Feel the beat

How Block9 Became The Queer Heart Of Glastonbury
By Max Cocking | Music | 21 July 2022

It’s 3am Saturday morning and a thickly moustached man in a thong grabs my wrist and shouts, “That’s the the wrong way love – Honey Dijon’s there!” I rapidly get rushed through some doors by two drag queens whilst a thick cloud of steam escapes into the warm night and a wall of pounding bass suddenly hits my face. I’ve arrived at NYC Downlow, Glastonbury’s first gay club and undoubted queer utopia, which even though it exists for just four days a year, regularly gets named the best club in the world. 

Like any of the best parties you’ve ever been to, the vibe is absolutely wild and totally uncaring. An anarchic creative hub hidden in the south-east corner of the festival, which somehow manages to feel safe and inclusive yet totally lawless. NYC Downlow is the jewel in the crown of Block9, which is helmed by Gideon Berger and Stephen Gallagher and explores the intersection of art, music, theatre and politics through the construction of complete, immersive temporary realities. Their other spaces include Genoysis, which this year was a bus with the most mental soundsystem possible and IIcon, a giant head lost in a screen pondering the post-truth age we all now live, acting as a beacon for late night ravers.

Launched fifteen years ago, Block9 continues to thrive – we sat down with Gideon and Stephen for some inside information.

GALLERYPhotography by Samuel Douek

Max Cocking: It’s been fifteen years since the inaugural Block9, tell me a little about the history of it and what to expect next?
Stephen Gallagher: It all started back in 2007 with a bunch of friends and an idea to do something different at Glastonbury by building its first gay bar, NYC Downlow It was a roaring success from day one. In 2010 there were some changes in the South-East corner of the Glastonbury site and we went to Michael Eavis with the idea of taking on our own field, building a counterpart to the NYC Downlow – a London-centric installation called, The London Underground (you may remember it, it caused a stir at the time). The London Underground was a six-storey full size replica of a London tower block with a derailed tube train smashed through it. In 2013, we created a new arena called Genosys and built a huge, brutalist, concrete and glass ‘machine’ with a focus on early analogue dance music. In 2016 we rebuilt NYC Downlow as a meatpacker warehouse and in 2019, we added the IICON stage. Fifteen years on, the Block9 area of Glasto now consists of NYC Downlow (and The Meat Rack), IICON, and the Genosys arena, which for 2022 features Genosys Sound System.
Gideon Berger: As for the future, expect the unexpected! We are continually changing and evolving, responding creatively to the world around us – the ever-shifting landscape of music, art and politics.

“My creative itch was becoming unbearable – it desperately needed scratching!”

MC: Have you always worked in design?
SG: I studied graphic design in Birmingham before moving to Bristol and doing my degree in Art and Social Context – a Fine Art degree but with an emphasis on public art. It was mostly studio practice, in my case painting, which really allowed me to do my own thing. By my final degree show I was producing quite large-scale works and with the need to earn some money, it seemed a natural step into theatre work. I returned to my hometown of Birmingham (so I could live cheaply) and worked a three-year apprenticeship in a scenic studio. My dad is a builder, so I also had a parallel education and interest in architecture and how to make and build things… I had friends who were working in TV and advertising in London (model-making and set-building) and started doing the odd job down here – eventually taking the plunge in 2001
GB: Design and music specifically. I did my degree in Digital Music with Visual practice and have been exploring the space between installation and music ever since.

MC: Why did you decide to start your own company?
GB: I felt if we stopped working for other people on mediocre projects, we could create our own thing and do really well. We were both sick of working for the man and had met a great deal of talented freelancers along the way. There was a gap in the market for set designers who think outside the box. There are plenty of US and Euro arts groups who create amazing spaces where music, art and dance meet successfully. Influenced by the scale and vision of the major arts projects at Burning Man festival in Nevada, I really wanted to work on projects that were on that kind of scale.
SG: I hate being told what to do… My creative itch was becoming unbearable – it desperately needed scratching!  We had reached the point where working freelance, with our work taking second place, was becoming frustrating. We needed to find a way to do our own work full-time. We’d also produced the NYC Downlow and showed it at Glastonbury in the summer of 2007 – we did it on a shoestring budget, a wing and a prayer, and it was an instant success. It really cemented the fact we had a similar aesthetic and, together, could do good things.

“…people dancing in the rain at 6am as the sun came up, still not wanting to leave. “

MC: How important is music and art to help us transcend?
GB: Music for us is not about transcending, escaping or forgetting. Music is many things but certainly not avoidance. At NYC Downlow, music is the medium through which queer culture, history and tradition is communicated, translated and reincarnated. As Frankie Knuckles said, “House is Disco’s Revenge.” The dancefloor at the NYC Downlow is the space where the very essence of the LGBTQ+ soul is explored and celebrated. At our other Block9 installations at the festival, music champions other concepts. At Genosys, our focus this year was simultaneously both the remembrance of Castlemorton and the re-focussing of dance music’s political DNA back into view. Recent Tory legislation aims to amplify the Criminal Justice Acts’ attempt to remove music from countercultural protest. The programme at Genosys was all about the depoliticisation of dance music. The music at IICON similarly has purpose. We invited underground IDM pioneers to explore the battle between technology and power and soundtrack the sculpture itself and the philosophies it was founded on.

MC: Where do you find inspiration?
GB: Classic graphic designers like [Alexander] Rodchenko and Soviet Block propaganda, film and theatre, literature… vintage radio sellers on eBay!
SG: I find most of my ideas come from everyday situations – someone in the street, colours in peeling paintwork on a shopfront. I’m constantly being distracted by the things around me – it drives my partner nuts! Seemingly random things just stay with me, niggling away until the right situation or project allows them to be realised.

MC: What was the most exciting thing about this year’s event?
SG: The atmosphere on-site. From the start of the build back in the beginning of June, all through the festival, to the final take-down and clear-up. Being back with our amazing crew and performers, some of whom we haven’t seen for three years. The incredible positive energy of packed-out crowds in all our venues and arenas all night long, with people dancing in the rain at 6am as the sun came up, still not wanting to leave. A truly brilliant, diverse line-up of artists that killed it.

MC: What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen here?
SG: I don’t think anyone was prepared for The London Underground, no one had done anything like that before. People were walking up to the building and tapping it to see if it was real! The same year, someone decided it would be a good idea to take a shower in the bombed-out, third storey bathroom of the original NYC Downlow installation…

Find more information on Block9 here.

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