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. FIGMENT’s annual participatory arts event began in New York City in 2007 and has expanded to include events across the United States and beyond. In New York, FIGMENT hosts an annual summer-long exhibition on Governors Island that includes an interactive sculpture garden, an artist-designed minigolf course, and an architectural pavilion co-presented with ENYA and SEAoNY. In Boston, FIGMENT is a central part of Boston First Night.
Since its launch in 2007, FIGMENT has grown significantly each year—in number of projects, event duration, participants, volunteers, fundraising capability, exhibitions, geographic locations, overall level of commitment and participation, and public support.
As 2014 began, both New York City and Boston swore in new mayors, after each city had had its previous mayor for several terms, since before FIGMENT had started. This succession of leadership in each city created some uncertainty for the teams in each city. New York City’s new mayor, Bill DeBlasio, was a former City Council member and Public Advocate who had not yet taken much of a stand on the arts and its role in the cultural fabric of the city. Boston’s new mayor, Marty Walsh, campaigned on a pro-arts agenda, promising to create a cabinet-level arts post for the first time ever. To commemorate and acknowledge the new mayor in New York City, the FIGMENT NYC team decided to make the theme for the annual artist-designed summer-long minigolf course, “New York City Now.” From the Call for Proposals:
"We have a new mayor in our city for the first time in 12 years, and we now have an opportunity to re-evaluate and re-imagine what our city is all about. We invite you to realize the New York City that exists in your imagination, through the populist medium of minigolf!"
As 2014 began, David Koren and the FIGMENT Admin Team were working on the 2013 Annual Report, the first Annual Report to be professionally printed.
Following two outstanding "firsts" for FIGMENT in 2013 with FIGMENT Geelong and FIGMENT San Diego, FIGMENT added a third "first" in April 2013 with ALPHA, a new weekend-long camping event for creators of participatory or interactive art, held at Camp Ramblewood in Darlington, Maryland. ALPHA was held from April 26ª28, 2013, and was produced by lead producer Amber Alliger, with co-producer Benjamin Jones. Jeremy Alliger, Amber's cousin and a member of the FIGMENT Boston Core Team focused on Development, served as ALPHA's Curatorial Director.
ALPHA began as a conversation between David Koren and Harry Leff, the visionary owner of Camp Ramblewood, that started after the two met at PEX Summer Festival at Ramblewood in 2010. Harry runs the camp as a place where groups can come and exhibit a level of freedom greater than they often can in their daily lives. Aside from PEX Summer Festival, a music-oriented, Burning Man-inspired event, Ramblewood hosts events that include the Maryland Faerie Festival, Men's Events, Women's Events, events for the BDSM community, retreats for school groups, etc. Harry was interested in creating an arts event at Ramblewood, and he and David started a conversation that got more intense in Summer and Fall 2012, and led David to develop a proposal for ALPHA.
The key concept of the event is experimentation. The event itself is an experiment, and everything that happens at it should be an experiment, too. This is not a place to repeat a previous project... This is the place to try something totally new. Everyone who attends ALPHA is expected to bring an art project or workshop that they are working on to ALPHA, in order to share it, refine it, get feedback, and move forward. One other experiment of ALPHA is a rudimentary alternate currency system and funding model. Each paid attendee at ALPHA receives four ALPHA tokens as part of their admission fee. Each token is worth $5, and can be given to any artist presenting work at ALPHA, to be redeemed before leaving the event.
70 participants attended ALPHA, and, together, brought nearly as many projects, filling an eight-page "What When Where" guide.
The Summer Season Begins
FIGMENT Jackson was held for the third year on May 18-19, 2013, again in the Midtown Arts District, a new arts district that receives significant attention from the city. FIGMENT Jackson Producer Whitney Grant led the production team for the third years, this time as an employee of Midtown Partners, a not-for-profit organization focused on developing the Midtown Arts District. Producing FIGMENT was now part of Whitney's job! Co-Producer Melvin Priester had to step back a bit from FIGMENT, as, during the planning process, he was engaged in running for City Council in Jackson's Ward Two. In early May, just before FIGMENT Jackson, Melvin was elected to City Council. Two years after FIGMENT's first event in Jackson, one Producer was now employed to make FIGMENT happen as part of her job, and the other was now an elected member of City Council in Jackson! In addition, FIGMENT was a partner in receiving an "Our Town" grant from the National Endowment from the Arts, and created the first FIGMENT summer-long installation program outside of New York. Six interactive sculpture projects were selected and installed around the Midtown Arts District for the FIGMENT event and the summer season.
Former FIGMENT NYC Logistics Lead Andrea Kirk took the reigns as Producer of FIGMENT NYC, and led the NYC Core Team to create another successful FIGMENT NYC event on June 8-9, 2013. Interestingly, there was no rain during the event, but New York was pounded by Tropical Storm Andrea (yes, really) on Friday, June 7, and it rained again on Monday, June 10. The overall attendance on Saturday and Sunday was 21,805 participants, who engaged with over 200 interactive art projects. The NYC Core Team faced new challenges this year, as construction on the new park on the island became more intense, and vehicle access was more limited than ever. Given the ongoing work to the island's sea wall, there was no access to the south end of the island ("Picnic Point," or, sometimes at FIGMENT, "Disorient Point"). In addition, national politics also had a significant impact on FIGMENT NYC 2013: due to inability of the House of Representatives to compromise on the budget, the US Government enacted automatic across-the-board budget cuts in March 2013, called "the sequester." Governors Island National Monument, which comprises 22 acres of the 172-acre island, decided to cut seasonal staff that approve and manage special use permits for the National Park, so FIGMENT could not place or install any projects in the National Park. This led to a much more concentrated and denser FIGMENT event, principally located on the Parade Ground, in Nolan Park, and in Colonels Row. The pavilion returned to FIGMENT in 2013, with the winner of the 2012 design competition, "Head in the Clouds" by StudioKCA, placed in the center of the Parade Ground. This pavilion was built with 53,780 milk jugs and water bottles, the average number of bottles that New York City throws away every hour. “Head in the Clouds” was later awarded the “Best of Year” award from Interior Design magazine in the installation category. In addition, Benjamin Jones' Treehouse returned for its third year, with a new extension; the minigolf course returned for its sixth year, with the theme of "State of the Art," and the interactive sculpture garden returned for its fifth year. The FIGMENT NYC Producers Brunch, held on Sunday at 11am, included attendees from FIGMENT teams in Boston, Geelong, Chicago, Toronto, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and individuals interested in getting FIGMENT started in Seattle and Baltimore.
FIGMENT Boston was held for the fourth year on July 27-28, 2013, the third year on Rose Kennedy Greenway. For the first time, the FIGMENT nighttime component occurred without rain on the Greenway on Saturday night, featuring light art, illuminating interactive projects, and electronic music. Jason Turgeon announced that this would be his last year producing FIGMENT Boston, and that Anne Lodick, former Communications Director, would succeed him has the new producer. As FIGMENT had become a staple in the cultural calendar in Boston, the FIGMENT Boston leadership was now getting much more credit from the City of Boston, and access to opportunities. Jason Turgeon and Boston Core Team Member Jeremy Alliger curated a summer-long street art exhibition and events at “Barlett Yards,” an old bus maintenance depot that was about to be demolished. In addition, the Boston team was approached by the City of Boston to be a part of First Night Boston on December 31, and to curate a nighttime event on Boston Common.
There had been interest in bringing FIGMENT to Chicago for a few years, but it wasn’t until David Koren met Elysia Lock in Chicago in the summer of 2012 that the conversation began to take shape and progress started to be made toward creating FIGMENT Chicago. Elysia had been the producer of Chicago’s Decompression event, and was very interested in creating a participatory art event for the general public. A local team mobilized around Elysia, and conversations began with the Garfield Park Conservatory, a self-contained conservatory within the larger Garfield Park, which had its own fenced-in grounds. Located in West Chicago, the park is in a predominantly African American neighborhood in Chicago. A date was set for August 10-11, 2014, and the team began preparations. Cynthia Fox, a professional fundraiser, stepped up to lead the fundraising effort for the event, and under her leadership the team did an amazing job raising the funds for the event to happen using a variety of methods including a very successful direct appeal and FIGMENT’s first-ever yard sale. On the day of the event, FIGMENT received a check from B.U.R.N. (the Bold Urban Renaissance Network), the local Burning Man-affiliated not-for-profit, in support of the event. The FIGMENT Chicago team did a great job reaching out to the local community and gathering a great collection of very diverse projects, including a number of interactive performance-oriented projects. FIGMENT Chicago 2014 was the first FIGMENT event to include a fire performance program, which took place on Saturday night, August 10, after the daytime program had concluded, and was curated by Liz Campanella.
Christine Irving in Toronto had also been considering creating a FIGMENT event there for a few years. David Koren and Christine had met in 2010, just as FIGMENT was starting to expand to Boston and Jackson, and started talking about FIGMENT Toronto. It took a few years for the idea to coalesce, and for the venue that Christine really wanted, Olympic Island in Toronto harbor, to become available. With the addition of Kim Breland to the team as co-producer in early 2013, plans really started to come together, with a date set for the event of August 17-18, 2013. This was the quickest event that FIGMENT had yet put together, basically about three months from greenlighting the event to the opening. The team did a wonderful job pulling it together, but everybody felt afterward that the event could have benefited by more lead time to solicit artists. New York’s Aqua Attack team made the journey to Toronto to bring their project to the event. In addition, this was the first FIGMENT event with camping: artists and team members were able to camp out on Toronto Island overnight, with an incredible view of the Toronto skyline.
In FIGMENT DC’s second year, the event was forced to move from its first-year location at the new “The Yards” park. “The Yards,” a privately owned public space, increased the proposed rental fee for FIGMENT from $2,000 to $20,000, putting the venue completely out of reach of a community-oriented participatory arts event that is free to the public. The FIGMENT DC team decided to move to Anacostia Park, a National Park just across the river from “The Yards.” Anacostia Park became the second National Park to host FIGMENT after the Governors Island National Monument. FIGMENT DC took place on September 28-29, 2013, again produced by Patty Simonton.
FIGMENT Boston Artist Bevan Weissman moved to Philadelphia in late 2012, and David Koren met with him in New York and asked him to think about a FIGMENT event in Philadelphia, and to keep his eyes open for a producer. Bevan took this very seriously, and decided that he would be this producer, and would bring FIGMENT to Philadelphia. The first FIGMENT Philadelphia event took place on October 6, 2013, in Clark Park in West Philadelphia. Interestingly, there were a number of projects that were build-based, allowing participants to create their own reconfigurable structures using artist-created components, and there were also a lot of projects that were conversational or psychological in nature. It was a wonderful way to close the 2013 summer season.
Making Things Tighter and Brighter in the Off-Seasons
As always, in the increasingly short “off season” the FIGMENT Admin team started working on ways to improve the FIGMENT infrastructure for events in all of our cities. The team worked on improving the Salesforce-based artist management system (which had been used to recruit and manage artists for San Diego and every event thereafter, a total of eight events in 2013), and started working on new web platform based on NationBuilder, which more seamlessly integrates webhosting, email and social media communications, volunteer recruitment, and donor solicitation. The Admin Team also worked on revising and expanding the online “FIGMENT How To” manual for all local teams to use as a resource.
FIGMENT Director of Administration and Board Member Debra Keneally announced that she would be stepping down as Director of Administration and focusing on her board role. FIGMENT HR Director Kate Friedman stepped up to be the new Director of Administration.
FIGMENT Geelong Producer Miriam Fathalla worked with a local pro bono law firm to incorporate FIGMENT in Australia, as Figment Project Australia Limited, with three initial directors: Miriam, David Koren, and Luisa LaFornara. An agreement was worked about between Figment Project, Inc. (the US entity) and Figment Project Australia Limited to govern how the two entities would work together to continue to grow FIGMENT in Australia.
Fire on a Cold Night
On the night of December 31, invited by the City of Boston, FIGMENT Boston took over a large swath of Boston Common to create FIGMENT First Night. FIGMENT recruited artists to bring fire and light-based interactive projects, including fire spinning. Many thousands of revelers crowded around the FIGMENT area as “Riskeeball” (Skeeball with fire) and other fire-based projects went off in the cold night. The event was a huge success, and seems poised to provide a new annual event for the FIGMENT Boston team. Jason Turgeon and Anne Lodick produced the event together, and officially handed off the producer role from Jason to Anne at the event.
In 2012 the New York City event and exhibitions were poised for change, as Governors Island began construction on the first phase of its new park master plan in spring 2012. This meant that the FIGMENT minigolf course and sculpture garden, as well as the City of Dreams Pavilion, had to be relocated from Liggett Terrace to another part of the island.
FIGMENT's program in 2012 included four returning events (Jackson, Boston, New York, and Detroit) and two new events in Washington, DC, and Pittsburgh, for a total of six events, with 50% growth from the year before.
FIGMENT Jackson was held for its second year in a new location, the Midtown Arts District, on April 28-29, 2012. The event was anchored by the North Midtown Arts Center, and was again co-produced by Whitney Grant and Melvin Priester.
FIGMENT Boston was originally scheduled to hold its third annual event on June 2-3, but heavy rains led our hosts, the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservatory, to request that we reschedule the event so as not to risk damaging the grounds. FIGMENT Boston was rescheduled for July 28-29, and became the first FIGMENT event to be rescheduled due to inclement weather. Most of the participating artists were able to accommodate the change, and the FIGMENT team felt that the new dates worked better for the Boston calendar, and decided to again hold the event in late July in the future. One interesting innovation of FIGMENT Boston 2012 was a special grant program created by the Burning Man Regional Event Firefly, held over July 4 weekend in Vermont. Firefly gave three $1000 grants to artists, with the requirement that the granted arts project had to be shown at Firefly, at FIGMENT Boston, and at the Somerville Open Studios art event in the Boston area.
Due to construction on the new park on Governors Island, the island was only open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays in 2012, and FIGMENT NYC was forced to cut the duration of the event from a three-day event to a two-day event. Even so, the event, held on June 9-10, 2012, set a new attendance record of 24,382 participants, the largest attendance for a FIGMENT event to date. Due to the construction, the FIGMENT summer-long programs moved from Liggett Terrace to the South End of the Parade Ground, with Benjamin Jones' Treehouse installed around a large, singular tree there. This location made the summer-long program much more prominent on the island, and rarely was the island open during the summer when the area was not packed with people. The summer-long program in 2012 consisted of the treehouse, the interactive sculpture garden, and the minigolf course, on the theme of "Arcade." Due to some of the challenges the pavilion program faced in 2010 and 2011, the pavilion team decided to extend the schedule for the design competition, jury process, and fabrication to a full 18 months, so began in 2012 to select the pavilion for 2013. One key innovation of FIGMENT NYC 2012 was the "Producers Brunch," in which producers and core team members from other FIGMENT cities were invited to FIGMENT NYC to experience the event and have a Sunday morning facilitated conversation with FIGMENT team members from other cities. FIGMENT NYC received one of its most flattering quotes from the press to date, when BBC Travel wrote, "If FIGMENT were a country, it would be happiest in the world--and I would apply for citizenship immediately." Shortly after the FIGMENT NYC event, Producer Debra Keneally announced that should would be stepping down from the Producer role to focus on the FIGMENT Admin Team, and the search for a new producer began.
FIGMENT Detroit returned to Belle Isle for its second year, and brought joy to approximately 500 participants. Danielle Kaltz had decided before the event that this would be her last year as producer, and she stepped down without an identified successor, putting the future of FIGMENT Detroit into question. FIGMENT Detroit was the first FIGMENT event that David Koren did not attend, due the wedding of close friends in Vermont. Debra Keneally and Carlijn Urlings represented the FIGMENT Board and Admin Team at the 2012 Detroit event.
While planning a business trip to Washington, DC, in early 2012, David Koren wrote to his friend Mark Borden, who had been a former Burning Man Regional Contact for DC, and asked Mark if he might like to get a few people together for a conversation about starting a FIGMENT in DC. Mark filled his living room with more than 30 people for the evening presentation. By the end of the evening, Patty Simonton had volunteered, with the strong support of the attendees, to produce FIGMENT DC. The first FIGMENT DC event took place on September 29, 2012, at The Yards park on the Anacostia River. The event drew over 3,000 participants, who engaged with over 80 participatory and interactive projects.
On another business trip, this time to Pittsburgh in December 2011, David gave a FIGMENT presentation to a group assembled in Doug Staas' living room by Pittsburgh Burning Man Regional Contact Clifford ("Kip") Reese, and another old friend of David's, Tom Tarka. Kip became the FIGMENT Pittsburgh producer, and began to organize a close-knit group of friends into a FIGMENT core team. FIGMENT's first event in Pittsburgh took place on October 6-7, 2012, in Allegheny Common. Approximately 1,000 participants came out to engage with approximately 30 art projects. Despite being unknown to the local community, the Pittsburgh team did a great job procuring grants from the City of Pittsburgh and local arts foundations.
As the 2012 FIGMENT season drew to a close, it became clear that, in order to continue to grow, FIGMENT really needed to focus on creating shared organizational infrastructure, so that events in all cities could leverage shared support and resources. A plan was put in place, and funding was secured from the Tecovas Foundation and individual donors to create shared infrastructure. This infrastructure included a new online FIGMENT "How To" manual for teams in all FIGMENT cities (begun by board member Julie Ziff Sint); a new legal framework for local events created by FIGMENT pro bono attorney Joseph Voss with Clark Hill in Grand Rapids, Michigan; new updated branding guidelines by branding consulting firm MSLK led by FIGMENT Brand Creative Director Sasha Koren; a new cities program, led by FIGMENT's newly appointed Director of New Cities Fil Maresca; and, most dramatically, a new Artist Management System, built on top of the Salesforce Platform by Vielyn Consulting. In addition, it became clear that the emerging Global Admin Team, which was leading this infrastructure development process and guiding FIGMENT forward in a "senior staff" capacity, needed to fully separate from the FIGMENT NYC Core Team (previously, individual members had served on both teams) and so FIGMENT became more serious about the guideline that no one should have two jobs within FIGMENT. Debra Keneally, who had just stepped down from the FIGMENT NYC Producer role to focus fully on her role as Global Admin Director, led the charge on separating the Admin Team and giving them a sense of purpose.
On October 1, 2012, FIGMENT took a huge step forward, and became a "professional" organization, when it hired Emma Tuccillo as its first employee, in the role of Global Administrator. Emma's role was designed to back up our volunteer teams in all locations by having a central resource whose job it is to keep FIGMENT on track from an administrative perspective. As Emma's role evolved, she became the administrator for the new Artist Management System in Salesforce, and had key parts to play to help FIGMENT be more effective in fundraising, communications, volunteer management, internal communications, and many more. Initially, Emma worked remotely, and then was moved into co-working space at WeWork near Bryant Park as of September 1, 2013. Six years after its first event, FIGMENT actually started to feel like a "startup"!
In late 2012, David received an email from Miriam Fathalla from Geelong, Australia, asking about doing a FIGMENT event there. Though David was initially skeptical, Miriam was very committed to the idea, and was able to secure a grant from the city of Geelong for over $5,000 AUS, as well as a partnership with local community services agency Diversitat to serve as our local auspice agency. It seemed like FIGMENT Geelong was a go. David and Miriam were able to meet for the first time in Union Station in Washington, DC, to get to know each other. It was a challenge to collaborate over such a long distance, so many time zones away. Miriam was back in the US in January 2013, and was able to come to a FIGMENT NYC Happy Hour to meet some of the Global Admin Team and the FIGMENT NYC Core Team. FIGMENT Geelong took place on March 23-24, 2013, in Johnstone Park, Geelong, and became FIGMENT's first event outside the United States. David Koren traveled to Geelong for the event, and spent time in Both Sydney and Melbourne on the way to explore and try to plant seeds for FIGMENT's eventual expansion. The FIGMENT Geelong event was very supported by the local city government, who not only supported the event financially, but also created an art project poking fun at municipal bureaucracy and initiating a new cultural strategy development process for the city. City workers surveyed event participants using a survey form jointly developed by the city and FIGMENT. The Mayor of Geelong, Keith Fagg, was in attendance at the event. The event featured approximately 35 projects and was attended by over 1,500 participants. One key innovation of FIGMENT Geelong was the addition of a "Decentralized Dance Party" (or DDP) staged by Radio Rehab from Melbourne. As night fell, approximately 100 event participants danced from Johnstone Park through the streets of Geelong carrying boomboxes, all playing the same music broadcast by a roving DJ with a low power FM transmitter and using an IPad to control the music selection. This brought an interesting aspect of "culture jamming" to FIGMENT... FIGMENT comes to you. The dancing participants encountered many members of the public while dancing through the streets of Geelong: people queueing at night clubs, bemused driver, people headed home from a day out, people eating dinner in posh restaurants. It was amazing to see the public response to this display of freedom and joy. Following the FIGMENT Geelong event, David and Miriam put plans in place to incorporate FIGMENT in Australia to aid in fundraising for the following year, and in the eventual expansion of FIGMENT to other cities in Australia.
In April 2012, David met with Nicole Hickman and Brady Mahaney at the annual Burning Man Leadership Summit in San Francisco, and started a conversation about FIGMENT in their hometown of San Diego, California. On Sunday, April 7, 2013, FIGMENT San Diego became FIGMENT's first event on the West Coast, with a one-day event in Chicano Park in Barrio Logan. This event marked the first FIGMENT event to use the new FIGMENT Artist Portal Application, and the first FIGMENT event for which Fil Maresca served as the primary liaison between the local team and the FIGMENT Global Admin Team. The event was very well attended, with over 1,500 participants, and filled with art, with over 50 projects. It was very important to the local team to create an event that could reach out and embrace San Diego's large Hispanic population, which is why Chicano Park was selected. This park is viewed as a treasured place of resistance by the local community, and in recent years that has been an amazing mural program created there. It was very important for the FIGMENT team to communicate to artists and team members that no one could be allowed to impact these murals in any way, and the team went to great lengths to communicate this. However, the public can't always be easily controlled, and one member of the public saw and official muralist painting on a wall, and then used spray paint to cover over some gang signs that he had seen on another wall. The FIGMENT team tried to address the misunderstanding by speaking with the participant and members of the local community, to make it clear that we do not endorse or support this behavior, and that we are aligned with the community and the park in treasuring this sacred space.
Meanwhile, a young architect working for the Jackson Community Design Center (JCDC) in Jackson, Mississippi, Whitney Grant, had heard about FIGMENT through the City of Dreams Pavilion Design Competition. She thought that FIGMENT could work well in Jackson, and specifically could be a great way to kick-start a project that she was working on through JCDC, the revitalization of the Old Coca-Cola Bottling Plant on Highway 80 in Jackson, which had just been purchased, after sitting vacant for more than 12 years, by Gil Sidi, a developer living primarily in New York City and Tel Aviv. Whitney talked to Gil about FIGMENT, and suggested that Gil meet with somebody from FIGMENT when he was next in New York. Gil and David first met in spring 2010, and talked about the possibilities for bringing FIGMENT to Jackson, and specifically to Gil’s property.
David was originally skeptical of FIGMENT’s involvement in the Old Coca-Cola Plant: FIGMENT had longstanding reservations to getting involved with any commercial venture whatsoever. It had been the conviction of many of the FIGMENT founders and Governance Council members that as soon as a profit motive is part of the equation, that participation becomes compromised in some way. But despite David’s initial skepticism, Gil saw that FIGMENT was the right sort of event for Jackson, and the Old Coca-Cola Plant. Gil asked David what the next steps were. David suggested that, when Gil was ready, he should fly David to Jackson, and that they should have a public meeting to stir up interest (as David had just done in Boston) and that they should meet with as many local officials, potential funders, and potential partners as possible.
Six months passed, with infrequent contact between Gil, Whitney, and David. Finally, in October 2010, Gil wrote to David and said, “It’s time. Let’s plan a visit.” David made a three-day trip to Jackson in early November 2010. Gil and his assistant, Lawrence Zhou, led him on a whirlwind tour of Jackson, meeting with the Mayor’s Office, the Greater Jackson Arts Council, the Jackson Department of Cultural and Human Services, and a number of local museums and community groups. Whitney Grant coordinated a public meeting at the North Midtown Arts Center, where the FIGMENT Jackson team began to coalesce.
By the time David left Jackson, they had a promise of funding from the Greater Jackson Arts Council, a firm commitment from Gil for the property, and team leadership from Whitney Grant and Melvin Priester, the only member of the FIGMENT Jackson team who had been to Burning Man. Other key team members included Kimberly Jacobs, Abigail Susik, Robert Mann, Leslee Foukal, Ward Schaefer, Rachel Jarman, and Melvin and Monique Davis. It seemed that FIGMENT Jackson was a go.
A key inflection point for planning FIGMENT Jackson took place in late January 2011, when the Jackson Free Press’s Best of Jackson Event was held at the Old Cola Plant. The main building of the plant was filled with 1,500 people who enjoyed entertainment, the “Best of Jackson” awards, and food and drink from Jackson’s best bars and restaurants. The FIGMENT team painted a huge “FIGMENT Jackson: What are you bringing?” sign on a wall in a Jackson Pollack style that became the main backdrop for event photos throughout the evening. The team also created small FIGMENT Jackson stickers that they gave to every person who attended the event, and they solicited volunteers for FIGMENT.
FIGMENT Jackson began with a press conference on Friday, May 13, with Mayor Harvey Johnson, Jr., members of the City Council, and representatives of the local press. The event featured over 40 participatory arts projects that filled the 12-acre property and much of the 140,000-sf of indoor space, including a number of large-scale sculptures and participatory performance projects. Over the weekend of May 14-15, over 1,250 participants visited the Old Cola Plant to engage with the art and each other, including the mayor, who visited the FIGMENT site again on Saturday. For a city of approximately 180,000 residents, this represents a substantial number of people, probably the greatest impact as a percentage of local population that FIGMENT has yet had anywhere.
FIGMENT Jackson was the first FIGMENT of event of 2011, the first FIGMENT event in the South, and the first FIGMENT event with a distinct nighttime component, on Saturday night. We learned that a different crowd tends to come out at night than during the day, and that completely different projects tend to work well at night.
Team members from New York and Boston came to Jackson for the event: David Koren, Debra Keneally, Julie Ziff Sint, Tracy Gillan, and Gonzo.
On to Summer 2011
As the preparations intensified for FIGMENT’s summer events, the fundraising team noticed that foundation grants seemed to getting harder and harder to secure. It seemed like, hurt by the recession, many arts-oriented foundations were giving only to organizations they had previously supported, and were not considering funding from new organizations. The FIGMENT fundraising team intensified their efforts around soliciting donations from individual donors, and started looking for more opportunities to raise funds from community efforts like the Gratitude event and the NoLita Mardi Gras event that Wylie Stecklow had organized for several years. In 2011, FIGMENT also received contributions from the Burning Man Decompression events in Boston and New York City, and the Burning Man Regional camping event in New England, Firefly.
The Groundbreaking fundraiser in New York City was more successful than ever in its third year, raising approximately $10,000 under the leadership of Anna Martin and Sheila Garson. The event took place at 320 Studios in New York City, and received a proclamation from New York State Senator Daniel Squadron.
FIGMENT Boston identified a new location for its event: Rose Kennedy Greenway, the new ribbon-shaped park in the financial district, created when the flyovers were taken down following the completion of the Big Dig. Jason Turgeon began a partnership with the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy. FIGMENT Boston doubled in duration to a two-day event in its second year, on June 4-5, 2011. Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston issued a proclamation that named June 4, 2011, as “FIGMENT Boston Day” in the City of Boston. The event featured nearly 100 participatory arts projects that were enjoyed by approximately 5,000 participants.
Despite some challenging weather, the FIGMENT NYC event welcomed nearly 20,000 participants and 400 arts projects. The event was kicked off on Friday, June 10, with a press conference featuring New York State Senator Daniel Squadron, who read a haiku he had written for the occasion. Leslie Koch, the President of the Trust for Governors Island, and David Koren also spoke. After the press conference, Daniel Squadron and David Koren played a few holes of minigolf, and then the entourage rode back to the ferry on the Electric Bubble Bus.
Following the model of the 2010 City of Dreams Pavilion Competition, FIGMENT worked again with ENYA and SEAoNY to issue a call for proposals for the 2011 pavilion. Approximately 100 proposals were received, and were reviewed by our invited jury: Yolande Daniels, Principal, Studio SUMO; Vanessa Kassabian, AIA, LEED AP, Design Director, Snohetta; Jing Liu, Principal, SO-IL; Milton Puryear, Co-Founder of Brooklyn Greenway Initiative; Ada Tolla, Int’l Assoc. AIA; Robert Otani, PE, LEED AP,Vice President, Thornton Tomasetti; Kristin Marting, Artistic Director, HERE. The jury narrowed the field down to five finalists, and asked them to revise their proposals based on jury feedback. After meeting one more time to review the resubmissions, the jury selected Bittertang’s Burble Bup submission as the winning entry. Project Manager Rocket Osborne worked with the Bittertang team to supervise the nearly 150 volunteers who worked to build and install the project. Team members Michael Loverich and Antonio Torres spent a great deal of time on the island over the summer making sure that the Burble Bup stayed inflated and looked great throughout the season. (Burble Bup is here:http://newyork.figmentproject.org/long-term-exhibitions/2011-city-of-dreams-pavilion/the-2011-city-of-dreams-pavilion-burble-bup/.)
The FIGMENT minigolf course, under the leadership of Jacquelyn Strycker, returned for its fourth year, and the FIGMENT sculpture garden, under the leadership of Jen Upchurch, returned for its third year.
FIGMENT NYC received press attention in 2011 from a number of publications and media outlets that haven’t really covered FIGMENT in the past, including the New Yorker, WNYC, WCBS, Bloomberg, and the Huffington Post. The press attention culminated with FIGMENT being named the Best Art Festival in New York by the Village Voice.
FIGMENT’s next island: Detroit
Danielle “Doxie” Kaltz is a Detroit native, homeless advocate, Burning Man Regional Contact for Michigan, and a local leader of Burners without Borders. She and David had met through the Burning Man network over the years, and Doxie had always wanted to create a “Detroit Diaspora” event that would bring artists who were from Detroit, but had moved away, back to Detroit. As she learned about FIGMENT and saw how it was working in other cities, she realized that this could be the model that she was looking for. Doxie’s favorite place in Detroit is Belle Isle, a 1000-acre island in the Detroit River designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, who also designed Central Park and Prospect Park in New York.
When Doxie asked David how they could create a FIGMENT event in Detroit, he told her what had worked in Boston and Jackson: let’s plan a visit, have a public meeting, and meet with key government stakeholders. Doxie got an introduction to the parks department officials who were responsible for Belle Isle, and set up a meeting for February 25, 2011. David flew out to Detroit, Doxie picked him up at the airport, and they drove straight to the meeting. David started his presentation, and within 20 slides or so, Keith Flournoy, the Park Manager, stopped him and said, “This is great. So when do you guys want to do this?” Neither Doxie or David were ready for the question. “2012 sometime?” they hazarded. But Keith was thinking sooner: “That’s too long. Let’s do something this year.” So they scheduled a one-day event on August 6, 2011, with the idea to expand the event in 2012.
At the public meeting the following night, Doxie and David were thrilled with the turnout, as around 50 people were there to hear about FIGMENT. David was delighted to meet John Law for the first time. Law, one of the early leaders of Burning Man who last attended in 1996, had purchased property in Detroit and was splitting his time between Detroit and San Francisco.
Doxie assembled her team and got a call for art out. FIGMENT Detroit came together nicely as a one-day event in a small portion of Belle Isle. The event featured approximately 30 participatory arts projects, including Ryan C. Doyle’s Regurgitator, a pulse jet engine-powered carousel for one rider. The event was attended by approximately 1,000 participants over the course of the day. David Koren, Wylie Stecklow, and Debra Keneally made the trip out from New York for the event.
As the 2011 season drew to a close, a number of new honors were granted to FIGMENT. At the annual Burning Man event in Nevada, the first ever TEDx Black Rock City conference was held, and David Koren and Jim Glaser were both invited to speak, as well as FIGMENT artist Kate Raudenbush. FIGMENT was named the Best Art Festival in New York by the Village Voice, and the FIGMENT brand won a “Making the Case” award from the AIGA. FIGMENT also, for the first time ever, was awarded funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.
In recognition of all the progress that FIGMENT had made in 2011, the team decided to create our first-ever FIGMENT Annual Report to communicate what we’ve accomplished to our supporters, grantors, partners, and others in the FIGMENT community.
As FIGMENT recrafted and improved its organization in preparation for the 2010 season, a few key changes were made in its structure. Jim Glaser stepped down as Executive Director of Action Arts League, and David Koren took on this role as well as retaining the role of Executive Producer of FIGMENT. Debra Keneally, who had joined the FIGMENT team in 2009, took on the role of Production Director for FIGMENT 2010.
After the highly successful FIGMENT 2009 event, it really felt as if FIGMENT had accomplished everything it had set out to do when it began in 2007. The young organization needed to look for new horizons. One immediate idea that emerged late in the summer of 2009 was to create a design competition for young architects, something along the lines of P.S. 1’s Young Architects Program that has hosted an annual invited design competition for five up-and-coming firms a year, since 1999, to create the environment in the outdoor courtyard that becomes the setting for P.S. 1’s Saturday “Warm Up” parties through the summer. Of course, if FIGMENT were to create a competition like this, it would need to be open to anyone to participate. Given David’s background in architecture, and tenure as the former Co-Chair of the Marketing Committee at the AIA New York City Chapter, he started looking around the AIA for potential partners. David had actually collaborated with the Emerging New York Architects (ENYA) Committee of the AIA New York City Chapter to put together a panel discussion on “Burning Man: Planning and Evolution of the Temporary City” in October 2007, so that seemed like the perfect place to begin. David met with Jessica Sheridan and several other members of the ENYA Committee in a teepee that had been installed temporarily in FIGMENT Terrace in August 2009, and started to kick around ideas for a new architectural design competition that the organizations could partner on.
Through a series of conversations, David and Jessica developed the specifics of The City of Dreams Pavilion Design Competition, which would be co-sponsored by FIGMENT, ENYA, and the Structural Engineers Association of New York (SEAoNY). The competition was different from most other architectural design competitions in a few key ways: first, this was not just an “ideas” competition—the winning design was intended to be built; second, the competition would promote sustainability as much as possible, favoring projects that consider the full lifecycle of their materials, utilizing reused or recycled materials and planning for where those materials go after the temporary project is de-installed; third, the competition would seek to fabricate and install the selected project as a community project, using volunteer resources as much as possible.
The first City of Dreams Pavilion Competition was launched in January 2010, and received approximately 60 design proposals. The jury included Illya Azaroff, AIA, Director of Design, The Design Collective Studio; Matthew Bremer, AIA, Principal, Architecture In Formation; Will Laufs, Ph.D., LEED AP, IWE, Vice President, Thornton Tomasetti; Aleksey Lukyanov-Cherny, Situ Studio; Martin Pedersen, Executive Editor, Metropolis Magazine; Rob Rogers, FAIA, Principal, Rogers Marvel Architects; Marc Tsurumaki, LTL Architects. Through a two-stage selection process, the jury narrowed the 60 proposals to four finalists and then gave those four finalists a month to revise and refine their design proposals. After reviewing the final submissions, the jury selected Ann Ha and Behrang Behin’s Living Pavilion as the winner of the competition. The project was installed on the Parade Grounds of Governors Island, and was a central gathering point on the island for the entire 2010 summer season. Daniela Morell serves as the project manager for the installation of the project, managing approximately 70 volunteers who helped to build and maintain the project. (The Living Pavilion is here: http://figmentproject.org/2010/long-term-exhibitions/living-pavilion/.)
Geographic expansion begins
Another major new frontier for FIGMENT opened when Jason Turgeon, who had just returned to his hometown of Boston after his first trip to Burning Man, and stumbled onto a post that David Koren had written on the Burning Man blog. Jason was inspired by Burning Man, and wanted to create something local in Boston that could capture the spirit and energy of Burning Man. The more he read about FIGMENT, the more that he thought that this could be a model for what he wanted to make happen in Boston. Jason shot David an email, and David invited Jason to come down to New York to see the 2009 sculpture garden and minigolf course before it was de-installed. Jason and David immediately began talking about a summer 2010 event in Boston.
Later that fall, David made a trip up to Boston with Debra Keneally, and Jason took them on our tour of Franklin Park, his preferred location for a FIGMENT event. David made an open presentation on FIGMENT at the Boston Public Library, and a team started to coalesce around Jason as the Producer of FIGMENT Boston. Jason and David worked on a grant proposal to the Black Rock Arts Foundation for FIGMENT Boston, which was accepted and became the third grant received by FIGMENT from BRAF.
Unfortunately, the process of getting permission to do an event in a public park in Boston seemed inscrutable, and seemed to go nowhere fast. Jason was introduced to the Cambridge Arts Council, who had been running their annual Cambridge River Festival for over 30 years as a successful one-day arts festival featuring art for sale, commercial vendors, and free stages for local music and performance. They had arranged a larger area for the 2010 festival than they could fill, and they were interested in partnering with FIGMENT to bring a more community-oriented feeling to the festival. Jason learned that Peter Durand, the Burning Man Regional Contact for Boston, had met with the Cambridge Arts Council previously and had in many ways laid the groundwork for this collaboration.
The first FIGMENT event outside of New York City took place on Memorial Drive in Cambridge on Saturday, June 5, 2010, in partnership with the Cambridge Arts Council and next to the Cambridge River Festival. The event featured nearly 100 participatory arts projects, and had approximately 5,000 participants, many of whom had never experienced a participatory arts event before. The three most common questions visitors would ask of the team were, “What is this? Why is nothing for sale? Why is everyone smiling?” It was a great experience for FIGMENT to be a next to an established arts festival, and to see how that audience interacted with and experienced participatory art. A number of team members from New York made the trip to Boston for the event, including David Koren, Debra Keneally, Wylie Stecklow, Ryan Fix, Julie Ziff Sint, Tracy Gillan, and Andrea Schneider.
At the first FIGMENT NYC core team meeting after FIGMENT Boston, some of the team members who weren’t able to make it to Boston asked, “So, did it feel like FIGMENT?” The answer: “Yes, it felt like FIGMENT! It was FIGMENT!” The lesson is that FIGMENT can be replicated, and that FIGMENT is FIGMENT wherever it takes place. This is not a “regional” or “franchise” structure. Each new event in a new location is unique and special, but it’s also, essentially, a FIGMENT event.
Another summer on Governors Island
Meanwhile, back in New York, the team was gearing up for its biggest year yet on Governors Island. FIGMENT was having increasing success with fundraising, both from granting organizations (FIGMENT received 12 grants in 2010, including receiving a grant for the first time from the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs) and from its growing signature fundraising event, Groundbreaking, which was held in the Gershwin Hotel in April.
The FIGMENT New York City event was the largest ever, with 23,665 participants over the three days of June 11-13, 2010, who engaged with approximately 400 participatory arts projects. The FIGMENT minigolf course and sculpture garden, which opened on FIGMENT weekend, were again hugely successful, and were visited by an estimated 200,000 people over the summer season (Governors Island had 443,000 visitors in 2010). In order to promote FIGMENT’s branding and to make sure that the public knew that FIGMENT was responsible for the minigolf course and sculpture garden, these summer-long exhibits were renamed from the “City of Dreams Minigolf Course” and the “City of Dreams Sculpture Garden” to the “FIGMENT Minigolf Course” and the “FIGMENT Sculpture Garden.” The only project still bearing the name “City of Dreams” was the Pavilion Design Competition, co-sponsored by FIGMENT, ENYA, and SEAoNY.
(The FIGMENT 2010 website, with artists, projects, maps, and press, is available athttp://figmentproject.org/2010/.)
Over the summer, Governors Island changed from joint city-state management to New York City management under the newly formed Trust for Governors Island, which replaced the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC). A new board was appointed for the new city agency, but island staff, including Leslie Koch and her team, remained in place.
A bit of gratitude: the 11th Principle
During the setup week for FIGMENT NYC 2010, the team was challenged by a number of artists and volunteers not behaving appropriately during set-up: not listening to Governors Island Security staff, trying to sneak onto ferries they weren’t supposed to be on, setting up in the wrong spot and creating friction with other artists, driving on grass they weren’t supposed to be driving on, etc. David immediately wrote a blast email to all 400 or so artists reminding them that FIGMENT is a gift, not something that was automatic or that they were necessarily entitled to, and not to take it for granted, and encouraging them to approach this event and all of the people involved from a place of gratitude. After that, there were no more incidents.
The FIGMENT team started looking at the 10 principles that FIGMENT had adopted from Burning Man to see if there was something in there about gratitude to point to, and there really wasn’t. The team realized that Gratitude isn’t the opposite or corollary of Gifting. A gift is something given freely, and gratitude is an attitude of respect for what has come before. They’re related, but not really the same… at least, not in environment without obligation (you can be grateful for a gift, but you don’t HAVE to be). So the meme of Gratitude, as the 11th principle, started over the FIGMENT NYC weekend, and it kept percolating, people kept talking about it, etc. It was sort of a joke at first, but it didn’t go away.
Then in the fall, the team working on the NYC Burning Man Decompression event ran into a snag when they couldn’t find an appropriate legal event that would be big enough for an expected 3,000 person event. They still wanted to throw a party, but it couldn’t be 100% legal, so the event they were planning couldn’t use the names “Burning Man” or “Decompression,” and they needed a new name for the event. They selected the name “Gratitude: A Village of Light” for their event in recognition of the emerging 11th Principle. It was a spectacular event, and in recognition of the origin of the name, all the profits from the event were donated to FIGMENT and the Black Rock Arts Foundation.
After that, “Gratitude” was added to the FIGMENT website as the 11th principle, and became solidly a part of the FIGMENT ethos.
Renaming the organization
On December 30, 2010, the board of Action Arts League had a conference call and decided, in recognition of the success of FIGMENT, that they should change the name of the organization to FIGMENT. The name change was accepted by the New York State Department of State on February 9, 2011. The new name of the FIGMENT 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization would be “Figment Project, Inc.” As part of this process, the organization revisited and revised its mission statement, adopting the new mission statement as follows: “FIGMENT’s mission is to build community through the participatory arts, inspiring personal and social transformation by creating cultural events and experiences in a spirit of participation and inclusion.”
In addition, the “FIGMENT Advisory Committee” was renamed the “FIGMENT Governance Council” and several new members (including Jason Turgeon and Peter Durand from Boston) were invited to join the Governance Council. The Governance Council remains the informal group that sets the broad philosophical direction for FIGMENT’s growth and development. A number of FIGMENT board members, including Rob Griffitts, Kevin Johnson, and Matt Goldberg, decided to step off the board at this time, and Debra Keneally and Jimm Meloy were invited to join the board in recognition of their contributions to FIGMENT’s success and promise of future support.
As the group looked toward FIGMENT 2009, a lot of uncertainty surrounded the future of Governors Island: New York State budget cuts in the face of recession might force the island to close. But the team continued to expand its vision for FIGMENT. The City of Dreams would now include an interactive sculpture garden as well as a mini-golf course, and the mini-golf course itself would double in size to 18 holes.
Fundraising and team-building began in earnest, as Kevin Balktick and David Koren worked on alternate location strategies: what if Governors Island could not open for the 2009 season? They met with officials from a number of other public agencies related to parkland in New York, trying to come up with an acceptable Plan B, but none of the options could compare to the island. Thankfully, when the state budget was released in April, the island was included in the budget and saved for 2009.
In 2009, FIGMENT focused on its branding efforts, under the direction and guidance of Brand Advocate Sasha Koren. Sheri Koetting, Marc Levitt, and Ellen Johnston of MSLK created a new logo, overall look, and print materials for FIGMENT 2009, and Archer Hutchinson created a new website.
Grant applications and inquiry letters yielded six grants for FIGMENT and its projects in 2009. In addition, the team held its first art-preview fundraising event, Groundbreaking, under the leadership of Mara Sorkin and Peggy Yuen, as well as a night-time fundraising party, Overboard, held in the ferry slip of the Battery Maritime Building, and organized by Kevin Balktick.
One of the most significant achievements in the preparations for FIGMENT 2009 was securing the Oscar M. Ruebhausen Commission from the Greenwall Foundation for four proposed sculptures for the City of Dreams: The Temple of Truth (by Jen Upchurch, Chris Niederer, and Douglas Hart), HiveMind (by Deborah Yoon), Rhythm & Rest (by the Animus Collective) and Discarded (by Benjamin Jones and Anna Hecker). These four large pieces formed the core of the City of Dreams sculpture program.
FIGMENT 2009 showed a dramatic increase in participation from artists and volunteers. Over 400 projects were submitted, reviewed and coordinated by a curatorial team of nearly 30 volunteers, led by Curatorial Directors Audrey Boguchwal and Rae Klein. The entire planning team consisted of 90 people, with over 200 additional volunteers helping out throughout the process or at the event.
FIGMENT 2009, on June 12-14, brought 13,331 participants to the island, setting a new record for the biggest weekend on the island. In addition, the City of Dreams has received a significant amount of attention for both the season-long sculpture exhibition and the expanded mini-golf course. Over the course of the 2009 season, over 275,000 people visited the island, and at least 100,000 of these visited the City of Dreams to enjoy the sculpture and play minigolf. Press outlets featuring the City of Dreams include The New York Times, New York Magazine, The New Yorker, The Village Voice, Time Out New York, The Wall Street Journal, and NY1.
FIGMENT co-presents New Island Festival
Towards the end of the 2009 summer season, FIGMENT was asked to partner with other New York cultural organizations to co-present the New Island Festival, a performing arts festival co-created by two leading Dutch Festivals, Oerol and De Parade. It was an honor for FIGMENT to be listed as a co-presenter along with organizations such as The Joyce Theater, New York Theatre Workshop, St. Ann’s, Watermill Center, Under the Radar, HERE, PS 122, and many others. As part of the two-week-long festival (September 10-20, 2009), FIGMENT curated a group of performances and activities in the FIGMENT Terrace area of the island where the minigolf course and sculpture garden were located, all day Saturday and Sunday for both weekends.
Since the New Island Festival kept the island open until midnight, FIGMENT decided to try to do events at night on the island for the first time, programming FIGMENT Terrace until 11pm on two sequential Saturday evenings. Artists including Chris Jordan, Aaron Taylor Kuffner, Jason Blakkat, Ad Hoc Arts, the Glass Bead Collective, and many others came out to keep the terrace alive into the night.
After the success of the 2007 event, FIGMENT developed a closer relationship with Governors Island, and was invited back for 2008, with the added invitation to propose additional arts projects for the island. The team decided to expand to create a three-day event over a weekend, and considered longer-term interactive art installations.
In a conversation with David, Leslie Koch expressed a new idea for the island that she had been working on: “Do you know anyone who might be able to create a mini-golf course on the island?” David did some research, made some calls, and started to work with Eli Kent on the idea of an artist-designed 9-hole mini-golf course, called “The City of Dreams Mini-Golf Course.” They applied for a grant to the Black Rock Arts Foundation (which they received), and put out a call for art in early 2008.
At the same, Johan Kritzinger began to work on the idea for the Emergence project, a season-long exhibition of interactive art and performance in a building on Governors Island. Johan recruited Joyce Manolo, Audrey Boguchwal, and Elke Dehner to help curate the project. Johan and David also submitted Emergence for a grant from Black Rock Arts Foundation, and were very pleased to receive the grant. Emergence ultimately involved over 30 artists and groups of artists from around the world. It opened in Building 14 on May 31, 2008 (the day the island opened), and ran for 9 weeks, closing on July 26.
As Minigolf and Emergence were progressing, the FIGMENT event itself was growing and acquiring momentum, with a planning team of about 40 volunteers working on promotion, fundraising, coordinating artists, and production issues. In addition to the two Black Rock Arts Foundation Grants, FIGMENT received the Manhattan Community Arts Fund Grant, administered by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council from funds provided by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.
FIGMENT 2008 planned to take over the whole north end of the island. Over 200 arts projects were proposed and mapped. Press began to take notice, with another weekend article in The New York Times, as well as pieces in Time Out New York, Gothamist, the New York Post, and the Village Voice.
Despite some intermittent rain (heavy at times), over 10,000 people came out over the three-day event (June 27-29, 2008), setting new records for attendance on the island for each of the three days, and for the weekend as a whole. Over 100 volunteers helped to plan and run the event.
In addition, FIGMENT planned its first night-time fundraising party for the Saturday of FIGMENT, called Fortification. Fortification was planned by Kevin Balktick and Wylie Stecklow, and took place in Castle Clinton in Battery Park on Saturday, June 28, immediately after FIGMENT.
The City of Dreams Mini-Golf Course was an instant hit and was played by thousands of children and adults throughout the rest of the season. Given that the island had over 125,000 visitors in 2008, we estimate that over 50,000 people visited the City of Dreams Mini-Golf Course.
At the time that FIGMENT began, Governors Island was a new public venue that had recently (2003) been turned over from the Federal Government to New York City, with a very specific set of restrictions: there could be no permanent housing on the island, no casinos for 50 years, and significant portions of the island had to be used for educational and cultural purposes. In short, Governors Island was a new piece of real estate in New York City that had to be used for the benefit of all New Yorkers.
First, Pure Project founder Ryan Fix and Action Arts League Board Secretary and attorney Wyle Stecklow joined the team. At a meeting in March 2007, the four discussed whether to try to launch FIGMENT in 2007, or to hold off and create a bigger event in 2008. Wylie and Ryan were strong proponents of starting with an event in 2007. Wylie contended that by creating a “footprint” event in 2007, it would be easier to get permits in future years. The group agreed, and decided to proceed to try to make an event happen in 2007. Ryan committed the full resources of the Pure Project, an incubator for innovative, socially conscious projects, and the planning team began to meet in Pure Project’s offices on Mulberry Street.
As new GIPEC President Leslie Koch began to respond to her mandate to increase public attendance to the island and spur development, she started to make some changes at GIPEC in early 2007. Elizabeth Rapuano joined GIPEC as Director of Marketing and Public Relations in February, and Lynda Realmuto was hired as Director of Programming and Special events in April. New to the island, and tasked with bringing programs to the island to increase public use of the island, Lynda was very receptive to the idea of FIGMENT when she met with David, Jim, and Ryan shortly after she started in April.
At the next meeting of the planning team, David brought event producer Kevin Balktick, and Ryan brought artist and organizer Johan Kritzinger, and the group of six worked together to further tighten the concept for the event and to plan how the event work be organized and would work. As an experienced organizer and leader, David took on the role of Executive Producer for the event, working with Kevin to lead the production of the event. As the Executive Director of Action Arts League and a talented connector and evangelist, Jim stepped into an advisory and recruiting role. Ryan and Johan and their team of Pure Project interns worked together on publicizing the event and recruiting artists to participate. As an activist attorney, Wylie became the General Counsel for the event, working on legal, insurance, and permitting issues.
The proposed date for the event was set for Sunday, July 8 (actually David’s birthday) and the organizers told Lynda to expect “between 200 and 500 people.” Through all of their networks, the group put the word out far and wide, sent out press releases, enlisted additional volunteers, and sent out a call for art. When arts collective Disorient signed on to the project, the group started to see things fall into place. Dorothy Trojanowski offered to bring her “Rubber Horses” sculptures, which had been created for Burning Man, to FIGMENT. All in all, over 60 arts projects committed to coming, coordinated by Pure Project interns and led by Curatorial Director Johan Kritzinger.
The event was promoted to the New York Burning Man community, and through Flavorpill, Reality Sandwich, and other online publications. David’s wife Sasha Koren, an interactive creative director, quickly developed a logo and website. New York Times reporter Melena Ryzik wrote about the project in the Friday Weekend Section, with a picture of the Rubber Horses being installed. The group ordered 36 orange T-shirts for FIGMENT volunteers, and got the word out through email lists and flyers.
Everyone was amazed with the turnout, as over 2,600 people streamed into the Nolan Park section of the Island on a Sunday, setting an attendance record for the most people on the island since it had re-opened to the public. The organizers and the island were completely unprepared for this response, as thousands of people lined up to wait for ferries outside the Battery Maritime Building in Manhattan. It is estimated that another 2,000 people were turned away, unable to fit on the regular ferries. Perhaps most incredibly, the organizers and volunteers were able to break down and get everybody and all the projects off the island by the 5pm ferry. The island staff was amazed with FIGMENT’s ability to leave no trace of its existence.
Amy Zimmer from New York Metro came out to cover the event, and wrote a great piece that appeared in the Monday edition of the paper titled, “Arts Festival Awakens Sleepy Governors Island.”
A critical time for the arts
2007 was a critical time for the arts in New York. It was the height of the economic boom, and the gradual gentrification of the city had caused rents to rise, driving artists deep into the outer boroughs, or out of the city altogether. At the same time, there was a growing cultural movement towards participatory art—art that is fully immersive, where the experience of the viewer or visitor is enhanced by directly interacting and engaging.
Community parades like the annual Greenwich Village Halloween Parade and the Coney Island Mermaid Parade were open to anyone to join in, dress up, and be a part of the creativity. And, through the efforts of not-for-profit arts organizations like Creative Time, the Public Art Fund, chashama, and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, more conventional visual and performing arts were increasingly moving out of the galleries and theaters and into site-specific venues. Rachel Ward’s Terminal 5 exhibition in October 2004 reopened the breathtaking Saarinen Terminal at JFK airport and filled it with cutting edge site-specific artwork. The show was closed by the Port Authority the day after it opened.
In 2005, Christo and Jean-Claude installed The Gates along 23 miles of pathways in Central Park, energizing millions of volunteers, New Yorkers and visitors from around the world. The same year, Gregory Colbert’s photography exhibit Ashes and Snow began its tour around the world with an installation in the Nomadic Museum, a custom-built, sustainable traveling museum made from shipping containers and cardboard at Pier 54 with audio, video and a cathedral-like atmosphere. These works and others showed New Yorkers that art could be immersive, and that the experience of the viewer or visitor could be enhanced by the experience of interacting and engaging directly with art.
In this environment, a group of volunteers came together to create FIGMENT as a new kind of event for New York City. Inspired and influenced by the current arts environment in New York, as well as by Burning Man (an annual arts event in Nevada), the founders of FIGMENT sought to create a forum in New York in which everyone is welcome to participate and make art—regardless of training, credentials, funding, or even the medium in which they choose to work. The founders of FIGMENT were united in the belief that as people create collaborative artwork, express themselves, and work together to give a form to their dreams, a community would grow around the event and around Governors Island as it was developed.
While FIGMENT has quickly grown into a large-scale collaborative project involving the contributions of thousands of artists, organizers, volunteers, and enthusiastic participants, the first FIGMENT event was developed and planned by a core leadership group of six: David Koren, Jim Glaser, Ryan Fix, Wylie Stecklow, Kevin Balktick, and Johan Kritzinger. FIGMENT has grown, in just a few short years, from this group of six sitting around a table into a volunteer organization of several hundred people on the planning team for events in multiple cities, with hundreds more volunteers helping at the events. More than just an event or an exhibition, FIGMENT has become a community of artists and organizers.
FIGMENT gets serious
Over the next few months, FIGMENT was defined and established as an official project of Action Arts League, with a charter that binds the event to follow ten principles modeled after the Burning Man event: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy (although the principles have been re-arranged and edited to make them relevant for an urban event that is open to the public). David Koren was established as the Executive Producer of the event.
The original team who made the 2007 event happen was reformed as the FIGMENT Advisory Committee, adding one of the leaders of the Disorient collective, The Eye, as well as a few other key community leaders. Key organizers of each year’s FIGMENT events are added to the Advisory Committee to maintain a strong connection between the FIGMENT vision and principles and day-to-day operations. The group continues to meet on a quarterly basis to refine the vision for the event and set the parameters by which the event will continue to grow. In particular, this group discusses commerce and decommodification extensively; any aspect of the event or its planning that involves commerce, including selling or corporate representation, is debated heatedly, as the event strives to enable full participation from everyone, and the organizers believe that commerce or advertising has a direct impact on the level of participation and investment of participants.
With a name for the event, David began to develop a presentation that could help explain to people what FIGMENT was, and to inspire them to want to be a part of it. Amy Shapiro worked with David to plan a meeting in his apartment for key community arts organizers on April 17, 2006. The attendees included David and Sasha Koren, Amy Shapiro from Circle Arts, Kostume Kult arts collective founder Jim Glaser, event producer Abby Ehmann, Madagascar Institute founder Chris Hackett, NYC Burning Man Regional Contact Oscar Yong, event producer Elke Dehner, Sari Rubinstein from the Rubulad arts collective, and Kate Heim, who was a Columbia student who was very interested in participatory arts events. David showed his draft presentation and the group talked about the idea and possible next steps.
Key among the attendees at this meeting was Jim Glaser, a veteran events creator who had recently launched a non-profit organization to develop participatory arts events. Jim had actually started to talk about creating a Burning Man-style event on Governors Island in late 2004, and had introduced visiting Burning Man staff member $teven Ra$pa to City Councilman Alan J. Gerson’s Cultural Liaison Paul Nagle. Jim had also had some conversations with veteran event producers Chris Wangro and Aaron Leventhal of The Usual Suspects about an event on the island. Jim and Paul later met with Councilman Gerson about the idea, who indicated that he would support an artistic, community oriented event, but that some of the elements of Burning Man might not be appropriate for a public park in New York City.
As a follow-up to the initial meeting in David’s apartment, Amy and David planned a small art picnic on Governors Island in July 2006, in order to bring additional members of the arts community to the island and to start to grow momentum. Unfortunately, it rained, and the event was attended by just a small group of interested supporters, among them Jim Glaser.
Action Arts league
In 2006, the not-for-profit organization that Jim Glaser had started, Costume Cultural Society, changed its name to Action Arts League with Leslie Bocskor as Board Chairman, and Jim as Executive Director. In the fall of 2006, AAL board member Vic Sarjoo introduced Jim to Michelle Bouchard, the Vice President of Administration & Finance for GIPEC. Jim reached out to David, and the two of them met with Michelle on the island in November of 2006. They also met with Michelle Marquez, who was the Vice President for Community & Government Affairs. David and Jim toured the island and learned that GIPEC had a new President, Leslie Koch, who had been appointed by Mayor Bloomberg with a mandate to increase attendance and get development moving on the island. At the meeting the group discussed the new David Rockwell and Bruce Mau book Spectacle, which links and identifies similarities between large-scale participatory events are around the world. David and Jim expressed to the GIPEC representatives that they hoped to create an event like that for Governors Island.
Jim introduced David to Tom Smith, a not-for-profit policy expert who had helped to write the Action Arts League by-laws and whose father was a former ferry captain on Governors Island. Tom provided advice on how to navigate the public process to make an event like FIGMENT happen in New York. FIGMENT was able to receive a letter of support for one of its early grant applications from Councilman Gerson.
As David and Jim learned more about the island and the possibilities there, the vision for FIGMENT came into focus. David continued to do version after version of his FIGMENT presentation, drawing a clearer picture of what this event could be. David and Jim had a follow-up meeting with Michelle Marquez and Pnina Michelson, the Director of Special Events on the island, where they identified two distinct possibilities for how FIGMENT could work: either as a private event on the island (charging admission, but having to bear significant expenses) or as a public event (free and open to anyone during the island’s regular operating hours). Given the risks involved, and the fact that FIGMENT was starting without funding, the obvious course seemed to be the public option.
2005 was the first year that New York City arts organizations, including the Public Art Fund and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, began to host events and exhibitions on the island. On May 14, David and Sasha Koren went to the island to see Allison Smith’s one-day Muster exhibition, sponsored by the Public Art Fund. Over 100 artists camped on the island over a weekend, creating 50 campsite installations on the theme “What are you fighting for?” The public was invited to visit the encampment on Saturday, and over 1,500 people came to the island to see it. In The New York Times, the event was described as “Burning Man for lazy people.” David was immediately inspired by the island as a place for large-scale participatory art, and became convinced that the arts would be critical to the island’s development strategy, given the constraints placed on the island by the Federal deed.
David began to talk about the idea for the island as a place for the arts, starting with the network that he had built through his participation in the Burning Man art event in Nevada and the New York Burning Man community. He initially spoke with Leslie Bocskor (a participatory arts supporter, event creator, and connector) and then Amy Shapiro (the President of not-for-profit Circle Arts). Leslie brought David to meet with O. Alden James, Jr., the President of the National Arts Club on Gramercy Square, where Leslie was a member. Alden gave David and Leslie the idea that an arts festival on the island might be a good place to start to create momentum around the idea of arts on the island. Leslie also brought David to meet with Gerald Greenberg, who had submitted a proposal to the island under the RFEI to create “World Island” on Governors Island, an international destination devoted to peace and mutual understanding.
Thinking about the idea of an arts festival on the island, David started to look for a name, something that could anchor the concept of the festival. David was in the shower one morning in late 2005 when the name “FIGMENT” popped into his head. David remembered that Andy Warhol had once been asked what he would like on his tombstone, and he replied, “I always thought I’d like my own tombstone to be blank. No epitaph, and no name. Well, actually, I’d like it to say ‘figment’.” By naming the arts event FIGMENT, it could reference both the great history of art in New York, and also the ephemeral nature of the arts event that was starting to be developed.
David Koren was the Marketing Director for architecture firm Gensler’s New York office and Northeast Region when he first became interested in Governors Island through tracking the early steps in the development process for the island after the city gained control in 2003. Through Robert Balder, former Vice President of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYC EDC) and Gensler Urban Planner, David met Barbara Romer, who had been building a coalition to create a New Globe Theatre on the island (based on Shakespeare’s Globe in London). Governors Island was a frequent topic of conversation in the architecture and construction industries, as the island struggled through a public process to create a framework for future development based on its restrictive deed. It was a compelling challenge: what would New York City do with a new piece of real estate that couldn’t be turned into a new residential neighborhood or an exclusive destination for the wealthy?
The island was first opened to the public on a very limited basis in 2004. In early 2005, the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC), the joint city-state agency established to run the island, released its Development Framework Report. A Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) to generate ideas for what path the development might take followed. As part of this process, GIPEC hosted public meetings for people intending to submit Expressions of Interest. David first went with Robert Balder (who, as a former leader at the NYC EDC, knew the island well) on a tour of the island on May 3, 2005. David was amazed by the huge potential of the island, but more than this, the challenge of how to develop a place with so many constraints, and with such a high start-up cost to maintain historic buildings, rebuild infrastructure, and provide transportation.