Block9 Talk UTOPIA

Art & Culture

If you've been in the vicinity of Camden's Roundhouse in the past month or so, you may have spotted some rather intriguing goings on. Aside from the dodgy looking blokes chatting you up on the streets outside, what you may have seen is most likely a part of the Bloomberg Summer at the Roundhouse and could even have been related to the excellent Utopia exhibit. The collaboration between award-winning director and filmmaker Penny Woolcock and designers Block9 (Stephen Gallagher and Gideon Berger) is a visual installation focusing on inequality, consumerism, housing, gentrification, education, crime and social media. Before the installation departs on Sunday 23rd August, we caught up with Gideon Berger to find out a bit more about it;

Give us a little bit of history about how you began working together?

Me and Steve started working together 10 years ago. I came back to the UK after living in San Francisco (from where I went to Burning Man festival a few times) and also visited NYC. At Burning Man there are amazing sound systems, epic scale art installations and I thought to myself there’s nothing going on here in the UK on that level, so let’s do something. We had been freelancing for other people and arts organizations for a long time individually on many run of the mill productions so we decided to go out on our own and do it better.

Do you both have an equal share in design and construction?

Steve and I are like ying and yang. We create and conceive together but we both have specialist areas. Steve is a brilliant scenic painter, carpenter, he’s amazing at technical stuff and has great ideas creatively. I’m involved in all of those areas as well but my solo specialist area is the music side of things as well as the actual set design and core creative concept stuff. The music generally comes from me, all the music that we do at Glastonbury has been curated and booked by me. We are however a complimentary team and our skills are equally matched.

Have your plans ever changed as you begin to put an installation together?

Often we leave room in our schedule for amendments, that’s the ultimate luxury, being able to update ideas in the process live. The ability to stand in front of your creation and say ‘Jesus Christ, that doesn’t look right, let’s add a bit of this, add a bit of that.’

How do you create and come up with these wonderful structures?

Our inspiration comes from different places really – music, literature, art, myth and legends and other peoples events. We have very different tastes so we bring different things to the table. Often there is a big overlap in places as well which is the great thing.

How did your collaboration on Utopia with Penny Woolcock come around?

I think the Roundhouse, who we have worked with for many years, identified common characteristics between Block9 and Penny. We share the same world view on quite a few areas. The Roundhouse main space is a pretty epic blank canvas and you have to be quite well versed in large structures, making your pound stretch as far as possible and things like this led the Roundhouse to think we would be a good fit and we really have been. We have received some brilliant reviews since we opened and I think we would be safe to say that’s it’s been critically acclaimed both in content and set design, the Roundhouse knew what they were doing putting Block9 and Penny together!

On average, how much man-power and how many hours does it take to put together an installation together from start to finish?

It can vary depending on the piece but we have a brilliant team of full time staff and freelancers who keep the show on the road. There are always challenges and it’s extremely hard work (for example, at Glastonbury we are on-site for a month) but it’s also very rewarding – seeing it all come together.

You're known for your fantasy work, do you try to put this spin on all of your designs and installations?

We design and conceive for such a broad spectrum of things. Our aim is to achieve a heightened experience, whether that is theatrical, the experience of watching a live artist or musician on tour in a giant stadium or a much smaller one to one experience. There are a lot of people striving to explore the future of entertainment right now. Punchdrunk, You Me Bum Bum Train, Cirque du soleil, Secret Cinema…… everyone is creating experiential, immersive art and we are riding that wave but mostly specializing in the musical experience. Fantasy I’m not sure about but a heightened experience yes, creating an opportunity to experience music and the emotion that’s linked.

Is it easier to design an installation for an outside space rather than on a stage or in a building?

It depends if it’s touring or not. If something has to be taken down and put back up five times a month, it’s more challenging and expensive. If it’s going up once or is a semi-permanent installation, it’s easier to quantify.  Often it’s more difficult to design for the outside. You have to take the wind and rain into consideration and what that does for engineering calcs, whether we need to monitor wind speed, whether a structure needs to be staked to the floor, there’s lots to be considered for the exterior projects. However, when installing into a theatre or listed building with restricted access or difficult personalities, that can make an interior build more challenging than just rocking up and installing something in a park or field.

What's the strangest request Block9 have ever been asked?

To remove some illegally smuggled chickens from an art installation at Glastonbury festival.

Utopia is part of the annual festival Bloomberg Summer at the Roundhouse and runs until Sunday 23rd August – find out more here.