The FIGMENT Update

When our group got together to start FIGMENT in 2007, we never had any idea that it could ever grow this much, this fast. In 2010, our three-day NYC event had nearly 25,000 participants, and our Boston event, just in its first year, had something like 10,000 participants. It’s really amazing to see how quickly the community around FIGMENT has grown, and it’s exciting to see where it can go next.

Welcome to FIGMENT! (Image (c) 2010 NY_Man)

FIGMENT began in New York in 2007 as a way to bring three important resources together: first, Governors Island, a former Army and then Coast Guard base in New York Harbor that had just been turned over to New York City; second, the creative energy of artists in New York, often creating work without ample resources, often desperately in need of space; and third, the ethos that many of the founders of FIGMENT had learned from Burning Man, expressed in the ten principles—basically, teaching us how to work collaboratively together to make great things happen in a way that is participatory, generous, and free from commoditization.

The idea took off immediately, and, while we expected 500 people or so at our first one-day event, we had over 2,600 people, with thousands more turned away at the ferries. We haven’t stopped since. The New York event has grown exponentially each year, increasing how much art we cram onto the island’s 172 acres, growing in participation as art projects become more ambitious, growing in duration as we add increasingly successful summer-long projects every year, and growing in stability as we build a team that believes in this event and can keep it going.

The Temple of Wonder by Jen Upchurch, Bryan Cates, and Douglas Hart, on Governors Island until October 3, 2010 (Image (c) 2010 Limelike)

So what is FIGMENT, anyway? FIGMENT is a free, large-scale, public participatory art explosion, in which absolutely everyone is encouraged to participate in any way they see fit. We select projects for FIGMENT via open calls for art, and apply a very basic criteria to submitted projects: Is the project participatory or interactive in some way? Is the project appropriate for the general public? Can it be cleaned up easily?

Kids painting an "art car" at FIGMENT Boston (June 5,  2010) (Image (c) 2010 Lucid Revolution)
Painting an Art Car at FIGMENT Boston (Image (c) 2010 Lucid Revolution)

There are a lot of things that have surprised us along the way as FIGMENT has grown… One is the kids. We really didn’t expect FIGMENT to become such an amazing event for children and young families. When we began to plan the first FIGMENT, none of the organizers had kids (now I have a two-year old daughter). But we quickly found, in our first year, just how much kids love what FIGMENT has to offer: art that you can play with, 200 ways to get messy, hula hoops, rave music, rose petal and glitter pools, minigolf! At FIGMENT, you often see kids leading their parents around, and kids and their parents playing together, in a way that is fun for everybody.

Another thing we really didn’t expect was that a daytime-only, alcohol-free event could feel like such a fantastic party. Since Governors Island is only open during the day, FIGMENT was forced to begin as a daytime-only event, despite the hopes of some of the organizers that FIGMENT could grow to include a nighttime element, or even become a 24-hour event at some point. But, surprisingly, the focus on daytime, and on maintaining a public face that is appropriate for everyone, has meant that the event is actually completely inclusive. Also surprising is that big parties have not really become part of FIGMENT—there aren’t huge afterparties or related nighttime events. People go to FIGMENT, and then go home to sleep so they can get up early and do it again!

One of 11 minigolf holes for 2010 in the FIGMENT Minigolf Course: Just Dreaming Is Not Enough by WUKAG (Wichita State University Kinetic Art Group) – Jeswin Joseph Chankaramangalam, Wai Seong Choy, John Harrison, MohamdAli Ishaque Kazi, Christian Kindel, Ivy Lanning, Alan Whitaker (Image (c) 2010 JasonEppink)

Given the fact that Governors Island is an uninhabited island that is open to the public for about 18 weekends in the summer, the idea occurred to us very quickly to try to create art that could be up for a longer period of time. In 2008, FIGMENT expanded to include two longer-term exhibitions, both of which were funded in part by Black Rock Arts Foundation: Emergence, an interactive installation in a 100-year old officer’s residence created by 30 artists or collectives, and the FIGMENT Minigolf Course, which was actually originally suggested by Leslie Koch, the President of Governors Island. The FIGMENT Minigolf Course has become a staple of summer in New York City, spurring a new trend in artist-designed minigolf courses in the New York area. Now in its third year, the FIGMENT Minigolf Course remains completely free and funded by donations, enabling children and adults of all backgrounds to engage in a participatory art experience, providing a summer-long cultural experience for many people who do not go to museums, or galleries, or professional theatres. In 2009, we also added a summer-long sculpture garden, which has grown again in 2010. In 2010, we created our first architectural design competition to create a pavilion as a performance and gathering space on the island. The winning design, the Living Pavilion, opened on June 11 at FIGMENT, and has received rave reviews for its innovative use of milk crates and plantings that have been turned upside down.

The Living Pavilion by Ann Ha and Behrang Behin (Image (c) 2010 Troy Frantz)

Another way in which FIGMENT is growing is geographically. In my first post on the Burning Man Blog, I talked about what it was like not to go to Burning Man in 2009 for the first time in a number of years. A first-time burner from Boston, Jason Turgeon, saw that post after he got back from the playa, noticed my reference to FIGMENT, and contacted me, inspired to figure out how to recreate the spirit he experienced at Burning Man in his local community. We met, and started talking. Jason started to build a core group that could make FIGMENT happen in Boston, including Peter Durand, one of the Burning Man Regional Contacts for Boston. In cooperation with the Cambridge Arts Council, FIGMENT Boston took place on June 5, on a closed stretch of Memorial Drive along the Charles River in Cambridge. Since the event was located right next to the Cambridge River Festival, a more conventional arts festival involving food vending, artists selling their work, and paid performers, visitors kept wandering across the road into FIGMENT, and asking, “So what is this? And why is everyone smiling over here?” While I was initially a little nervous about having FIGMENT be right next to a conventional arts festival, ultimately the juxtaposition served to highlight how FIGMENT is different, and what makes it special. This feeling was helping along by the fact that Cler, a wonderful Boston volunteer, created beautiful hand-painted signs that explained the Ten Principles.

The Self-Reliance principle, illustrated beautifully for the general public by Cler (Image (c) 2010 Yacht Boy)

So what’s next for FIGMENT? Well, it’s certainly possible that we could see more geographic expansion, with other events popping up in other cities following the FIGMENT model. One thing that we’re really interested in exploring is the idea of learning as a formal part of FIGMENT. I’ve realized that one of the things that is appealing to me about FIGMENT is just how much I learn every year by working to make this event happen… I’ve learned so much about leadership, management, planning, community, creativity, collaboration… And, as I look around, I realize everyone else is learning too… The team members, the artists, the kids who are in glitter up to their waists… How do we take that process of informal learning through creativity and make it some more established part of what we do, without crushing it completely into an “educational curriculum” or something like that? I’d love to hear your ideas… Feel free to email me here: davidkoren (at) figmentproject.org.

About the author: David Koren

David Koren (or "not that dave") is the Executive Producer of FIGMENT, which began in 2007 as a free participatory arts event on Governors Island in New York City. By 2012, this annual event involved 25,000 participants and 400 arts projects, and was named the Best Art Festival in NYC by the Village Voice. In 2010, FIGMENT began to spread to other cities and in 2013 FIGMENT events will happen in approximately 10 locations in North America and Australia. FIGMENT has also created several annual summer-long installations on Governors Island, including an interactive sculpture garden, an artist-designed mini golf course, and the City of Dreams Pavilion, the result of an architectural design competition in collaboration with ENYA and SEAoNY. He is also an official Burning Man Contact for New York City and a member of the Meta-Regionals Committee. Professionally, David is the Marketing Director for one of the largest architectural firms in the United States.

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