about how live events and experiential art will shift. But both do agree that taking hold of the unknown can be beneficial and, in fact, inspirational. “What’s interesting about artwork is that it evolves,” Hummell says. “You reference the past, you reference the culture at which art has emerged, and then you adapt.” Recently, both were invited to be in an event called Transmission, lending their DJing skills and participating in it visually, too. Hummell says there were new things to think about online that made the experience push his artistic and technical mind. “As technical as having a 40 second delay when you’re trying to create an experience for somebody, you have to think of it in a completely different way and that’s a new challenge,” he says, “I must have learned six new skills I didn’t have before that I’m still working on. And I think that’s fascinating. It’s opening my mind to something new.” 

Hummell attended Travis Scott’s Fortnite performance and loved the experience. He’s interested, it seems, in metabolizing as much of this as possible to expand and push his artistic reaches when building out experiences after we’re all allowed to leave our homes. There is a unification in the fact that we all, too, must participate digitally in performance during this time. How do we emerge as attendees after this? 

Assadi tells me something that stops me in my tracks, making me long for evenings spent in darkened spaces with pulsing lights. “I was thinking about what you can’t replace online: it’s the chit chat. The conversation that happens around you. Yes, you’re chatting online. You can talk in the group chat. But I think the proximity to people is a little thing that you don’t even think you would qualify as important. You could go to a show by yourself and you might not talk to anybody. But being on the dance floor and bumping into somebody, that’s part of life. That kind of human interaction I don’t think you can replace with online.”

I think about baby Shira making noises into the microphone she loves. I think about the joy that Assadi and Hummell have in being able to watch the totality of their daughter’s first year together; to experience it all without pause for work abroad. How, as we all sit in the difficulty and discomfort of isolation, we have an opportunity to connect more deeply with the people around us, even if we’re in homes of two or three or more. Scaling, like Hummell and Assadi do for their shows, goes both ways: how is the minutiae of interactions here going to impact the world of art and performance when we get back to it in-person? What will we be grateful for?

Art evolves but so do people.

Written by Sarah MacDonald
Lead Graphic by Marta Ryczko
Photos by María José Govea