At 2:30 a.m. on a Saturday in August, a combination of wind and rain has driven many revelers at the Boomtown Fair Festival back to their tents. Most of the stages dotted around the farmer’s field in Winchester, England, have long since fallen silent, but one, Arcadia, is still pumping out the beats. The area, about 300 feet wide, is hemmed in by a hexagon of sound systems and inside it feels like a ritual is being performed by an electronic cult.
Red laser lights flit around jerkily in the mist as 5,000 people dance ecstatically in the mud, around a centerpiece like no other: a huge metal spider the size of a house, with green, luminous legs lifting it high above the devoted dancers below. It’s only just possible to make out the creature’s body, which looks like a Mad Max–style spaceship against the night sky.
Arcadia is a union of many kinds of artists, all of whom have thrown their varied skills into the creation of the metallic beast: pyrotechnicians, laser artists, acrobats, musicians. They’ve been creating otherworldly structures together for eight years, the biggest, craziest, most fantastic stages anywhere in the world. Their creations are 360° “environments” that allow DJs and musicians to be surrounded by their audience. There’s not a cordon in sight. The crowd is no longer just watching the show—they’re a part of it.
At 65 feet tall and weighing 50 tons, The Spider is Arcadia’s biggest offering. At Boomtown Fair, it has been the focal point of a wild party since 7 p.m., “but you haven’t seen anything yet,” says Pip Rush Jansen, head of Arcadia. He’s wearing a headset and a Hawaiian shirt under a red military jacket. He’s been on duty for 12 hours a day at the festival site for a week. It’s his job to keep an overview and manage The Spider show team of over 100, including assembly workers, light and sound technicians, crane operators and DJs.
Rush has been creating metal sculptures for music festivals since his youth, and now, at age 31, he’s made it his career. Eight years ago, he and his friend Bertie Cole, who’s now Arcadia’s technical director, had an idea. “We found classic concert stages boring,” he says. “The audience gazes in one direction. It’s as if they’re watching TV.”
The two founded Arcadia with the aim of making the stage itself into a star, a complete work of art combining lights, fire and music, all made from scrap metal and junk. Their first creation was Afterburner, a laser-beaming DJ turret made out of a decommissioned, tower- shaped jet engine. DJs have to climb up 36 feet carrying their record bags to reach the decks. Rush and Cole have created five more spectacular stages and shows since, including The Bug, a mobile armored car/DJ stage, and The Spider, which will travel to Thailand in November. Afterburner is on the road, too, currently entertaining in Australia.
Rush and Cole find the components they need for these spectacular stages at scrap yards. Every winter they traipse around all over England, which is how they found the three legs for The Spider five years ago: They’re decommissioned customs X-Ray scanners.
“They were used to check freight containers in the Sahara,” Rush explains. The Spider’s DJ turret is made of six old jet engines and the armorlike prosthetic knees that used to be helicopter parts.
When not trawling through junkyards or running Arcadia’s unique festival dance parties, Rush lives on a campsite on the edge of Bristol, England, along with the other six core members of the collective. There they puzzle over new ideas, repair the existing stages and weld bits of scrap to make new metal giants.
There’s also a lot of time spent assembling their creations. It takes three trucks to transport The Spider. Once on site, the legs are laid out in a circle, then lifted by a crane and attached to The Spider’s head. Underground electric cables and hydraulic pipes connect to diesel generators the size of garden sheds on the edge of the site. It takes a 15-strong team three days to put it together. Then the lighting and pyrotechnics experts get down to the fine-tuning.
“In 10 minutes exactly,” Rush says, looking at his watch, “at 2:45 on the dot, there’ll be a 15-minute show of what The Spider’s got to offer.” Rush takes off his headset. “It’s Sir Henry’s big moment.”
Sir Henry Hot is the head of pyrotechnics for Arcadia. He’s checking the connections on the 35 orange gas canisters held in a storage container at the base of The Spider one more time. “This is where we pump the gas up from. The 40-gallon fuel tanks are attached to the head so that I can fire properly,” he says. Fifteen years ago, Hot was working as a computer technician in a small town in northern Germany. Then in his mid-40s, he saw a psychologist for burnout, somewhat ironic given his true calling. Hot had a lifelong passion for fire, and he was advised to pursue it. So he studied pyrotechnics.
In 2009, he designed a unique system of nine cannons for The Spider, capable of shooting flames 82 feet into the air. The best part of the show, as far as he is concerned, is the first time fire appears, when no one is expecting it. “The puff, the glaring light and the smell. People go crazy every time. You can feel the vibrations three miles away,” Hot says, his eyes glistening.
There are 30 seconds to go before The Spider lets loose. Tension is growing in the small control room 150 feet from the metal colossus. This is The Spider’s external nerve center. Hot and seven other headset- wearing technicians stare intently at mixing desks and monitors. “Ready?” Everyone nods and gives the thumbs-up. Then the countdown begins. “10, 9, 8 …”
The Spider’s music and lights stop. And all of a sudden there is darkness. People stop dancing and look up. Some start booing. What, is that it already? Or has there been a power cut? The answer comes in the form of muffled bass rumbling out of the sound system. Blue lasers beam from The Spider’s legs and out through a screen of fog. The beat comes back in. Three cranes on the main body of The Spider begin to move, and they’re in time with the music. They move down, then back up: The Spider is waking from its slumber. The crowd cheers.
The music is getting louder. Heavy synthesizer sounds come spiraling upwards. Hot places his index finger on the biggest button on the console in front of him. There is the crack of the bass drum and Hot lets loose.
Three fountains of fire come shooting out of The Spider’s head with a hiss. The tower of flames is so dazzling that for a moment the crowd is blind, the surge of heat so intense that people check later to make sure they still have eyelashes. Hot grins when the crowd roars in surprise.
The music gets quicker and quicker. Hot pulls out all The Spider’s stops: the flame throwers, robotic arms, CO2 jets and laser beams all move to the beat. All the components are in exact harmony, creating a torrid show of color and sound.
What just before 3 a.m. had been a great show is now a postapocalyptic party. Despite the reality of the rainy night in England, it will last well into Saturday.