“Dismaland is both crushing and violent, but also amazingly poetic and hilarious all at once,”

Block9 co-founder Gideon Berger

Following its work on Banksy’s Dismaland, Block9 talks Glastonbury, politics and hoarding cultural relics.

Uncompromising, politically engaged and always searching for the next big idea, Block9 has spent the last 10 years creating live experiences that blur the boundaries between art, music and entertainment.

The East London-based company’s latest project – creating the castle centerpiece of Banksy’s bemusement park Dismaland – is the sort of wry temporary reality with which the company is now synonymous.

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Block9’s London Underground at Glastonbury

Realising Banksy’s vision for Dismaland’s castle required intense research by Block9’s co-founders Gideon Berger and Stephen Gallagher. “The challenge was to create a castle structure in keeping with the derelict amusement park Tropicana in Weston-Super-Mare, chosen for Dismaland. We were tasked with building something that looked bleak and abandoned for decades. It was a very involved process,” says Berger.

To achieve the right level of decay for the castle, the team soaked the sheet timber façade in water to encourage the de-lamitation of the ply and to make for an easier distressing process. Some of the UK’s most talented scenic painters worked on the multiple paint coats, each of which, once complete, had to be entirely destroyed again to give the depth of colour and texture required to replicate a realistic finish.

The giant structure – which sits on an underwater stage, also built by Block9 – would have to withstand extreme coastal weather fronts. “Complex structural engineering calculations form a major part of all of Block9’s epic sculptural installations,” Berger says.

Unlike Block9’s usual offerings, Dismaland’s late night music events were this time not of their own doing. “Usually, we are deeply involved in curating the music for our installations. So much of our solo work is based around the musical experience. The Dismaland collaboration was unusual as the music was entirely somebody else’s bag,” Berger says.

Examples of the full-spectrum of Block9’s ambitious creations can be found in its dedicated area at Glastonbury Festival, where the company creates and curates some of its most spectacular experiential spectacles, including The London Underground: a sinister, 50ft, decaying tower block with a life-size, blazing tube train bursting from the fifth floor.

The installation was packed with late night revellers, mesmerized by the striking scale of the structure and how the tube carriage appeared to be protruding from the block. Inspiration for this, and all Block9 projects, is drawn from eclectic sources.

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Block9’s work for Lana Del Rey

“Stephen and I are obsessive collectors of resource material,” Berger says. “We gather photos, mementos and ideas from wherever we go; the opera, theatre, raves, galleries, parties, squats, rubbish dumps, gardens and basically anywhere that there is something that strikes a chord.”

Block9’s Glastonbury projects take a team of more than 700, freelance build crew, riggers, scenic painters, production staff, subcontractors, artists and performers, to pull off.

“Glastonbury is a totally unique organisation, and really gives us free reign,” says Berger. “We proved ourselves to Michael and Emily Eavis in 2007 when we created a late night apocalyptic gay disco venue, The NYC Downlow, a replica New York tenement block. Since then, we’ve developed an amazing relationship with the festival. They more or less say ‘you are the ideas people, go forth and invent’.”

Such projects have earned Block9 the attention of pop icons, including Lana Del Rey and Skrillex, who have both used Block9 as set designers. “It’s crazy, the different people we get to work with, and how the different each client is. One week we might be sitting in a warehouse in LA with Skrillex or a Beverly Hills mansion with Lana, and the next we could be talking politics and gun crime with filmmaker and opera director Penny Woolcock at the Roundhouse.”

Block9 at work in its East London studio
Block9 staff at work in its East London studio

What unites these varied collaborations is Block9’s unique creative process. “Clients know they are not just coming to a production company or a design agency. They come to us for ideas, energy, opinion and the know-how to deliver large-scale arts projects that can be toured within a realistic budget for 2015.”

Provocative discussions about politics, music, life and the universe are part of this collaborative process, ensuring there is a meaningful backbone to the installations. “Working on several projects at one time means being engaged in various dialogues. Inevitably, these touch on the key themes of our time; globalisation, capitalism, Palestine and the Middle East and inequality,” Berger says.

He also name checks events that have inspired Block9, including Kate Bush’s enigmatic Before The Dawn tour. “Dick Bird’s set design, the lighting design and video were a real achievement. It was an entirely unique approach to delivering a musical experience with a narrative. It was amazing. The helicopter bit was just a stroke of genius.”

Such experiential and immersive production is identified as the future for the live entertainment sector, according to Berger, who warns that soulless brand events are quick to feed from the fruits of these achievements.

“Everyone is chasing the holy grail of experiential entertainment, but much of what the future will bring is already out there. Punchdrunk is at the forefront of immersive theatre, Secret Cinema is giving film a new twist, while You Me BumBum Train is really at the helm of the individual theatrical experience.  It’s inevitable, however, that these happenings will also be ripped-off for brand activations.”

Block9’s area of expertise is exploring the musical experience using tools like set design, video, lighting, sound and theatre. “As an artist it’s your responsibility to ask questions,” Berger insists. “It’s becoming less and less possible to ignore the real state of the planet; you can stick your head in the sand but reality will just come knocking. Look at Syria now. Our sh-t has come home to roost. We are here to have deep discussions about life’s inconvenient truths.”

Unsurprisingly then, Dismaland, a living, breathing dystopian comment on our times, resonates with Block9. “It is very on point for 2015, both crushing and violent but also amazingly poetic and hilarious all at once. It distills Banksy’s brilliant worldview perfectly and has got everybody talking,” Berger says.

Creating a totally unique musical experience is the promise for Berger and Gallagher’s next secretive creation. “We’re working on an massive touring musical experience that will be completely mind-blowing. Watch this space.”

WORDS: Tom Hall (Originally published in Access All Areas’ October edition)

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