Listening to Bestival creative director Josie da Bank reveal the fantasies behind the creative activity that surrounds one of the UK’s most spectacular and eclectic festivals, is like listening to a magician who makes childhood wishes come true. It’s a dream job, and somebody has to do it.
Since the first Bestival in 2004, its capacity has grown from 3,000 to 79,000, and yet the intentions of those behind the magic have remained much the same, with their vision developing in line with its scale.
“When we started it there weren’t many heavily designed shows around, so it felt like the right thing to do to make it unique, different to everything else that was going on,” explains da Bank, “I think it’s really come together in the last few years, and people really get it. It looks great and it feels great, and it’s different to other shows.”
Da Bank and DJ husband Rob met at Goldsmiths University, whilst she was studying Textiles and Fine Art. After graduating, and with hopes of becoming an illustrator, she began illustrating record sleeves for his label Sunday Best, which subsequently developed into artwork for Bestival, from posters to wristbands to stage fascia.
Around the same time, da Bank opened Cocomo bar in east London with a close friend. “I was really good at organising and we wanted to design a venue as well. I just quite like operating things – events, parties – it’s all quite natural to me so it felt right to open a bar in Hoxton which was up-and-coming,” she says. “And that gave me a lot of knowledge into running a festival. Even though it was a lot, lot smaller it was a good background into running a bigger event.”
Shortly after, the Sunday Best label began throwing parties in Ibiza and Miami, with da Bank waving her creative wand once more. “I created things for those parties that made them feel quite special – we had my illustrations printed on our own deckchairs, parasols, balloons and rugs. We had a lot of that kit when Bestival first started too,” she says.
From this, Bestival developed “very organically”, says da Bank, who co-founded the festival on the Isle of Wight with husband Rob, along with John Hughes and wife Ziggy Gilsenan from events company Get Involved. “We are in a really strong position where I’m very creative, Robbie’s amazing with music, Ziggy is amazing with marketing and sponsorship, and John has a very good business head. We all have very separate, very defined roles,” she says. “I think it’s quite unique to have a festival of our size that’s independent as well – most of them are owned by the bigger companies.”
Da Bank designs the whole show, not just creatively and visually, but practically too – where the toilets and campsites should be for example. The various “venues” in the main arena are concepts tendered out for different artists to create, or designed and made in-house, by a creative team, made up of two creative producers, a crew boss, a head of art department, an arts programmer, five area managers, and around 40 creative crew building sets and dressing the show.
“Every detail is thought about by me and my team. Most of the props that you see in the show now belong to me and all live in a big yard on the Isle of Wight. I’ve got such a big kit that I’ve built up over the years, from lights to parasols to lanterns to our own flags, tent linings and bespoke marquees,” she says. “If it didn’t look like it does, and I didn’t create those venues and come up with ideas, there’d be absolutely no point in me doing it as a job, that’s what I bring to the festival.”
Some of the most impressive recent installations have included a magnificent – and literally record-breaking – giant disco ball as part of this year’s Desert Island Disco theme, which dazzled revellers at 10.33 metres tall, and was covered in 2,500 mirrored tiles.
“It was kind of impossible to do it within the budget that I’d set. No one could work out how to build a sphere that big,” da Bank explains. She was about to give up when she decided to approach bespoke show design agency Newsubstance, who agreed. “It’s actually a hard inflatable – they built 2 3 this big sock that it fits into and then inflated it on site. It’s brilliant. The tiles are proper mirrors sewn onto this big mesh sock,” she says. “It’s quite a complicated procedure. It’s really heavy. My health and safety team were imagining it rolling away across the festival site, like the peach in James and the Giant Peach.”
The 2013 theme was HMS Bestival, directly inspired by her dream of building a giant ship on site. It was created by Spatial Installations using shipping containers with panels of steel clipped on to create the highly realistic hull. “I knew I wanted to build a big electronic music stage, and that I wanted it to be a boat, because we go to work across the Solent a couple of times a week, and I’m really inspired by the Solent and all the navel ships and shipping boats,” she says. “So sometimes it’s a big prop that comes first and then the theme follows.”
Deciding on a theme isn’t always so easy. “It’s really hard work. It’s Robbie and I who decide the theme at home in our own time, over a glass of wine or over a few weeks. So currently we don’t have a theme for next year, and we can’t think of one. We bicker about it, and every time I bring it up he says it will just come to him,” she says. “It’s quite a natural process, we don’t sit in a boardroom and throw it out to our team. We have to feel really comfortable with it first, before we take it to everyone else. We know if it’s right or not.”
Collaboration is key to their working process, as is evident in one particularly striking venue inspired by a trip the pair took to India, complete with its own temple entranceway. “Bollywood has been with us for 11 years. The Christmas before we started Bestival, Robbie and I went to India and we bought lots of things which we used to create it, all the parasols, posters and signs,” she says. “It made Bestival year one because it just felt so different to have this lovely colourful cocktail bar with all the bunting that we’d had made out there. I met this guy in Jaipur who made me lots of covers, bolster cushions, and a big marquee lining. And it kind of shaped the festival.”
Other areas have seen successful collaborations with artists including Pete Bateman, who created Caravanserai, a curious little beatnik bric-a-brac camp, with theatrical performance, trapeze, and sideshow musicians. It began after the discovery of an old Roma caravan which he cut in half: “When I saw it I said ‘Pete let’s make a whole venue with caravans cut up’, and he was like, ‘that sounds like a brilliant idea’. And he went away and did some sketches, and I gave him a budget. He lives in France and went around junkyards buying things like waltzer chairs, old tables, lampposts, and loads of caravans, some of which he cut the sides off.”
Da Bank certainly has a unique role, even in an industry that invites newly invented, and often highly experimental, professional creative roles. “It’s changed over the years as the show has got bigger. It’s just fallen into place,” she explains. “I don’t actually know anyone else that does my job, as I think it’s quite specific to Bestival and Camp Bestival [its family-led festival sister] and the way that we run our company. I honestly don’t know if other festivals have creative directors or ones that own the festival as well.”
Whether it’s a late night adventure in the twinkling Ambient Forest, meeting a chameleon outside the Science Tent, or dancing under the fireworks with the masses to legends like Stevie Wonder, Bestival is known as a hedonistic, multi-sensory playground, driven by fearlessness and fun – felt both in its creation and in the throngs that fill the fields.
“I always want to have one special moment every year that involves pyro and fireworks and lots of lights,” da Bank says. “I also like to create special moments within bands sets, so when Chic played this year for example, I organised lots of big balloons, big coloured balls, glitter confetti and the UV bubbles. I love all that, it just makes you feel great, doesn’t it?”
It’s that ‘anything goes’ attitude that has brought Bestival so much success. Creating this new micro-world for just a few days, where freedom and creativity rule. Any news on next year’s theme since our first chat? “Yes, but I can’t say!” she exclaims. Although perhaps her next big idea is a hint: “I am busy creating a new festival that is going to exist within Bestival. And I would love to make a giant 40m robot that comes alive through human love.”