You had to be there

Combining old school set design, cutting-edge technology, sound, light, and live performance, Block9’s fantastical, immersive creations are where art and music collide. Antonia Wilson meets the master crafters of experience

It’s hard because you want to be able to say succinctly what it is that you do, and we can’t!” says Stephen Gallagher of Block9, referring to their website description to elaborate: “Radical set design and environment design for the experiential arts and music industries”.

“We’re impresarios,” he continues, with a smile.

“Make-it-up-as-you-go-alongers… ,” his partner Gideon Berger laughs.

The duo have been working together as Block9 since 2007, alongside a small team in their East London studio-workshop. For major events such as the Glastonbury Festival, this swells to over 700 artists, assistants, drivers, caterers and many more, to transform and manage one of their best-known projects – the legendary late-night Block9 field with its huge wow-factor art installation venues.

The pair previously both ran independent businesses creating installations for events and TV ad projects, and had also shared a studio before forming Block9. “One side was props and the other set build,” Berger says. “We were just freelancing for other companies – we hadn’t set up Block9 yet – and we were getting a bit pissed of with doing corporate events and stuff.”

With Berger having a degree in music and Gallagher’s in art and social context with painting as his studio practice, the partnership subsequently led to the creation off the NYC Downlow, an alternative queer cabaret venue at Glastonbury Festival. This vintage acid house, funk, soul and disco-led club, with a very specific sound, was designed as a replica, ruined New York tenement, complete with a real yellow taxi smashed through the roof. It was originally created with the help of “friends, voluntary labour, materials for basically nothing, and just blagging everyone,” Berger explains. The NYC Downlow became one of the main builds in the former post-apocalyptic Trash City afterhours area, and was born from an ongoing relationship with the festival ‘family’ and Block9’s involvement with Lost Vagueness, the old late night burlesque-focused hangout.

After-hours venue The London Underground at Glastonbury Festival's Block9 field
After-hours venue The London Underground at Glastonbury Festival’s Block9 field. Image courtesy of Block9

After the success of the 2007 festival, they officially set up Block9 as a company, and went on to take over an entire field at the event with multiple venues, including the London Underground, an incredible lifesize towerblock nightclub with a tube train bursting through the front; and audiovisual jawdropper Genosys, a vintage electronic music stage. Block9 brought a new scene to Glasto’s nightlife, for many of the “particpants”, as the pair call them, including LGBTQ crowds, but beyond that, helped to strengthen the festival ethos of experimentation and freedom of expression.

“From what we were doing we could see it allowed people to be themselves more. They sort of lost some of their inhibitions, and really let go. I think that’s a valuable thing for people to be able to do,” says Gallagher, which, he says, follows through into the use of music. “We have the opportunity through creating an environment, to enhance the moods of the music or even focus on them and say ‘hey have you noticed this?’”

Mixing art and music is what Block9 do best, whilst knowing how to utilise their diverse creative skillset without being limited to the conventional application of tools. They have since gone on to produce tourable work for musicians including a Metropolis-inspired stage set for Lana del Rey and an animatronic spaceship for Skrillex. Other acclaimed work from this year includes immersive theatrical installation Utopia at the Roundhouse with Penny Woolcock, and contributing to Banksy’s ‘bemusement park’ Dismaland.

Genosys, one of the nighttime venues at Glastonbury Festival being built in the studio
Genosys, one of the nighttime venues at Glastonbury Festival being built in the studio

“The ideas, more often than not, incorporate music and art as integral parts, and so you can’t have one without the other, they feed off each other,” Gallagher says.

“Our artistic practice is exploring the point where music and art or installation or set-build cross over,” Berger explains, and the duo are constantly discovering new elements to layer into the mix. “Whether it’s learning about a new material or technology whilst working on the animatronic spaceship to launch Skrillex’s tour at Coachella … or the work we did at the Roundhouse for the Utopia installation in terms of audio-directional and hypersonic speakers.”

Genosys, another night time venue at Glastonbury Festival in the Block9 field, complete with DJ pod at the base
Genosys, another night time venue at Glastonbury Festival in the Block9 field, complete with DJ pod at the base

“There are times when a limited palate is the right thing to do, sometimes a single light bulb hanging in the space is appropriate, but for a lot of the stuff that we do, especially the larger scale stuff, you want the ability to merge all the different crafts and art forms together so that you kind of can’t exactly tell how the thing has been made,” Gallagher continues.

Starting points for projects come from anywhere – a piece of music, an object, a passage from a book, a colour – which become the springboard for research and development. Berger jumps up and brings back a rusted aerosol he found in a puddle. It’s a favourite piece of inspiration, conceptually speaking, for projects including Genosys, “short for Generated Oxygen System, this epic, brutalist ‘tree’ built to save the one poisoned planet”, as Block9 describe it.

BELOW: R&D for the castle at Banksy’s Dismaland, photographs by Kamil Kustosz; and images of the final installation day and night, photographs by David Levene

From here the creative process is a tussle. They are sticklers for detail and never sub-contract work out. Both speak passionately about their commitment to their process and producing meaningful, hyper-sensory experiences.

“We’re not like a ballroom couple who are perfectly in sync with each other and move effortlessly round the dancefloor, it’s more like a boxing match,” Gallagher says.

“How dramatic the creative process is, is symptomatic of the fact that we’re both very, very invested in ideas and really, really into things,” says Berger.

Making work on this scale involves intense amounts of time – “giving birth to a new creation, spoonfeeding it, and seeing it through”, as Berger describes. But this means knowing when to use broader strokes in production and when highly detailed elements are essential. Take, for example, the distressing process for the derelict fairytale-turned-nightmare castle at Dismaland. After soaking the sheets of plywood used to build it in water, to break, bubble and delaminate, they bleached it, layered on paint and stripped back, over and over. They even rusted out each screwhead to make the structure look like it had been standing there for 60 years.

“That level of involvement or micromanagement is one that presents challenges,” Berger admits. And the same goes for the music. In particular, each of the Glastonbury venues is constructed around a very specific sound, and it tends to be the music that leads.  “Our experience of Glastonbury is about gourmet musical experience, there is no room for mediocrity or pop or EDM,” he continues.

A new self-initiated touring project from Block9 – hush hush – has been in development for a couple of years, and will feature a large helping of the classic Block9 fantasies and feats of engineering. With potentially several more years before it launches, there are already plans for the large-scale structure to visit city centres around the UK and possibly Europe.

Metropolis inspired stage set design for Lana Del Ray's Endless Summer Tour
Metropolis inspired stage set design for Lana Del Ray’s Endless Summer Tour. Photograph by Tim Prendergast

“The huge sculpture will make a massive visual statement in itself, and then you go inside … you go for the evening – music, visuals, performance, live music, recorded music, potential to go later at the weekends,” says Gallagher. “Basically taking all of those crafts or art forms available to us – sculpture, scenic painting, projection, lighting, music, and elements of performance, mashing those things together and getting the mix right.”

“We are developing the learning and the gains and the exploration that we have already made with our large scale music installations, and taking that a few levels beyond, to look at how you really engineer an environment to heighten the musical experience for the audience in that space,” Berger says.

As is the nature of experiential work, the audience is key. Just like on a night out, “the people participating in that night make that night,” Gallagher says. “[They’re] not consumers, not just buying a ticket and gawping. They’re there to participate and be involved in the thing we are creating. This isn’t about spectating, or consuming, it’s about taking part.”

BELOW: Concept drawings and final set for Skrillex’s Mothership tour

This sensory, emotional, first-hand experience-building is central to Block9’s work. And although ‘immersive’ might be on-trend of late, their version is led by strong ethics and politics, and reacts against the often soulless, bizarre brand activations masquerading as something more meaningful, created to be shared, in order to sell more.

“As a result of everyone having smartphones and being in contact fully with everyone else the whole time, the idea that experience – actually being there yourself and experiencing something first hand as opposed to having it relayed to you secondhand – is, I’ve heard people say, the new luxury,” Gallagher explains. “I don’t want it to be … I want people to remember that experiencing things for yourself is first and foremost. Before there was technology there was you. And somebody else.”

Berger agrees: “There’s a bit of a backlash against that kind of experiencing life through the lens. And that’s very much our ethos,” he says. “We are trying to not be empty, vacuous, consuming human beings. We are trying to say things and do things and push things in the right directions. And educate and facilitate as well – to be responsible citizens of planet earth.”

Block9 have previously worked with Rizla, Bulmers and Red Bull, on music related projects, which in earlier years helped to give exposure to their capabilities as artists. These days they aren’t as involved in collaborating with, nor working for brands on experential marketing, but still recognise that synergy does happen when there is a natural fit between certain artists and brands, not to mention the financial support involved which can help get work off the ground for emerging creative companies.

Simply put, these collaborations can work, but brands really need to know why they are doing it, rather than just “trying to find out what the future of entertainment is and capitalise on it,” as Berger describes.

BELOW: Utopia, a theatrical installation created with Penny Woolcock at the Roundhouse. Photographs by David Levene 

“We’re realistic about the way that the world works, we are operating in a capitalist society – it doesn’t mean that we have to embrace every aspect of it,” Berger says. “It’s all about trying to get the balance right. It has to pay.…  As long as the main purpose of it is to make an artistic statement, not to sell whatever drink brand. That’s the main thing for me, that you remain true to your cause and the other things are there to help to make that happen.”

Gallagher agrees: “I think brands often miss the point – you don’t have to have your brand name in massive flashing lights. You can do things in a subtle way and still be associated with it,” he says. “I assume the point is that you’ll go away and tell your friends.… You can tell us about it, but it’s not the same as being there, and that is what we are trying to do – look at what is a real experience – what’s real and what’s not real.”

For Berger even some festival-style events are getting it wrong: “When you scrape away the thin veneer of trendy, Hoxton-y graphic design, there’s seven floors of grey accountants…. And it’s actually just trying to sell something. And that is the same as falling in love with a hooker, isn’t it, but still paying them,” he says. “At the end of the day, that is why people come to us, because they know that we’re not an ad agency or a brand agency or an events agency, we’re a couple of artists with undiluted ideas.”

Afterhours venue The NYC Downlow at Glastonbury Festival's Block9 field
Afterhours venue The NYC Downlow at Glastonbury Festival’s Block9 field. Image courtesy of Block9

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