Editorial Feature

Es Devlin On The Concept Behind ‘Please Feed The Lions’

The multidisciplinary artist and designer on the motivations behind her latest project

Please Feed The Lions is an interactive sculpture in Trafalgar Square by multidisciplinary artist and designer Es Devlin, who has become known for her innovative projection-mapped sculptures that fuse light, music, and technology. The project follows a year-long collaboration between Devlin and Google Arts & Culture. Exploring the parameters of design and artificial intelligence, the installation incorporates a deep learning algorithm developed by Ross Goodwin, creative technologist at Google.

Cast in 1867, the four monumental lions in Trafalgar Square have been sitting as silent British icons at the base of Nelson’s Column for the past 150 years. Overnight on Monday 17 September, a fifth fluorescent red lion will join the pride. This new lion will roar poetry, and the words it roars will be chosen by the public. Everyone is invited to “feed the lion”, but this lion only eats words.

By daylight, the ever-evolving collective poem will be shown on LEDs embedded in the mouth of the lion. By night, the poem will be projection-mapped over the lion and onto Nelson’s Column itself. Here Devlin explains how the project began and what she hopes visitors will experience:

Please Feed The Lions, project visualization by Luke Halls Studio (From the collection of London Design Festival)

This time last year, I was walking through Trafalgar Square with the director of London Design Festival, Sir John Sorrell. He said the festival occasionally gets access to the square and he asked me if I would consider making something here. He in passing mentioned that he had always felt that someone should work with the lions that sit there. We walk past them so much and while there's the 4th plinth project, people haven't really turned their attention to the lions on the other plinths.

I started digging into Trafalgar Square’s history and realised one of the reasons it's been a place of celebrations, protest and all sorts of other gatherings is because it's always been this kind of meeting point between east and west London. It’s a place where every kind of voice has been heard. I had this thought that what if these lions had absorbed all of this sound in celebration and in protest through their bronze skin. What if you could open one of their mouths and let it speak, what would it say?

Please Feed the Lions, project visualization by Luke Halls Studio (From the collection of London Design Festival)
Work in progress sketch of Please Feed The Lions by Es Devlin Studio (From the collection of London Design Festival)

The work with Google Arts & Culture and creative technologist Ross Goodwin over the last two years, around the machine learning and poetry-generating algorithm has meant we’ve been able to explore these concepts further in Trafalgar Square.

Using a lidar scanner, we’ve created a precise model of one of the original lions, but we've manipulated the mouth so it's open and we've put a screen in there so that during the day you'll approach the lion and you'll be invited to feed the lion a word. It will be a question to the public: "If these lions could open their mouths now and you could add one word to their voice, what would that be?" When you give it a word, it speaks back almost like an oracle, like a fortune cookie but loud and roaring and tall above your head. It gives you a two-line verdict on your choice.

To an unsuspecting passersby or tourist, I'm hoping you might actually think that the fifth lion in Trafalgar Square has been painted red. We wanted a color that would cut through the grey of London, so it had to be one that is fluorescent. I particularly liked this fluorescent red-orange, as I want the sense that someone came and dipped that lion in several cans of red-orange spray paint.

Work in progress sketch of Please Feed The Lions by Es Devlin Studio (From the collection of London Design Festival)
Early Render of Please Feed The Lions by Es Devlin Studio (From the collection of London Design Festival)

At night, we’re using Nelson's Column to display the words fed to the lion as lines of vertical text. Essentially, people input their words, the text ricochets from the lion in projection mapping and then runs up nelson's column - so hopefully it'll be a real beacon for people to take part. From past projects, we know that these word donations will result in an oddly good collective poem. I like the idea of people being invited up to be collective and generate something together.

The challenge is that the installation isn't there for very long, so there's no opportunity for a technical fault, and the power of it is in the immediacy of it, so that's been the central concern. It's really important because while it’s not using public money, it's in a public space and will become a public piece of art. I'm really sensitive to the criticism that's going to be levelled at it. There will be people who say: "why didn't you just get a poet?" or "why do you need machine learning and algorithms?" There is always going to be this question in relation to what end machine learning and algorithms can augment human capacities and not replace them. My answer is that no one is ever suggesting that there shouldn't be human poets, we're just saying if you walk into Trafalgar Square and you weren't about to write a poem, you can take part in one.

Please Feed The Lions, behind the scenes by Stage One (From the collection of London Design Festival)
Please Feed The Lions, projection visualization by Luke Halls Studio (From the collection of London Design Festival)

Because my memory of Trafalgar Square has always been that sign: “Please don't feed the pigeons", I thought it would be wonderful to have an invitation to feed something there, and so "Please Feed The Lions" became the phrase that became the title.

My mum always said to me that the only reason for making anything would be if it changed, however small a degree, people's perspective. I want there to be a difference between ‘before the work’ and ‘after the work’. Trafalgar Square is a place many of us stack up memories, because so many of us walk through it – it's like a great corridor of this city. If every time someone walked through the square again and they felt linked to all those voices that have been heard since its inception in the 1850s, or if this piece became a sort of hinge that connected them to a deeper understanding of the square and about the city we live in, that would be something. The poem itself, at the end of the six days, will be put online on the Google Arts & Culture website prolonging its life, and it will allow people to say, "I was part of that".

Words by Rebecca Fulleylove
Credits: All media
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