This summer was supposed to mark the 50th anniversary of arguably the world’s most famous music festival, Glastonbury. In its five-decade history, the festival has grown from a gathering of 1,500 music lovers on Worthy Farm in rural Somerset – when tickets were priced at £1 and included free milk from the farm – to an event the size of a small city, regularly attracting 200,000 festival-goers from across the globe.
While the Pyramid Stage’s headline acts always provide the most high profile attractions, some of the festival’s best experiences are to be found off the beaten track, with veteran venues like Shangri-La gaining cult followings of their own. Founded in 2009 by Kaye Dunnings (who has been involved with Glastonbury since 2002), Shangri-La has gained a reputation as one of Glastonbury’s most subversive and experimental venues; last year’s programme included an audiovisal set from Max Cooper, placard making sessions with Extinction Rebellion and a live dating show in its own mock TV studio, SHITV.
Curating Shangri-La’s alluring mixture of music, art and activism is a year-round job, so work for this year’s programme was well underway when Glastonbury’s organisers – along with the rest of the UK’s festival scene – were forced to cancel the event in March amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Within a week of the news, and while the rest of the country was adjusting to the government-enforced lockdown, Dunnings had hatched a plan to keep the Shangri-La spirit alive in virtual form.
“I received a call from Chris Macmeikan, my fellow director at Shangri-La, who had been speaking to [tech platform] VR Jam about creating a virtual event of some kind,” says Dunnings. “Initially we were discussing only creating a VR version of the Gas Tower – an eight-screen, 360-degree, ten-metre-high structure that merges art and dance music, which we produced at Glastonbury in 2017 and 2019. It then soon turned into a monster!”