On my radar: Es Devlin’s cultural highlights

Artist and stage designer Es Devlin was born in London in 1971. Best known for her theatre sets, she has also designed Olympic ceremonies and collaborated with stars including Beyoncé, U2 and Kendrick Lamar on their live shows. Devlin, who lives in London with her husband, costume designer Jack Galloway, and their two children, has written a monograph, An Atlas of Es Devlin, published by Thames & Hudson. She is the stage designer for Free Your Mind, which opened in Manchester last week.

Jason Hickel Less Is More dust jacket

1. Book

Less Is More by Jason Hickel

This is one of the most important, unputdownable books I’ve read. I underlined practically every sentence. Hickel is an economic anthropologist and this is his guide to the systems over 500 years that have led to our current crises of climate and inequality. It’s also a compelling manual for imagining a new economics of interbeing between humans – and between us and the biosphere – and it’s written in a way that someone who has been trained in arts rather than statistics can easily grasp. Read it urgently.

2. Dance

Benji Reid: Find Your Eyes

Benji Reid: Find Your Eyes.

At the Manchester international festival in July, I was among a small seated audience observing a replica of photographer/artist/hip-hop choreographer Benji Reid’s studio, as he composed and photographed a triptych of dancers in a series of formations expressing moments of his life. There is so much beauty, precision, love and compassion entailed in making a work of art but it’s very unusual that a piece exposes that process to its audience. This is a uniquely generous work in that it shares the honesty and vulnerability of the act of making.

3. Poetry

Emtithal Mahmoud

Poet Emtithal Mahmoud.

At the UN headquarters in New York last month, I was sitting not far from the Sudanese-American poet Emi Mahmoud when she got up to perform her work and brought a room of 200 people to tears, to their feet, to their senses. Her poems propel her experience of conflict and migration directly into the guts of everyone who hears and reads her. You would never again be able to see a refugee as “other” after hearing Emi speak. A good dose of her for our current government would go down a treat.

4. Opera

Innocence by Kaija Saariaho at the Royal Opera House, London

A scene from Innocence at the Royal Opera House.

This is the most powerful opera I have ever experienced. A school shooting in Helsinki is presented through every lens. You have the perspective of the mother of a killed child, and of the mother of the child who killed, and all the other perspectives thrown in. The accounts of the behaviour that led up to it are so complex, you can’t simply find a villain on whom to blame the devastating tragedy. It’s the most helpful way, I think, to look at this kind of symptom of our current crises. It was absolutely extraordinary.

5. Music

Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares by the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir

The Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir.

I first heard this in the late 1980s and it remains some of the most potent and transporting music that I have ever encountered. The open throat singing, dissonant harmonies and parallel chord progressions seem to activate parts of the brain like certain frequencies of birdsong. The women in the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir range from 24 to 74 and you hear the different ages in their voices. It’s like a sonic model of a community. Sit in a quiet room, put your headphones on and you will be forever changed.

6. Art

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller: Dream Machines at Museum Tinguely, Basel

Dream Machines at Museum Tinguely, Basel.

I spent hours at this retrospective exhibition surrounded by objects with voices: talking rooms, singing cabinets where each drawer has a voice, a recreation of the artists’ studio where the paint pots and cardboard offcuts tell stories and model buildings and landscapes rise up from desks. It was a workout for the imagination – a lesson in shifting scale and perspective and perceiving through the eyes of others – and a brilliant way to help us understand the many facets of the complex systems we inhabit. It’s also very funny.

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