By Vladimir Brezina and Johna Till Johnson
On Saturday 11 June, 2011, along with our friend Runar, we visited Figment NYC 2011, a free-form art festival that takes place annually on Governors Island in New York City (and in several other US cities). The vibe is half Woodstock, half Burning Man, with a dash of Magic Kingdom.
According to its organizers: “FIGMENT is an explosion of creative energy. It’s a free, annual celebration of participatory art and culture where everything is possible. For one weekend each summer, it transforms Governors Island into a large-scale collaborative artwork – and then it’s gone.”
“Participatory art—what’s that?”, you ask. Read on: It can be anything—but most of all, it’s fun! That was our biggest takeaway from Figment… it was a hell of a lot of fun, despite the cool rainy weather.
Governors Island lies in New York Harbor only half a mile from busy downtown Manhattan, but it has historically been closed to the public, first as a US Army post dating back to the Revolutionary War and then a Coast Guard installation. But in 2003 the Federal Government finally took the long-awaited step of transferring the island, for a symbolic $1, to New York State. (We amused ourselves trying to imagine the scenario when the $1 bill changed hands: Did Governor Pataki actually hand President Bush a dollar? Did an aide supply it out of state funds? Or did Gov. Pataki have to root around in his pocket? What if he didn’t have a dollar? Did the President carry change?)
At any rate, Governors Island now belongs to New York State—which has been trying to figure out what to do with it ever since the transfer. One of the difficulties for development is that the island is, of course, surrounded by water, with access only by ferry—or by kayak!
We were delighted to receive permission to leave our kayaks on the Governors Island dock, safely stowed below the gangway. After disembarking, we took a quick walk around the island…but realized all three of us were starving. So even though it was still late morning, we began the festivities with hot dogs, sausage, corn on the cob, and libations at the Governor’s Island Water Taxi Beach. (Why yes, those are multicolored palm trees. You didn’t think we had them in New York City?) Hunger and thirst slated, we continued to wander around the island…
The island retains the orderly feel of the military base it once was, with tidy rows of houses, many built in 19th-century Colonial or Greek Revival style, along leafy streets. So the takeover of this quiet order by the exuberant crowds of artists and participants, doing their thing on the porches and the lawns, was somewhat reminiscent of the culture clashes of the sixties, or of one of the post-apocalyptic Hollywood movies.
I mean, how often do you come across Captain’s Quarters… with a tricycle-powered, speaker-equipped giant TOAD on the front lawn?
The overall feel of the event was “psychedelia without drugs”. This must have been what the Sixties were like, we mused. (Except we understand they had plenty of drugs, back then. Not that we’d know.) And although it celebrates individuality and self-expression, Figment is hardly an anarchist event. The rules are clear:
“To make sure you and all other visitors have a fun and safe experience, please keep the following in mind:
1 It is NOT SAFE to CLIMB the art
2 YOUR child = YOUR responsibility
3 TREAT the art like it was your HOME
4 It is NEVER “just you” doing it!
5 THINK before you ACT
6 Make the art look even BETTER for the NEXT VISITOR”…
Figment certainly welcomes a wide variety of artistic endeavors. As the organizers note: “Anyone can submit a project to FIGMENT! Adults, children, professional artists or those looking to create their first piece! … Street theater, costuming, sculpture, inflatable art, dance, performance art, installations, social experiments, mobile art, workshops, games, community building projects, arts & crafts, sound art, bands & DJs, lectures & seminars on themes of participatory art & culture, and anything else you can imagine!”
Fortunately, Figment was light on the “lectures and seminars”, but there was plenty of street theater, costuming, sculpture, and inflatable art. And did we mention “participatory art”? We’re getting there…
One thing Figment doesn’t do is provide much in the way of infrastructure. The organizers warn: Don’t count on too much help with funding, access, power, water, and “if you must put stakes in the ground, they can only be 6 inches deep. Due to the Island’s history as a military base, there may be crazy things underground.” (Unfortunately, we missed out on the crazy underground things. Maybe next year!).
The other thing Figment lacked, at least on the day we attended, was sunshine. The weather was cold and rainy, and at times, Manhattan was hardly visible in the mist. Some of the poor artists gave up and quietly huddled together for warmth.
But others had the foresight to bring shelter and music to draw their audience—or a clever concept.
In addition to an extendable tongue and its own means of transportation, Toad had an internal sound system, and the surrounding tents were filled with costumes that people could use to test out alternative selves to the deep beat of its woofers….
Aha! We come to some of that participatory art! Harry Spitz‘s transitory chalk work on tarmac came complete with multicolored chalk sticks so onlookers could add their own.
Wandering along, we came across a group of M.O.R.E. (Ministry of Random Events) barrels equipped with drumsticks and a sign inviting visitors to test their skills. No one was around to laugh, so Runar picked out a complicated rythmn, and Johna joined in with a backbeat.
Participatory art is contagious! By the time we were ready to leave, a half-dozen other people had joined in, and we wandered off with their drum-music in our ears.
We were quite puzzled by the series of wooden boxes we saw dangling from a row of trees, each equipped with a rope to pull to “release the smell”. Some of the described fragrances were pleasant (“Coffee”), some… not so pleasant (“Subway”, anyone?)
But the funny thing was that when we pulled the ropes… nothing actually happened. That we could see, at least. Sometimes you’d get a hallucinatory whiff of the scent, if it was something you had a particularly strong memory of. It took us a while to conclude that the “participant” in this art was your own brain. Very surrealistic!
Then there was the carousel of alternating kayaks and hammocks. The artist suggested that the kayaks were for the kids while adults could relax in the hammocks—but we went straight for the kayaks. I mean, how could we resist? We’d already been out of the water a couple of hours, and needed our fix!
The carousel didn’t actually rotate, but, as the artist (who turned out to be a kayaker himself) explained, the kayaks were copies of actual retrieval kayaks, small, lightweight kayaks designed for seal hunters to race out and pick up the catch, often in choppy, stormy water.
Next we came to the Astroturf Stealth Fighter, “hidden in plain sight”. Who knew that clever political commentary could be so well disguised as a kid’s toy?
One of the most imaginative projects was the Rose Petal Tent. It was nothing but a large tent carpeted with pillows and, over them, a thick layer of real, colorful, fragrant rose petals.
But the bliss on the faces of the participants… There’s something about being able to gather up heaping armfuls of rose petals and toss them at each other that brings out a sense of sheer wonder and joy. And for the rest of the afternoon, Johna walked around with rose petals caught in her shoes…
Another clever idea was the House of True Mirrors, which showed you your face as others see it, not reversed as you yourself see it in an ordinary mirror. Johna decided she liked the non-reversed view better, while Runar didn’t like it as much. For Vlad, what was disconcerting was that the feedback that normally operates to stabilize one’s movements in a mirror was reversed, so that errors were amplified rather than reduced. It would take a while to get used to putting on makeup, shaving, and so on, in a non-reversing mirror.
Finally we came to the optimistically-named House of Fun. Inside were costumed adults dancing to music and a gaggle of the fiercest soccer-playing toddlers you ever saw.
Not just in the House of Fun but everywhere at Figment, oblivious to the p0uring rain, kids really were having fun! It seemed as if Figment was really an event for kids—as well as those who could take pleasure, some of the time at least, in being childlike..
On the way back to the water, we encountered Toad on the move, sound system blaring, with his own honor guard.
The multicolored tricycle rider reminded Vlad of a respected professor in his field, who used to dress this way, peace-sign earrings and all, at scientific conferences. (Johna: Who knew neuroscientists were so sartorially interesting?)
After we’d visited most of the projects and refreshed ourselves with coffee and ice cream, we headed back to the dock.
Sure enough our kayaks were still there, safe and sound—but they appeared to have multiplied: Our three had turned into seven. And they were mighty familiar ones, too… “Hey, that’s the Tiderace Adam was paddling!”, Johna exclaimed. And sure enough, fellow Pier 40 paddlers Adam, Orlando, Mollie and Nat appeared just as we were getting ready to launch. So we all took off for Manhattan, encircled by swirling mist.
Halfway across, Johna tossed a couple of mud balls into the water. One of the Figment projects that we saw was a pile of these balls, containing “beneficial water-cleansing microbes”, which participants were invited to throw into the dirty water of New York Harbor. So Johna ceremoniously cleansed the waters…
As the towers of Manhattan hove into view, Nat remarked, “I never knew how beautiful New York could be in the rain!” To which Adam responded, “The view from a kayak is always beautiful.”