Es Devlin
660,227 views • 16:52

These are sequences from a play called "The Lehman Trilogy," which traces the origins of Western capitalism in three hours, with three actors and a piano. And my role was to create a stage design to write a visual language for this work. The play describes Atlantic crossings, Alabama cotton fields, New York skylines, and we framed the whole thing within this single revolving cube, a kind of kinetic cinema through the centuries. It's like a musical instrument played by three performers. And as they step their way around and through the lives of the Lehman brothers, we, the audience, begin to connect with the simple, human origins at the root of the complex global financial systems that we're all still in thrall to today.

I used to play musical instruments myself when I was younger. My favorite was the violin. It was this intimate transfer of energy. You held this organic sculpture up to your heart, and you poured the energy of your whole body into this little piece of wood, and heard it translated into music. And I was never particularly good at the violin, but I used to sit at the back of the second violin section in the Hastings Youth Orchestra, scratching away. We were all scratching and marveling at this symphonic sound that we were making that was so much more beautiful and powerful than anything we would ever have managed on our own.

And now, as I create large-scale performances, I am always working with teams that are at least the size of a symphony orchestra. And whether we are creating these revolving giant chess piece time tunnels for an opera by Richard Wagner or shark tanks and mountains for Kanye West, we're always seeking to create the most articulate sculpture, the most poetic instrument of communication to an audience.

When I say poetic, I just mean language at its most condensed, like a song lyric, a poetic puzzle to be unlocked and unpacked. And when we were preparing to design Beyoncé's "Formation" tour, we looked at all the lyrics, and we came across this poem that Beyoncé wrote. "I saw a TV preacher when I was scared, at four or five about bad dreams who promised he'd say a prayer if I put my hand to the TV. That's the first time I remember prayer, an electric current running through me."

And this TV that transmitted prayer to Beyoncé as a child became this monolithic revolving sculpture that broadcast Beyoncé to the back of the stadium.

And the stadium is a mass congregation. It's a temporary population of a hundred thousand people who have all come there to sing along with every word together, but they've also come there each seeking one-to-one intimacy with the performer. And we, as we conceive the show, we have to provide intimacy on a grand scale.

It usually starts with sketches. I was drawing this 60-foot-high, revolving, broadcast-quality portrait of the artist, and then I tore the piece of paper in half. I split the mask to try to access the human underneath it all. And it's one thing to do sketches, but of course translating from a sketch into a tourable revolving six-story building took some exceptional engineers working around the clock for three months, until finally we arrived in Miami and opened the show in April 2016.

(Video: Cheers)

(Music: "Formation," Beyoncé)

Beyoncé: Y'all haters corny with that Illuminati mess

Paparazzi, catch my fly, and my cocky fresh

I'm so reckless when I rock my Givenchy dress

I'm so possessive so I rock his Roc necklaces

My daddy Alabama

Momma Louisiana

You mix that negro with that Creole

make a Texas bama

(Music ends)

I call my work —

(Cheers, applause)

Thank you.

(Cheers, applause)

I call my work stage sculpture, but of course what's really being sculpted is the experience of the audience, and as directors and designers, we have to take responsibility for every minute that the audience spend with us. We're a bit like pilots navigating a flight path for a hundred thousand passengers.

And in the case of the Canadian artist The Weeknd, we translated this flight path literally into an origami paper folding airplane that took off over the heads of the audience, broke apart in mid-flight, complications, and then rose out of the ashes restored at the end of the show. And like any flight, the most delicate part is the liftoff, the beginning, because when you design a pop concert, the prime material that you're working with is something that doesn't take trucks or crew to transport it. It doesn't cost anything, and yet it fills every atom of air in the arena, before the show starts. It's the audience's anticipation. Everyone brings with them the story of how they came to get there, the distances they traveled, the months they had to work to pay for the tickets. Sometimes they sleep overnight outside the arena, and our first task is to deliver for an audience on their anticipation, to deliver their first sight of the performer.

When I work with men, they're quite happy to have their music transformed into metaphor — spaceflights, mountains. But with women, we work a lot with masks and with three-dimensional portraiture, because the fans of the female artist crave her face.

And when the audience arrived to see Adele's first live concert in five years, they were met with this image of her eyes asleep. If they listened carefully, they would hear her sleeping breath echoing around the arena, waiting to wake up. Here's how the show began.

(Video: Cheers, applause)


Adele: Hello.

(Cheers, applause)

Es Devlin: With U2, we're navigating the audience over a terrain that spans three decades of politics, poetry and music. And over many months, meeting with the band and their creative teams, this is the sketch that kept recurring, this line, this street, the street that connects the band's past with their present, the tightrope that they walk as activists and artists, a walk through cinema that allows the band to become protagonists in their own poetry.

(Music: U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name")

Bono: I wanna run

I want to hide

I wanna tear down the walls

That hold me inside

Es Devlin: The end of the show is like the end of a flight. It's an arrival. It's a transfer from the stage out to the audience.

For the British band Take That, we ended the show by sending an 80-foot high mechanical human figure out to the center of the crowd.


Like many translations from music to mechanics, this one was initially deemed entirely technically impossible. The first three engineers we took it to said no, and eventually, the way that it was achieved was by keeping the entire control system together while it toured around the country, so we had to fold it up onto a flatbed truck so it could tour around without coming apart. And of course, what this meant was that the dimension of its head was entirely determined by the lowest motorway bridge that it had to travel under on its tour. And I have to tell you that it turns out there is an unavoidable and annoyingly low bridge low bridge just outside Hamburg.



Another of the most technically complex pieces that we've worked on is the opera "Carmen" at Bregenz Festival in Austria. We envisaged Carmen's hands rising out of Lake Constance, and throwing this deck of cards in the air and leaving them suspended between sky and sea. But this transient gesture, this flick of the wrists had to become a structure that would be strong enough to withstand two Austrian winters. So there's an awful lot that you don't see in this photograph that's working really hard. It's a lot of ballast and structure and support around the back, and I'm going to show you the photos that aren't on my website. They're photos of the back of a set, the part that's not designed for the audience to see, however much work it's doing.

And you know, this is actually the dilemma for an artist who is working as a stage designer, because so much of what I make is fake, it's an illusion. And yet every artist works in pursuit of communicating something that's true. But we are always asking ourselves: "Can we communicate truth using things that are false?" And now when I attend the shows that I've worked on, I often find I'm the only one who is not looking at the stage. I'm looking at something that I find equally fascinating, and it's the audience.


I mean, where else do you witness this:


this many humans, connected, focused, undistracted and unfragmented? And lately, I've begun to make work that originates here, in the collective voice of the audience.

"Poem Portraits" is a collective poem. It began at the Serpentine Gallery in London, and everybody is invited to donate one word to a collective poem. And instead of that large single LED portrait that was broadcasting to the back of the stadium, in this case, every member of the audience gets to take their own portrait home with them, and it's woven in with the words that they've contributed to the collective poem. So they keep a fragment of an ever-evolving collective work. And next year, the collective poem will take architectural form.

This is the design for the UK Pavilion at the World Expo 2020. The UK ... In my lifetime, it's never felt this divided. It's never felt this noisy with divergent voices. And it's never felt this much in need of places where voices might connect and converge. And it's my hope that this wooden sculpture, this wooden instrument, a bit like that violin I used to play, might be a place where people can play and enter their word at one end of the cone, emerge at the other end of the building, and find that their word has joined a collective poem, a collective voice.


These are simple experiments in machine learning. The algorithm that generates the collective poem is pretty simple. It's like predictive text, only it's trained on millions of words written by poets in the 19th century. So it's a sort of convergence of intelligence, past and present, organic and inorganic.

And we were inspired by the words of Stephen Hawking. Towards the end of his life, he asked quite a simple question: If we as a species were ever to come across another advanced life-form, an advanced civilization, how would we speak to them? What collective language would we speak as a planet?

The language of light reaches every audience. All of us are touched by it. None of us can hold it. And in the theater, we begin each work in a dark place, devoid of light. We stay up all night focusing the lights, programming the lights, trying to find new ways to sculpt and carve light.


This is a portrait of our practice, always seeking new ways to shape and reshape light, always finding words for things that we no longer need to say. And I want to say that this, and everything that I've just shown you, no longer exists in physical form.


In fact, most of what I've made over the last 25 years doesn't exist anymore. But our work endures in memories, in synaptic sculptures, in the minds of those who were once present in the audience.


I once read that a poem learnt by heart is what you have left, what can't be lost, even if your house burns down and you've lost all your possessions. I want to end with some lines that I learnt by heart a long time ago.


They're written by the English novelist E.M. Forster, in 1910, just a few years before Europe, my continent,


began tearing itself apart.


And his call to convergence still resonates through most of what we're trying to make now.


"Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, And human love will be seen at its height. Only connect! And live in fragments no longer."

Thank you.