Festival pleasures

Art installations and interactive environments are as much a part of the summer music festival experience as the music. Anna Norman digs out her wellies to look atsome of these increasingly creative spaces

When Joe Rush unveiled his Carhenge sculpture so-named because it consisted of scrap cars arranged as Stonehenge at Glastonbury in 1987, it was to an audience fresh to the concept of 3D installations at music festivals. The US’ Burning Man festival, known for its experimental sculpture, had launched a year earlier, but in the UK festivals were still largely about sitting in fields listening to music. That is, until Rush and his Mutoid Waste Company started building Mad Max-inspired installations.

Fast-forward to 2011 and 3D installations and interactive environments are a core part of music festivals, taking up a chunk of the budget, and at some of the larger festivals they are occasionally being commissioned by big brands.

The emergence of a mainstream festival culture has helped installations to become an integral part of the experience. ’People want something to do when the bands stop,’ as Rush puts it. Out of the small chill-out spaces of Glastonbury’s early days, defined only by circles and coloured flags, has evolved a whole interactive, installations-based 3D festival environment that has been getting more and more creative (and competitive).

Rush has worked on dozens of 3D environments. One of his latest projects, at Glastonbury 2011, is the recreation of a plane crash which sounds rather morbid until you look at the fantastical visuals. The full-sized jet plane model (’I know a lot of people who work in scrap metal,’ says Rush) is dug into a big earth furrow and houses a DJ booth and dancefloor, complete with bloodied air hostesses. The idea is to create a space in which people can immerse themselves in a made-up world. ’It’s all about putting people in a situation where they feel a sense of freedom to act differently,’ says Rush.

It’s all about putting peoplein a situation where they feel a sense of freedom to act differently

Joe Rush, Mutoid Waste Company

Jon Panniers is creative director for Standon Calling, an independent festival known for its innovative installations. He has found that having lots of fun 3D environments is ’a really good way of creating an inspiring atmosphere’, making the analogy between living in a flat with plain magnolia walls to living in one with pictures everywhere. For Standon Calling 2010 this involved creating a replica of a street, complete with interactive ’shops’. For the Gods & Monsters-subtitled and themed 2011 festival, the Cowshed arena will become a monster’s lair, containing rooms filled with custom-built sculptures and animatronics. Designed as a late-night dance space, its interior harks back to the hedonism of acid house/rave culture, which Rush asserts is where these types of spaces originated.

Standon Calling’s other 3D spaces include a zombie marketplace, altars to gods, and a 7.5m-high obelisk (called ’Oblerone’). Although initial sketches and CAD designs were used in the creative process, Panniers insists that creativity for many of the site designers ’comes from their hands’, with the project evolving organically during construction. Describing the overall process, Graham MacVoy, one of the designer-builders, says, ’We set the scene, then join up with Heritage Arts [an interactive theatre company] to work on the site installations. The 3D environments all work together to create a total immersion experience.’

One designer known for innovative work in the festival field is Chris Coulton of Spacial Installations a set-design company he formed five years ago. Coulton is perhaps best known for his spectacular Wishing Tree. Built for a client but conceived by Coulton, the interactive tree contains an interior dance space in its (moving) trunk with capacity for 50 people. It was so popular at last year’s Bestival that it is being resurrected for this year’s shindig, complete with what Coulton calls ’new creative extras’.

Coulton also designs 3D sets at festivals for blue-chip brands. For 2011, he is creating a ’breakfast bar’ for Kelloggs that will tour to T in the Park and the Big Chill, among other festivals. Named Tunes & Spoons, it aims to offer a space for revellers to socialise in the morning. It is an example of how the big brands and, in particular, drinks companies such as Kopparberg and Sailor Jerry have become involved in the modern festival phenomenon through commissioning branded spaces. According to marketer Evelyn Kroger, music creates permanent ’bookmarks’ in the brain, while the cool conceptual spaces of today’s sophisticated festivals are something that brands are keen to align themselves with.

But despite the appearance of big brands at major music festivals, many installation designers and small-scale festival organisers have been keen to distance themselves from branded environments, forming something of a backlash to the commercial side of today’s festival culture. As Rush puts it, ’the corporate element was becoming too obvious, so things have re-evolved.’ Kent’s independent Lounge on the Farm, designed by its founder Sean Baker, exemplifies the new, smaller breed of festival set on a working farm, its 3D spaces are designed to mimic the farm experience, with ’sets’ including giant hay bales and recreated fields of maize.

Besides Rush, other members of the original Mutoid Waste, after a spell of several years in Italy, are once again working for a variety of UK festivals to produce scrap-based, non-branded spaces and sculptures. Wrekon, a Mutoid off-shoot, is constructing some amazing seating areas made from old planes and motorbike parts for some of the smaller festivals this season.

It seems that, whether it’s the bigger, sometimes corporate-infused budgets of the major festivals, or the smaller budgets of the independent events, the festival canvas is being adorned with some highly creative 3D spaces this year.

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