The Guild transforms music festivals with art

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      At the entrance to Banksy’s short-lived Dismaland exhibition, a yellow sign with red and blue lettering proclaimed “It’s not art unless it has the potential to be a disaster.” Sea-to-Sky–based collective the Guild has taken that statement to heart. Quickly becoming an unofficial motto for the group of eight artists, the quote continues to inspire the team to push its ambitious constructions to even larger scales.

      The architects behind the elaborate art-designed stages and enormous installations at big-name events like the defunct Pemberton Music Festival and the still-thriving Bass Coast, the Guild is responsible for making a number of B.C.’s multiday concerts unique. Lighthouses, pirate ships, and nautical-themed towers all jostle for room on the collective’s résumé, while its artful fabric displays encourage eyes upward to the canopies of trees. Inspired by the vast and diverse creations of Burning Man, Liz Thomson, the Guild’s cofounder and creative director, believes that great art transforms concerts into festivals.

      “That’s one of my favourite quotes,” she tells the Straight on the line from Vancouver. “It really helps people understand what we do. If you’re looking at a stage at a traditional show, it’s a two-dimensional experience. At a festival, you’re standing in an environment where you’re surrounded on all sides by these amazing creations. It’s a multifaceted, immersive moment, and that’s why people are more inspired at festivals, and why people who see that world are more inclined to create things themselves when the event is over.

      “There’s nothing that isn’t meticulously planned,” she continues. “At Bass Coast, for example, even the garbage cans are art-directed. I spent months designing the wristband. All that infuses into the event, and people can’t put their finger on what’s different about the festival experience, but it’s that passion and care. There’s such a huge boom in the festival industry right now—there’s more than two every weekend in North America. It’s so competitive that I think producers realize that it’s not enough just to have a good lineup, so they’re all looking for art. We created the Guild to facilitate that need.”

      Working alongside cofounder Andor Tari, who takes the reins on the art’s physical construction, Thomson cites a number of creations that have put the Guild on the radar of companies as far-flung as Georgia, Oregon, and Florida. That’s something Tari discusses with pride.

      “There are a few designs that have really gained traction with the festival crowd,” he says. “We did an inverted sphere stage, for example, which was really difficult to build. In Squamish, we put up a honeycomb-shaped hexagon stage. And at Bass Coast in Merritt, we had huge tentacles creeping out above the main stage. We always had this concept of taking everything a level further than we’d seen before, and the projects grow organically from that.”

      Erecting designs from scratch like a giant pirate ship and two full-sized trees for Pemberton’s iconic gateway was, understandably, not without challenges.

      “The toughest thing is the production,” Thomson says. “You get briefs that are almost impossible to fulfill. Everybody has needs, from performers to sound engineers to lighting professionals, and it’s hard to fulfill those criteria and still create something you’re proud of. It’s almost like a riddle, figuring out how to follow the rules and still make something beautiful and imaginative. Everything is unique. While we may use something as a foundation, we never do the same install twice.”

      “The real issue is time,” Tari adds. “We can’t build things on-site as we go, so we have to prefabricate things as much as we can. Everything has to be transportable, and it needs to be installed and taken down quickly. Just making art isn’t good enough. We have to constantly ask ourselves questions like how we can put it up without heavy machinery, and even things like how the light is going to reflect off it. Having those skills is what sets us apart.”

      Despite those pressures, the Guild has managed to stay true to its ideal of creating structures that are both beautiful and eco-friendly. Proudly upcycling everything from washing machines to wedding dresses, the collective’s materials are as imaginative as its designs.

      “Our pirate ship was totally built out of a bridge that was torn down,” Tari recalls. “I happened to be watching as they did it, and saw all this wood piling up. Because it was over a creek, I figured they couldn’t creosote it, so it must all be good fir. When I asked the guys if I could take some wood, they said, ‘You’re building a pirate ship?’ and immediately loaded us up with all these old beams. We love that the materials have that worn, weathered look—it has a really authentic feel. And not only does it make the art look great, I think that most people our age are realizing the importance of recycling and trying to be better.

      “I think our biggest success is sticking to our ethics,” he continues, “and creating an environment for our friends to become artistic.”

      The Guild’s stages will be on view at a number of festivals, including the sold-out Bass Coast (July 7 to 10).

      Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays