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Glastonbury '24: why Shangri-La is the world's most important art show right now

Glastonbury isn't just about Dua Lipa and Shania Twain. Half an hour's walk from the main stage is an incendiary art show that's both mirroring and questioning modern consumer society. Read on to discover why you should care.

Photo by George Harrison

Photo by George Harrison

It's Friday, the world's biggest festival has just officially kicked off, and I'm here on a press pass, representing 99精品视频. That might sound a bit weird to some because we're an art and design website, not a music blog. But I'm here to tell you there's far more to it than that鈥

Watch the TV coverage of Glastonbury, and you may get the impression that it's just two or three big stages hosting pop stars like Dua Lipa, Coldplay and Shania Twain. But once you actually get here, you realise that's just the tiniest tip of an enormous iceberg.

To give you a sense of it, the entire site is a whopping nine miles in perimeter, and looking down from the hills above, it looks like a bustling city. Which it basically is. In terms of population, it's essentially the biggest town in Somerset right now.

Photo by George Harrison

Photo by George Harrison

Photo by George Harrison

Photo by George Harrison

Photo by George Harrison

Photo by George Harrison

Photo by Jody Hartley

Photo by Jody Hartley

There's a LOT to see, and it's near-impossible to see all of it. This year, though, there's one corner of the sprawling site that we're particularly interested in.

In fact, I'd argue this is the most important art show in the world right now. And that's not hyperbole. Read on as I explain why.

Epicentre of counterculture

First launched in 2008, Shangri-La is about a half an hour walk from the Pyramid Stage. But for many, it's well worth the trek. Because this radical area doesn't just host some of the coolest bands and DJs at the festival on its small stages. It also summons the energy of outsider art and the underground culture. And that incendiary mix makes visiting here quite an intense, even life-changing experience.

Photo by Jody Hartley

Photo by Jody Hartley

Photo by George Harrison

Photo by George Harrison

Photo by Jody Hartley

Photo by Jody Hartley

Photo by Tom May

Photo by Tom May

Launched in 2008, it has renewed itself annually ever since. Each year, fresh collaborators bring their ideas to the table, ensuring the space constantly changes and offers a new experience for visitors.

Decorated with countercultural poster art, performance art and art installations, Shangri-La aims to be a mirror reflecting social issues, sparking conversations, and encouraging activism in a playful and thought-provoking way.

And this year's incarnation, themed "Everything (Still) Must Go! Part 2, The Sequel" is its most ambitious and provocative yet.

Why it's important

"In 2024, we're really exploring alternative currencies, exchanges and values," explains Shangri-La creative director Kaye Dunnings. "As a new political future approaches, and everyone has the opportunity to cast their vote, Shangri-La is a space to stop and to think. 'What would happen if we ripped it up and started again?'"

Photo by Tom May

Photo by Tom May

Photo by Jody Hartley

Photo by Jody Hartley

Photo by Jody Hartley

Photo by Jody Hartley

Photo by Tom May

Photo by Tom May

In an era of increasing political polarisation, economic inequality and looming ecological disaster, Shangri-La offers a rare space to collectively envision different futures and ways of being.

And this willingness to imagine radical alternatives 鈥 coupled with a fierce commitment to accessibility, diversity and social justice 鈥 is one of three reasons we'd argue it's the most vital and important art event happening anywhere in the world right now.

A second reason is the sheer fact of where it's happening. After all, it's all very well putting on thought-provoking and meaningful art at a traditional gallery. But how many people are actually going to see it?

Shangri-La doesn't have that problem. Even though it's nestled in the south-east corner of Glastonbury Festival, it's estimated that approximately 40,000 people will peruse its delights over the weekend.

Photo by Tom May

Photo by Tom May

Photo by Jody Hartley

Photo by Jody Hartley

Banksy understood that in 2015, he hosted Dismaland, a theme park parody that asked similar questions about our society, in a disused building in my hometown of Weston-super-Mare.

So did artist Alfie Bradley when he created Knife Angel, built with knives handed in as part of a police amnesty. This stunning sculpture has toured Britain to rave reviews this year, not just from art critics but also the kind of people who'd never visit an art gallery.

Similarly, Shangri-La is bringing art to the masses, asking them questions, and encouraging them to get involved.

What's on show?

So what do revellers wandering through Shangri-La this year actually see? Central to this year's Shangri-La experience is The Parade, a recreated high street that serves as a poignant reflection of the current state of UK towns and cities.

"You're met with an all-too-familiar scene: empty shops, run-down facades and the harsh light of digital advertising screens," describes Kaye. "But all is not lost. Look closer, and you'll find hope in the cracks that capitalism has created."

This blending of biting social commentary with glimmers of optimism and calls to action is quintessential Shangri-La. Visitors might find themselves using a claw grabber to win a meal at a government food bank, printing a receipt at the 'Fulfillment Centre' that gives anti-consumerist advice, or witnessing money literally melting away at the 'Knobhead Industries x Ordos Liquidated enterprise'.

The emphasis here is on fun and playfulness. And it's when you see festival visitors interacting with the installations that they really come to life.

And that's no accident: it's the entire point. "The Parade is not just an exhibit," emphasises Kaye. "It's a call to action, an invitation to envision and create a more vibrant, sustainable future."

Photo by Jody Hartley

Photo by Jody Hartley

Photo by Jody Hartley

Photo by Jody Hartley

Photo by Jody Hartley

Photo by Jody Hartley

This commitment to active participation rather than passive observation is core to Shangri-La's ethos. And so they also invite people to create their posters at the on-site print shop, along with the opportunity to print their own T-shirts and take part in workshops at the new Activist Training Camp. Plus, the artists, performers, and organisers will also have spontaneous conversations about the issues the art raises. "We're not about telling people what to think, though," adds Kaye. "It's about getting people to think for themselves."

And here I reach my third reason for naming this the world's most important art event right now. Think about it: when did you last attend an art event where you were actively encouraged to become part of the art creation process yourself?

Platform for the marginalised

Another aspect Kaye is keen to stress is the people Shangri-La chooses to platform and amplify. She and her team make a concerted effort to foreground voices that are often sidelined in mainstream cultural spaces.

"We're really focusing on the programming around people that haven't really done that much in the festival world," she explains. This includes dedicated stages and areas for South Asian artists, Arabic music, and performers from the SWANA (South West Asian and North African) region.

Photo by Jody Hartley

Photo by Jody Hartley

Photo by George Harrison

Photo by George Harrison

Photo by George Harrison

Photo by George Harrison

Photo by Jody Hartley

Photo by Jody Hartley

The Nomad area exemplifies this approach, with nightly takeovers by groundbreaking collectives such as London Trans+ Pride, Pxssy Palace, and SWANA Collective. There's also a strong focus on disability inclusion, with Kaye highlighting their work with Brownton Abbey, "a queer POC-led organisation with disabled artists. I'm particularly excited to experience the Deaf Rave taking place on the Peace Stage tonight (assuming I can wait up till 1am).

This commitment to diversity and inclusion extends beyond just the performers and artists. Kaye speaks passionately about using Shangri-La as a space to nurture new talent and provide opportunities for underrepresented groups to gain experience in the creative industries.

"We work with about 40 to 50 volunteers every year," she explains. "We kind of try to pair them up with our crew to sort of learn on the job. And about 90% of these people have got jobs in the creative industries."

Kaye acknowledges that this focus on creating pipelines for diverse talent is genuinely heartfelt in an industry still grappling with issues of privilege. It ensures that Shangri-La isn't just representing marginalised voices but actively working to change power structures within the cultural sector.

Laboratory for Utopia

While Shangri-La doesn't shy away from difficult topics, it's far from a doom-and-gloom affair. There's a palpable sense of joy, celebration and communal spirit that underpins even its most pointed critiques.

Photo by Jody Hartley

Photo by Jody Hartley

Photo by George Harrison

Photo by George Harrison

It's this blend of celebration and activism, of joy and righteous anger, that gives Shangri-La its unique power. By creating experiences that are simultaneously entertaining and deeply thought-provoking, it opens up space for people to engage with complex ideas in accessible ways. All the while surrounded by kick-ass bands and DJs, ranging from New York Brass Acoustic to Irish punk hip-hoppers Kneecap.

"I really believe that you need to be conscious of the world around you," says Kaye. "So we don't shy away from real-world issues, even in a festival setting. These are the places where community is so important, and ideas can generate that can make a difference outside of it." Indeed, Kaye sees the energy and connections forged at Shangri-La as having ripple effects far beyond the festival itself. "The energy that is created here, then, definitely does pass on when you leave," she says.

In many ways, Shangri-La functions as a temporary autonomous zone: a space where the rules and constraints of everyday society are suspended, allowing for radical experimentation in art, culture, and ways of living.

This is perhaps most evident in how the area approaches economics and value. This year's theme of exploring "alternative currencies, exchanges, and values" manifests in numerous ways throughout Shangri-La. There's the Shangrimart, where visitors can "grab some bargainous art with all profits benefiting artists only." Then there's Happy Swappers, an empty shop focused on non-monetary exchange.

Even the process of creating Shangri-La embodies these alternative value systems. Kaye proudly speaks of their commitment to recycling and repurposing materials, both for environmental reasons and as a rebuke to the wastefulness of much of the events industry. "I don't see the point of using loads of brand new materials for just five days," she explains. "I'm trying to make a change in the industry for that because it's so wasteful."

This ethos extends to the artworks themselves, with Kaye highlighting how they often work with found objects and waste materials. She even suggests making future sets out of cardboard from festival deliveries this year. "Just accessing the resources that are created here just seems to make sense to me," she says.

Photo by Jody Hartley

Photo by Jody Hartley

Photo by Jody Hartley

Photo by Jody Hartley

In such ways, Shangri-La serves as a kind of proof-of-concept for more sustainable and equitable ways of creating culture. It demonstrates that breathtaking, world-class art experiences can be created without subscribing to the often extractive and exclusionary practices of the mainstream art world.

Why this all matters

In a cultural landscape often dominated by commodified, Instagram-ready experiences, Shangri-La stands apart as a place of genuine substance and transformative potential. Quite unfashionably, it dares to imagine and prototype alternatives to our current systems: artistic, economic, and social.

So whether you agree with these ideas or not, Shangri-La matters. It matters because it creates space for voices and perspectives that are too often marginalised, not as tokens but as central driving forces. It matters because it blurs the lines between artist and audience, forcing everyone to engage actively rather than consume passively.

Perhaps most importantly, Shangri-La matters because it hasn't lost faith in art's power to change the world. In an era when it's easy to feel powerless in the face of looming crises, Shangri-La reminds us that collective imagination and creativity are potent forces for transformation.

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