Figment’s Participatory Art Comes to Governors Island


This weekend, people will stand in kiddie pools on Governors Island and throw soaking-wet stuffed animals at one another. Or they might sit on some cushions and throw rose petals in the air. It’s all part of Figment, a participatory art festival, born on the island four years ago. Although Figment has more permanent installations — including a mini-golf course — on the island all summer, today through Sunday is when the magic happens and about 400 art projects come to life. We chatted today with David Koren, Figment’s executive producer, about its origins, Governors Island, and the nature of participatory art.

What exactly is Figment?

Figment is a large participatory arts event. Our focus is on participation and the idea that everyone is creative and everyone has creativity to bring. This weekend, there are about 400 arts projects out here. We have art of all kinds: lots of performance, lots of installations, lots of social experiment things.

Aside from what happens this weekend, there is a summer-long group of installations. We’ve had a mini-golf course out here for the last four years, we’ve had a sculpture garden out here for the last three years, we have an architectural pavilion that we do in collaboration with the Emerging New York Architects Committee of the AIA New York Chapter and the Structural Engineers Association of New York. And that pavilion this year, its second year, is a project called “Burble Bup,” by a group called Bittertang. It’s a structure made up of landscaping wattles — it’s made out of these 16-inch-diameter nylon tubes that have been dyed and are filled with wood chips and are shaped into the walls of the thing. Then on top of that is a roof made from oversize, custom-made pool inflatables.

How did Figment start?

I came to the island in 2005 and saw this incredible place, and by the deed with the federal government there can be no permanent housing here. As the city was trying to figure out what to do with it, it became clear to me that this place cannot follow a conventional development strategy where you put condos down and then you put a store next to it, you build a supermarket, you build a school — it isn’t going to go that way. It seemed to me that this was a great place for the arts to jump in and this to be a destination for the arts. We started talking to the island and did our first event in 2007 and we really saw Figment as bringing together three different resources: this incredible new public place Governors Island, the arts community in New York, which has incredible creativity and really the ethos that most of the founders of Figment learned from the Burning Man event in Nevada.

What type of events are going to happen this weekend?

Oh, my God, there’s so much.

I can tell you that the audience favorite from last year is back. It’s something called Aqua Attack!!, which is a participatory battle to the death between good and evil fought with sopping-wet stuffed animals. Participants in the event are recruited by the cast of Aqua Attack!! to stand in two kiddie pools and one says “super villains” and one says “super heroes” on it. In the pools are sopping-wet stuffed animals. They get capes and costumes and they throw them at each other and there’s a fairy princess referee and there’s a guy with a megaphone who is an announcer who’s calling the shots. It’s just an incredibly good time for everyone involved.

It sort of defies categorization. What is it? It’s an installation, it’s a performance, it’s a game, it’s all of those things.

How did the name Figment come to be?

I was in the shower one morning in late 2005, early 2006, and the name “Figment” popped into my head because it was something that Andy Warhol said. Somebody once asked Andy Warhol what he wanted on his gravestone and he said, “I’d like my gravestone to be blank, no epitaph at all — no, I’d like it to have one word on it: Figment.” And so by choosing that word “figment.” Why that’s perfect is because it both speaks to the ephemeral nature of the art we’re creating. It’s here for a weekend and then it’s gone, but also that it links back to Warhol and to what I think is probably the last great art movement that was led from New York: the pop art movement in the ’60s.

How do you define participatory art?

I have a very broad definition for art generally. I think any intentional act is art. Anything that you do that you don’t have to do. Anything you do that’s not by default. Anytime you look at something and say, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to do this thing because it feels right. Because it’s the right thing to do.” That’s art. Really what participatory art is about is about creating experiences for people. It’s about sharing and bringing people together. Participatory art can be any experience that you can create where you are linking people up with one another. The artist in this context becomes the person who sets the framework for interaction between people and between people and things. It’s really broad.

Find out more about Figment here.