Report: Bloc 2012
One man's account of what happened at the doomed London electronic music festival
Words James Ubaghs
The Bloc 2012 line-up was genuinely staggering, and the venue was all set to match it: a post-industrial wonderland, overlooked by stark yet beautiful urban decay. You’d be hard pressed to imagine a better place for people to collectively lose their marbles to back-to-back sets from the likes of Orbital, Flying Lotus, Jeff Mills and a galaxy of electronic music talent. And there was the Stubnitz, a former East German fishing boat converted into a club space, that would be filled with the best Hyperdub had to offer. It had me, and thousands more music fans, drooling.
It seemed too good to be true, and that’s exactly how it proved. For my part, I was there to review the two-day festival for this website. Because I had a press pass, and was thus allowed to jump the entrance queue, I had a vastly different experience to the poor bastards who spent the entire festival, as it became, stuck outside. But nonetheless I was there, and I experienced the chaotic aftermath.
I’d be lying if I said it instantly dawned on me that Bloc was headed for disaster. I was sternly focused on having a good time and taking in as much music as humanly possible. As such, I doggedly managed to ignore the mounting evidence that all was not well — at least until they finally expelled us into the streets.
Yet in hindsight it was clear that things were problematic from the get-go.
I arrived at the London Pleasure Gardens at a 5.45pm in order to catch Steve Reich. The DLR was packed and hectic, and the Pontoon Docks station — the only sure way of reaching the site — had surely never seen so much footfall.
Though it was chaotic, the space outside the festival hardly felt dangerous at this point. Later, by other accounts, things severely degenerated.
The queue for the main entrance was lengthy and packed, and in order to reach the press gate located behind it, I had to walk on the dirt next to the main path. Again, it was busy but not yet dangerous. My non-press companions waited 50 minutes to gain entry, so it seems that it was after 6.30pm-ish that it became a two-hour wait to get in.
I was very thoroughly frisked and searched by security, while others simply walked past without getting stopped. Through security, I went straight to the Resident Advisor tent where Steve Reich was playing, waiting five minutes to gain entry (this was the only tent to not have an ‘express’ queue).
Inside, the tent was remarkably small, considering it was the second largest venue on the festival site; it was also very hot and poorly ventilated. Later on, friends reported that people were urinating on the insides of the tent, fearing that if they left to find a toilet it would take hours to be readmitted. Steve Reich, in any case, was excellent, although the volume was rather low.
After Reich I went to find the press area, which was located on the stern of the Stubnitz. This was around 7pm, and already there was a massive crowd trying to gain access to the boat. Likewise, Nicolas Jaar’s set back at the RA tent was packed to the gills, and movement was difficult. Any serious dancing would have led to more than a few black eyes.
At this point, I went to briefly watch Amon Tobin at the main stage. The queue to secure entrance was massive and unwieldy. I felt giddy at first, and then a vile sense of schadenfreude at bypassing the chaos and suffering with my press pass. A festival at which only the press are having a normal time and enjoying themselves is a troubled one.
After 20 or so minutes of Tobin’s set, I felt it was time to check out the stages located inside the Stubnitz. The crowd outside had swollen dramatically and a very limited number of security personnel were screaming at the crowd to stop pushing. Members of the crowd were screaming back and it was worrying, to say the least. By now it was about 10pm.
It must be said that the Stubnitz is an amazing space and, once inside, I could feel the vibrations of the bass bouncing back at me through the steel bulkheads. It’s an incredible and unique setting, yet it only held 600 people in what was officially a 15,000-capacity festival. That was always going to lead to frustration, and even if faultless organisation had occurred elsewhere, it still would have led to lengthy and unpleasant waits. As it was, the crowds outside the Stubnitz felt potentially lethal.
At 10.30 I went to the main stage to see DOOM. By now, the festival was essentially a mass of people merging into a single queue and the atmosphere at the entrance to the main tent was chaotic and tense. The limited security guards were letting only a few people in, and those outside were getting frustrated. There was a minor rush and punters piled through, only to find the inside of the tent relatively spacious. DOOM was on fine form, but the sound was muddy.
After DOOM, we patiently waited for Snoop Dogg to appear — and that’s when things finally began to dawn on me. Rumours were circulating that the organisers weren’t letting anyone else into the festival and that there had been fighting and a minor riot at the front gate. Twenty minutes later, the crowd was told that Snoop would be delayed due to technical difficulties and we were advised to leave the stage. We decided to remain. As time went on, the audience began to boo and throw cans and bottles. Finally, after a 40-minute wait, we were told that Snoop Dogg was not appearing, that the festival was cancelled and we must leave immediately. There was no explanation as to why.
I felt like the situation could turn into a riot. One man was trying to rip speakers off the side of the stage and he was screaming at others to join in. Thankfully, no one chose to follow his loutish example. We were led out and corralled straight into the street by police. Neither security nor the police offered much explanation as to what was occurring. It was chaotic, but the vast majority of the crowd remained calm and docile. The situation could have easily devolved into something far worse. The police themselves were calm and level-headed and did nothing to aggravate or inflame the crowd.
We found ourselves on the streets with no directions as to what to do or where to go. The DLR was closed, and thousands of other people were trying to get onto the few night buses present. Apparently, more than a few punters were forced to sleep rough while waiting for the DLR to resume service. For my part, I ended up walking parallel to the DLR line through industrial London for hours in a massively inebriated state, in order to finally find a bus home.
It was not what I was hoping for from the first night of Bloc. On the other hand, witnessing the tenacity and pluck of the venues, promoters and artists involved in staging impromptu ‘Not Bloc’ events for ticket holders on Saturday was magnificent. Not everyone was able to gain entry to these events, including me, but it was as fine an act of charity and solidarity as you could hope for.
It’s yet unclear what exactly what went wrong. In my mind, it was simply a case of far too many people being crammed into far too small a space. Who exactly is to blame will doubtless become apparent in the coming weeks, but it felt like there was severe incompetency at the heart of the Bloc organisation, and the site itself was wholly inadequate to hold that amount of people. More than a few people’s weekends were ruined and much money was wasted, and more than a few careers will be ruined in the aftermath. There’s little good to be taken from this mess.
For our news story on Bloc 2012, please go here