“Glastonbury is more than just a big party in a field,” says the festival’s Shangri-La creative director Kaye Dunnings, “it’s a movement and a community”.
Since developing the concept of Shangri-La in 2007, Dunnings has headed up the planning and building of the immersive area every year. In its infancy, Dunnings says it focused more on escapism and “building something ridiculous” but she wanted to take it to the next level, adding theatre while still “referencing the world outside” with political elements.
“Everything Must Go”
After the rush of designing last year’s event – having only six months to plan after the pandemic – Dunnings says she and her creative partner/husband wanted to “develop the narrative beyond what [they] did last year”.
The theme, Everything Must Go, explores money, alternative currencies, exchanges and values. The idea of “what you value and how you attach value to something” has always been a part of Shangri-La, according to Dunnings, as it also serves as a platform to help artists sell their work.
“We have to talk about it. The state of the world, the government, everything,” says Dunnings, adding that the nature of Shangri-La means they can “go quite hard on the political messaging” – although her main drive is “uniting people through art”.
She believes that “anyone coming to the festival is privileged in a way” whereas a lot of the people that make Shangri-La happen are less so, resulting in an “interesting process”.
Shangri-La intentionally “doesn’t look like anything specific”, says Dunnings, as she prefers to let people interpret the space for themselves.
One of the focal installations is a “surreal” take on a classic high street. In the past, Shangri-La has featured an “epic megacity”, comprising different shops and with a variety of communities and cultural groups occupying the space, says Dunnings.
Despite its absence in recent years, she says she wanted to “reclaim it” in light of the decline of British high streets, looking at how independent shops can occupy derelict spaces. The installation involves many “contradictions”, Dunnings adds, from “really serious pieces” to more “fun and silly” elements, trying to encourage people to “find the joy and beauty in everyday life”.
The high street includes installations by different artists as well as a charity shop selling clothing previously destined for landfill, which is upcycled by printing artworks on it.
The well-loved Shangri-mart returns this year as a supermarket, probing “how we value art and how much of a commodity it has become”, says Dunnings. It is also a space for buying art from smaller and well-known artists at affordable prices.
Nomad is an area within Shangri-La focusing on Traveller culture and the history of the Worthy Farm. Dunnings and her husband used to be part of a circus and now live on a site in Temple Cloud where they built a house during lockdown out of Shangri-La shipping containers.
“Most of the festival industry was born from the Free Party movement,” says Dunnings, “so Nomad was really important to bring that in”. The truck that Dunnings used to live in is now a venue, alongside her co-director’s truck which is now the Nomad stage. The idea is to let people “enjoy the art in a different way”, as it aims to be less intense than the big sculptures, Dunnings explains.
In collaboration with Project Bunny Rabbit, Dunnings devised a massive “impossible structure” in the middle of Nomad. Its chief engineer is currently serving a three-year prison sentence for climbing the bridge at Dartford Crossing as part of Just Stop Oil action in October 2022.
He continued his work from prison, designing a structure that employs “tensegrity architecture” (whereby physical structures are held in place by the balance of tensile and compression forces acting upon them). Its particular design means that “police can’t get to the activist on top of it”, according to Dunnings.
Other features of Shangri-La include a venue made of tube carriages with a stretch tent in-between exploring underground music, art and culture, and a funeral parlour designed in collaboration with Campaign Against the Arms Trade.
Ultimately, Dunnings says “the feel of the space is more important that the look of it”. Part of her process is spending a lot of time pre-empting “how people will move around it and react to certain situations”.
“People never know what to expect”
When Dunnings assumed the creative director role in 2016, she redirected the budget, forcing the team to use more recycled materials. The money saved went toward helping festivalgoers in need with the cost of waterproof clothing and camping equipment.
While there are multiple barriers that might stop people coming to Glastonbury, Dunnings believes it is “mainly money”. Inclusivity is “a permanent thread that runs through what [they] do”, so she felt this diversion of funds was worth the challenge on their side.
Though each year they recycle the same sets, Dunnings says her team rework and refurbish them to look completely different, so “people never know what to expect”.
“We never really know what parts of the set are going to be there the next year”, she adds, as the sets are stored in a barn for almost a year, meaning things can get damaged.
Because they use mostly recycled materials, the aesthetic outcome depends a lot on what the creative team find. Despite this, Dunning explains that she prefers to use “real objects” over “props” as “the event industry in general is so wasteful”.
Behind the build
For Dunnings, the making of Shangri-La is “all about the people and the process”. She feels the time and effort put into the space “resonates in the field”.
From professional builders and artists to inexperienced volunteers, Dunnings welcomes anyone interested to take part in the build of Shangri-La. “I think the build should be documented,” she says, as the extensive making process has never been seen by anyone outside of their team.
Dunnings adds that they are currently looking for a space in Bristol, so they can work all year round and “make some of the set in advance”, as well as offer training for people interested in set building.
She hopes people who visit Shangri-La might be encouraged to think more about capitalism and consumerism in their daily lives and realise “what they don’t need and what they value”.
Banner image by Joseph Scanlon, preview image by Jody Hartley