A Day at the Figment Art Festival in New York

Corporate Sponsors Need not Apply

As the afternoon wore on, the costumes became more and more creative, or odd, depending on your perspective. We passed a man wearing orange tights and an orange leotard. His accessories included an orange cape and orange-rimmed sunglasses. He had no insignias on his chest to indicate his allegiances or super-powers. He could have been Orangeman, the superhero brought to us by the Florida Citrus Growers Association, except the festival explicitly forbade corporate sponsorships.

It was early June and my five-year-old daughter and I were attending the Figment art festival in New York City. The event’s website made a big deal of their No Corporate Sponsorship doctrine. When I read it, I smiled at their quaint hippy innocence. But my condescension was wrong in so many ways. Over the course of the day I found myself much less on edge thanks to the lack of vendors. There were no free t-shirts for filling out a credit card application. No one was trying to get my email address so I could receive special offers. My comeuppance was complete when I tried to tip someone who did a face-painting for my daughter – “No, this is a volunteer event” she sighed, like a kindergarten teacher with a child who just doesn’t get it.

The festival was staged on Governor’s Island, which sits in New York Bay wedged between Manhattan and Brooklyn. From colonial days until 1996 the island served first as a base for the army, and then the coast guard. It’s now mostly an open park, with a small cluster of the old military buildings protected as a National Monument. The island is a spectacular piece of land with incredible views of Manhattan; it would be worth a trip on its own merits, even without the festival.


The day began with a 10-minute ferry ride from Brooklyn Bridge Park with the skyline of lower Manhattan preening just off to the west. Once landed, we set out to get artified. My mild sense of apprehension (born of the assumption that free equals bad) quickly turned to relief – the quality of the performances and installations was surprisingly good. The selection committee had done an admirable job.

The first installation we saw was the 18-hole miniature golf course whose obstacles looked like they were on loan from the Museum of Modern Art. It was extremely clever; in fact, too much so – everyone wanted to play. And worse, everyone wanted their kids to play. And worst, everyone wanted to photograph their kids playing. Camera in hand, the parent in front of me was trying to coax his four-year-old son to hit the ball, but the kid was holding the golf club upside-down and wasn’t having much success making contact. But the parent wasn’t going to let this posterity moment not get captured, so the coaxing went on. After a couple holes of this my daughter’s patience expired, so we had to bail out.

Once we left the golf course, things got easier. We found a large, 3-bedroom, split-level tree-house, whose decor might best be described as groovy (the sign on the entryway instructed me to “Surrender to Chaos”). It had a slide, and that kept us occupied for awhile.

There were a few head-scratchers, installations that looked interesting but whose interactivity was either limited or unclear. There was a giant stop light which periodically didn’t have any of the three lights on, making the game of red light-green light a lot less fun. A warped tunnel made of plastic cups was original, but we didn’t need to walk through it more than once.

Intermingled with the art installations were several groups of performers. We came upon a troupe of belly-dancers. Both my daughter and I found them entrancing. I can safely say that my interest stemmed solely from the quality of the dancing, and not from baser instincts. The dancers were not shaped like models, at least, not any models in the 400 years since Peter Paul Rubens had been hiring for his painting. They looked like normal, work-a-day women (and mothers – one of them had a nice c-section scar on her belly), except they could move their bodies with the same mesmerizing waves and pulses of a lava lamp. I found it impossible to consider moving on until they had finished.

We stopped to listen to a band singing a song about the Hudson River whose chorus was the ridiculous, “It’s not clean, but it’s getting cleaner”, but with such a catchy tune and infectious beat that I caught myself singing it several times later that day. We watched a group of choreographed Hula-hoopers, all clad in punk black. An Aikido group was one of the few mis-steps we saw – we could have been watching pairs of people do their morning calisthenics.


The festival had lots of options where the attendees could strut their creative stuff. There was a painting station, a poetry-reading couch, and a giant quilt being stitched together by anyone who wanted to. Most of the DIY art was used by the kids, but anyone with a smidgen of talent was given the floor. Perhaps the best example of this I saw was at the drum station. A pile of odds and ends that could be turned into percussion instruments lay scattered around a tree. There were ten or twelve kids banging away, with no rhythm in sight. Then, two girls, maybe eight and ten years old, started to play a jazzy syncopated beat together. I, and the other adults present, all stopped and listened, enrapt, to the two girls. It was a surprising and enjoyable display of young talent, that was ruined when then their clueless father interrupted because he wanted to take a video of one of them pretending to hit the other on the head with a mallet while he banged a drum off-camera. All of us shook our heads as we sadly resumed paying attention to our own children.

As Orangeman can attest, lots of people got dressed up on their own. When we passed gatherings of costumed festival-goers, I was sometimes unsure if it was a performance or just a group of people standing together. As my daughter and I approached one promising group I heard the man dressed like the New Year’s Baby tell the woman wearing a long robe and a beard, “The witness turned out to be deceased, so we had to postpone the deposition”. OK, not a performance – at least, not an intentional one.

Viva la Resistance!

There was enough stuff to keep us entertained for several hours, and I am looking forward to Chicago’s version of the festival in August. I am also now a willing disciple and proselytizer of the festival’s non-commercial manifesto, and I promise I will not ruin it by trying to tip anyone.

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