Glastonbury’s Shangri-La designed to show that “people power is possible”

Using VR technology and found materials, this year’s Shangri-La hopes to highlight the power of community, explains creative director Kaye Dunnings.

This weekend, over 200,000 people finally returned to Worthy Farm to see Paul McCartney, Billie Eilish and Kendrick Lamar perform at Glastonbury. It also marked the return of immersive space Shangri-La after two years. Kaye Dunnings, the area’s creative director, says that this year’s edition is a love letter to the community-led and queer spaces that have been particularly badly hit recently. “We’re taking up space for people that don’t actually have much community around them,” she says.

Shangri-La is just one of over 30 areas at Glastonbury, which includes the main performing stages (like the Pyramid Stage and the Other Stage) and immersive spaces like Unfairground. It is typically a mix of workshops, interactive exhibits and musical performances. This year, the focus was on human connection, Dunnings explains – featuring VR technology and activism-inspired installations.

Courtesy of Jody Hartley

The last couple of years have been a “wild time” for people in the events industry, Dunnings says, pointing to the closure of minority spaces. People have also missed out on typical festival experiences. The brief heading into Shangri-La was to spark these moments – “the characters that you meet along the way that are so memorable, the moments that you have at festivals,” Dunnings says.

Usually planning begins in September, but this year the go-ahead only came at the end of January. This meant that there was less than half the usual time period to put the installations together, Dunnings explains. Since then, the creative team has been collecting material like scrap metal and wood to build the stages. This process doesn’t just fit in with Shangri-La’s ongoing sustainability focus, it shows people what’s possible using the objects around them. “Rather than building a set and having it like a film set, it’s real objects,” Dunnings says. “And I think that makes it more tangible for people.”

It is also helpful for the area’s tight production budgets, Dunnings points out. “We realised that we had enough stuff and we didn’t need to buy anything,” she says. “You don’t need to spend loads of money in creating something just for one weekend – every single thing will be reused again.” That includes the banners adorning the area, which Dunnings says will be used for protests.

A reminder that “people power is possible”

Courtesy of Jody Hartley

While the theme of reuse underpins the area’s set design, discussion around the climate “had to take a bit of a backseat, while everyone deals with the mass trauma [of the last few years]”, Dunnings says. “We found nothing is really going to change unless people come together.” With that focus on collective spirit, Dunnings curated areas for “a lot of people that basically need to know each other”.

At Swapermarket – billed as the area’s “premier cashless pawn shop” – festival-goers could trade their possessions for an eclectic range of gizmos and gadgets. Designers contributed prints to  Shangrilart, a container studio where people were able to pick up new print releases from designers such as Anthony Burrill and Victoria Topping (and have them signed as the artists dropped by).

All Along The Watchtower installation. Courtesy of Jody Hartley

Another focus for Dunnings has been creating a “welfare area”, designed to provide respite from the party-going of the wider festival. Conceived by long-time Shangri-La contributors, the area provides a space “among the madness to cosy up”. It takes the form of a “bender” – sticks of hazel and a tarp – which can provide shelter at night. The organisers provided tea and conversation for weary festival-goers, while newspaper clippings gave historical context around issues such as the Free Party movement. “We wanted to bring the elders of our community in to just be there and talk about their experiences,” Dunnings adds.

One of the most striking installations this year was All Along The Watchtower, from Project Bunny Rabbit. The tensegrity-based structure is named after Bob Dylan’s song warning about the world to come. It has been used as part of protests before and seized by police twice, according to Dunnings. Thanks to its activist roots, the structure is a fitting addition to Shangri-La as a statement of “who we are and what we’re about”, Dunnings says. “The centrepiece in the middle reminds us all that people power is possible,” she adds. Inclusivity has also been also a focus in areas like Nomad, where London Trans Pride led discussions and workshops.

“Technology should be being used to bring people together”

Courtesy of Jody Hartley

In the spring of 2020, when the government announced lockdown restrictions, the Shangri-La creative team began work on Lost Horizon, billed as the world’s largest music and arts festival in VR. Held over a July weekend, the festival saw international DJs and underground acts attend a two-day virtual festival. Designers including Paula Scher and Morag Myerscough also contributed work to the event. This year, the VR world was  brought to life at Worthy Farm.

Holo-booth invited festive-goers to dance and perform while their hologram was displayed on a big screen above the exhibit. Artist-robot Ai-Da painted Glastonbury performers and visitors. SR Immersive created an installation called 1012101, where people could solve the mystery of two time travellers who are sharing a message from the future. While incorporating VR into a live festival has had its challenges, such as the cost of the technology, Dunnings explains that it has created a more exciting space as there are fewer physical constraints.

Courtesy of Jody Hartley

The rise of VR has also helped Shangri-La to become a more accessible experience, she believes. It is especially useful for anyone who has specific access requirements or is living with a disability, for example. “Technology should be being used to bring people together,” she says. “They should be allowed to come to a rave and dance – so we’re just really trying to push real culture in the virtual space.”

As Glastonbury finishes and the fields empty, the important part for Dunnings is what comes after. What does she hope people take from this year’s Shangri-La? “It’s about a collective energy, giving people ideas and information to do something else.” That could be anything from immersing themselves in new tech experiences to creating art with other people. “What’s happening here is so amazing,” Dunnings says. “But it’s really about what happens afterwards – that’s the whole point of what doing this is about for me.”

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