Celebrating 10 Years of
“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.