Coachella: Hold The Art

By Tucker Neel and Molly Rodgveller

Originally published in Artillery Magazine, Vol. 2, Issue 6 July/Aug. 2008, p. 38-39

A view from the Steampunk treehouse

A view from the Steampunk treehouse

Honestly, who goes to Coachella, in Indio?!?,  and shells out hundreds of bucks and a tank of gas to see the art? With music gods serenading hot sweaty sun kissed mobs of luscious six-pack sexpots the art mainly exists to create a mood and provide a shady place to find lost friends, procure drugs and escape the melee.  At times the work may be essentially superfluous but, like streamers at a party, it creates atmosphere.

Big Rig Jig

Big Rig Jig

We loved Mike Ross’ Big Rig Jig despite its unfortunate title. The monumental sculpture was comprised of two semis hauling long aluminum tanks precariously balanced on top of each other in an unreal S-shape. It was like two metal monsters in a taffy pull, graceful and sweet.  It must have taken a Triceratops worth of fossil fuel to get it to the site, yet the piece held an obviously political subtext pointing out our absurd obsession with oil. Essentially a grand realization of a simple idea, the piece stood apart from the rest of the art in the festival.  It was a nice change from the other works, which seemed forced and alienated from their more understandable homeland: the Burning Man festival, held every year in the hotter-than-hell Nevada desert. While estranged from this annual bacchanal, these pieces still exhibited a well-worn “Burner” aesthetic steeped in a reliance on complicated tech gimmicks to make up for flash-in-the-pan concepts.

It doesn’t take much imagination to transform the statement, “it’s like flowers that shoot fire,” into art. Unfortunately, Michael Christian’s Beyond the Garden, took that unneeded step. The piece consisted of a cluster of larger-than-life black metal flowers aflame in the manner of gas lampposts. These scrawny flowers depended too heavily on derivative Tim Burton inspired design and pyrotechnics at the expense of concept and entertainment. Come on, fire-breathing flowers and it’s boring?

Thank goodness for Mark Lottor’s Quad Cubatron (again with the titles), a crystal lattice of suspended ping-pong balls filled with programmed LED lights. During the day it was a delicate piece, lovely and ripe with potential. At night it became an otherworldly show; the balls lit up in a traffic-stopping psychedelic kaleidoscope of Q-Bert like architectural designs. Think Erwin Redl’s signature light rooms, but with a techier, DIY aesthetic, something animated, ebullient and addictive.  Some treated it like a rock-star or the last unicorn in a traveling circus of ethereal beasts.  It claimed its space and seduced its audience.

If this spectacle worked because of its generosity, accessibility, and its socially lubricated audience, then The Steampunk Treehouse (ugh these titles!) by Sean Orlando had the opposite effect. Consisting of a towering conglomeration of rusted metal fashioned as both tree and house, the installation was off limits to all but a select few. A padlocked elfin door bolted several times with creaking hinges kept out the masses. Faced with this barrier, the piece had a corrupting quality giving us a sinful desire to rise above the crowd and see the headlining bands through VIP eyes.

After being handed a key like a family-sized chocolate bar from our enthusiastic guide, we removed the padlock. The climb to the top was treacherous, law-suit-laden, and explained why this piece was so inaccessible. Once inside the luxurious canopy we were treated to a Jules Verne inspired den with dark wood, cubbies, peeling wallpaper, and dainty collages, and a bucket to haul up beers. A telescope pointed at the main stage.  Unfortunately, this contradictory space provided an escape but forced its select visitors into a privileged position, a non-egalitarian art experience. By its nature a tree house creates hierarchies, but is that really what art at a music festival should do?

Fortunately, other works succeeded in putting art on the same playing field as music.  Pieces like The Parabola, a metal web of interactive drums, tubes, and piano carcasses by the Corndog (we’re serious) demanded active participation from the audience.  The result was a cacophonous blur of bangs clangs gonks and thumps. While lacking innovation, the piece’s musical bent was completely appropriate for Coachella. Sonic Forrest by Christopher Janney also took music to task. With its sixteen 8-foot motion sensitive columns emitting forest sounds, the piece was so alluring that security guards practically had to pry participants away as the night came to a close.

The art at Coachella is an experiment in trying to please everyone some of the time, an admirable if not self-defeating undertaking. Few people saw both Bonde Do Role and Dwight Yoakam but everyone had to navigate The Do Lab (!!!!!!!), a techno rave vaudeville waterpark. The problem is that the art at Coachella is already in an uncomfortable situation. Like a break-dancing mime in a European plaza, it’s not the main attraction, not what you came to see, but it still might surprise you, if your into that kinda thing.

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