With its avant-garde lineup, inventive stage designs and a stunningly beautiful location at a castle domain, HORST has quickly become a staple festival amongst the fans of new and alternative music, art and architecture. Even though electronic music festivals in Belgium have become so plentiful, this relatively small event in a magnificent corner of the Hageland has managed to stand out in many different ways: the way it places curated art installations on equal terms with the music lineup, the way its extremely smart booking policy never fails to showcase a diverse range of new artists and the way it carefully makes sure the organisation remains approachable, communal and cosy. Unfortunately, like most good stories, this one will not last. The Leuven-based ONKRUID team (which apart from HORST is also responsible for the excellent And& Festival that takes place on May 3 'til 5) is preparing everything to make sure the last edition of their beloved art and music festival will be one for the books. “Extending the fun for an extra day and adding a third stage should help”, say the modest and grim-faced Jochem Daelman and Wim Thijs during our Skype chat. Armed with a healthy dose of curiosity, we wondered how they have managed to create such a distinct and truly unique festival over the course of 5 years and, most importantly, why this will be their final chapter.
Let’s go straight to the point: why will the fifth edition of HORST be the last?
"It’s not that we were in a rush to finish this story, but the context in which we operate every year is changing. The location, a protected nature reserve, isn’t exactly the ideal scenery for a big, multiday music festival. As we grew in size over the years, we realized we were leaving our marks on the environment. Complementarity with our surroundings is something we really value at ONKRUID – and for HORST, we have the ambition to grow, so the maximum potential at this site has been reached. We figured it’s best to stop while we are still going strong, instead of forcing ourselves to go on just for the sake of it."
It’s not all bad news. This final edition will last for 3 days, and is spread over 3 stages. That’s a serious expansion of the music program and the workload. We guess you felt like you wanted to go out with a bang?
"In the beginning, the distinction between the two stages was quite clear-cut. The first one showcased house, disco and techno sounds, while the other one dealt with everything within the ‘hip hop and beatmaking realm’. Over the last few years, the scope of both stages has widened considerably – so, this being the last edition, we felt that the time was right to put up a third one. In this way, we can truly offer the wide variety of sounds we want to feature: the artists on this stage will deal with the more experimental and deeper side of the music spectrum.
On the other hand, having three days of music programming allows us to offer more variety and fluidity on the two other stages too. Neither is considered as a ‘main stage’, as vibes and genres will switch more regularly over the course of the festival compared to the former editions. Especially on the third day, a Sunday, we have booked a lineup that’s more appropriate for the kind of mood that fits this day of the week. As you can expect, this year too, all the stages will be designed by extraordinary architects we really like."
From all the extraordinary features HORST offered its visitors, the yearly collaborations with architects in order to build the stages probably stand out the most. We can imagine that doesn’t come without its challenges; surely an architect doesn’t always have the same ideas as a sound engineer?
"Every single new design poses new challenge for us: how can we unite the vision of the artist with the requirements of effective stage design? Obviously, the story an architect tries to tell can collide with the needs of a festival. But it’s exactly this what makes it interesting for us; this collision is part of the creative cycle. It creates a situation in which our production team is required to go the extra mile.
On the other hand, there are certainly some disadvantages to this approach, such as the fact that we can’t re-use the same material every year. Additionally, we can’t really get the practical potential out of every design: we try to prepare well by anticipating everything that could happen during the festival, but in the end you can only really improve your design once you make an evaluation after the festival – and if you work with a new design every year, you can’t really use that specific feedback for your next stage. In the end, these are just minor issues, because there’s a lot to be learned from every new collaboration.
We’re happy that there is lot of interest for these projects by praised artists and architects. For them, designing a festival stage is a refreshing assignment compared to the usual commissions. Robbrecht & Daem (the famed architect duo that designed our second stage on the second HORST edition, ed.) for example were really excited about the collaboration. After the festival, they were enthusiastic about how they had learned so much about festivals and music, a scene they have never really worked in before. To receive such positive feedback from a respected architecture firm is definitely something else! This kind of sums up why it’s such an appealing challenge for architects: just like the production team, they too are forced to go out of their comfort zone. One of the visual artists to participate this year is particularly special, so we really can’t wait to announce our art program!"
Of all the stage designs you had over the years, which one is your favourite?
Jochem: "That may very well be the aforementioned stage Paul Robbrecht made on our second edition. He’s a real international star within the architecture scene and beyond – and to have a guy like this clearing out his schedule to work with us is truly something special. Like a real method actor, he prepared for the job by learning more about club culture first hand. We even spent a constructive day on the rooftop of his apartment in Ghent with Lefto (laughs). Visually, this was one of our most priced stages ever."
Wim: "For me, the most recent one, the ‘Newcastle’ (in picture below) was outstanding. As a festival, you’re only as good as your last edition. I didn’t really realize how cool it was until I saw the pictures our photographers took on the first night. The combination of the aesthetics and the vibe amongst the crowd really hit the sweet spot. Maybe that was the case because this design really looked like an actual nightclub."
Not many festivals put art on the same level of importance as music in the way HORST does. Is this a way you want to stand out amongst the growing pool of new electronic music festivals in Belgium?
"We don’t strive to put us above any other festival, really. For us it was more about: how can a festival become something different, or something ‘more’? In the beginning, we wanted to experiment with a different approach; for example, managing the campsite in a very communal way or allowing people to dance on stage. In the years that came after – and mainly because of Gijs Van Vaerenbergh’s influence – we shifted towards a true ‘art and music festival’, which included actual, autonomous art installations. The presence of art creates an environment in which people are more open to listen to new kinds of music. This duality between art and music continues to define what makes HORST the festival it that it is."
HORST - in our opinion - has always stood out as a festival that valued its cosiness over rapid growth in numbers: the campsite has a communal table, the festival grounds include a forest large enough to get lost in, and a staff that feels like they are all family and friends. Was this comforting environment something you wanted to protect at all costs?
"All of that ‘cosiness’ really is the result of the fact that we always strive to provide the ideal conditions to experience both music and art. A huge arena with thousands of people loses the very important social aspect of experiencing music on a dancefloor. This is the reason why we always wanted to keep things cosy. A smaller campsite with a communal table creates a more comfortable experience for the visitors, so that’s why it always stayed relatively small. In the end, we are building a festival that we would love to visit ourselves. From the PR-team to the stewards, everyone wants to put in something of their own. That’s probably why it continues to feel very approachable and easy-going. Additionally, we work in small teams and the distance between ground staff and the core team always remains very close, so this definitely has a positive effect on the attitude of everyone who we work together with. If the whole team puts friendliness and approachability in the first place, then this will trickle down to the visitors."
Long before HORST existed, you guys had been running other events in Leuven (especially ’Dungeon’ comes to mind). What were the most valuable lessons you learned from those days?
"In the beginning we just looked one step ahead, you know? Putting on events could be so overwhelming in those days, but along the way you learn from every challenge you overcome, you learn to work a lot more effective. One important lesson has to be the fact that you need to have a very clear line of communication between you on one side, and the audience, your partners and the local authorities on the other side. Problems can always occur, but providing clear communication to deal with it cannot be underestimated."
So out of all the hurdles you had to deal with over the last 5 years, which challenging situation(s) has/have been the most difficult (or most rewarding) to overcome?
"Our second edition was twice as big as the first one. This sizeable growth in scale was the biggest step forward we ever took. All of a sudden, everything we did the year before took us twice as long. We also started way too late with the build-up on site, just five days before the actual start. If you take into account we had a massive stage to build (that one with Paul Robbrecht) with an enormous wood span on concrete foundations, you can imagine this was quite the challenge for us. We just weren’t prepared for a big festival yet – but we learned from this situation. That said, we could have mentioned many other beginner mistakes. Another classic one we used to be guilty of: preparing the whole build-up in detail for days, but not spending a single moment’s thought in the work that needs to be done once the last visitor has left the festival grounds…"
Surely the end of HORST doesn’t mean you guys will go into early retirement. What’s next?
"No, it’s not the end. There will be a chapter after this one, although it’s too early now to tell what this will look like. The story we want to tell through this festival is not finished yet. What we are certain of is the fact that the team behind HORST will remain unchanged for the next event, as will be our careful approach and values we have put into all the previous HORST festivals. With this in mind, we will unveil a small clue about that next chapter: we’re intrigued by how we can work around concepts like ‘club culture’ and ‘urban environment’. But other than that, we’re not going to say anything more just yet!"
The final edition of HORST will take place on September 7, 8 and 9, at the castle of Horst in Holsbeek. Keep an eye out on the Facebook page and website for forthcoming news on tickets, lineup and more.