A shimmering, larger-than-life unicorn, propelled by a human-powered go-cart escorting a mounted human at a soaring height, with its magnificent, moving head and neck steered around Lighthouse Park. Then there were swings; enormous, moveable beach balls, a big frog with an unfurling tongue and joyous rhythmic music that made you want to dance. There was a costume shop, overflowing with silly and colorful hats and outfits free for the taking, with the one stipulation that the takers wear their choices home. It was the silliness of Halloween in summer. It was adults and children creating together and playing alongside one another. It was the freedom and delight of an unexpected surprise. The Figment Festival was two days of fun exploration enjoyed by visitors and locals alike.
Figment 2019 Met with Rave Reviews: Exceeding Expectations
But it almost didn’t turn out that way. After 12 years on Governor’s Island and 69 successful events in locations around the country as well as abroad, the Figment Festival arrived for the first time on Roosevelt Island’s shores mired in controversy. There was backlash from locals after the Cherry Blossom Festival attracted tens of thousands of visitors, causing chaos and impacting Islanders ability to travel on and off the Island.
Others viewed the spinout of Burning Man as a troublesome fringe event attracting drug users and eccentrics – at a presentation to the CB8 Board, Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA) president Lynne Strong-Shinozaki said a question she said she had heard was whether there would be “a lot of people smoking pot everywhere.”
The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) held a community Town Hall with Figment organizers to assuage the community’s concerns and share their plans for security and crowd control. Ultimately, 90 NYPD officers NYPD officers were stationed at 12 locations on the Island, including both sides of the Tram, the subway stop, the ferry terminal, Motorgate and locations on the east and west esplanades, with their main location being Lighthouse Park. Additionally, a private security company was employed to check bags, stamp hands and, even conduct pat-downs. The predominance of blue-clad cops stood in eerie juxtaposition to the ideals of creativity and personal freedom that are Figment hallmarks. And, according to Figment organizers, the show of police force was unprecedented and, frankly, over-the-top.
Figment creator David Koren talks to a festival attendee
Figment creator David Koren said, “Having New York City Emergency Management running a command station on site on Roosevelt Island, as well as the extreme police and security presence did create a very different kind of atmosphere than we've ever seen before in our 69 previous events, and it did concern and frighten many participants. I had to answer questions from concerned participants all weekend long. Some participants were subjected to pat-downs as they tried to enter the event, which I think is unprecedented for any free community-based arts event.”
7,000 people attended FIGMENT NYC, 4,000 or so on Saturday, and 3,000 or so on Sunday. This was not far off from the total number of people who registered on Eventbrite, 7,418 and in line with Figment Festivals in the past.
A Fun Experience for Families While some locals thought it better to get out of town for the Figment Festival, many local families and children attended the festival, some for both days. Island Yoga Instructor and owner of the upcoming Om wellness studio, Jax Schott, participated with her husband Martin and daughter, Sienna. “It was fun for the kids, well run, and it felt safe. I felt like it was a Junior Burning Man. I sent my 10-year-old on Sunday evening alone to see Monkey King since I felt it was a safe and peaceful event… Where else can you send your kid alone to an event and know they will be taken care of? I loved having Figment on Roosevelt Island!” Island parent Ela Markovsky agreed, “Mira (5) and I loved it, we went on Saturday and also on Sunday. She was very happy about the costumes and face painting. And the giant unicorn, of course!” Srijan Thapa brought her twin sons, Avaneesh and Avigna. She says, “Our boys had lots of fun. They loved the costume section most. One of the twins dressed up in a mummy costume. They loved doing the art work too. Overall we had a wonderful experience.” Merchu Curutchet-Ziv brought her two sons, Unai and Gael. They enjoyed many of the installations, and singled out for particular praise the Tiny Box Theater, in which the participant determines the outcome of the story. Lynne Strong-Shinozowki attended the night-time portion of the event, which featured spectacular “light painting” and people adorned in illuminated outfits and dancing. The omni-present Unicorn was also lit in colorful lights.
The unicorn at night
Artists Weigh In Artists from near and far came together for one dynamic weekend to engage the public with an interactive art experience. Niti Parikh, a local mom and the Creative Lead at Cornell Tech’s MakerLAB was a featured artist. She brought a human-sized automaton made out of cut cardboard. She says, “Every day I work with and advise for functional prototyping at the Maker LAB at Cornell Tech. By entering art to Figment I was hoping to break away from functionality of objects and bring a bit of quirky approach in how I make. The Figment weekend allowed me to do exactly that. The piece was welcomed and met the expectations of visitors of this show who are looking to engage with creations and to see other creations and artists’ approaches to interactive art.” Esther Cohen, a Roosevelt Island Visual Artists Association (RIVAA) artist and photographer, also felt that Figment was a success, an enjoyable and “carefree” experience. “The Pavilion by Somewhere Studio Architects and the Freedom Balloons by Philipp Krebs were a big hit. There were lots of families having a wonderful time with lots of activities geared to children. Also juggling, hoops and races. It would be great to see more art installations next time.” Alexander Tolipan, a RIVAA photographer who covered the event for Figment, also reports an enjoyable experience. “I was there since very early. Seeing it develop from scratch was impressive. The atmosphere was welcoming and fun. I loved the experience. Felt like being part of the Magical Mystery tour. Another installation that was a big hit was a fairy-tale-themed mini-golf course which was created by Hunter Elementary School students as part of their STEM program. Students and teachers came over to the Island on the Friday before the festival to set up their whimsical mini-golf stations referencing Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and the like. This project also tied in with a 6th Grade (Hunter Elementary goes through Grade 6, unlike most NYC elementary schools which span through grade 5) theater production of Into the Woods.
Gallery and above photos by Irina Island Images
Not All Large Events Are Created Equal
Figment creator David Koren took issue with the enhanced security. He understood why this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival caused Islanders concern, but maintains that Figment was never going to draw the same numbers – or the same kind of visitors.
“FIGMENT is a very different event, and we were never going to bring that number of attendees, or that concentration in just a few hours. Our attendance has always been, in all 70 events we've done so far in 20 cities in five countries, very modulated, with people showing up when they can, and leaving when they feel like it. In addition, our participants are invited to create and engage with the projects and with each other, so we have a higher bar for attendees. People don't just come to take a selfie and leave. In our 70 events over the past 13 years, we have never had more people than we could manage. This past weekend's event was certainly no exception to our previous experience. FIGMENT on Roosevelt Island was very similar in its spirit and feeling and creativity to FIGMENT on Governors Island.”
Dominant Police Presence Frightened Many Participants Many participants agreed. Christopher Sykes, who works on the Island, wrote on Facebook, “There was like 50 people in Figment and like 5000 cops.”
One volunteer had an exchange with a hired security guard as she was "felt up" (her words) that went something like this: Her: "Why are you doing this?" Security Guard: "Don't you want to be safe?" Her: "The only thing I don't feel safe about is the way you are touching me."
“Is this level of security really necessary for a free community-based arts event that attracts a few thousand people, and that has a 13-year history of creating 70 events in 20 cities in 5 countries without ever having a security issue?” asks Koren.
The good news is that Koren doesn’t believe the increased security presence prevented anyone from attending. He said that, “I imagine that everyone who was going to come attended anyway, got a little freaked out by the bag checks, pat-downs, and legions of police and security, but then had a good time anyway. I don't think it undermined the experience very much, but it really was completely unnecessary, and it did create a chill at some points to see a dozen cops walking around together through the event.”
Gallery by Alexandre Tolipan
Better to Err On the Side of Caution? Or a Destructive Overreaction? RIVAA's Cohen didn’t take issue with the high concentration of police. In her view, “It’s better to be overprepared. We usually don’t think about these things until something happens.” Another parent said, “I’m grateful we were overprepared.” But Koren had a different take on the impact of this kind of “over-preparedness.” He believes that familiarity and knowledge of one another breeds safety: “I believe that our safety is enhanced when we come together as a community to get to know each other, support each other, and invite each other to create, share, and play together. We want to create a place where people can feel free to be themselves, to create and share and think and dream. I don't think that putting that free space behind a security gauntlet, and having it observed by a significant number of police and security guards, makes people feel safe or free to be themselves. I think it does run at cross-purposes to what we're trying to create, and it does concern me for what the future might bring, and what kind of society we might be becoming.”
Next year Koren hopes to strike a healthier balance. “I certainly hope that we have demonstrated what FIGMENT is, what we're all about, and what we believe in to the people and leadership of Roosevelt Island. In comparison to the Cherry Blossom Festival, he says, “it is now clear that FIGMENT is a completely different event, and that we can step down the security to a more reasonable level that is appropriate to a free public arts event in a park in New York City. We aren't a rock concert.”