Shangri La, Glastonbury: Bred from of the British squat movement, born into utopian idealism

Originally published by Noisey (June, 2014) –http://noisey.vice.com/en_uk/blog/shangri-la-this-year-is-a-realisation-that-were-really-really-fucked-glastonbury-2014?utm_source=noiseyfbuk

The original transcript, with photos from Tim Boddy (2013) – on Shangri La, it’s inception, the British squat movement, new age travellers, and why we can’t just live in utopian idealism –

The car is on fire, and there’s no driver at the wheel
And the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides
And a dark wind blows
The government is corrupt
And we’re on so many drugs
With the radio on and the curtains drawn

So goes ‘The Dead Flag Blues’ by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Those post-apocalyptic visions, of dust tracks and dirty wastelands, chemical erosion and corrupt governments are an image shared by the creators of the notorious South East corner of the Glastonbury site.

Having established itself in 2009, Shangri La, has very quickly become Worthy Farm’s most notorious field. For some, it’s the idea of your every worst nightmare – a town of crony idealism, far removed from the Babylonian world of the main stages. Blending cutting edge street theatre, with three decades of dance music heritage – Shangri La grasps a very unique British surrealism. Landmarked by the counter-cultural movement of new-age travellers, the South East corner has arguably saved Glastonbury from remaining just another over-sized rock festival. Instead, turning it into a site in which ideas of utopia, politics, power and civilization can be brought to question through a manner of different lenses.

While the Green Fields beliefs might be in peddling sacred stones, naked saunas and relaxing massages – Shangri La is almost it’s complete opposite. Meshing steel and metal with sweeping challenges of corporate idealism, Shangri La is both a space to party and a political forum. In the one sense, the great, fuck off projections and ridiculous sound systems pedal a deep, ketamine fuelled party that lasts deep into the night, while the surroundings bring the madcap ambitions of a team of 1500 illustrators, artists, riggers and designers alive to pull together one of the most visually-stunning fields I’ve ever seen on a festival site.

Each year is built off a different theme. While last year saw us enter the afterlife, after a great communist invasion, and virus-ridden post-apocalyptic party to end all parties, this year sees the team explore the new age of capital. As corporations and profit take over – Shangri La looks at the fictitious values behind the profiteering elite, and the sacrifices we all make as part of it – exploring how this is leering us all towards a sense of escapism and denial.

We caught up with Deborah Armstrong, creative director of Shangri La, to talk about the history of Shangri La, and to talk us through this year’s theme.

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Robbie Wojciechowski: Shangri La in is a sort new-age circus – where the touring pantomimes of our childhood have slipped away, and been replaced by Angela Carter style daydreams – how would you best describe what Shangri La does?

I think fundamentally Shangri La is about creating a world that people come to as an experience – there’s one aspect of it where it’s kind of this immersive world of insanity, but in another sense, it’s a response to a theme, something that interests and inspires us, and communicates our thinking on the world. The topic always has to be interesting and inspiring – something that will engage the artists we work with. In one sense Shangri La is a huge installation, in another, it’s a creative playground, where we’re exhibiting to a completely open audience.

How much is it a innovation of your own – and that of other peoples?

It’s a little bit of both. For example, this year, we’ve got loads of visual artists, like Ron English, Shepherd Ferry, Mark Jenkins. With some of them, we’re looking for certain pieces of work. We send off the brief, and they’ll send back pieces of work that they think either fit the brief, or new work they’ve created off the back of it. Often it’s a mix of both. It’s a completely collaborative project. Glastonbury is notoriously always poorly paid, and always a ball ache – but the crew, the people all make it, it just has to be really worth it, because it’s an incredibly interesting creative experience, developing artists, students and their work. This year’s been a lot tighter on the creative process – we’ve always invited people to come and participate and for people to enter their work. New people always come and work with us every year.

Tell us about Lost Vagueness – and give us an outline of where it all began

I was a relative latecomer – I got involved in Lost Vagueness in 2002, and that was the first year it had expanded from the days of just being a tent. It was the first year Roy, my old business partner, couldn’t be there, so everything was pretty much left up to me. There were 5 of us – in an extraordinary situation, with no toilets, no nothing – so we made up these fake passes to blag all the provisions and people we needed. On Sunday, we made it all up and realised we didn’t really have a party – so I had to beg Phil, the guy who has always run the diner, to help me out. It ended up being the most wonderful party. Joe Strummer ended up playing this wonderfully debauched set. And through that night, through that moment, Phil is now my husband. You end up in intense, ridiculous situations, with over work, with every situation, that you really, really bond with people.

Everybody that does Shangri La also does other stuff – it’s like herding cats, trying to get everyone together can be manic. Everyone’s got other projects, or they all live in the country. Chris Tofu, Continental Drifts – crucial in developing underground talent, Robin runs a bar, Andy builds, Kaye works at Boomtown and I run a production company Strong and Co.

For me, Shangri La is a ‘very English surrealism’ – do you think theatre of this kind can only really exist in the UK?

It’s funny, I remember going to Burning Man a few years ago, and really, really missing it. I saw one person there that got it bang on. Obviously the work there is incredible, but I just saw one guy, rolling around with a briefcase taking the piss out of the silent discos that really, really captured it for me. It’s our sense and spirit for being creative and cynical that really nails it in the UK, I think. The surrealist thing is just always about having a twist on an idea. We call it shangrilising something. It’s really British I think.  

I guess that’s been marked by years of influence from different counter cultural movements – at one end of the scale you’ve got Tim Burton’s work, at the other end, every single bit of youth culture from the last 50 years – and the mystic origins, the spiritual side of things that comes inherent with Glastonbury. 

Exactly – the whole mythic side, with Avalon, the permaculturists, the Green Fields that have always brought those links together.  Everyone here has all chosen very alternative ways of going about their business – there’s a definite family of people that are all quite wrong, but in a very special kind of way. Wrong in the right way. So insane that they’re sane. It’s all family now. Literally, they are people I’ve been working with for 15 years of my life. 

I had the same experience – I first went to Glastonbury when I was 15, and at the time I remember it feeling like a tipping point. From now on, this was my strange, abandoned community – my spiritual home, and my family away from home. 

I think it gives people a sense of everything, of security I think too. I definitely feel like we’ve got our corner now – for me, it feels like home, there’s family looking out for everyone everywhere, it’s the place I let my kids run completely free.

How about you personally, what led you to Glastonbury?

I went to art school, Central St Martins, and I studied installation under Brian Shaw. Then I found my health in a difficult situation, so I ran away to travel the world for two years, then realised what the doctors told me had been wrong, but it left me with a sense of needing to do something precious with my time. So through that, I started doing squat parties, installations, bigger places, during the late 90’s. Then I did this massive party by Battersea airport, in this huge three building complex we’d squatted, and it’s through that, that I met Roy and Lost Vagueness and got him to throw a massive casino, which he’d been running at the time, at this party.

There’s a unique moment in history – an abandonment that linked squatters and massive hives of creative culture. People were working with each other in new ways, living completely boundless lives where they felt like they could do anything. 

Completely, I always wonder what people are going to do nowadays. For me, everything sort of came from there. Today it’s never quite as maverick, today everyone’s a lot more together to get it, and that does have its positives. Today you have to be so much more on top of your shit. It’s not like when we were able to just kick the doors down, enter a space, break open all the gates, pull the trucks round, secure it. The whole process of securing space, sorting out the squat, organising your shit, dealing with the community and its politics, taught us everything. Like most people, I grew through it and out of it, but it’s still the beacon by which I found everyone. We all still work together, and we all create together.  A lot of the reason for us still doing what we do now is because we love working together.

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There’s still a core fundamental experience to it – and that’s kind of what makes Shangri La

Yeah, it’s always grown out the free party, traveller scene, and that sense of lets just smash open the gates, drive onto the queens woodlands, have a massive party, clean it up and fuck off home. It’s that DIY culture – to take back the power, and take things into our own hands.

It’s almost as if the new-age travelling movement, the 90’s free-party ethos and reintegrating your environment into new spaces, is integral to why Glastonbury is still going, and the core of the spirit behind Shangri La. Do you think all this in a way is what saved Glastonbury from demise into just another rock festival? 

Michael never had to take any of this on – he met Roy, gave us all a field and embraced the entire ethos of the thing. He’s in many ways, been really the only person who’s done that, and the incredible result he gets at the end of the day from investing in those artists and people – has led to them growing up, having been given an opportunity, and they’ve developed into the most incredible crews, riggers and illustrators around.

The Southeast corner is all a reference to that. Everyone that runs an area here, all used to be part of the crew from Lost Vagueness – from the boys in décor, right through to all the old production crew. Roy, the founder, had an unfortunate habit of falling out with people – and one after another, things broke down a little, but out of the ashes raised Shangri La. And that was back in 2008. And Michael gave us the go. 

It’s funny – if you look at an oral history of Glastonbury, you realise the entire South East Corner emerged as a place for new theatre, new arts and new ideas, out of the late 90’s industrial experience. It’s at this point; there was a strange urbanisation of Worthy Farm? 

We’ve thought about that for years – just why us old city muckers go to a field in Somerset for a few weeks and make everything really metal and industrial and so far removed from the idyllic countryside – and then want to fuck off at the end of it. 

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Glastonbury blends a rejection of the anti-establishment – but still keeps a very respected reputation within the sphere of music, culture and entertainment worldwide. It’s always embraced people it probably otherwise shouldn’t, and instead of being scared of counter-culture movements, embraced them.

I think it’s always just been a unique experience – something sort of untouchable. Obviously, the other side of the festival, the big bands still get the press, but I think there’s been a long lineage of Glastonbury embracing things where others don’t, letting us run wild with ideas, and putting faith in people that would otherwise be forgotten about.

What about the theme for this year – tell us a little bit about this year’s theme, and how they come into being?

So, the alleyways of days past have been bulldozed by the evil Shangri-Hell Corporation, everyone has been evicted, and in return they’ve built a shiny new headquarters, where they can celebrate all their success from. In the corporation, there is a divide between a numbers of separate departments; you’ve got the IT department, HR. This year, Shangri-Hell is all about the office nightmare, a cataclysmic demand to pull you to your senses, and question life back home away from Worthy.

Can you explain a little bit more about this year’s theme?

This is a realisation that we’re really, really fucked. The colonial empire building has transferred the idea of a corporate empire building – hell’s behind the profiteering, evil doing of big business, and heaven’s trying really hard to counter it, but not doing well.

During our research for this year, the whole thing just became incredibly depressing – but that’s where Heaven comes in, it’s all about exquisite escapism, and every great value we can hold.

It’s an interesting move – given Shangri La has always been associated with the dystopian future –

Well this is the problem; this is the reality of the profiteering elite. Heaven on the outside is about escapism and denial, fuck it, and let’s remove ourselves from it, on another level.

In one sense; we’re breaking down the idea of corporatism, on the other side, we’re trying to reference the greater problems within that world, and the real moral conditions. 

Cool – what can we expect to see?

Last year we dealt with the very contemporary sins – bankers, corporations – and this year, we’re going deeper into corporate hell. Heaven hasn’t been doing well – the idealism is running out. Hell’s succeeding, so Heaven’s come up with a new accessibility initiative, this year we’re bringing an open door policy. On one side there’s windows and doors into dark worlds – on the other, we’ve got a massive new heaven arena. Everything’s been turned inside out. We’ve got a huge hanging installation made by the permaculture teams, Doug Foster making a massive projection called Pyschotron infinity mandala that’ll be stretched across the field, sitar players, a massive birdsong installation of the dawn chorus at Glastonbury that’ll kick in once the music switches off. The dome behind the arena is where we’re most excited about though.

We’ve got Utopian talks, in the dome all weekend, talking about the proposition of fixing shit. Constantine will be talking about setting up ethical operations; there are permaculture talks on changing the natural world through planting – incredible, innovation in ethics and morals about our lives. The main arena might be a fluffy-bunny MDMA party, but this year we want the dome is where we want to make the real point.

There’s a series of small installations we’re going to scatter the field – each there own way an attribute to corporatism. So, the shock boardroom setting, the CEO’s office – shocking extraditions that make us look at the gross world of corporate capital. There’s Pluto’s PR firm, the IT department, and the department of culture, representing the Sabbath, and the department of apathy, an overgrown computer world. Snakepit has been expelled from Heaven, and now has a completely new aesthetic, based around a clinic, and LOVEBULLETS are getting involved too. There’ll be karaoke, a massive leisure centre to get your Zen on. As always, there’ll be massive billboards with huge incredible bits of artwork we’ve had specially commissioned on the themes everywhere.

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It’s 20 years since the criminal justice and public order act (1994) – do you think for a modern decade of creators, there’s a somewhat stunted sense of what’s possible now? 

I think the real killer wasn’t the public order act; it was the confiscating of rigs, and the complete banning of squatting. I remember I used to be able to call the police my friends in some ways – and there would always be negotiation. Nowadays, there’s none of that. I think what stopped me from squatting was the longevity of working a squat – finding, fixing, the legal side, and then sitting in court trying to protect the whole case. Too much of my energy was going into lots of this. Lost Vagueness almost only got developed once I’d left all that. It wasn’t ever quite right at the time – it was always frustrating. Squats were the facilitator, but it does leave me to wonder what my kids are going to do now. Today’s work is utter brutalism. I’ve seen people ruined by that world – ruined by people being forced down the throat of people, just because it there was only option at finding mutual contact. And the thing is, life on the outside isn’t easy easier.

Exactly – I think we’ve both felt that. I left school when I was 16, and went straight into the activist community because of it. But you realise it’s a darker world, as well as a hive of insane, flamboyant possibility.

It’s an addictive environment – you can get lost within it. I think we, all, now, have managed to get ourselves out – and to a point where we can all work creatively while still supporting ourselves. I think it teaches you what happens to the human spirit when you push it through a lot? It’s required to be incredibly resourceful. Need pushes people to do things that they would never do. A removal resources helps us realise what we really need – essences of community, comfort and light. The removal of that very human spirit behind our system is the saddest thing of all, I think, which I guess is what I want us to question in part. Maybe you spend your entire life working for something awful – maybe this’ll be the trigger to someone realising that and wanting to change his or her own personal state. This year, is just about raising lots of questions, we think. 

Photos courtesy of Tim Boddy – cargocollective.com/Timboddy

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