Get Your Inner Artist On and Make Way for Figment

Things are going to start to get colorful around here come June, and it won’t just be the typical color of summer abloom. Roosevelt Island is the new chosen home for Figment, a dynamic arts festival which emerged out of Burning Man, a yearly week long art festival in the Nevada desert that has been rising in popularity since its inception in the 1980’s.

Figment is the brainchild of David Koren, and began 12 years ago on Governor’s Island. Since that time there have been 69 Figment Festivals throughout the globe. Roosevelt Island’s will take place on June 1 and 2. The Roosevelt Island committee of Manhattan Community Board 8 will host a presentation on Figment tonight at 6:30pm in the upper level of Good Shepherd.

At recent art opening, Cultural Preservation, RIOC’s Susan Rosenthal spoke about Roosevelt Island’s love of the arts, and her interest in doing more “events like this.” The collaboration with Figment is a bold and exciting move to bring more of the arts to the Island on a whole new level, and screams “Island of Art,” Roosevelt Island Visual Arts Association (RIVAA) President Tad Sudol’s vision for the Island.

RIOC President Susan Rosenthal Addresses Attendees at RIVAA Gallery's Cultural Preservation Exhibition Opening

Burning Man, Once a Fringe Event

Burning Man, for those who don’t know about it, began 32 years ago as a fringe event on a beach in San Francisco. Last year, the now infamous and mainstream Black Rock City, Nevada event had over 70,000 attendees.

In the words of Android Jones from Boulder Colorado, Burning Man is “one of the most convincing Freedom Simulations there is. We’re given unlimited ability to really play with the idea of the unlimited value of human potential and creativity for a very small amount of time.” (Burning Man: A Journey through the Playa a documentary by Todd Kortte)

But with its growth in popularity to immense proportions came an influx of the very wealthy, as Burning Man became what Koren refers to as “a bucket list item for billionaires.”

The Birth of Figment–a Push Toward More Diversity

Standing on a temporary stage in Black Rock City, Nevada in 2011, a younger David Koren addressed the Burning Man crowd with his vision for a vibrant and deeply engaging participatory arts festival given back to regular people, and a more socio-economically and racially diverse population.

“If you look around the room here, and you look out at Black Rock City, you’ll see that many of us look the same: many of us are white people… We need to start to look outward and put our energy outward to bring [other] people in. And I would love to invite them all to come here – I’d like to invite the 6 billion, 999 million people who aren’t here, to come here. But they won’t fit. So we have to start doing more things out there, that are like this here. And we have to start sharing what we’ve learned at Burning Man with the people out there.”

Figment Mission

Figment, started by Koren and a group of others in New York City, set out to do just that.

“FIGMENT catalyzes and celebrates an abundance of creativity and passion, challenging artists and our communities to find new ways to create, share, think and dream,” states the Figment website.

The first Figment event on Governor’s Island was a smashing success. They expected 500 attendees, and 2,500 came. Another 2,500 were stuck in Manhattan because they shut down the ferries. However Governor’s Island became Figment NYC’s forever home for the next 12 years. Indeed, according to Koren, Figment had an influential role in transforming the once abandoned army barracks island to a vibrant tourist destination.

Unpretentious, with a face that readily dimples into a smile, Koren is approachable and kind and ready to engage in meaningful dialogue, assuming the equal intelligence of those around him. He belies the notion of the artist as a perennial introvert. He seems more to evoke the feeling of the artist as every man.

What Happens When Theatre People Do Art

“Most people who attend a Figment festival have never experienced anything like this before,” says Koren. He described one event where people asked him, “But where is the art?” because they had just walked right past it without seeing what it had to offer. Participatory art blurs the boundaries between artist and audience, and between the artist and the art itself. It invites people to engage and bring something to the experience. Koren explained that one friend describes it by saying that “Figment is what happens when theater people do art.”

But obviously Figment is not only for "theater people." Our Figment festival is being supported by diverse local arts organizations like RIVAA and Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance. And this Thursday, February 21, Koren will be presenting his plans for Figment on Roosevelt Island at the Community Board 8 meeting at the Good Shepherd Church on Main Street.

Those interested in learning more about the event should attend the meeting. There’s a wonderful opportunity for Roosevelt Islanders to help make it an exciting and memorable event; they can submit their own work.

Your Art Here

“Figments happen all over the world,” says Curatorial Director Francesca Anumonwo explaining that a goal of theirs is local participation. As a result, each Figment will have its own image and art inspired by where it’s taking place. "For instance, in Boston, there’s a lot of tech people there, and there’s a lot of interesting light and technology. Then if you go to Oakland, it tends to be more abstract art based with bigger painting and interactive art."

Anumonwo thinks that Roosevelt Island's might be different than Governor's Island because we have actual galleries and people that live here. Whereas Governor’s Island is uninhabited. She says, "It’s really exciting to see how it grows and evolves each year and gets better.”

“We have a good number of submissions, but we always want more,” explained Anumonwo. “We aren’t into turning people away. We always make it work.” It’s impossible not to feel Koren and his team’s excitement and passion rubbing off on you when they speak.

Anumonwo says there have already been many submissions involving performing arts. There is one artist who uses all types of unusual devices to create music, including a radio, a shoe, a drum… and it’s all connected to one piece… He then takes the recordings of people who participate and incorporates them into what he’s doing. “We have one project that just got submitted… well, without going too much into it, it’s beautiful, it’s big, and it lights up,” said Anumonwo.

Pavillion contest winner, Salvage Swings by Somewhere Studio will construct an architectural pavilion of swing structures on Roosevelt Islandout of scrap cross-laminated timber from a University of Arkansas construction project.

Most installations will remain for just the first weekend of June. The Pavillion Contest winner, just announced, will have their installation stay up for the entire summer. Since the Lighthouse Park stays open to the public until 10pm Koren and his team hope to utilize the potential for light-up displays. Colorful moving and stationary light-up displays illuminating the dark filled dessert sky have long been a signature of Burning Man, along with the burning of an effigy.

There is still an open call for submissions, and the deadline for entries is April 7. You can go to the Figment website to enter a submission, sign up to volunteer, see photo galleries of other events and learn more. Among some of the guidelines are requirements to make sure that the installation can withstand wind and rain for two days, and that it complies with their promise to “leave no trace.” Also, making sure that there will not be any liability or safety issues. But the curatorial team, led by Anumonwo will work with artists to ensure that the project is safe and viable on Roosevelt Island.

While the focal point is Lighthouse Park, there will be stations around the Island, such as the RIVAA Gallery, and “Roving Artists” who move around from place to place. “There may be some artists who perform on the stage, but our goal is always to take things off the stage,” says Anumonwo.

Unleashing the Inner Artist

FIGMENT is all about tearing down barriers. The barriers between people. And the barriers within people that separate their interior life from their public life. Koren wants to blur those distinctions between the impossible and the possible, the forbidden and the freely given, between artists and their communities, and between art and it’s audience. In fact, Koren eschews the very notion of an “audience” as separate from the art.

In the FIGMENT mission, the art relies on audience participation. It is not for sitting passively by, saving your applause for the end of a scene. It’s not for quietly milling through a museum steeped in formality. FIGMENT takes art off the walls and out of the frame and beyond the traditional venues and lets it breathe, to become a dynamic, living thing, a social experience.

It also strives to make art accessible to everyone, not confined to the realm of wealthy dealers and collectors.

Deriving from Andy Warhol’s vision of his own tombstone baring the sole word ‘Figment”- speaking to the notion that his life and work as an artist is not bound by ego or individual identity – but is part and parcel of a much larger, collective energy. It is not about decorating your walls and racking up collectible art like trophies; it’s about letting an experience deeply engage you and even change you, erasing the boundaries of identity that separate you from others.

Anumonwo, who goes by the name Obi, speaks of her own transformation from onlooker and supporter of other artists as a volunteer to becoming a presenting artist herself. “The art was always for others. It was never something I could imagine doing myself.

Then after a few years something clicked and I brought my own submission to the festival.”

Anumonwo debuted as an artist last year with her fantastical submission, Ife, a Yoruba word for “love” and the name of a powerful West African Empire. Entwined in lights and sheer green fabric and ivy, Ife looks like a mystical place where one can get lost in the enchantments of the natural world.

Ife, Anumonwo's submission named for the Yoruba word for “love” and a powerful West African Empire

Koren said that each of his team members have had something like that happen to them at a different festival in a different city. “We’re living in such a technical world,” says Koren.” We’re in our own bubbles. It can be hard to break in.. breaking through that and letting people know that this is for them and something for them to be a part of… Even if you don’t think you’re a creative.. You are… This is a FIERCELY inclusive event… we want to break down every barrier that exists.”

Koren believes that art is not something to be valued with dollar signs but instead should be insisted upon as a matter of human survival. He believes that the ability to tap into our artistic natures in a collaborative can change the world. And that’s what Koren is striving to do, right here on Roosevelt Island and beyond.

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