Shangri-La at Glastonbury Festival 2014: Hell or Heaven on Earth?

Glastonbury Festival's infamous late-night area under inspection

Shangri-La at Glastonbury Festival 2014: Hell or Heaven on Earth?

Ali Ryland on 02 July 2014

Every four years, Shangri-La takes hold of a new narrative that galvanizes artists, acts and unsuspecting Glasto goers alike. After 2012's fallow year, Shangri-La is now under the sway of theme 'Heaven and Hell', which in 2013 saw the Blade Runner-esque post-apocalyptic shanty town mull over contemporary sins following the installation of the Heaven and Hell stages and the narrative of their warring factions. This year, the authoritarian government of Hell has won the fight; the shanty town has disappeared, replaced instead with a corrupt bureaucracy. Now, office installations greet dewy-eyed newcomers on the site, while night-time performers act out dystopian scenes that veer from mundane office management to Wolf Of Wall Street style debauchery.

Except, it doesn't always go quite like that. While at one point a behind-the-glass scene at Hell's #futureselfie effectively re-enacts a senior manager shouting at his employees, the effect is ruined slightly by said employees wearing Primark fest-chic, sipping cans of Carling, and giggling. What is top lolz for some onlookers, is bewilderment for others. Over in Shangri-Heaven's Leisure Centre, gaol bars cut off clubbers as two seeming-performers loll behind the sign 'Do Not Feed The Rhinos'. Perhaps the sign should have read 'Do Not Let The Rhinos Feed You' as these rhinoceros-people are giving out drops of (what is definitely not theatrical) acid. What becomes a blissful psychotic trip for some is found to evolve into the dangerous dregs of the darkest nightmare for others.

While it may not seem like it at the time, these dichotomies, encapsulating epic fucked-uppery, do at least capture the essence of Shangri-La and Glastonbury Festival itself: plans and events going awry, a disorientating nausea permeating, while friends who get lost within the complex may find themselves lost inside their own minds. Shangri-La can be Hell indeed... but is it also Heaven?

An unfolding irony takes hold with the knowledge that the 'SIN' emblazoned at Shangri-Hell was taken from a Justin Bieber concert - are we to suppose a tongue-in-cheek dig at the excesses of celebrity culture we fuel? After all, the compulsion to power-rave in Shangri-La can be as overwhelming for Glastonbury newcomers as it would have been for the child-star thrown upon such a pedestal. The hedonistic scenes unfolding within demonstrate why straight edge subculture, a reaction against the mindset of self-destruction, has a point; it seems unlikely that anyone who spends too long within Shangri-La, or any club-complex, can effectively enact any political struggle, despite Glastonbury itself emphasising the need for such. The late-night area can resemble corporate rave culture so much so that it cannot but become a whirling, hellish extension of buy-more binge-drink blather. But, at other times - much like the dichotomy of a bad trip/good trip - Shangri-La becomes the site of hope, love and abandon; one Glastonbury goer met their future partner when ecstatically traversing its sights and sounds.

Shangri-La music director Chris Tofu has been involved with the running of the South East Corner for over twenty years, having seen Glastonbury when it was “really dark and twisted.” Yes, Glastonbury has retained that dark edge somewhat; its druggy atmosphere remains marmite to many, while sober eyes should never look upon zombified masses at 5am Monday morning, as they crawl, vomit and waddle out of the late-night district. However, the rave complex does retain its roots within the participative Glastonbury process, rather than being shelled out to Strongbow. While not just anyone can rock up and play the festival anymore, anyone with an idea can still contribute to the creative process. “You've just got to chuck right into Shangri-La, via Facebook,Tofu chuckles. “It's all done with Facebook these days.

While the call-out for new artists at Shangri-La 2015 will happen towards the autumn, this year the installations have seen the likes of mega-poster 'Obey' by Shepard Falrey, Mark Jenkins' life-like human sculptures that dangle £20 notes at the end of fishing rods from above, and a UKIP-inspired 'U.S.L.I.P' poster that is the essence of Glastonbury.

As the powerful political art and its participative, inclusive process suggests, Shangri-La is more than just a rave complex, but an idea - and, scarily, it is one that is psychologically enacted. While Hell's installations emphasise never-ending devastation supported by global consumerism with the motto “we're fucked, let's party”, Heaven sees inspiring talks in the day from environmentalists, as Permaculture crew attempt to instil the idea that world-wide change is still possible. At night, however, the escapism presented by Shangri-Heaven – emphasised by Doug Foster's Psychotron, that sees a lucky few recline within the Heavenly Dome under its trip-tastic ceiling- does not represent uplifting social change, but merely another side to Hell. While parts of Heaven uphold a more chillaxed experience, it still shares with its supposed anathema area drug-addled euphoria/despair, stumbling, shouting masses, and queues at expensive bars.

This is Shangri-La's depressingly symbolic but nonetheless brilliant project laid out as a microcosm of real life: bureaucratic office structures interspersed with office parties; sweaty, blurry masses, most of whom you wish never to meet; some brief escapism from reality which, away from Shangri-La's Heavenly Dome, generally involves going to the pub. The corporate hell was certainly not created by those who wish to market the area as a corporate rave, but in the depths of night - queuing for some DJ set, by some famous person or other – it appears organisers have succeeded too well at creating, or rather reflecting, a dystopian infrastructure. Whether it is heaven or hell on earth depends upon the individual Glastonbury goer's mindset - and perhaps whether you see the magnificent installation in the heartening light of day, or the stumbling midnight darkness.

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