Saturday, June 13, 2009


So I'll admit it, New York is growing on me. This is in no small part thanks to Figment, a weekend-long festival that transforms all of Governor's Island into a giant outdoor free museum of installation and collaborative art. For my readers familiar with Reed College, think of a G-rated version of Renn Fayre set on an island and backed by the creative force of all of New York City.

In my continuing quest to not only get concepts for collaborative art, but also understand what makes people excited and willing to participate in it, I was struck by the casual attitude with which people would go up to exhibits and join in. Many exhibits simply set out materials with little explanation and often no facilitator, yet people happily picked up brushes, or markers, or ribbons, and started making art.

Several were strikingly similar to the Advent Fig Tree (parts 1 and 2) which I organized in my congregation last fall, in that they were based upon people attaching hopes to trees.
A mobile on which people hang what they want to be.

Here someone participates in the Vedic tradition of tying flowers to trees.
Ribbons containing people's hopes

Religion theorists talk about the distinction between sacred and profane space, how they are kept separate, and how we bridge them. I think Figment benefited from being able to create a space that is separate from the rest of NYC reality--a sacred precinct for art, if you will. First of all Figment is located on an island. The only way to reach the island is by ferry. The only people going on to the ferry are people who want to participate in the festival.

The ferry, the ferry station, and the ferry workers are all decorated for the event. Inspirational quotations about art are plastered everywhere.

When people get off the ferry they are immediately greeted by the rhythmic pounding of giant drums made out garbage can upon which they are encouraged to beat their own rhythm. In addition to all the crazy sculptures and art that they are about to encounter, the pre-existing architecture on the island is all early twentieth-century brick fortresses, furthering the surreal experience.
By the time people are passed the off-loading area of the ferry, they have truly entered another world--a world where social norms and expectations are totally different. In the world of Figment, people are not supposed to mind their own business and not look too closely at what the people on the side of the street are doing; here, they are supposed to notice everything and be a part of it.
I'll put up more pictures when I get back to Berkeley (Monday), but no one camera can truly document this festival. I encourage you to visit the site setup by the organizers where everyone who attended the event is invited to post their pictures for others to see. The art and community of Figment lives on online!
As a side note, Figment hosted lectures by (among others) The Wooster Collective (which documents street art from around the world) and LoVid (which combines electronic and human interaction to create some amazing art). Check out their websites, they're really cool.


Anonymous said...

Your description made me want to participate...It seems to me that many of us are hungry to express our emotions and at the same time connect with a higher spirit...walking in the Rio Grande, you will find a tree where people have placed itmes in what it seems to me is a reverence to the tree...but it looks very articstic.This type or Art is annonymous,one does not have to be a great artist, so it is very easy to participate. thank you for sharing your experience with us!

Ben Colahan said...

Anonymous collective art is incredibly powerful, but also distressingly rare. Whenever I encounter it, I am reminded of the shrines in the mountains of ancient Europe devoted to various saints and gods. When I get back to Berkeley in a couple of days, I'm planning to visit on old land-fill that's covered in this type of art.

Landon said...

I love that landfill! It's one of my favorite places in CA.

MF Connection said...

Yes, having a place set aside definitely helps free people up to let loose parts of themselves normally closely held back. Summer Camp is like that, too.
It's heartening to know that a huge city, with all its necessary rules, has made a place like this. Festivals matter!