Why Your Backstory Makes a Difference

Written by Robert Lloyd
10th Dec 2018, 6 minute read
Also available on Medium and The Startup

You may not know her name, but you’ve seen her work. Miley sliding onto stage down her own tongue? That was Es Devlin. Adele at The Brit Awards as she belted out ‘When We Were Young’ in front of an ethereal, glittering starscape of twinkling lights? Es again. Or perhaps you caught Beyoncé high kicking through a pool of water onstage as she performed ‘Formation’ at the last BET awards, or the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics, or Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet at the Barbican, or basically every Kanye performance over the last eight years? It is Es who conjures these magical worlds for your favourite superstars to play in.

~ iD Magazine

Es Devlin as you might have guessed is a set designer — and an exceptionally good one at that — with a portfolio of experience so varied that has it’s own constellation (including Beyoncé and Benedict Cumberbatch for that matter). But back in 2016 she was given an open brief commissioned by The Fifth Sense and in partnership between Chanel and iD magazine, where she finally had a self confessed freedom unrestricted by other artist’s interpretations and visions. What was it for? Chanel had created a unique scent only to be unbottled for the few days the exhibition ran for. Once it was over, the aroma would simply dissipate and disappear forever much like the installation Es created.

(all installation images taken from iD magazine)

She looked to explore the theme of memory, a sense of falling perhaps through a tunnel of time or a dream, and ourselves as people, all culminating in a mirrored labyrinth to become lost within. Greeted by a soothing turn captivating, into trippy, then foreboding video, you entered the installation with mixed emotions and couldn’t stop finding new angles and perspectives to view not only yourself but each other too. It was a space whereby you left behind a sense of perspective as well as identity, but then found yourself again in swathes of reflections and glimpses from the corner of your eye.

Gravity is the one thing that’s common to all human experience…We fall asleep, we fall into a dream.

Now, why am I writing about this? Good question. What am I going to achieve from simply explaining the installation and, yes, fanboying over Es as a creative? Well, while the installation itself was hugely impressive in a true sense of the word ‘awesome’, not to mention enriching in how it made me think and feel, the behind the scenes content was even more inspiring. The considerations, ethos and approaches that Es and the team put into it gave refreshing parallels to bring to other practices and industries which simply couldn’t have been told through the installation itself. Since then I’ve seen (and unsurprisingly been inspired by) her in the Netflix series Abstract; a collection of intimate insights into the key members of different professions which offer as many exciting perspectives as Es' maze - aka I recommend watching. However there are so many other people beyond installations sponsored by known brands and big budget documentaries.

Take Alec Steele for example; a 20yo British blacksmith and ever rising YouTube star who began his channel around 7 years ago. In that time his forging has naturally improved as has the production quality of his videos. Recently both of those skills peaked together once again with him completing a 28 part series of daily cinematic videos showing a monumental self set challenge of creating an intricate Viking sword. The end piece was in a word stunning, so much so that out of context it just appears effortlessly professional — almost as though an unsurprising piece of work from a seasoned veteran.

(all sword images taken from Alec’s website)

In actual fact there were countless reattempts, frequent mistakes and admitted steep learning curves for areas he was totally inexperienced in — and this is only from Alec. There was additional support from other blacksmiths suggesting tips through daily comments on various medias, not to mention his camera operator and editor for the end visuals themselves.

The sword he created is exceptional, however having seen the process it went through to get there the real inspiration is Alec’s genuine enthusiasm, uncompromising respect towards craftsmanship, and the collaborative community of help which he often thanks in upmost humility. And while the pieces he creates can often seem dauntingly impressive — hoping you might one day be able to come close to that level of skill—his attitude is one which reinvigorates your own energy, fills you with optimism, celebrates every accomplishment, and all the while retains a humble desire to push yourself beyond expectations. It’s a state of mind which gives precious context to his achievements and feels instantly attainable, not to mention something which ironically the end pieces simply can’t convey.

His attitude is one which reinvigorates your own energy, fills you with optimism, celebrates every accomplishment, and all the while retains a humble desire to push yourself beyond expectations.

Watching Alec’s' making of videos, Es’s behind the scenes and Netflix’s Abstract series (plus a whole range of other documentaries) are quite possibly more inspiring and important than the final work they create, no matter how impressive, because all of this is a solid reminder that behind the great work, objects or experiences you see are not only a skilled creative visionary but a whole collective of people working together with a common goal. It can be easily forgotten that these things don’t simply ‘appear’, that there was an entire journey of thought and effort behind them — not always without obstacles either. They are reminders that the daily attitude we each bring can truly shape our own practises as well as encourage those around us.