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Watch: Block9, the clubbing utopia that took over Glastonbury

In this FACT Original Production the focus is on Glastonbury Festival’s Block9, a clubbing utopia with its roots in rave and queer culture. Glastonbury Festival isn’t just a performing arts event – it’s a temporary city. The headline performances broadcast across the world are just the tip of the iceberg: over 200,000 people pack into the 900-acre site to enjoy five days of music and art across over 100 stages and hidden areas, some of which only come to life when the Pyramid Stage goes quiet. Tucked away in the south-east corner of the site is one of the most beloved parts of this hidden Glastonbury experience: Block9, a place where art, music, theatre and politics meet and temporary alternative realities are created.

Last year, FACT was given exclusive access to Block9 for the duration of the 2019 festival. Block9: Temporary Alternative Realities, directed by Pedro Küster, goes behind the scenes to tell its story through the eyes of its creators, artists and audience, offering even its most dedicated fans a fresh perspective on one of the UK’s most visionary dance music experiences. The idea for Block9 came back in 2007, when two friends Gideon Berger and Stephen Gallagher were given £2,000 to create a space at the festival called the NYC Downlow. Despite opertaing on a shoestring budget, a community of likeminded friends contributed their time and resources to create a queer clubbing utopia inspired by New York’s early house scene. Since then, their area at the festival has expanded to include an immersive 3D surround sound arena called IICON, and Genosys, a stage with its roots in the free party scene of the 1980s that celebrates acid house’s analogue squelch and rave music’s enduring legacy.

Above: Watch Block9: Temporary Alternative Realities

Block9’s spaces offer more than just music – for some people they provide representation and a sense of belonging that isn’t so easy to find outside the festival gates. “[It’s] one of the most pivotal places for me becoming comfortable as a gay man and finding my people,” DJ and producer Midland says of NYC Downlow. “There’s this funny kind of power shift when you’re in there. For once straight people aren’t the majority and it’s kind of like our space.” “Queer culture, gay culture is a massive part of the DNA structure of house music, so that’s what happens if you put on the right music,” Berger says of the space, which is a favourite of artists such as The Black Madonna and Jonny Woo. “You make that music available to the people that it belongs to then amazing stuff happens.”

Block9’s IICON stage is a different proposition from NYC Downlow’s warehouse-inspired space. Here, acts like Moor Mother and Hessle Audio play in front of a sculpture of a giant head, brought to life with projected visuals and lasers that take inspiration from questions around power, technology and humanity in the digital age. “A large part of my work is building installations that I perform inside,” says Philadelphia’s Moor Mother, “so it’s very important for these themes to be matching each other, for these themes to move outside of something that’s corporate sponsored branding behind you to an element where you can take your performance to the next level.” The 55-foot structure that towers over the Genosys stage blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, provoking discussion around the climate crisis. Short for ‘Generated Oxygen System’, it takes the form of a forgotten industrial ‘tree’ designed to restore oxygen to a poisoned planet, generated by plants inside the structure. “Block9 and the NYC Downlow was founded by a group of likeminded people wanting to create something from nothing, and I think that ethos has continued throughout the years,” Berger says. “We have a lot of good people working with us and everything we do is a team effort.”

Above: The Block9 Glastonbury Stage

This week, Block9 is celebrating the Glastonbury weekend that would have been with an online series covering photography, film and music, including a live stream on Saturday, June 27 from 9pm BST, featuring sets from Norman Jay MBE, Heidi, DJ Paulette and Batu representing each of the four Block9 venues. Block9 will be using the stream as an opportunity to raise money for The Downlow Radio, its charitable not-for-profit, which has donated over £80k to good causes in the past decade. Profits go to Runnymede Trust, the UK’s leading independent race equality thinktank and the MSF (Doctors Without Borders) COVID-19 crisis appeal supporting countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America & Caribbean and Europe. You can donate at GoFundMe and watch the stream at YouTube.

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