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Beyond the Snail: The Art and Imagination of the Coachella Festival

Balloon Chain by Robert Bose Photo By Sarah Parvini.jpg

When thinking of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, headliner bands, incessant thumping of DJ sets and that ever-glowing sun instantly come to mind.

But as the infamous desert music festival enters its adolescence, event planner Goldenvoice continues to push the boundaries on new, innovative art installations, placing greater effort and resources into their design and selection. "We are looking for the biggest, most dramatic, creative pieces of art that we can possibly build in ten days," says Paul Clemente, the Coachella Valley Music and Art Festival's art director for the past eight years. "We want to blow peoples minds."

Outside of the festival's twin Tesla coils, which have become a staple of the event, all of this year's main art installations were indigenous to Coachella, having never been seen prior to the two weekends of festivities. This year, Los Angeles artists -- maybe more than ever before -- continue to dominate the festival's main areas.

Perhaps it's a marriage that is born from proximity. But Clement, who also helmed the "Mirage" art project -- a life-sized mid-century-styled Palm Springs hacienda -- insists that the festival is becoming Mecca for festival artists, not just the hottest musical acts.

He entertained some 300 proposals from across the world last year for the 2013 Coachella festival, the most since the event's inception in 1999.

"[Coachella] is a great opportunity for exposure for your art, no doubt about it," Clemente says. "We are also funding these projects 100 percent. That is very interesting for artists."

Now in its 14th year, the festival continues to expand, selling out this year in a matter of hours and playing host to 180,000 revelers over two weekends. The huge crowds, coupled with the festival's location on the expansive Empire Polo Club in Indio, create an ideal combination of engrossed eyes and open space for large art installations, Clemente adds.

Some of the festival's artists, like Cynthia Washburn of Poetic Kinetics, say Coachella has slowly become a must for artists looking to break into the global festival art scene. "With all the exposure here, I think Coachella is becoming as attractive for artists as it is for the musicians," says Washburn. Her team built two installations this year, including a giant praying mantis and glistening snail. "Art has become a huge part of the festival... we are honored to be here." Called Helix Poeticus, the slow moving, over-sized invertebrate has a Twitter feed: @CoachellaSnail.

So what does it take to showcase your art at Coachella? From a shimmering giant snail to a recycled tyrannosaurus, here's a closer look at a few of Coachella's Los Angeles-based artists and the stories behind their installations:

Helix Poeticus by Poetic Kinetics | Photo by Sarah Parvini.

Helix Poeticus (The Snail) - Poetic Kinetics, Los Angeles

To some, the thought of a giant, 30-foot-tall iridescent snail slowly inching its way toward thousands of unsuspecting people may seem menacing, even the stuff right out of a bad horror film. For the Poetic Kinetics team, however, the snail dubbed Helix Poeticus was simply a decades-long art project in the making. Built on top of one of the variable reach forklifts used to set up the festival, the 80-foot-long silver-skinned mollusk is the latest edition of an idea hatched at Burningman, a popular desert celebration, in 2002.

The snail dominated the horizon at this year's Coachella, able to be seen from hundreds of yards across the polo field and kindling uncontrollable joy from those who stumbled upon it.

Glowing Coachella Snail | Photo by Drew Tewksbury.

Inscription on the Coachella Snail | Photo by Sarah Parvini.

"We wanted to build a really large, moving sculpture for this year's event," says Washburn of the art company Poetic Kinetics, the art team responsible for the snail. "A moving object of this size has never been seen here at Coachella." As if the sheer size of the Helix Poeticus wasn't enough, the snail's glittering canvas skin was covered in graffiti and performance-based mural art. "We saw some photographs from an artist that had painted graffiti on live snails, and that was part of the inspiration for this snail concept," she adds.

Detail of Helix Poeticus by Poetic Kinetics | Photo by Drew Tewksbury.

Along with her confidante Patrick Shearn, Washburn and her team worked for roughly two months straight to build the snail and praying mantis installations, the second of the team's projects. The team is also in the process of editing a video from Helix Poeticus' point of view on the first weekend of the festival.

CAUAC Twins by Syd Klinge | Photo by Sarah Parvini.

CAUAC Twins - Syd Klinge, Los Angeles

Flanked by Mayan-inspired Tiki torches and powered by an electrifying 130,000 watts -- the equivalent of nearly 20 family homes with every light and appliance on -- behind him, Syd Klinge throws the switch on the CAUAC Twins, a pair Tesla coils set in the heart of Coachella that brought festival goers to their knees.

Generating some 5 million volts between the two, the arcs of the coils are able to connect from 40 feet, creating several awe-inspiring beams of blue colored energy. The pungent, yet indecipherable smell of ozone hovers over the installation, defining one of the marquee art pieces of the festival.

"At that voltage, it actually sets the air on fire," Klinge says. "It's like a lightening strike." Klinge has been bringing his Tesla coils to the Coachella Valley Music and Art Festival for 10 years, continually building on his earlier models to provided revelers with a fresh experience. He says he relishes the task of making his coils more efficient and powerful.

"As you would imagine, you are wrestling with much more than the visual," Klinge says. "There is some serious engineering and technology that you have to work for and it's been evolving."

Klinge says he is inspired to continue bringing his coils to the festival by looking at the faces of those seeing them for the first time. "Some things just remain amazing to people. No matter how many times you see it, the coils are still incredible."

Recyclosauras Rex | Photo by Sarah Parvini.

Recyclosauras Rex - Johny Amerika, Los Angeles

Since the inception of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, event planners have struggled with waste problems, chiefly the disposal of recyclable materials like plastic water bottles at the conclusion of each day.

"At the end of the night - since say, 1999 - the festival grounds would be knee-deep in bottles," says Johny Amerika, creator of Recyclosauras Rex, a massive, bionic Tyrannosaurus Rex made exclusively from recyclable materials. "This project aims to stave off some of that. It aims to make recycling less of a chore and more fun."

Made from old bridge pieces and discarded aerospace equipment, "Millie" - as referred to affectionately by its creator -- is just the dinosaur for the job. Powered by a large hydraulic pump, the recycling T-Rex is able to bend over and be fed bags of aluminum cans and plastic bottles. Amerika and his team then use their pump -- capable of 2,000lbs per square inch of force -- to crush Millie's inorganic meal into a neat, easily recyclable cube. The art installation is also located next to one of many recycling stations. Festival attendees were encouraged to recycle throughout the weekend, lured by the promise of a fresh water bottle if they recycle ten discarded ones.

"You can see it chewing up bottles and cans and it poops them up much smaller. And it's a kick. It hits some real knee jerk, key thing," Amerika says. "I mean -- it's a dinosaur. Everyone loves dinosaurs."

Mirage by Paul Clemente | Photo By Drew Tewksbury.

Mirage - Paul Clemente, Los Angeles

During the hottest hours of the day, the three-story-high Mirage serves as a much-needed reprieve from the hot desert sun, offering shade to worn-out revelers desperate for some semblance of relaxation at an otherwise non-stop festival.

But at night, the house transforms into a full-blown mid-century Palm Springs cocktail party, complete with well-dressed attendees and a bikini-clad woman occupying an outdoor pool. The nostalgic scenes, six different ones in total, are made possible by 23 different projectors methodically placed in and around the complex.

"I really like the historical connection that this style of building has to the Coachella Valley," Clemente, the artists responsible for the Mirage and the festival's art director, says. "It's probably the most well-known design contribution that ever came from this part of the world."

Mirage by Paul Clemente.

Clemente said the idea for Mirage building came him while browsing through a few books on 20th century modern architecture at a bookstore. That night, he went home and sketched out what would become the Mirage, an actual-sized house built for just 10 days on the polo field that houses Coachella.

"What impresses me is when people will go to great lengths they to make something amazing that lasts only a short period of time," Clemente says.

Construction of the "Mirage" House | Photo: Paul Clemente.

For Clemente, "great lengths" was transplanting two 50-foot tall palm trees, planting them on the field and building a real-sized structure around them. He also pointed to the 50,000 lbs of solid granite his team of nearly a two-dozen -- including a dozen local carpenters and a half-dozen projection operators, among others -- used as landscaping.

"People came up to this weekend and said, 'where'd you get the fake rocks?' And I was like, 'naw man, they're real,'" Clemente says.

Riders in PK-107 Mantis by Poetic Kinetics | Photo by Mike Wang.

PK-107 Mantis - Poetic Kinetics, Los Angeles

In the waning hours of the evening, the PK-107 Mantis' illuminated eyes are seen from a distance rising up into the dusty night sky, a photographer placed snugly in a basket between them. The second of two art installations built by the Poetic Kinetics team, the PK-107 Mantis was inspired by the group's previous festival work, chiefly last year's giant flower, "Solitary Inflorescence."

"We wanted to do something a little more menacing than flowers," Washburn says. "We were watching praying mantises and we're like, 'they are really creepy.' So we came up with this whole idea of the Mantis."

Much like the giant snail, PK-107 Mantis was built on top of the heavy machinery used to set up the festival itself. Able to be controlled from both the ground and the man basket, the crane extends some 125 feet into the air, disturbing the night sky by cycling the colors of its LED lights.

Washburn points to the inherent personality present in heavy machinery as the reason her team decided to build on top of construction machinery. "The work we do for festivals is purely whimsical and seeks to evoke a sense of play," Washburn says. "We wondered how we could capitalize on this equipment that is already here and turn it into something amazing?"

Together with the snail project, the Poetic Kinetics team spent two months building their pieces for this year's festival. Together, their giant beasts ruled over the festival, one towering high above while the snail crawled through the crowds of sunbaked concert-goers.

Through the Cattails by aphidoidea | Photo: Mike Wang.

Positioning the Coachella Snail into place. | Photo: Paul Clemente.

Rendering of 3d model of "Mirage"

Construction of the "Mirage" House | Photo: Paul Clemente.

Construction of the "Mirage" House | Photo; Paul Clemente.

Exterior textures of one of the six houses.

Calibrating the projectors of the "Mirage" house | Photo: Paul Clemente.


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Top Image: Balloon Chain by Robert Bose | Photo By Sarah Parvini.

About the Author

Benjamin Gottlieb is an award-winning multiplatform journalist from Los Angeles, CA. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, CNN.com and NPR, among others.
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