Bio-Fuel, Lycra, scrap metal, flip-flops & Spiders: Arcadia Talk
Many years ago, when I was first discovering the wonderment of the evolution of the nocturnal west corner of Glastonbury and whilst I was, how do you say courting my now long term love, I stumbled upon an insane neolithic world of fire, metal and light. Coming to in the cold light of day it felt a lot like a dream and a partial nightmare. What it was, in actual fact, was the Afterburner stage created by the twisted minds of a collective known as Arcadia.
This is what it looked like…
Since their inception, Arcadia have traversed both the mother of all festivals and the whole globe – maturing into a multi-continent travelling mechanical electronic opera staging shows in Thailand, Australia and a stalled effort in India – with their shows at nightfall; mutating and evolving into something altogether different and monumental in scale with their shows, this year finally inheriting their very own field at Glastonbury, bringing with them the GIANT MECHANICAL SPIDER. Yes the arachnoid one that Ciaran in the R$N office has been banging on about for the past few months in news stories.
This September they're bringing the show to Bristol for the first inner-city show in the UK. We had the pleasure of witnessing the spectacle at Glastonbury this year from a vantage point I doubt we'll experience anytime soon. Not to give the game away too much but the the show has grown more legs and further avenues.
“Epic doesn't even come close. I loved it last year but you totally blew me away this year. The amount of different disciplines that all work so beautifully in unison is astounding…. I'm not even going to bother trying to imagine what you'll come up with for next year.”
We managed to grab some time with the two warped minds of the creators of the show Bert and Pip in between shows to discover where this all began, talk bio-fuels, scrap, recycling and a fair bit more besides…
So can we get a little bit of background about you two – how many years have you been at Glastonbury now?
Bert – Well, I think we’ve both been knocking about here since we were kids. I think that’s the main reason that we’re here doing the kind of stuff that we’re doing now really. It’s all pretty inspiring when you’re a kid. We started working together in 2007 and came here with our first stage, The Afterburner in 2008 and we were in Trash City. We were really in the middle of it. but we built The Afterburner literally from scrap in a friends cow shed in the countryside in Dorset and then we got a pitch here and brought it here. We thought it would be a nice beacon/sculpture/hang out with big fires and seating areas and stuff like that. We threw a sound system on it because we were from a free party background anyway.
So there's a whole free party lineage running through everything you do then?
Pip – Yeah, it’s a massive part. It’s just the idea of getting people together and celebrating without censorship. They’ve always been quite a big thing for us. But yeah, we switched it on and put some music on it and it literally exploded. I think that was a massive turning point for us really and added momentum to Arcadia and what was actually possible. It really demonstrated the 360 degree stage that we’d conceived, without really realising its full potential.
And so the Afterburner turned into Arcadia because…?
That was kind of the first step into the whole thing of sculptures that were actually stages and were environments within themselves. It’s like the newt coming out of the pond and sprouting legs, they just evolved as time went on.
Arcadia is the company and The Afterburner was the first stage that we built. And now this is The Spider stage, or an incarnation of The Spider stage.
You went from what I now call the Block9 area over to The Other Stage, and now you’ve even got your own field. Is it just for crowd control or other reasons?
Yeah, we moved every year for six or seven years in a row which was actually really good fun in a way. It was a lot of work but it allowed us to do something a little bit different each time. It was also because we grew so quickly, every year we’ve at least doubled the capacity and so we’ve just been trying to keep up with that. Obviously Glastonbury has a lot of history and everyone’s used to it being laid out in a certain way, so it took us a while to find a good spot where we fitted into everything else around us.
It was just camping around here before wasn’t it? It’s a nice field.
Yeah, it’s nice to be swinging the gravity from over there <gestures towards Block 9 / Arcadia area> as we’re really populating a new part of the site. Where we were before we were kind of on our own because of all the camping around us, but now we’ve become quite a destination in ourselves and people camp up here because they’re really into this kind of scene. It’s really helped the South-East corner I think as it just used to get swamped when we were all down there, it was just chaos.
Hopefully it eases that whole thing of queuing to get into Block9 as well.
Yeah, it already has. That one-way system used to be a nightmare.
It was like the polar opposite of what we were trying to create.
So you take this to India, Miami and Thailand as well, right?
Yeah, and New Zealand as well.
How the hell do you move that thing? <gestures towards the spider>
We did design it with the idea that it might need to be dismantled into containers one day. With a few well-placed angle grinder cuts, we basically made this massive jenga puzzle that can actually fit into 4 containers and has been to Thailand before. That was in Bangkok and it’s still got Thai dust on it which is quite funny.
That was in the city was it?
When Bert told me at the beginning that there were ways it would fit into a shipping container, I didn’t believe him for one minute.
So was Bangkok your first inner-city festival?
Yeah, it was kind of on the edge of the city though.
It was over near the airport where the high-rises die out a bit and it starts to edge onto the jungle. It was pretty cool to be honest.
We did a dress rehearsal on the Thursday night before the show and there were quite a lot of small Shanty towns around us and we just invited all the locals that were around us to come and see, so that they could get an idea of what was coming to their part of town. I think we ended up with something like 3000 people in there. It was quite emotional actually and probably the most emotional part of the whole trip, just seeing these people experience the show.
And then whereabouts in India was it?
The India thing was us going to India and scouting out for as much interesting scrap as we could find, with the idea of building something there. We got to the last base, which was going back and actually building something, but nothing actually materialised. The whole journey up to then was a really interesting one because their attitude towards scrap and recycling is completely different to us. They literally reuse everything, so there isn’t that throw away scrap that you can get over here. Everything gets re-sold pretty quickly.
It’s a huge industry though, compared to the UK and even Europe.
I think there’s a lot of stuff that we’d class as scrap that they use again.
Shipped out from here?
Yeah, loads of it goes out there. The whole ship-breaking thing out there is really interesting. You get these guys in flip-flops who are literally hacking like 20 tonnes lumps off of these old ships. We kind of thought that it would get taken directly to be melted down, but they just take it to these shanty workshops and reprocessing it into pots, pans, pipeline parts. It’s a whole industry formed around recycling there and then. It hasn’t even travelled anywhere and it was all up for sale on site. It was quite a dynamic realisation for how different they treat scrap and what’s possible. We’re so wasteful in the West. We just consume stuff and throw it away. It’s terrible really, but there they just treat it like building materials and they just work with it and make stuff from it.
I don’t know if it would ever be possible to re-educate people here to actually live like that. But do India just take away our waste now anyway?
Yeah, some of it.
Necessity may become a big part of it though and I think that may become more and more of a precedent as time goes on.
I guess that kind of brings us to the bio-fuel in Bristol. So for your show there you’re using bio-fuel that's been taken from chip shops?
Yeah, we recycle bio-diesel from chip shops.
How do you go about establishing those sorts of relationships?
We’ve been trying to do something with bio-fuel for years now but it has taken time for us to find a system that works. I think we’ve cracked it now though and we’ve been testing it out during the show here. You may have seen it on the towers round the edges. It’s not quite the same thing as gas but it means everything is recycled which is great. No fossil fuels and nothing has come from war-torn countries or anything. It’s really satisfying.
I was reading that you can do it with sugar cane and algae as well. I was just thinking that sugarcane is a huge thing over in India, but I don’t know how you could burn it though.
It’s a very scientific process, getting all the machinery that can turn that stuff into flames efficiently, whilst being amongst an audience at the same time.
So process wise, how is that orchestrated into something like this?
It’s a lot of technical development and a lot of very intelligent people working on different systems, from the rock ‘n’ roll industry across to the petrochemical industry.
It’s been quite a project. Huge. Its taken a lot of other different avenues to get to this one. There was talk a little while ago about Michael getting a massive biodigester here on site, which is basically a big tank that you put shit in, and then you put different bacteria and enzymes into it and then the bacteria digest it and give off gas and then convert it into methane. You then break the solids down so that it reduces in mass. People have started getting big generators that run off of the methane, so that you can put shit in and get electricity out on quite a big scale. they were talking about doing it here so we were suggesting piping that to The Spider. That was the early seeding of it really. But for that we’d have had to have these massive tankers full up with methane and as it flowed out of all these pipes it would freeze down to -80 or something like that. It just ended up going completely out of the scale. Hopefully where we’ve got to now is a reliable and sustainable thing and will show people that there is another way of doing it; that’s a big part of what we’re about really.
So the oil that it’s using it at the moment isn’t from Glastonbury traders or anything is it?
No, that’s from Bristol and the South West and from chip shops around there. Somebody did say though that there is a massive amount that gets collected up and taken away somewhere though.
Have you ever thought about coming up to London to do something?
Yeah, we had big plans to do something in Wembley Park in London, but it just didn’t feel right. We went right up the last minute, but it just didn’t feel like the right place for us to do our first gig for the first time. We were really going for the community thing and we turned up in Bristol 8 years ago to a gig in an old police station and courthouse in the middle of town that the council had supported and it just totally blew our minds what was happening, and that Bristol Council were totally open minded enough to let it happen. Compared to London…
You just get shut down. You can’t even drive a lorry without it costing you a fortune. Bristol just seemed like a good place to expand on what we were already doing. True enough, we turned up there and everything was cool. It was a real catalyst. We’ve met loads of people that are up for being involved from all walks of life too and it’s just made us realise that a lot of doors are open, that weren’t open in London. Finding spaces, being able to live in our trucks and carry on moving around and live cheap to allow us to put our energies into making stuff.
That’s the thing though isn’t it. London’s got this whole drain of anything creative as it’s so expensive and everything’s so restrictive. Bristol is really beginning to suck that up and it’s amazing to see. Everyone’s really beginning to say, ‘Fuck London.’ Are you both from Bristol and around there?
Yeah, we’ve both got families in Bristol.
I think it’s great. Bristol really is on fire now isn’t it. So how’s the set-up going to be at the Bristol festival compared to here?
Well it’s more of a show in Bristol. It’s in Queen Square in the middle of town so it’s quite a smart setting. It’s just running for 4 or 5 hours a night with a real hard hitter line-up and we’ve been working really hard on our show. We’ve come up with a new show and that’s kind of the highlight of the night I suppose, where all the different elements come together. It’s got an electronic soundtrack and performers and aerialists that you’ll see here this year. It’s just a showcase of the show with a short but very stomping line-up on the back of that. Another part of our ethos has really just been to open the doors to different people from different walks of life and Glastonbury really hits that wide spectrum. But I think Bristol is a good opportunity for those that can’t make it to Glastonbury, whether that’s because they can’t get a ticket or they’re not up for camping or whatever. Then at 11pm when it finishes we’re having a whole bunch of after parties all over Bristol for those that want to be up all night. We really hope that we’ll get loads of families there and stuff, just so that we get that real Bristol spirit.
So will you be doing the production for all the after parties as well?
Yeah, we’ll have a hand in making sure there’s plenty of entertainment from clubs through to a bit of unofficial stuff.
Wicked. Why the Spider? Why not another animal?
We kind of made everything up as we went along. It depends on how spiritual you want to be about it but everything we’ve done has been completely random depending on what has come along. At the same time, it’s felt really right all along the way.
So are there any other plans to build anything else?
Certainly. But there’s no set animals or anything. It just depends on the scrap that we can find.
That’s kind of the beauty of what we do. It’s not like sitting down with a design and following it through. It’s all about searching for scrap, finding amazing bit and then imagineering them into stuff. That’s the essence of it really.
It’s the thrill of the unknown and the randomness that has made it work really well. We’ll commit to doing a massive festival and we know that we’re going to do it, but then suddenly we’ll have to decide what we want to build and how we’re going to go about it. When we built that thing, we got on our motorbikes and went round every scrap yard that we could find across the country taking picture after picture as we knew that when we got back we’d have to make something massive out of this stuff. It’s very much about the test of faith and, lo and behold, when we got back everything fell into place and then a lorry went round and picked up all the bits and then it all started connecting on site.
This year we decided it was time to do a new show, as we’re not quite ready yet to build a new structure. Since we started our audiences have expanded massively, so at the start everything was very intimate and everything happened above you. We’ve gone from about 5,000 to upwards of 30,000 people, so the spectators at the back are probably watching it a bit like a television, but we want to be able to give them the same experience, so it’s just about finding ways around that. We’ve brought all the zip wires out across the crowd and more creatures that can walk out across them and drop down and interact with the crowd. We’ve also got Tesla Coils out in the crowd now, so wherever you stand you’ve got to move around to see the whole show. We’ve also brought in performers in Zorbs, with the thought of throwing them out into the crowd, but we haven’t actually tried that yet.
So musically, obviously free parties are your underpinning there, but your music has always been very different.
It’s not been rigidly free parties, it’s more about good music, good people and good vibes. At the end of the day, of all the line-up conversations we have, it’s more about the guys that can make people jump about the most. Sometimes we book massive acts and everyone’s really excited about it, but then they come on and they kind of miss the point a bit and it doesn’t really gel. Then sometimes you’ll get someone that doesn’t turn up so we throw one of the crew on and it just goes mental. You just never know what’s going to happen.
I think that’s the important thing, and what I’ve always taken from these, is that it’s not club set. The Spider is the show, so the music isn’t secondary but it’s equal.
It’s the sum of all its parts. Even when a DJ is performing, there could be another ten people on the structure doing their thing or operating or whatever and they’re all jamming together essentially. We’ve got quite an exciting line-up for Bristol anyway.
Yeah, we’ve got some amazing stuff. I think it’s important that it’s such a universal experience and if you can have different kinds of music attracting different people then it’s going to reach as many different people as possible. If you pigeon-hole yourself within a genre then life begins to get a bit monotonous. It’s nice to be able to interchange the music as and when – as we do. It’s just another element to play with.
So neither of you are getting your lycra on tomorrow then?
The performers, just to experiment, got me spinning round on a bit of rigging and then I spend the next few hours laying on the sofa feeling really sick.
So where abouts are you when the whole thing is going on then? Are you right in the middle of it?
Yeah, if we’ve got it right then we’re on the dancefloor.
The Arcadia Spectacular takes place in Queen Square, Bristol on September 4th – 5th. Tickets are available here
Watch the Metamorphosis mini-doc about this year here: