Inside Block9, Glastonbury's queer haven
We speak with the co-founders about the beloved area's evolution as Dani d’Ingeo photographs the raucous energy of sweatbox nightclub NYC Downlow.
Tucked into an unassuming corner of Glastonbury’s warren of live music stages, Block9 offers a shadowy reprise from some of its more bohemian tendencies. Its three elements — NYC Downlow, IICON and Genosys — offer euphoric solace, but, unlike most enclaves of the festival, they explore how light can shine brighter from darkness.
The most revered jewel of the space is NYC Downlow, a den of inequity that gives punters the chance to escape from the festival sprawl into a steamy queer nightclub with a DJ booth and stage that doesn’t make the DJ the focal point of the room — a rarity in Glasto outside its sweat-soaked walls.
The club has become a mecca for revellers since its drag queens first stepped through its doors 15 years ago. People of all sexual preferences are of course welcome – but the dominant clubber in the cage-flanked room is men strapped into leather, neon and lace.
The exterior of NYC Downlow is a reproduction of a New York meatpacking warehouse from the early 80s. Complete with saucy butchers and cow-size slabs of realistic meat, the three-storey set is crowned with a frayed billboard for Camel cigarettes proclaiming: “You might like it.” Indeed, people do. Crowds twist alongside the club’s steel chain parameter deep into the early hours.
Opposite Downlow stands Genosys Sound System. This year, DJs like OK Williams and Roi Perez played from a zebra-striped coach, a new set-up that replaces the flickering tower of cubes of 2019. The vehicle pays homage to the 30th anniversary of Castlemorton Common Festival, a week-long party in Worcestershire that lives on infamy as the UK’s largest illegal rave ever — resulting in a £4m trial and the passing of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act.
In an adjacent field lies IICON, where the biggest acts of Block9 perform — LSDXOXO, Overmono and Floating Points, to name a few. The most arresting stage at Glastonbury, IICON is an immense sculpture of a human head bound to a virtual reality headset from which crooked lights plunge into the darkness. Following its debut in 2019, this year, the stage was redesigned to make it more intimate.
The collapsed head was inspired by a piece of classical music called “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” (“Quartet for the End of Time”). The 50-minute four-instrument piece was written by Olivier Messiaen while he was a prisoner of war in Germany during World War Two.
“It was finished and debuted in the camp, so they had really crappy instruments,” says Stephen Gallagher, who designed Block9 with Gideon Berger, aka Gideön. “They performed for the prisoners and guards. It's Messiaen’s response to the times in which he was living. He had been living in France, a country under occupation.” The head’s positioning reflects that of the dead son of God in a marble sculpture by Michelangelo called The Deposition. Even within liberal stronghold Glastonbury, the Block9 stages are a bastion of distinctive defiance.
The idea of IICON, Stephen says, is that we're living in occupied territories ourselves, but they're different: “Power has shifted, it's now within the digital world, within the digital panopticon. Every time you give information about yourself, you're clicking 'like' for different things, you give your data into that system. You're shackling yourself. That's what IICON is really about.”
“It sounds quite negative,” Gallagher finishes, “but there's something else in here, which is music has the power to rise above all of that stuff and connect people in a way that is really fundamental to what it is to be a human being. It’s a positive message.”
Photography Dani d’Ingeo