This summer the pair will launch This Bright Land, bringing live events, activist workshops and open-air voguing to London’s Somerset House
As we inch out of the coronavirus pandemic, and into a summer filled with holiday plans and stacked festival line-ups, it finally feels like it’s time to put the last two years of lockdowns, social distancing, and endless hand-sanitising behind us (fingers crossed). That being said, it would be wrong to call this year’s festivities a return to normal.
For one thing, the world is still reeling from COVID, and only time will tell how years of closures and cancelled events have changed the face of the creative industries. On the other hand, many of us have emerged from the depths of the pandemic reinvigorated, and more appreciative of the time we spend in each others’ company – maybe there’s hope for the roaring 20s after all.
Gareth Pugh and Carson McColl are well aware of our collective yearning for A Good Time in 2022, which is part of the reason they’re launching a massive new cultural festival in the heart of London this summer. Named This Bright Land, the event is set to span 31 days across the month of August, filling the central courtyard at Somerset House with sensory gardens, live music and dance, activist workshops, world food, and street parties (which will, it’s pretty safe to say, put last week’s store-bought sausage rolls and homemade trifles to shame).
Of course, the pair didn’t put all of this together alone. After all, McColl says: “At its heart, This Bright Land is a love letter to community and culture.” As such, it will also include a diverse range of collaborators, from Vogue Rites – who will host weekly, open-air Vogue Balls – to Black Eats LDN, and BLM Fest and We Exist, who will each lead community talks and workshops, centred around the theme of family.
“This Bright Land is for everyone,” says Pugh. “Which is partly why we’ve chosen to explore the overarching theme of family for the festival. Whether that’s biological family, chosen family, creative family, or global family – This Bright Land is about where we live and who we live for.”
Below, we speak to Gareth Pugh and Carson McColl for an inside look at This Bright Land.
Could you give us a brief overview of This Bright Land – what will it include, and who’s it for?
Carson McColl: On paper, This Bright Land is essentially a major new cultural festival taking place across the month of August at Somerset House, in the heart of London. 31 days of programming featuring live music and dance, Vogue balls, a 35-metre observation wheel, a wonder garden, street parties, club nights, fashion and beauty, activist workshops, a world food market – it’s a lot. But truthfully, it’s more than a sum of its parts. At its heart, This Bright Land is a love letter to community and culture. It’s about resilience and solidarity, and creating a space where people can come together and feel free to be exactly who they are.
Gareth Pugh: This Bright Land is for everyone. It’s essentially an act of bringing together major artists, grassroots activists, cultural figures, and community groups from across the UK to celebrate creativity and culture, and to acknowledge the fact that we have more in common than what divides us. Which is partly why we’ve chosen to explore the overarching theme of family for the festival. Whether that’s biological family, chosen family, creative family, or global family – This Bright Land is about where we live and who we live for.
Are there any particular highlights that you’d like to draw out?
Gareth Pugh: Given the scale, the set design, and all the infrastructure we’re going to have, it would be easy to get caught up in the spectacle of it all, but personally the thing I’m most excited about is the people that are going to bring it all to life. Working with Vogue Rites on Saturday nights, for example. It’s a conversation that has been ongoing for some time, and we’re so pleased to help bring this to life up in the courtyard – it's going to be truly epic! Also, when you talk about resilience and solidarity, the Ballroom community represents all of those principles in the most vivid way possible, so it’s an honour to work with them in this way.
Carson McColl: The same goes for all of our grassroots community partners. For me, it was when we started confirming the lineup – from Nine Nights to ESEA Sisters, Movimientos, to Daytimers – it all became a bit overwhelming, in the sense that it was actually happening. And then everyone coming together and meeting for the first time, that was wild. They never came to it as competitors, but rather as collaborators. It was exactly what we had hoped for.
“Yes, we want to bring happiness to people, and create a space for joy and fun and shared experience, but we also want to bring stories about radical care and allyship to a mainstream audience… It’s about creating a space that reminds people of their power and that no matter how bad things may seem right now, that the future is ours to invent” – Carson McColl
How did it feel to work together so closely on this project?
Gareth Pugh: Well, we’ve been together for fifteen years, married for five, and we live and work together. So it’s a lot, but it works for us. We don’t really think about it because it’s just how we roll. But there’s literally no way this would have happened without us quietly plotting, and then goading each other: How can we go bigger? How far can we push this?
Carson McColl: Totally! As anyone who’s ever worked with us will tell you: it’s always a case of go hard or go home. But with This Bright Land, that means taking it to the next level. It’s a huge project and there’s no room for hesitation, or uncertainty. Or sleep, for that matter. Although, as my friend Jo always says: action is the antidote to despair. And they’re right.
Gareth Pugh: Yeah – if it was easy, everyone would be doing it! Putting this together, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve come up against our fair share of challenges… but that just comes with the territory. And besides, it’s not just us working on this – the team at Somerset House have been amazing. I mean, it’s pretty bold on their part to have agreed to put on a brand new festival as the centrepiece of their summer season to begin with. But to have it take place in the central courtyard is major. We all know that arts organisations had a tough time through the pandemic, so yeah, it’s incredibly courageous on their part to commission something on this scale, and hold space for the variety of new voices and innovative ideas that will inevitably come with that. But they’re here for it, and have been totally supportive every step of the way.
Why did it feel important to stage such a large-scale participatory event at this time, as we emerge from the pandemic?
Carson McColl: To be honest, I don’t know if we would have had the guts to start out on something like this had it not been for the pandemic. I think for us, as for a lot of people, the past few years have made us aware that time is short, and no one knows what’s around the corner, which makes you think: what do you want to do with the time you have? And for us, this is it.
Gareth Pugh: It’s also quite Shock Doctrine-esque – the idea that when something so vast and shocking takes place, for a short time afterwards, people are disoriented and open to new ideas that they wouldn’t necessarily have been open to before. There’s an opening to discuss real systemic change, for better or worse, and what we didn’t want to do was let that moment pass. It’s like: in an era when we’re constantly being told to be suspicious of the ‘other’, the pandemic showed us all that actually as a people we’re hardwired for co-operation and care, no matter our background or beliefs. For so many of us, it was acts of empathy, altruism, and kindness that defined that period. From the sacrifices made to protect the sick and vulnerable, to the mutual aid groups and food banks that sprang up across the country. It was reassuring, the sense that it was saying: we will get through this, because we have each other.
Carson McColl: I agree. And I think for a lot of people that sense of mutual obligation felt very real, perhaps for the first time. It felt personal. And it was the same for us. Like a lot of people, I lost someone very close to me last year, not directly to COVID, but certainly as a consequence of the pandemic, and honestly if it hadn’t been for friends and family rallying around, I don’t know that I would have ever recovered. But it proved to me in the most personal and visceral way that the idea of chosen family is a real thing, and that I couldn’t live without it, which has undoubtedly fed into the creation of This Bright Land. It’s about finding a pathway to meaning and joy amid all of the chaos.
What do you hope that first-time visitors will take away from This Bright Land?
Carson McColl: For me, it all comes back to that Alice Walker quote: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any.” That’s definitely something we want to address with this project. Yes, we want to bring happiness to people, and create a space for joy and fun and shared experience, but we also want to bring stories about radical care and allyship to a mainstream audience. This is why our programme of talks and workshops is going to be central to the success of the project. It’s about creating a space that reminds people of their power and that no matter how bad things may seem right now, that the future is ours to invent.
Gareth Pugh: It’s about hope. Of course we want people to come to Somerset House and have an amazing time, and escape from the world for a bit, but this isn’t necessarily about checking out, or denying the reality of the world. It doesn’t take much to appreciate how truly bleak it is out there… this isn’t about denying any of that. Instead, it’s about creating a space where we can come together and look at each other, and collective issues we face, with fresh eyes.
Carson McColl: One of the biggest things we want to tackle with this project is a sense of pessimism and hopelessness that’s in the air. In every pitch we’ve made in putting all this together, it always comes back to that. To the idea that offering a sense of hope in a dark time isn’t naive or idealistic. It’s leadership. It’s necessary. And just to be clear, when we talk about leadership, this is not about us leading. This Bright Land is about resourcing grassroots communities and emerging creative talent in a real and meaningful way, from the ground up, then stepping back and holding space for them to flourish.
This Bright Land will run at Somerset House throughout August 2022.