Es Devlin on “30 years of engaging in audience, performance and ritual”

The designer and artist discusses how mapping an ephemeral practice for her monograph An Atlas of Es Devlin gave her better understanding of her own persistent “lines of enquiry.”

“I think a map of one’s own practice, for an applied artist, is very helpful”, says set designer and artist Es Devlin.

Particularly when that practice involves working with theatre, where stories are washed away “like writing in the sand each day” Devlin says, quoting the character of actor John Gielgud in the play The Motive and the Cue, which she recently worked on. Although there is some “beauty to the ephemerality of the journey”, Devlin says, being able to look back and understand the journey you’ve taken, “helps you to decide where it might go”.

Her new monograph, An Atlas of Es Devlin, published by Thames & Hudson, is an attempt to map the journey of her career, from studying English literature and fine art, before moving into theatre design and going on to create huge stadium sets for musicians from Beyonce to The Weeknd, a Super Bowl half-time show and the 2012 London Olympic closing ceremony.

Devlin explains that the process of putting the book together and finding “a common thread” to this work, all largely shaped in response to “texts and work of music”, took seven years and was “much harder” than she had first imagined.

Front cover of An Atlas of Es Devlin

“I had thought that it would be enough to arrange a kind of lexicon of forms and order the work”, she says. “All the ones that relate to a line of light, all the ones that relate to a circle, all the ones that relate to a revolving cube, all the ones that relate to a mazes, networks”.

But when the work was lined up, the effect was “kind of impressive and fun, but really not cumulative”, she adds.“Really, the communication that came across from the book was, wow, that’s a lot of work, someone’s been busy… and it wasn’t really anything richer than that.”

A collection of maps

Defining an atlas as a “collection of maps”, each section of the book makes a different attempt at charting Devlin’s back catalogue.

She explains that she has “always been interested in cartography as applied to ideas”, referencing memory palaces and Aboriginal memory techniques of placing ideas in physical locations: “I think the kind of animal we are as humans, while our tools and our technologies race to evolve, our bodies still value places and bodily connections”, she says.

The first map comes encircling the layered apertures of the book’s opening pages, where hand-drawn graphics display the various networks around Devlin. These range from an extended family tree to the names of collaborators and commissioners, grouped by discipline: “Everything I make is thanks to their collaboration”, she writes. There is also a fold-out timeline and a list of all the place names, mapping the work more simply in time and space.

An open page spread showing images from Devlin’s old sketchbooks

After a series of interviews and a fold-out section of Devlin’s old sketchbooks, the largest section of the book’s 540 pages takes the reader chronologically through the projects, pairing early sketches with a short introductory text by Devlin, which reveals details of process and the early sparks of ideas.

According to Devlin, these recollections didn’t always flow seamlessly onto the page, and after racking her memory, records – and Google – to assemble the information, it was hard to make sense of the speed at which the projects occurred, and all the globe-trotting required (she notes that she has already gone through a process of tracking the carbon impact and offsetting it with sequestration, however).

Into this Devlin was also “trying to thread in moments of British and somewhat international history”, she says. “I hope the writing captures both that spirit of retracing and reviewing”.

Interrupting the projects’ steady flow is the “missing tooth” of the pandemic years – represented by a section of smaller pages disrupting the solid line of the book block – “when our practice went temporarily extinct, and we spent our time talking to colleagues”, Devlin says. This section features excerpts from Zoom transcripts with friends and collaborators, while at the end of the book are two sections where chronology is abandoned and which “adhere to two different ordering systems”. One acts as an index of “correlating shapes that beam their way through the practice”, and a section of colour photographs that look to invite the reader “on stage” and within the work”, Devlin explains.

An image of set models in An Atlas of Es Devlin, credit Es Devlin

The physical book – which Devlin describes as a sculptural object – was designed by her cousin Daniel Devlin and made by Toppan in Hong Kong. Inspiration came from Dutch graphic designer Irma Boom – both Boom’s Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor, whose “pure white form” filled with colour appealed to Devlin; and one of Boom’s own favourite books “in which all of the text is on brown craft paper, all of the artist portraits are on transparent acetate, and all the artworks are tipped in on shiny magazine paper”, she says.

“There’s a sort of hierarchy of materiality related to objects, and everything in the book feels like an object, rather than an illusion of an object.”

The opening pages of An Atlas of Es Devlin map Devlin’s many collaborators

While conversations with Thames & Hudson brought the book’s ambitions down to earth, the finished object still evidences these references, coming as a solid white block with embossed detail, and inside different paper qualities, sizes and fold-out sketches.

To achieve this, Devlin explains that the team really had to “get under the bonnet of how a book works.” She found an analogy to music – a long-term reference for Devlin, from her own childhood participation in a youth orchestra, to working for decades with musicians.

Like the time signature of a piece of music, she says, that of a book “can be eight pages or sixteen pages or four pages, so if you want to have these incidents of unusual bookbinding, they have to at least be wrapped either at the centre or at the outside of one of those signatures”.

A page spread from An Atlas of Es Devlin showing the studio’s work for the London Olympics, credit Nikolas Koenig

Launched at the same time as the book is a limited-edition LP from the Vinyl Factory as an audio accompaniment, and an exhibition at the new Aviva Studios in Manchester, which looks to add something of value for visitors during the daytime hours, reusing the space and materials of the evening performances. With Devlin having worked on Danny Boyle’s dance reimagining of the Matrix, Free Your Mind, she hopes that this can set a precedent for any member of a production to pitch an additional idea to reuse the space and show materials without additional budget.

Meanwhile opening on 18 November at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York is the exhibition of An Atlas of Es Devlin, featuring archive material that has been in storage until now, numerous project models and a replica of Devlin’s studio, from which programming, focused at young designers and teachers – predominantly those belonging to the globally majority and from low-income areas – will take place in-person and on livestream, she says.

“Lines of enquiry”

Throughout the seven-year process of making the book, Devlin explains how she found herself better able to understand her own practice.

Beyond the early years of “saying yes to everything”, Devlin explains how there always needs to be “a possibility of alignment” between any project and her own “lines of enquiry” – the ideas that are important or interesting to her.

Image from the book of Devlin’s work for The Weeknd’s After Hours Till Dawn tour

“It’s a delicate balance between accepting a project because you know it will help you grow, but also allowing space for areas of the year when there’s nothing happening”, she says.

“Now I have to keep reminding myself that I don’t need to contort invitations to suit my interests and my curiosity – I could just say no” –  but adds that you do need a certain amount of faith to take on self-determined projects while “running quite an expensive studio”.

“Granular” shifts in behaviour

Devlin describes her practice as having an essential relationship between big and small: the “seeds” of the idea and initial small-scale models of a set, which are transformed into stadium shows for megastars, transported on 75-truck convoys.

Beyond the individual motivations, Devlin also talks of he belief that “we more and more urgently need to shift our behaviour as a species in order to resist extinction”.

While she says that she increasingly finds herself “invited into rooms” where there are people with power, “where I’m offered choices to excommunicate or infiltrate”,  she explains that she is also increasingly interested in the importance of the “granular” actions of a day.

Such as “the first time the water hits your skin” in the morning, she says these largely unnoticed but near-universal moments, are “going to be interesting to look at”.

Page spread from the book showing work for the June 2003 production of Ernest Bloch’s opera of Macbeth at Theater an der Wien, Vienna, credit Es Devlin

While it has always been reading that leaves Devlin “feeling that my perspective has shifted”, she talks of the difficulty of translating this into change. She wonders instead if the practice of a set designer or performer “engaging in audience and performance – and really ritual – can be applied to any given day”.

Meanwhile, another plan for the future is to nurture the next generation. She discusses how for her own studio, she prefers to the theatre design model of apprenticeship or “please go forth and enrich” over the strict non-compete clauses of some architecture studios, she says.

She is also looking to take up the legacy of her own training at the (now-closed) Motley Theatre Design Course, sitting on the board for the new Genesis Theatre Design Course, which in order to correct the lack of diversity in the industry, “is specifically and exclusively for students of low income and global majority”, she says.

An Atlas of Es Devlin by Es Devlin, edited by Andrea Lipps is published by Thames & Hudson, price £85.00. Banner image: photograph by Daniel Devlin

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