Having established itself in 2009, Shangri La, has very quickly become Worthy Farm’s most notorious field. For some, it’s the idea of your every worst nightmare – a town of crony idealism, far removed from the Babylonian world of the main stages. Blending cutting edge street theatre, with three decades of dance music heritage – Shangri La grasps a very unique British surrealism. Landmarked by the counter-cultural movement of new-age travellers, the South East corner has arguably saved Glastonbury from remaining just another over-sized rock festival. Instead, turning it into a site in which ideas of utopia, politics, power and civilization can be brought to question through a manner of different lenses.
Each year is built off a different theme. While last year saw us enter the afterlife, after a great communist invasion, and virus-ridden post-apocalyptic party to end all parties, this year sees the team explore the new age of capital. As corporations and profit take over – Shangri La looks at the fictitious values behind the profiteering elite, and the sacrifices we all make as part of it – exploring how this is leering us all towards a sense of escapism and denial.
We caught up with Deborah Armstrong, creative director of Shangri La, to talk about the history of Shangri La, and to talk us through this year’s theme.
Robbie Wojciechowski: Shangri La is a sort of new-age circus – where the touring pantomimes of our childhood have slipped away, and been replaced by Angela Carter style daydreams – how would you best describe what Shangri La does?
I think fundamentally Shangri La is about creating a world that people come to as an experience – there’s one aspect of it where it’s kind of this immersive world of insanity, but in another sense, it’s a response to a theme, something that interests and inspires us, and communicates our thinking on the world. The topic always has to be interesting and inspiring – something that will engage the artists we work with. In one sense Shangri La is a huge installation, in another, it’s a creative playground, where we’re exhibiting to a completely open audience.
Tell us about Lost Vagueness – and give us an outline of where it all began
I was a relative latecomer – I got involved in Lost Vagueness in 2002, and that was the first year it had expanded from the days of just being a tent. It was the first year Roy, my old business partner, couldn’t be there, so everything was pretty much left up to me. There were 5 of us – in an extraordinary situation, with no toilets, no nothing – so we made up these fake passes to blag all the provisions and people we needed. On Sunday, we made it all up and realised we didn’t really have a party – so I had to beg Phil, the guy who has always run the diner, to help me out. It ended up being the most wonderful party. Joe Strummer ended up playing this wonderfully debauched set. And through that night, through that moment, Phil is now my husband. You end up in intense, ridiculous situations, with over work, with every situation, that you really, really bond with people.
Everybody that does Shangri La also does other stuff – it’s like herding cats, trying to get everyone together can be manic. Everyone’s got other projects, or they all live in the country. Chris Tofu, Continental Drifts – crucial in developing underground talent, Robin runs a bar, Andy builds, Kaye works at Boomtown and I run a production company Strong and Co.
For me, Shangri La is a ‘very English surrealism’ – do you think theatre of this kind can only really exist in the UK?
It’s funny, I remember going to Burning Man a few years ago, and really, really missing it. I saw one person there that got it bang on. Obviously the work there is incredible, but I just saw one guy, rolling around with a briefcase taking the piss out of the silent discos that really, really captured it for me. It’s our sense and spirit for being creative and cynical that really nails it in the UK, I think. The surrealist thing is just always about having a twist on an idea. We call it shangrilising something. It’s really British I think.
I guess that’s been marked by years of influence from different counter cultural movements – at one end of the scale you’ve got Tim Burton’s work, at the other end, every single bit of youth culture from the last 50 years – and the mystic origins, the spiritual side of things that comes inherent with Glastonbury.
Exactly – the whole mythic side, with Avalon, the permaculturists, the Green Fields that have always brought those links together. Everyone here has all chosen very alternative ways of going about their business – there’s a definite family of people that are all quite wrong, but in a very special kind of way. Wrong in the right way. So insane that they’re sane. It’s all family now. Literally, they are people I’ve been working with for 15 years of my life.
I had the same experience – I first went to Glastonbury when I was 15, and at the time I remember it feeling like a tipping point. From now on, this was my strange, abandoned community – my spiritual home, and my family away from home.
I think it gives people a sense of everything, of security I think too. I definitely feel like we’ve got our corner now – for me, it feels like home, there’s family looking out for everyone everywhere, it’s the place I let my kids run completely free.
What about the theme for this year – tell us a little bit about this year’s theme, and how they come into being?
So, the alleyways of days past have been bulldozed by the evil Shangri-Hell Corporation, everyone has been evicted, and in return they’ve built a shiny new headquarters, where they can celebrate all their success from. In the corporation, there is a divide between a numbers of separate departments; you’ve got the IT department, HR. This year, Shangri-Hell is all about the office nightmare, a cataclysmic demand to pull you to your senses, and question life back home away from Worthy.
Can you explain a little bit more about this year’s theme?
This is a realisation that we’re really, really fucked. The colonial empire building has transferred the idea of a corporate empire building – hell’s behind the profiteering, evil doing of big business, and heaven’s trying really hard to counter it, but not doing well.
During our research for this year, the whole thing just became incredibly depressing – but that’s where Heaven comes in, it’s all about exquisite escapism, and every great value we can hold.
It’s an interesting move – given Shangri La has always been associated with the dystopian future –
Well this is the problem; this is the reality of the profiteering elite. Heaven on the outside is about escapism and denial, fuck it, and let’s remove ourselves from it, on another level.
In one sense; we’re breaking down the idea of corporatism, on the other side, we’re trying to reference the greater problems within that world, and the real moral conditions.
Cool – what can we expect to see?
Last year we dealt with the very contemporary sins – bankers, corporations – and this year, we’re going deeper into corporate hell. Heaven hasn’t been doing well – the idealism is running out. Hell’s succeeding, so Heaven’s come up with a new accessibility initiative, this year we’re bringing an open door policy.
On one side there’s windows and doors into dark worlds – on the other, we’ve got a massive new heaven arena. Everything’s been turned inside out. We’ve got a huge hanging installation made by the permaculture teams, Doug Foster making a massive projection called Pyschotron infinity mandala that’ll be stretched across the field, sitar players, a massive birdsong installation of the dawn chorus at Glastonbury that’ll kick in once the music switches off. The dome behind the arena is where we’re most excited about though.
We’ve got Utopian talks, in the dome all weekend, talking about the proposition of fixing shit. Constantine will be talking about setting up ethical operations; there are permaculture talks on changing the natural world through planting – incredible, innovation in ethics and morals about our lives. The main arena might be a fluffy-bunny MDMA party, but this year we want the dome is where we want to make the real point.
There’s a series of small installations we’re going to scatter the field – each their own way an attribute to corporatism. So, the shock boardroom setting, the CEO’s office – shocking extraditions that make us look at the gross world of corporate capital. There’s Pluto’s PR firm, the IT department, and the department of culture, representing the Sabbath, and the department of apathy, an overgrown computer world. Snakepit has been expelled from Heaven, and now has a completely new aesthetic, based around a clinic, and LOVEBULLETS are getting involved too. There’ll be karaoke, a massive leisure centre to get your Zen on. As always, there’ll be massive billboards with huge incredible bits of artwork we’ve had specially commissioned on the themes everywhere.
This year, is just about raising lots of questions, we think. Read full blog article here.