Well-known Art Event Ditches Old Digs for Roosevelt Island

Meredith Monk chose Roosevelt Island for a site-specific performance in 1994 called American Archeology No. 1: Roosevelt Island, which explored the Island’s history and its evolution to a residential community. Through music, dance, and the powerful imagery of Lighthouse Park and the smallpox hospital ruins, Monk evoked the spirit of the Island and she invited Roosevelt Island residents and doctors from Bird S. Coler Hospital and Goldwater Memorial Hospitals to participate in her choreography.

David Koren was in the audience that September day and images of the magical experience have stuck with him. Koren is the founder and executive producer of FIGMENT, a wildly successful free participatory annual arts event whose home base has been Governor’s Island since FIGMENT’s inception in 2007. However, with the city’s increasing focus on developing and rezoning the former military base, Koren and his team decided to relocate. They chose Roosevelt Island as the site for FIGMENT 2019 this coming June 1-2.

David Koren poses with Open Doors' Jennilie Brewster at a picnic FIGMENT held at Lighthouse Park earlier this fall.

Why Roosevelt Island? For one, the Island’s natural beauty is a spectacular backdrop for artistic expression as Monk’s performance proved. But perhaps of greater interest to organizers is that Roosevelt Island provides an opportunity for FIGMENT to engage with a contained, diverse residential community in a meaningful way. At its core, FIGMENT’s mission is to empower and connect people through creativity. The artwork is not the kind found on gallery walls. At FIGMENT you’ll find hula hoop dancing, community quilting, tree houses and wandering wizards.

Multi-disciplinary artists submit interactive project ideas months prior to the event each year. The rewards of creative participation, he says, can be transformative on personal and on social levels. People feel happier, public spaces are reinvigorated, and inspiring connections are made which ultimately strengthen communities long-term.

The idea for FIGMENT came from Koren’s experiences at Burning Man (a temporary city and ecstatic celebration of artistic expression that is erected for one week in Nevada each year) and his desire to share what he learned back home. Koren speaks about this in his 2011 TEDx Talk: “Black Rock City taught me that you get out of it what you put into it. The harder you work and pour your heart and soul into what you do the greater the results will be. You’ll learn more and you’ll feel better and you’ll build community.”

FIGMENT is funded entirely by grants and donations and the hundreds of people who make it happen, including Koren, are volunteers. Selling and advertising goods or services is not permitted according to FIGMENT’s 11 principles listed on their website. “Everything that you see at FIGMENT is born from a simple desire to share imagination with each other and the public.” It’s an idea that is resonating beyond NYC as more and more FIGMENT events pop up across the country and around the world and attendance grows steadily.

Last year 15,000 people and 200 artists participated in the two-day event on Governor’s Island. Looking ahead, Koren thinks the energy FIGMENT evokes and the influx of visitors could help shift the public’s perception of Roosevelt Island. More visitors and foot traffic could fuel local businesses and bring more creative projects to the Island.

While he understands the concern that increased attention could come at a price, he isn't looking to impose his own vision on the Island, or any specific vision at all; “Roosevelt Island is a unique place and I don't see anything changing the fact that it is special and distinct. Some people may not want it to change at all from how it is, but change is the only constant. The trick is to try to manage that change so that the culture and spirit of the Island changes gradually in a way that the residents are a part of, rather than something that comes from outside.”

To start this collaborative process, FIGMENT called a community meeting on October 23, 7pm at Chapel of the Good Shepard. They decided to hold a meeting early in their process “to get community members involved as key parts of the FIGMENT team and as artists working on projects so that this FIGMENT event on Roosevelt Island really is in many ways created by Roosevelt Islanders.”

In fact, creative collaborations have already begun. In September, FIGMENT announced the City of Dreams Pavilion 2019 design competition and a group of RI-based creatives including Niti Parikh from the CornellTech MakerLAB, Christina Delfico from iDig2Learn, Jennilie Brewster from OPEN DOORS and J. Khadijah Abdurahman from WordToRI assembled a team and made a submission.

The pavilion will be a freestanding shelter where people can congregate for lectures and performances and the design applicants must represent an optimistic vision of New York City’s future. Unlike the many art installations which will pop up just for the duration of FIGMENT, the pavilion structure will live at Lighthouse Park for four months.

The name FIGMENT serves as a link to renowned New York City artist Andy Warhol who once said that he wanted his gravestone to have just one word on it -- Figment. “What Warhol was saying,” explains Koren in his TEDx Talk, “is that we are all created by those around us. We aren’t just independent people. We all exist in collaborative environments naturally. We can’t get away from that. No person is an island. We are all in it together.”

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