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Pip Rush Jansen, co-founder of performance arts collective Arcadia Spectacular, discusses the art of bringing people together – and the fate of the fire-breathing Spider
By Anna Grace on 20 Jan 2020
Arcadia Spectacular, the arts collective behind Glastonbury Festival’s famous Spider, has showcased its work right across the globe since launching in 2007, with the aim of facilitating a more inclusive and communal live music experience.
Following on from the debut of the Pangea stage at Glastonbury last year, IQ catches up with Arcadia co-founder and creative director Pip Rush Jansen to discover more about the inspiration behind the company’s latest project, the fate of the famous fire-breathing Spider and how the right kind of live experience can serve as the antidote to modern society’s smartphone obsession.
First things first, Arcadia Spectacular has been around for years now, but how did it all begin and how have you changed over the years?
The first thing we ever built was a DJ stage that people could dance on or giant fire pits people could gather around. We had to be resourceful and it was all made from recycled stuff we could find in scrap yards. That was how Arcadia was born really. We were young and inspired to make creative environments to party in.
Taking these installations around festivals, we started meeting more and more people around the fire, from engineers to mad scientists – all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds who were full of ideas for where it could go next. Over time it’s gathered momentum, the installations have grown and we’ve become a large touring operation with a lot of those same people still with us.
We’ve now got a non-profit arm called Arcadia Reach and we’re currently building a mobile water drilling rig for a charity that operates in remote villages in Sierra Leone. The truck also turns into a stage with an inbuilt sound-system so we can engage in the music and cultural scene there.
What we experienced on our research trip is the sheer, genuine joy there, where everyone including grandparents, kids and people who were previously fighting each other come together in celebration, and throwing a proper sound system into that is really exciting.
So we’re building a real global audience and we plan to develop better ways to use social media to harness, connect and share multicultural ideas and inspiration across the globe. It’s a long process and we’re still building the team, but we believe it’s a very positive mission and will influence our work going forward.
Our DNA is about thinking outside the box
Last year you debuted Pangea (a stage inspired by the prehistoric supercontinent and modelled around a 140 tonne crane) at Glastonbury Festival, can you tell me about how it came to be?
The amazing thing about Glastonbury is you can push boundaries and try new things. We recognised our DNA is about thinking outside the box so we didn’t want to just make a different creature that did the same as the last stage (the Spider). And we knew that to do that, we’d have to begin a new journey.
We’ve looked at scrap yards in Russia and India and places like that in the past, which have amazing bits of kit, but when it came down to it, the environmental impact was key. We should be recycling something local.
It’s harder to access UK scrap due to regulations, but eventually we found an enormous crane at our local docks in Avonmouth, on the outskirts of the city of Bristol. (Glastonbury founder) Michael Eavis wasn’t so sure when we showed him pictures, but when he came and saw the scale and potential of it he started to get excited.
It took 12 trucks to move that thing and we had to dig concrete foundations ten metres into the ground to hold it up. But we only had to move it a few miles down the road and it will remain stationary for a few years now. So in all it’s taken a huge amount of the environmental footprint out of what we’re doing at Glasto. We also run 50% of our flames of bio fuels and this year we are developing technology to make that 100%.
Fatboy Slim and Carl Cox played amazing sets and everyone loved it. We’re very lucky to have such a supportive fan base, and with tons of ideas flooding in from all directions, everyone’s inspired about the next phase.
What comes next?
The next thing is to really start taking over the sky. We flew a big moon built by Luke Jerram last year as an experiment and it was really beautiful, so we’re looking to develop the scope of that and collaborate with international artists who fly sculptures over people.
Very often, people can stand at the back of these huge stages and feel distant from what’s going on. If you can take over the space above people’s heads, you can really involve them. That’s the idea – to make an experience as inclusive, massive and yet personal as possible.
If you can take over the space above people’s heads, you can really involve them
What has become of the Spider?
The Spider is an artwork originally built for a limited number of UK events and it’s amazing that it’s gone on to do so much global touring. We’ve stood under it on dance floors with people from all around the world now and that feeling of unity and those peak moments resonate with all cultures.
It’s been amazing to see, and we learned from and got inspired by everyone we met. It’s back in Europe this summer for its first show in Norway, but we’re looking for somewhere to site it more long term, to increase the footfall and decrease the footprint.
We’ve had a few conversations with people in America and there is lots of interest in places like China and the Middle East, but we were also in talks with the Eden Project which is just down the road and right up our street.
You talk about making a fan’s experience as immersive as possible, why is there such a demand nowadays for these kinds of ultra-immersive experiences?
I think it’s got a lot to do with overconsumption of screens. People are used to constantly consuming visual content and having access to different kinds of experiences through virtual and augmented reality, and although it’s supposed to connect us all, I think if it gets overused then in reality it isolates us.
When people do get time out, they thrive off having an actual visceral experience, one that you can’t get through your iPhone. What people ultimately want to feel at a festival is human connection, friendship, laughter and creativity – and not only does that make us happier, but all these things are completely sustainable.
The purpose of the environments we create is to bring people together, that’s why we always do it in the round – people are literally facing one another. I believe that if people are having a really good time and dancing in the moment; that’s when the phones get forgotten anyway.
The purpose of the environments we create is to bring people together, that’s why we always do it in the round
The live events and experiential space is becoming ever more competitive, how do you continue to set yourselves apart from others?
When we started out, not many people were doing what we do and our mission was to inspire people. We’re not promoters and now Arcadia’s taken off we’re not looking start cutting corners to compete.
We’re an arts organisation and we focus on pushing boundaries. To do that we have to make sure that we’re always exploring new territories of our own and that’s why we’re moving outside our box at Glasto to lay a radical new foundation.
Our structures are evolving from 360 degree to hemispherical. Our inspiration is moving from local to global and our materials are moving from global to local.
There’s a whole bunch of other stuff emerging in response to the new challenges we’ve given ourselves, so in respect of starting a new journey, it’s really exciting times for us.
Looking to the future, it is obviously a big year as Glastonbury is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year – is there extra pressure to wow due to the big birthday?
There’s a little bit, but Glastonbury really is a hotbed for art and we feel it’s important to let artistic processes go on their own journey in their own time, so we’re not too worried.
If our team and the new people feeding into Arcadia come up with the most mind-blowing idea next year, we’ll do that. But if we need to test new things out a bit before we can make something really magic, then we’re not afraid to do that either.
Either way, there’s going to be a lot of amazing and new stuff at Glastonbury this year. It’s a festival that has really inspired people to take that time out and connect with each other again, and for me it’s no doubt the best one on the planet.
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