Valentine’s rejuvenation for London’s derelict landmark

Image: Richard Heald

Image: Richard Heald

“Calling all Mythological creatures, Greek God’s and woodland nymphs. The Bacchanalia were wild and mystic parties held to honour Dionysus the Greek God of Madness. Dionysus’ central mission was to liberate the self by indulgence in wine, madness and sexual ecstasy.”

Over 2000 years have passed since those excessive, hedonistic days. But the Secret Garden Party brought them back, for you, for Valentine’s Day. The party was packed with quite a punch too with the venue for the event being Battersea Power Station, the derelict former factory, now an iconic landmark resting on the banks of the River Thames.

As a blackfield site and a listed building, and a still undecided, undeveloped project, the power station is the subject of continuing negotiation. It has never been used in this capacity before, or seen an event like the Bacchanalia Ball in its history.

Ollie Stroud is Creative Director of the Secret Garden Party design team, who create the festival during July in the Cambridgeshire countryside and who also transform urban venues for their Winter parties, which are similar to the festival creatively, thematically, and in form. He explains the magic and mayhem of organizing a party like the Lovers’ Ball, but of course the true testament will be the lucky hedonists who revelled in the event this weekend.

The unique space of a factory shell as a canvas for creation was obviously a tempting project for the SGP team, but perhaps a little too big. “We won’t be organizing anything like this, on the same scale for a while!” he says, sounding rather exhausted with days to go before the big weekend. “It’s terribly exciting for us to be able to extend what we already do into the context of a venue as huge as Battersea Power Station, it gives us so much more potential to create something incredible. But it takes a lot of work, and it took a lot of negotiation to get here in the first place.”

The effort seems worth it though, if the regeneration of the building might be affected as a result of such creative use and what inspiration might ensue for it being an arts venue in the future. There are ideas of Battersea even being developed into a venue like Tate Britain, but the current financial climate is unfortunately unfavorable towards current arts funding, let alone future projects.

“Predominantly, we are using the space as a venue. We will leave it as we found it. There is no roof so there will be huge marquees in the central atrium and secret rooms for exploring. But what we do is not really directed towards the purpose of what the power station will end up being used for. We are coming in and creating something stunning and memorable which is what people will take away from the experience so I suppose that itself is instrumental in how people currently can enjoy the space but it is not indicative that there will be parties there forever!”

It is trendy for property developers to regenerate buildings such as old factories and mills along riversides, seen especially here in York, into smart apartments and penthouses. However, although the Lovers’ Ball appears to be an extremely exciting venture it is saddening to think of what the potential wasting of similar derelict spaces around the country could mean we are culturally missing out on.

Stroud agrees that creatively there is a lot that can be said for using a slightly unconventional venue but that the scale of this one means, “it is very much an above radar event. Things are very different when you organize something below radar like the first few years of the festival because it’s not about it being a business venture, or making money. Now, because of how expensive the site is, we have to charge more money for the tickets (£40 for one night) and those rules debilitate us somewhat. It’s non-profit but the reality is that like any business the romance is taken out of things- jobs need to be covered. The actual festival is only profiting after 8 years.”

But profit, as any SGP reveler will attest to, is not what it’s all about. Indeed, SGP events do, in various ways fill a cultural gap, most significantly so far on the festival scene but also now it seems on a broader scale. And that gap is characterized by the liberation of performers and creative types to craft a unique British phenomenon with an exchange of music, dancing, poetry, art, costume, debate and imagination. I wonder whether the scale of the Lovers Ball has detracted from the essence of the SGP philosophy, but Stroud assures me “it hasn’t at all, it’s just different. The experience will be intimate but huge.”

So, it seems the Secret Garden Party are evolving their craft in new directions with confidence, style and aplomb. The Lovers’ Ball reveals just how impressive and ambitious their projects are, and how hopefully they will inspire our generation to see the landmarks of the past in an imaginative and re-inspired context.

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