Cel­e­brat­ing 10 Years of

NYC Down­low

HISKIND - - GET PRICKED - Words Jon San­ders

“Ten years of Block9’s work have taught us that the un­ex­pected is al­ways ex­pected.”

if you can, that you’re wear­ing wellies. Your bot­tom half is caked in mud, while your top half is plas­tered with sev­eral day’s worth of sweat and baby-wipe residue. These are the unglam­orous re­al­i­ties of fes­ti­valling. And yet, around and above you, glit­ter­ing through the grime, a le­gion of drag queens are dancing exquisitely to a thump­ing sound­scape of disco, soul and house. You’ve been trudg­ing through a field in Som­er­set with your tent but have some­how ar­rived in the meat pack­ing district of 70s New York, im­mersed in its fa­mous un­der­ground gay nightlife. This is the NYC Down­low, the sig­na­ture queer nightlife ex­pe­ri­ence for Glas­ton­bury Fes­ti­val by Block9, and the sun has just set on her tenth birth­day.

At the NYC Down­low, the odd mix­ture of camp and camp­site only sup­ports the es­capism that Block9’s mu­si­cal worlds cre­ate. All vis­i­tors are sup­plied mous­taches on ar­rival, so all can join the NYC Down­low’s pic­ture-per­fect mus­cle dad­dies who ap­pear to have thrusted straight out of a Tom of Fin­land il­lus­tra­tion. Guests are ush­ered into a sex­ual play­ground which harkens back to the seedy ori­gins of the gay club­bing. Jonny Woo, a fix­ture in the Lon­don drag scene, re­turns this year in the com­pany of an in­ter­na­tional flock mi­grat­ing to the queer home­land. Cal­i­for­nian rap artist and poet Mykki Blanco can be heard along with New York’s Mas­ters At Work, Chicago’s Michael Ser­afini and Ber­lin’s Pro­sumer.

Pre­vi­ously, sur­prise per­for­mances at the Down­low have in­cluded Roisin Mur­phy and Florence Welch, but ten years of Block9’s work have taught us that the un­ex­pected is al­ways ex­pected. In 2007, Steven Gal­lagher and Gideon Berger, the cre­ative duo at Block9’s helm first brought the NYC Down­low to Glas­ton­bury. Since then, its pres­ence at the fes­ti­val has blos­somed. Block9 now com­mands its own field where 50,000 vis­i­tors can ex­plore three mind-bend­ing ex­pe­ri­ences. Be­sides the Down­low, you’ll find The Lon­don Un­der­ground, where the thump­ing cel­e­bra­tion of the city’s sound sys­tem scene masks a dark un­der­belly, a sur­real piece of sight-spe­cific the­atre pro­duced in col­lab­o­ra­tion with The Round­house The­atre in­flicted on un­sus­pect­ing ravers. Out­side, Genosys dom­i­nates: a 55 tonne con­crete struc­ture whose mess of wires and plants tells the story of our re­birth in a dystopian fu­ture with elec­tric mu­sic as our mid­wife.

Glas­ton­bury may be Block9’s beat­ing heart, but it is by no means the limit of Gal­lagher and Gideon’s imag­i­na­tions’ reach. They de­signed for the 2012 Lon­don Cul­tural Olympiad and have en­gi­neered im­mer­sive mu­si­cal art ex­pe­ri­ences for live events by Skrillex, Lana del Rey and, most re­cently, Go­ril­laz at Mar­gate’s Dream­land. And do you re­call Banksy’s in­stal­la­tion and par­ody of Dis­ney­land, Dis­ma­land? The apoc­a­lyp­tic fairy tale cas­tle at its cen­tre was their do­ing.

Though Block9’s art flour­ishes where there’s a party – fes­ti­vals, live gigs, theme parks – there is al­ways a dark­ness to their aes­thetic di­rec­tion and the fun they cre­ate al­ways has a sting in its tale. Stephen Gal­lagher says, “Our work is of­ten po­lit­i­cal in na­ture. We fre­quently make state­ments through the work that prompts au­di­ences to ques­tion the world they in­habit.” The NYC Down­low, for in­stance, is an es­cape to a gay ar­ca­dia of yes­ter­year, but it’s also a dive: crum­bling bill­boards, boarded-up win­dows and evic­tion no­tices on the plas­tered ev­ery­where on the “At­lantic Meats Ware­house” also tells the story of the grim, ur­ban poverty where a se­questered queer disco scene first took its roots, echo­ing the threat ram­pant gen­tri­fi­ca­tion has on LGBT+ mu­sic and per­for­mance in the real world to­day.

Block9’s pro­duc­tions weave am­bi­tious, heady fantasy themes seam­lessly into the party, cre­at­ing in­com­pa­ra­ble worlds that ex­plore, in Berger’s words, “the fleet­ing space be­tween mu­sic and the built en­vi­ron­ment”. If ten years is any­thing to go by, long may the party con­tinue.

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