A/D/O by MINI | Interview: Block9 founders Gideon Berger and Steve…

Block9

Creating temporary alternative realities, from Glastonbury to Palestine

People often speak about their Block9 experience in reverential tones, regularly dropping words like "utopia" and "mind-blowing". For the uninitiated, Block9 is a creative partnership and in-house, design-build studio headquartered in East London, founded just over a decade ago by design maestros Gideon Berger and Steve Gallagher. Block9 explores the space where art, music, theatre and politics collide, and is best known for bringing to life large-scale, immersive, temporary alternative realities that interrupt and question the world we live in today. They are regularly in demand by the likes of Gorillaz, Lana Del Rey and even opera houses for their elaborate, hypnotic stage designs, which are only a fraction of Block9’s prolific creative output. Music is frequently their starting point, but it is an all-encompassing visual sensibility that lets you know you are in the presence of Block9.

A Block9 world begins at their Silver Building HQ, a massive old brutalist warehouse, with a core crew of eight that can balloon up to 750 in order to build certain venues such as their infamous annual convening, The NYC Downlow. Every year, tens of thousands make the pilgrimage to Glastonbury Festival for this experience alone. Berger and Gallagher attempt to break down why precisely The NYC Downlow is more than the sum of its parts. “Although on paper we are presenting a fantasy Meatpacking warehouse, populated with hot gay butchers and a huge sweaty, lawless nightclub, we manage to avoid it being pastiche or a theme party,” they told The Journal. “Architecturally the design is accurate, the graphics and typography are based on meticulous research, mainly from vintage porn, but the magic ingredient is the people. The NYC Downlow family are a huge international network of underground music heads, freaks and hedonists. With that energy the ‘temporary alternative reality’ that we build comes alive. Our creative endeavours take on a life of their own upon opening… that’s the magic bit. It’s real!”

One of Block9’s frequent partners is Banksy, for whom they have produced several ambitious undertakings, including the distorted castle at Dismaland – his dystopic British seaside theme park. However, it was Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel – a political public art intervention in the form of a hotel with “the worst view in the world,” facing the wall in occupied Palestine – that truly put them to the test. This high stakes, covert and occasionally dangerous production required deep cultural sensitivity, flexibility, and community engagement. When asked about these collaborations, the duo explained: “Working with Banksy is a white-knuckle ride. His pursuit of excellence is amazing to be around. His power is in the communication of complex ideas in the simplest way possible. He’s just so fucking good at it. We bring a different set of skills to the table when we collaborate and it’s really exciting to see the scale and ambition of ideas increase as a result of the partnership. Working with him is a constant reminder that it is possible to change the world with art. That is an inspiration.” 

In February 2018, Banksy supported Block9 in their production, Creative Retreat Palestine. Hosted at Walled Off, the retreat was an activist twist on the typical notion of artist residency. It brought together a select group of musicians including Brian Eno, Beirut's Mashrou Leila, underground DJ/producer The Black Madonna, and avant-garde singer/songwriter/producer Roisin Murphy, along with Palestinian heavyweights Samir Joubran of Trio Joubran and violinist Akram Abdulfattah. Taking inspiration from the geo-political landscape of Palestine to stimulate creativity and cultural connections, the musicians ultimately recorded and released an album that has amassed more than 160,000 online listens.

It is precisely this throughline – community,  art, design in service of revolutionary social change – that pushes Berger and Gallagher, and is a hallmark of everything they do. The logic is simple: “Don’t consume entertainment, create it yourself. Don’t accept the world as it is presented by media, corporations or governments. Create the world you want to live in. If you don’t like the way it is now, change it! By creating architectural interventions we interrupt the norm. We challenge the status quo. By physically building elaborate new worlds we encourage and facilitate people to be present in the moment.” Genosys, one of their most “elaborate new worlds,” is an outdoor 50-foot, 55-ton, steel-structure music arena celebrating the pre-digital music era in spectacular style. Originally commissioned for London’s 2012 Cultural Olympiad, Genosys – short for Generated Oxygen System – now regularly reappears at Glastonbury Festival.

It is also this message of exploration and freedom that they bring to the many students whom they mentor from London’s Royal College of Art and The Roundhouse, among other institutions, modelling for them, “first hand that there are no rules. You can literally just make up what you want to do, then do it. Block9 is simply a vehicle for creative expression. No two projects we take on are the same. No two ways of working are the same. We follow our noses and do what we want to. In this rigid world of roles, conformity and identity I think this notion is the greatest gift we can give.” 

Of course the benefits work both ways. “It’s so valuable for us to stay plugged into what and how younger people think. The evolution of music and culture here on the streets of London happens at a breakneck speed. Fashion and artistic expression take all sorts of crazy forms and its lexicon becomes ever more complex and hybridized. If you don’t stay plugged in you become a dinosaur, frozen in time in your creative practice. Essentially you wither and become irrelevant outside of your gene pool.” 

With many new endeavours on the horizon – be it opera in Birmingham, England, or this year’s Glastonbury Festival (which will reveal a brand-new, top-secret undertaking) – Block9 continues at a whirlwind pace. When asked, however, their parting thoughts on what feels urgent for design and what they are weaving into everything they take on, Berger and Gallagher in unison reply: “Saving the planet by any means necessary.”

Text by Alyssa Nitchun

Photography by Martin Perry, courtesy of Block9