If you somehow didn’t catch Es Devlin on episode 3 of Netflix’s Abstract, then you’ve certainly seen her work before – although perhaps you didn’t realize it. Over the course of her remarkable career, Es has worked with some of the biggest names in music including Kanye West, Beyoncé, The Weeknd, Adele, U2 and Stormzy, creating some of the most incredible stage designs our generation has ever seen.
But you might not want to use the word “set design” around her. She prefers to call them “sculptures” and has started referring to them as such. And if you’ve been lucky enough to encounter them in real life, then you’ve no doubt realized why she prefers that distinction.
On the back of her planning out loud an interactive watch exhibition, where the participant strolls through the inner-workings of a gigantic version of one of Cartier’s legendary timepieces, we had the opportunity to sit down with Es at the luxury French house’s “Bold & Fearless” event in San Francisco just last week. Read on to find out what we learned.
Stage design is something that’s rarely discussed unless you actually work in the field so it’s a basic question, but what are some of stage design’s building blocks? Where do you start?
Well first there’s a few really basic things that have to happen to present a musician in front of an audience. If you watched the first large-scale rock concert – it’s very famous, it was in Shea Stadium, and it’s The Beatles – they basically needed a sound system because that’s a sporting environment. A stadium is for sport, it’s not for music, it’s for sport; it’s been adapted.
So when you watch footage of that Beatles Shea Stadium concert, you’re struck by how vulnerable they were. Because the sound didn’t really work. No one could really hear them because everyone was screaming so loudly. I think they felt like this audience was actually going to mob them. It looked dangerous, didn’t it?
So when you look at that, the contemporary art of pop concert has developed steadily as a sort of reaction against that, and as a solving of that problem, of how to present music in a sporting environment.
My work didn’t originate there though. My work originated in the theatre, and in opera, where you can control everything. So I’m constantly fighting a battle of how to bring control to something really uncontrollable. When my work was first seen by musicians, I think the reason they liked it was because you couldn’t see any lights in it. You couldn’t see tons of cones of light everywhere. That’s because in the theatre you hide them and you don’t have any smoke.
The reason why in a pop concert people put tons of smoke in the air and tons of cones of light is because they want to somehow stretch fingers out from a tightened stage through a huge void of space. And the only thing that’s easy to put in a truck, that’s small enough to put in a truck in quantity, and can extend that many feet is a light. But I’ve tried to use actual sculpture in big spaces to achieve that effect. It’s quite tricky.
When people with a certain knowledge of music history think about stage design, they tend to think about some of the more impressive or outlandish tours by bands like Pink Floyd or the hair metal bands of the ’80s. Who are some of the innovators in the field that most people probably wouldn’t know about?
What you’ve just touched on is the kind of extraordinary pomposity, which that film Spinal Tap, takes the piss out of.
It’s so good.
I’ve never seen it.
Oh, you’ve got to see it.
I refuse to see it. I’m too terrified to see it because everyone says my life is it.
But to answer your point, yes you had that school. There was a guy called Mark Fisher. He was at art school with the guys from Pink Floyd. He started making inflatables and because he was very clever, he realized that the thing you could put into a truck was a thing you could blow up. He worked with a wonderful illustrator, quite famous guy, Gerald Scarfe, and they made extraordinary inflatables. The giant teacher, the giant pig, all of that. So Mark Fisher is responsible for so much of the work that we now celebrate.
Then, U2 was his next big collaboration. He made the big 360 U2.
There’s a guy called Willie Williams, who’s been working with U2 for 30 years. That’s probably the reason why U2’s stage sets are some of the best that’s ever been, just because they’ve had that continuity of practice in saying this is an art form we want to develop.
Then Kanye brought a different thing, which was absolute dissatisfaction with the materials. At the time he was staying in exceptional architecture. He would come out of a exquisite hotel, designed by Claudio Silvestrin, and he’d walk into his own stage set and it’d be made of crappy black drape and awful truss. And he’d go, “well, it’s not good enough. I need it to be made of marble. I need stone.” And he had the uncompromising nature to demand that. And that gave other artists the confidence to make that demand: that just because it’s tourable, it doesn’t have to feel like a compromise.
One of the troubles with the practice is that it’s been governed a lot by fear. There’s a profound fear at the base of every day, when you turn up with your truck full of stuff, the calamity that would ensue if the concert didn’t start on time, and the money, the insurance, the mess! So that tends to enforce a bit of conservatism, which is always the thing to fight against.
You touched upon it briefly earlier, but how did you actually make that transition from theater to stadium music?
It was luck. Kanye saw my work. He’s a man who’s behind so many people’s careers, isn’t he? So I made his stage set in 2005 and carried on for a while with him. In fairness, I had already started working with the Pet Shop Boys. And I had started working with an alt-punk band called WIRE. I ended up making their stage set in London. So oddly music kind of called me from three different places at once. But I would have to credit Kanye, really.
Were you familiar already with his music at the time and his aspirations as a performing artist? What he wanted?
They were different then. I think they evolved over a period of time. So I learned a lot through that. With Abel Tesfaye (The Weeknd), who works closely with him, the piece we worked on for Coachella, what we’re trying to do is see whether we can make a sculpture at Coachella that can then go and be in Le Nuit Blanche in Toronto. Can we create a new terms of engagement for a stage sculpture? Rather than it just being seen from over there, can we create conditions in which an audience can enter into it?
Is that a deliberate approach to make the performance more intimate?
It’s to do with re-centralizing the artist and trying to break away from this peripheralizing, which has become a terrible habit. Nearly every concert has those two screens and if you don’t design them they just end up there.
We failed with Beyonce. We tried to put it all in the center but in the end we added more screens at the sides. One of the reasons to add the screens was that you have to have the intimacy with the face. That’s what people come to see. You need that close up. More with a female than with a male. Like, Abel, Bono, they don’t need to see their faces all the way through. But Beyonce, Adele, they do. It was, in fact, Jay Z who remarked at the rehearsals of Beyonce’s “Formation” tour: “If you don’t put those screens in, all people are going to photograph all night is B’s face on that object.”
So you sacrifice the sort of immediate centralization of the attention for the sake of the photograph, which will be more enduring. It’s often that choice. What are you going to prioritize in any given moment? The future trace of the work in a photo or the actual moment of interaction with an audience?
You’ve worked with so many esteemed artists in such a short time span. What do you think is next for you?
I’ve pretty much got to the point where I’m really interested in making work that doesn’t have a performer in it. And making work that involves the audience being the protagonist and the performer in the work. That’s because I spent so long in my own work at concerts watching 100,000 cell phones as small dots of light. And watching that as a piece of art. Because often I’m not in the audience, I’m often by the side of the stage.
I’ve been making installation works based on that. I think there might be quite a lot of future in that. How can an audience actually have agency? So when you have your phone like that, you’re not just passively processing it. I’ve done a piece just now where everybody donates a word to it and it becomes a collective poem.
Learn more about Es Devlin’s practice on Netflix and catch a quick recap of Cartier’s “Bold & Fearless” and the film Jake Gyllenhaal made for it in the videos below. Scroll further down to see more of Es’ incredible work.