Art tends to thrive in times of social upheaval and political unrest. British punk was born out of a generation who looked at their prospects and saw no jobs, no hope and no future. The cold austerity of Thatcher’s iron fist a few years later was met with opposition from The Jam, Billy Bragg and The Specials among others in music venues, and filmmakers like Mike Leigh on screen. In 2015, as we face down another five years of Tory rule, with welfare and arts cuts looming left, right and centre, it’s easy to look at the current state of things and wonder where the hell this generation’s angry young voices are – especially in music, where new bands seem to be swerving political protest for escapism. Look elsewhere in the arts world, however, and you’ll find exciting rumblings of discontent being expressed in evermore large-scale and innovative ways.
Utopia, a new installation by Block 9 – the people behind the Glastonbury late night playground of hedonism of the same name – and writer Penny Woolcock is one such example. Running at Camden’s Roundhouse from now until August 23, it explicitly looks at the local area and the people and situations that inhabit it, creating an immersive, dystopian world that acutely comments on our real one.
“We’re all trapped into thinking that the way that things are – that you have fabulously rich people and then people living on rubbish dumps – is the way that it has to be and I really don’t believe that. It doesn’t make any sense,” says Woolcock of Utopia’s themes. “One of the things [we’re commenting on] is consumerism and how we’re all bamboozled into thinking we have to buy more stuff and that by doing that we’ll feel better about ourselves. And that’s true whether you’re very poor, like during the riots when people were risking their life and future jail sentences for a pair of trainers, or very rich. Everybody’s stuck in that kind of trap.”
In the installation, dozens of interviewees, ranging from former prisoners to upperclass Londoners, tell their first hand stories: people who ended up in involved in 2011’s Tottenham riots as a direct result of a lack of available education (“the highest grade he could get was a D which was obviously a fail so he stopped trying, took to the streets and became a robber”) overlap with testimonies from people who spent their entire school years in the country’s most elite private schools. It’s a stark juxtaposition on its own, but one brought to life even more vividly here.
Based in Stratford, Block 9 – designers Gideon Berger and Stephen Gallagher – are most known for their work with Glastonbury. Since 2007, the pair have brought mind-blowing immersive experiences to the festival’s late night area, with a club featuring a life size tube carriage smashed into the side of the building and a smoky, sordid replica of a trashed downtown New York apartment for revellers to run amok within. You might also know them as the creative brains behind Skrillex’s infamous animatronic spaceship and several of Lana Del Rey’s evocative touring stage sets. “We’re not just fabricators. We’re not just building things from someone else’s ideas – we’re bringing the ideas to the table,” says Gideon.
For Utopia their ideas are just as visually astounding as any you’ll finding wandering through their area of Worthy Farm. Within the Roundhouse’s space, they’ve built an entire factory floor, a rich and oaky study piled floor to ceiling in books, burnt out cars left desolate on piles of rubble and more. “It was essentially a large amount of voices who were thinking about life, the universe and everything: gender, inequality, consumerism, gentrification – all of the things that everyone thinks about and talks about but, though they might be neighbours, they’ll never meet or have those conversations together.”
The overall process took two years, from first commission to finish, but Block 9 have been busy elsewhere too. They’re about to unveil their biggest collaboration yet, with “a global superstar” who they’re keeping under-wraps for now. Whoever it is, they’re in safe hands: for Lana, they created a “graphic novel-noir cityscape” for the singer, perfectly encompassing the dangerous but glamorous world that she inhabits. “I like Lana’s darkness. Her music isn’t throwaway pop trash; it’s got that blue note aesthetic to it and that’s why we can collaborate because we understand where the music is coming from and how it makes you feel,” Gideon says. “She brings ideas to the table and she’s a pleasure to work with.”
“In a couple of years’ time, we’ll be delivering the mother of all touring, musical experiences,” says Gideon, teasing another upcoming project they’re describing as their most ambitious yet. “Not limited to a festival infrastructure – it’s going to be a globally touring musical experience of epic proportions,” he adds, revealing that the plan is – Michael and Emily Eavis willing – for the tour to also wind up at Glastonbury.
Send the pop stars to North London: once round Utopia and you’ll have their fires relit in no time.