Art, architecture and music merge at Belgium’s Horst festival

Words:
Meneesha Kellay

Cross-disciplinary collaboration, respect for the site, soft lighting… this is a festival without the grunge

Atelier Bow Wow’s stage, the centrepiece for the Horst Arts & Music Festival 2018.
Atelier Bow Wow’s stage, the centrepiece for the Horst Arts & Music Festival 2018.

In the proliferation of electronic music festivals across Europe, Belgium’s Horst stands out for its architectural stages and art installations which have equal billing with the music. Over the past five years curator Gijs Van Vaerenbergh, an artistic collaboration between architects Pieterjan Gijs and Arnout Van Vaerenbergh,  has created a distinct and unique annual festival in the grounds of 13th century Horst castle in Holsbeek.

‘Archetypes’ was the theme this year (the festival’s last) and the stages, designed by Japanese architect Atelier Bow Wow, interdisciplinary collective 019 and student-led Collective Practice, responded both to this and the historic site. Other interesting practices that have designed stages over the years include Assemble, Robbrecht & Daem architecten, Filip Dujardin and Architecten De Vylder Vinck Taillieu. All of them were invited back in this final year, to share their experiences as part of a talks programme running alongside the music festival, in an idyllic forest setting across the lake from the main site.

The cross-disciplinary, collective approach extended throughout the festival. The Final Stage was designed and built by a team of 25 KU Leuven architecture students calling themselves Collective Practice. The other stages were built by volunteer architecture students from around the world, both near (UK) and far (Japan). This cooperative endeavour created an infectious, positive energy that resonated throughout the September weekend. Horst did not have the usual grungy feel of a music festival. The site, a protected nature reserve, the artworks and the stages were all treated so respectfully that the organisers felt safe in handing out sparklers on the dancefloor during the festival’s closing set by Motor City Drum Ensemble on Atelier Bow Wow’s wooden stage. It was a sight to behold.  

Participants not only transcended disciplines but nationalities and generations. American artist Sheila Hicks, 84, contributed a rope and fabric column that confronted the heaviness and stasis of the traditional structure. Local artist collective 019 created Forest Floor, an intimate stage that connected with other areas of the festival via tunnels in the forest, encouraging close encounters between strangers. The design included elevated platforms which allowed for views down to the dancers below and across to the castle and other stages. Colourful flags, commissioned by 019 from international designers such as OK-RM, Åbäke and Rem Koolhaas, adorned the stage.

  • Atelier Bow Wow’s stage at night in club mode.
    Atelier Bow Wow’s stage at night in club mode. Credit: Erki De Vries + Pieter Huybrechts. Horst Arts & Music Festival 2018
  • Atelier Bow Wow’s stage during the day.
    Atelier Bow Wow’s stage during the day. Credit: Erki De Vries + Pieter Huybrechts. Horst Arts & Music Festival 2018
  • Atelier Bow Wow’s stage as a perch.
    Atelier Bow Wow’s stage as a perch. Credit: Erki De Vries + Pieter Huybrechts. Horst Arts & Music Festival 2018
  • Credit: Erki De Vries + Pieter Huybrechts. Horst Arts & Music Festival 2018
  • Credit: Erki De Vries + Pieter Huybrechts. Horst Arts & Music Festival 2018
  • Credit: Erki De Vries + Pieter Huybrechts. Horst Arts & Music Festival 2018
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Artists’ and architects’ works merged and intersected, enhancing the qualities of both. Children Of The Light, an artist duo based in Amsterdam, deployed a lighting strategy that skilfully tied the stages, artworks and installations together. They hung simple tungsten bulbs in cages at waist height along walkways through the forest, connecting stages and inviting passers-by to interact and play with the lights. Mesmerising doppler effect lighting along a long path drew you into the forest towards installations by Architecten De Vylder Vinck Taillieu and a spatial perspectival installation by Erki De Vries & Pieter Huybrechts. With the grounds of Horst castle as its subject, the latter used photography to challenge the interpretation of the outside space and the relation between reality and representation.

The concept behind the lighting, titled In Praise of Shadows, is a nod to the seminal essay by Junichiro Tanizaki which celebrates all things delicate and nuanced. At night, a single tungsten bulb hung above the respective stages gave an intimate feel to the throng of dancers in the warm light and shadows below – a big contrast to the harsh LED lights and strobes usually deployed in nightclub environments.

Small and impeccably curated, Horst was the antithesis of big budget blow-out festivals such as Burning Man where this year Bjarke Ingels started a $50,000 crowdfunding scheme for an effectively useless giant reflective sphere, 1/500,000 the size of the Earth. It’s difficult to overstate the powerful synergy between the disciplines of music, art and architecture at Horst festival. The curators have achieved something quite remarkable and I look forward to seeing what they do next.

Meneesha Kellay is the RIBA's public programme curator