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photography Kamil Kustosz

The rave monument speaking to our digital, post-truth era

IICON, the sprawling stage structure that made its debut at Glastonbury, is going on a UK tour

“You must obey,” a sinister, computerised voice demands, snares and synths gurgling beneath it, “You must obey, you must obey.” Brain-melting, future-facing techno producer Bruce is one of the first acts to dominate the hulking IICON stage, the juddering beats bouncing off the dystopian set-up. 

IICON, debuting last week at Glastonbury’s infamous late-night rave site Block9 in the depths of the festival’s South East Corner, is the latest creation of Gideon Berger and Steven Gallagher. Berger and Gallagher are both founders of Block9 and the minds behind the warped, society-challenging productions of Banksy’s Dismaland castle. IICON is a colossal sculptural stage and outdoor dance arena, a 65ft human head fitted with a visor, within which the DJs and performers play. It melds the visual elements of Brutalism with that of classical sculpture. On the screen behind the artists, streams of data flickers and visual information splutters in a permanent vision into the digital void. In all of its vast glory, the “every person” head asks questions of humanity and technology, art and artifice, tragedy and beauty.

“It speaks to humanity today and the multiple new realities emerging in our digital, data-driven, post-truth age,” Gallagher tells Dazed. “IICON questions the way society operates – and is manipulated – today; from the voluntary submission of ourselves-to-ourselves in the perfect master and servant relationship, through the flow of data such that our every movement and emotion is consensually tracked, to the resulting commoditization of culture, and music in particular.”

Music, art, theatre, and wider culture can reflect on, document, and interrogate our current struggles. A key influence for the message behind IICON is Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, a piece created and debuted by the artist in a German prisoner of war camp in World War II. Another inspiration is Byung-Chul Han’s Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, an essay which critiques technological domination, and shows how capitalism has finally broken free of liberalism, shrinking the spaces of individuality and autonomy further.

The common thread is the reflective response to how society unfolds around each creator – ”IICON is our response to the world we live in today,” says Gallagher. “In many ways, IICON is continuing a long tradition of artists holding up a mirror to society so that their audience can experience a new reflection of themselves and the people around them.”

IICON debuted in Block9’s usual Glastonbury spot, alongside two returning, popular venues – NYC Downlow and Genosys. Genosys has an industrial facade, a plant-adorned tower structure, cast with moving images that make it look alive. NYC Downlow is the notorious gay club spot, built to look like a New York meatpacking district building that the club kids of the 80s would dominate. Hosted by Jonny Woo and soundtracked with house and disco bangers, drag queens and performers take over the sweaty venue for unforgettable late-night debauchery. This year, the performers celebrate 50 years since the Stonewall protest.

The curation of artists playing on the IICON stage reflect this continued narrative – “delivering music that is more cerebral, more thoughtful, and has a greater depth than you might usually find on a stage of this size and scope,” Gallagher explains. Alongside Bristol producer Bruce, Hyperdub’s Laurel Halo and Kode9 play a thwacking back-to-back set, while Lee Gamble pummels late night punters with heart-stuttering techno and SOPHIE’s warped tune “Faceshopping”. A huge crowd gathers past 2am for a mile-a-minute Hessle Audio showcase, and unofficial headliner Larry Heard was joined by vocalist Fatima and keyboardist Paul Cut provided a moment of bliss among the chaotic avant garde energy. Gallagher continues: “Given the overarching themes of data, power and technology, we naturally leant towards programming which includes glitch-funk, algorave and post-dubstep IDM, to footwork, grime, electro and cyber-dub”.

“IICON is continuing a long tradition of artists holding up a mirror to society so that their audience can experience a new reflection of themselves and the people around them” – Stephen Gallagher

IICON, now set to embark on a UK-wide tour, is a mind-bending, thought-twisting experience, though Gallagher remarks that the idea of an “experience” has been both cheaped and commodified in the digital age. Nevertheless, “real experiences” are critical to developing as an individual and society on the whole, if we are to confront the anxieties around technology and individualism that IICON interrogates. “We want to give people something they have never seen or felt before,” says Gallagher. “We want them to feel that they might be dreaming when they first walk into the IICON arena. We want them to be lost in the moment and have an amazing time when they are there, but we also want to challenge their expectations such that they are left with questions about what they just experienced and what it might mean to the world around them.

“The thought and discussion this provokes is important to us; this is why we think about people who come to our creations as active participants rather than as a passive, ‘consuming' audience.”

Ultimately, the themes of IICON are all around us right now – see the Barbican’s sprawling AI: More Than Human exhibition, the writing of the late cultural critic Mark Fisher, or the musical spawns of Holly Herndon. “We are all fully complicit in the normalised occupation of our collective digital subconscious,” says Gallagher.

The next chapter of IICON involves the soon-to-be touring immersive music experience, beginning in London next year, which will combine sculpture, performance, and technology. Gallagher asserts: “Part gig, part club, part art installation, part theatre, IICON will be a completely new way to experience music with the hope that attendees come away thinking a little bit differently about the world.”