How Block9’s Steve Gallagher put his stamp on the BRIT Awards
If you were binging BRIT Awards performances this time last week like the rest of us, you might have spotted pylons being a returning motif in between Anne-Marie stacking it, Pete Tong presenting an award and Dave picking up a flame-throwing axe.
The pylon image was the heart of a creative upheaval for the iconic awards show taken on by Block9, the creative studio best known for their radical set designs at Glastonbury Festival. They built a visual language which spanned set design, on-screen visuals and even the trophies themselves, adding their own unique touch to the biggest night in British pop music.
Now the confetti has settled, we gave Stephen Gallagher, co-founder of Block9 and Swear Studio – who helped bring the ideas to life – a call to discuss edgelands, pylons and smuggling irreverence onto primetime telly.
For people that might not know, what is Block9 and what’s your role there as one of the founders?
I’m one of the creative directors and the co-founder of Block9, which is an art partnership we (Gideon and I) started in 2007 where we’ve been creating alternate versions of reality. I’m of the thinking that the whole world is a construct, it’s all made up by people. Our work has been making alternatives to that with musical, visual interpretations and creative responses to the world that we find ourselves in.
How did your work on the BRITs come about?
Everything started in August last year when we were contacted by Tom March, (who’s the boss of Polydor records and the chairman of the BRITs this year) to see if we’d be up for designing the show. I was really interested in taking the project on and had ideas right at the very beginning about the power of music. I was thinking about how music connects all of us across the UK and I thought about creating a snapshot portrait of Britain in 2022, how I could boil that down to a single idea. I wasn’t thinking about the classic idealised image of Britain – of bucolic countryside. In contrast I was visualising something gritty and real. Tom was familiar with the Block9 aesthetic and the work that we’ve become known for down at Glastonbury and beyond. He wanted something a bit more in your face, and something that was actually built physically as opposed to video content.
What did the brief look like?
It was just a conversation. Tom [March] wanted to shake things up a bit and do something different to put his mark on it this year. It’s not that common an opportunity to be able to chair the BRITs. In regards to the brief, it was very open. We knew it had to be something which had to have a physical presence in the space and not just on screen. It had to be something really different and special this year. I’ve always had this weird fascination with the “edgelands”, the bits of the landscape that are neither town, nor countryside. It’s funny, because I came across this quote from a book where Victor Hugo the French writer called it “bastard countryside”. That was basically where the inspiration for the design came from. This idea of a space that connects the different parts of the UK, but reflects this gritty reality.
The Brit Awards – sponsored by MasterCard and taking place at the O2 arena – is a long way from the Downlow or from Genosys. What was the process like for you in marrying those two worlds? What was exciting for you about bringing some of the hallmarks of this other culture into something that’s a lot more mainstream and corporate?
I won’t lie, when we first heard about the project, I did think about that. There’s a line to be drawn, although it’s very difficult to identify where that line sits sometimes. I feel that you have to engage with things in order to be able to change things and make an impression and move things. That’s how I’ve always been. I prefer to engage and be part of things rather than pushing them away. I did think a lot about it before we took the project on, but I actually thought you know what, it’d be brilliant. I want the grannies of Britain to see Block9’s work as much as I do people who come down to Glastonbury who venture down to the late night fields. I don’t want to be just preaching to the converted.
[The BRITs] have always been a bit chaotic and irreverent. I thought back to Jarvis wiggling his bum at Michael Jackson and back to KLF and their performance with Extreme Noise Terror of 3am Eternal, when they checked out the music industry for good. It’s always had that bit of mayhem and irreverence to it and I definitely leant into that.
Were there any more little references which people might have missed?
On electricity pylons there are these signs with triangles on them that normally say ‘danger of death’. On our pylons, it said ‘danger of death’ but it’d been graffitied by somebody so it says ‘Ouch’. Another had a wine glass on it and it said ‘work event’. If you look carefully, as the spider cam comes down past the pylon on the stage you can see it on the left hand side. It’s riffing off the idea that it’s an industry event and the news about Boris and his fun times down at Number 10.
© Stephen Gallagher
What about the development of the actual physical build? How long did it take and what were those pylons made out of?
Well this whole project started out with Block9, and it was actually then delivered through my own studio ‘Swear’. I worked closely with producer Alexa Pearson and designer Sam Coulton and together we did all of the development and the delivery of the design. We then brought in our own scenic painting team and did all of the final finishing; the signage, the little birds (there are pigeons, starlings and crows on the structure). Fran Lloyd who’s an amazing scenic painter came in and was heading up the scenic team, and Paris who’s a graffiti friend of mine who I’ve known for many years – he came in and did all of what he calls ‘urban aesthetics’. Overall a brilliant team of people!
Beyond cultural references like edgelands and free rave, were there any references to set design/production that you’d seen as a fan over the years that you felt like you were bringing to this?
There’s a Russian constructivist, Alexander Rodchenko. I remember seeing a show of his work at the Royal Academy a few years ago. Rodchenko actually had photos of pylons that he used in some of his work. Franz Fredinand actually used one of his images for the cover of their album, You Could Have It So Much Better. Brutalism and constructivism have been a recurring influence over the years. It’s something that I find myself drawn to. I like things that are decaying and end up going back to nature in some way. Things that are shiny and brand new don’t really hold that much appeal for me, I prefer things with a bit of patina.
As a music and culture fan, what was your relationship like with the BRIT Awards before this? Did you watch it growing up? Were there performances that have always stayed with you?
I was a big KLF fan and their performance, that was a standout for me. I feel like I’m influenced by pop music because it’s ever present in people’s lives. It’s the thing that’s always on in a taxi when you’re going home late from a club. I didn’t have a moment of inspiration right at the beginning in terms of what I wanted to do for the BRITs this year, it was more a case of thinking, well, this is a good opportunity to do something and show it to a different and wider audience. That was the main thing.
I’ve also worked on the BRIT Awards previously, but it was when I first came to London, 2001, and it was in Earls Court. I was working for a set building company down near Camberwell Art College, on the set for Gwen Stefani. That was the first time I understood what the BRIT Awards was as a production. I had no idea back then that I’d actually be working as the show designer one day, but here we are.