Robots, Raves and Super Spiders!


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Gigantic machines dominate music festivals and hit their thrilled audiences with fire, smoke and bass waves. Project ARCADIA uses primal fears and ancients myths to explore new ways to entertain. Are their performances gimmickry or genius?

  • Author: Carlo Roschinsky
  • Photos: Getty Images

The monster shooting fire balls into the night sky is almost 30 feet tall and easily twice as wide. Its body is made of steel and metal, its eye a crater of light. At its feet, 50,000 dancers twitch and flicker as if in trance. Dark beats rumble across the field, laser beams spinning webs of light across the masses. For sure, the dancers idolize this hellish creature; the mood is as wild and boisterous as at the craziest of raves. No, this is neither the beginning of the apocalypse nor a science fiction movie: This is Arcadia, a British performance art project from Bristol whose founders were bored by regular dance floors and created this otherworldly structure.

Many big names have performed on Arcadia’s DJ stage, which is shaped like the body of a huge arachnid and accordingly named Spider. Skrillex, Orbital, Adam Freeland, Fat Boy Slim... they were all ecstatic after the experience. Said DJane Mary Anne Hobbs after climbing down from the Spider cockpit: „Never in my whole career have I performed on such an incredible stage.“

Spider, designed by Arcadia founders Pip Rush and Bertie Cole, is a unique construction of old plane turbines, fishing boat cranes, helicopter parts and fire engine ladders. It typically takes three days to set up the scary looking contraption at a venue.

Arcadia opened up new worlds. From now on, festivals must offer more than just music and food.

Arcadia launched at the Glastonbury Festival of Performing Arts in 2008. Nobody had ever seen a show like it: Audience and critics alike felt as if swept away by some kind of audiovisual tsunami. With that very first performance, Arcadia defined what festivals in the future would have to offer audiences. Entertainment only of music and food would never again be enough.

Arcadia has remained a regular performer at Glastonbury. The company also participates in Scotland’s T in the Park and Electric Picnic festivals, and once even staged their rave event in Thailand. Last year, the Association of Independent Festivals awarded Spider with the — newly minted — award for Mind-Blowing Spectacles.

„Generation party's playground and a mekka for futurists.“

With their performances, the Arcadia crew (more than 100 members in all) clearly aims to impress and overwhelm. But art for art’s sake — or in this case, extravaganza for extravaganza’s sake — can be hollow and gimmicky. For anthropologists, the events are probably just another sign of our youth’s decadence: Generation Party raving on. Which might be right. Certainly first and foremost, Arcadia is a playground for pleasure-seekers, a holy grail for futurists, and of course pure anti-intellectual fun; in dubio pro disco.

Yet there is more to it.

Humans vs. Machines: It’s Complicated

People have always been fascinated by machines — often intimidated by them, but at the same time intrigued by their association with the future and promise of an easier life. Arcadia has similar appeal: The equipment — Spider as well as Afterburner and Bug, two other stage apparatuses — look scary yet impressively powerful. They resemble the three-legged martians from H.G.Wells’ „War of the Worlds“ as well as the highly intelligent machines in „The Matrix“; they remind you of Stanislaw Lem’s stories and Joseph Beuys’ android artwork and, of course, of pop cultural phenomena „Mad Max“ and „Transformers“.

Since the time of Alexander the Great, Arcadia has been a metaphor for The Golden Age, for an idyllic place of pure nature, freedom and happiness. This mythic life free of conventions and social pressure inspired Pip Rush and Bertie Cole to create their utopia, only theirs, rather than inhabited as in hellenistic legends by blessed shepherds enjoying the country life, is inhabited by fun lovers of the 21st Century who check themselves out of society to embrace parties, drink, and the good life.

It has been said many times that we live in the era of hedonism. If that is true, we might have found in this Arcadia just the idyll we need.