“Outdoor stage design can accomodate that club atmosphere we all love.” HORST festival on eclectic stages and stubborn persistence

Belgium is spoilt when it comes to its choice in music festivals, yet few can boast the same standing as HORST festival. In the short space of five years the weekend festival on the outskirts of Leuven has garnered an impressive following of reputation thanks to its humble yet ambitious vision and top-notch curation. With less than a week to go to its fifth and final edition, we speak with the founders of HORST about their steadfast focus on stage design as a way of creating the ultimate festival experience.

Stage design and architecture has been an integral part of the festival’s core approach since its launch back in 2013. Why did you decide to team up with architectural firms and focus on stage design in such a forward-thinking manner?

We wanted to experiment with what a festival could be. We wanted to examine how the necessary components of a festival could gain social value – it made sense to us to invite artists to work on that ambition. The festival itself then gradually evolved into an art and music festival. It’s now a place where they form two autonomous entities of equal importance. Each part stands alone, has its own logic and is not subordinate to the other.

At its core, how can stage design enhance and elevate the festival experience?

Every single new design poses new challenges for us: how can we unite the vision of the artist with the requirements of effective stage design? Obviously the story an architect tries to tell can collide with the needs of a festival. But it’s exactly this tension that makes it interesting for us and, we believe, the crowd. It’s part of a creative cycle offering a unique experience for the visitor.

What were your influences and references in terms of stage design when launching the festival five years ago?

Architecture allowed us to blend these two components. At HORST, it operates as the interface between music and visual arts. HORST slowly evolved into a festival where experimental stage design became central. Every year, artists and architects are invited to design one of the venues by expressing his or her own vision and meaning of a stage. It’s an artwork, an installation where every component of HORST crosses over each other. We believe that this is what sets us apart.

The Robbrecht en Daem studio’s Castra stage design, built in 2015, brought a dramatic feel to the festival, astutely adding to its scenography whilst seamlessly blending with its country-side context. What memories do you hold from that edition in general, and of the stage’s conceptualisation and construction more specifically?

Castra was an inviting ring-shaped pavilion that created expectation. The outer layer, made out of translucent corrugated sheet, captured and filtered the light and showed a distorted and suggestive image of the inside. Using simple architectonic features, the lustrous and blurry halo defined the covered and sealed elementary architecture. In the context of the landscape and castle, it made you wonder about the actual determination of the site, relating to fencing and covering as well as the more precarious option of embowering. As a delimited pavilion in a green environment, the sculpture could also be used as an intimate dance floor that created fascinating interaction between spectator and artist.

2016’s DUMB Drone, built by future-leaning Belgian artist Pieterjan Ginckels, stands out as one of the creations that sits at the frontiers between art and architecture. Can you discuss the initial brief, the construction constraints as well as the resulting vibe that permeated throughout?

Ginckels creates sculptures that critique our contemporary consumer society. How does an artist with such an attitude approach for designing a stage for a music festival? By considering the stage as a setting or a decor that could be used as a stage almost by accident. Ginckels took the military drone as the subject, and as is characteristic of his earlier works, did not simply make a copy but rather created a “dumb” version that was manually produced. DUMB Drone was a visual way of critiquing advanced technology. Yet perhaps more challenging than this was the absurd confrontation Ginckels engaged in with between the medieval setting of the castle and the music festival context.

2017’s Newcastle, by London-based Assemble Studio, was an ambitious undertaking that truly set a new narrative in stage design. Can you recall the stage’s planning as well as construction phase ?

One of the two stages of last year’s edition of HORST was designed by Assemble Studio. Access to Horst Castle was restricted, and in response, Assemble built a “new castle”. Of equivalent mass to the original and borrowing its courtyard form, Newcastle created an enclosed and theatrical space. Wrapped in shrink-wrap, the castle appeared under construction, its form abstracted and facade hidden and its appearance changing from day to night. Located in a clearing in the woods, on the edge of the lake, the three-tier structure presented the spectators with a new festival experience. Continuous balconies on two levels and a central pit dance floor set the stage like that of a Shakespearian drama, where both actors and audience are part of the performance. Newcastle transformed the stage from something to look at into something to be part of, creating a more pronounced interaction between artist and performer.

The final edition’s centre piece is designed by Tokyo-based architecural practice Atelier Bow-Wow, who’s concetpualising an arc-shaped stage that opens up to the site’s famed lake. Why did you decide to work with the studio, and what was your brief to them?

The main stage of this year’s edition is designed by Atelier Bow-Wow as a ship that opens up in the direction of the lake. In this arc, life is celebrated by a dancing crowd. This is their own poetic description of the project:

“A wooden box is on the lake shore. It opens like a military amphibious vehicle towards the lake. The lake holds the castle away from life. On contrary, the box pulses with music. It is a melting pot of the energy of young people – an antipode of the dead castle and the still scenery. The walls on both sides stay inclined by being tied with tension ropes. It reminds of the stranded giant Gulliver. The repetition of ropes creates an immaterial roof, which seems to blend with the horizon. The main deck is a dancefloor, extended by a platform submerged into the water. Dancers are sheltered in that vessel, like in a modern day story of Noah’s Ark. They can also dance in the lake.”

Looking back, what were the more challenging constructions you’ve brought to the festival?

It was during our second edition, which was twice as big as the first one. This sizeable growth in scale was the biggest step forward we ever took in the short history of the festival. Everything we did the year before took us twice as long. We also started setting up way too late – just five days before the actual start. We had Castra to build, a stage with an enormous wood span on concrete foundations. You can only imagine how much of a challenge this was. We weren’t fully prepared for such a challenging production, but we still somehow managed and learned a pretty valuable lesson from this situation. That being said, for Robbrecht en Daem, designing a festival stage is a refreshing assignment compared to the usual commissions. Paul Robbrecht was really excited about the collaboration, and shared after the festival how enthusiastic he was about having discovered club culture; a new perspective. To receive such positive feedback from a respected architecture firm is definitely worth something else.

This is HORST’s final edition. What do you remember as being some of the highlights of the festival, not only in terms of music but also architecture, stage design, talks and conferences?

Looking back it’s mostly the vibe around closing time that stands out every year. For example, Motor City Drum Ensemble lighting up the Newcastle stage on fire last year was an amazing experience. It’s during those moments that we see that outdoor stage design can truly accomodate that club atmosphere we all love. Next to that we feel humbled by the fact that we were able to invite and work with increbly talented artists like Robbrecht & Daem, Floating Points, Assemble Studio, Helena Hauff, Jordan Rakei, Luc Deleu, San Soda and many, many more.

What is next for the HORST team? Are music festivals still very much part of your ambitions for the future and, if so, which Belgian city would you most like to get involved with and why?

That’s too early to talk about – what we can already reveal is that the story we had to share through this festival is not yet finished. We’re certain that the team will remain unchanged for the next event, as will our careful approach and values we have put into every HORST edition. With this in mind, here’s to our next chapter…

Last but not least, what would you advise the new generation of festival-makers? What are some of your do’s and don’ts?

At first, we only every looked one step ahead. Organising events could be so overwhelming back then, but along the way we learned from every challenge we overcame to work a lot more effectively. One important lesson is that you need to have a very clear line of communication between you on one side, and the audience, your partners and the local authorities on the other. Problems can always occur, but providing clear communication to deal with it is vital. Do it all with a certain kind of stubbornness, believe in your vision and stick to it.

HORST will be running from 7th to 9th September.