Mind-blowing stage sculptures that fuse music and technology | Es Devlin

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) (Music) 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. (Music) 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. (Laughter) (Music) 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. (Cheers) I mean, where else do you witness this: (Cheers) 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. (Music) 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. (Music) 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. (Music) 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. (Music) 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. (Music) They’re written by the English
novelist E.M. Forster, in 1910, just a few years
before Europe, my continent, (Music) began tearing itself apart. (Music) And his call to convergence
still resonates through most of what
we’re trying to make now. (Music) “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. (Applause)


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