This weekend, thousands of music fans -- flower crowns on their heads -- are descending on the Palm Desert east of Los Angeles for the first weekend of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. The main draw is of course the music, with dozens of acts performing, from reunited crowd-pleasers like Guns N’ Roses and LCD Soundsystem, to contemporary acts including Grimes, A$AP Rocky, and CHVRCHES. As the festival’s name implies though, art is also a crucial part of the event, and this year, they’re stepping up their art game.
“What we're really trying to do is outdo ourselves from the previous year,” Paul Clemente, the art director for the festival, told me. (Clemente is also on the board of Desert X, a multi-venue exhibition in the desert beginning next year.) “This year, we went in a bit of a different direction. We'd been using a group of artists for a handful of years, commissioning new work from them. We love all of those artists and we did a lot of great projects, but we wanted to try and look for some new ideas and to do that we went outside of our normal circle of artists, and outside this part of the country.”
As part of this search, Clemente and his team travelled to art fairs, biennials, and artists’ studios all over the world, from Venice to Havana, Mexico to Arkansas. They also changed the selection process. Previously, Clemente -- who has worked on the festival for over a decade -- would cast a wide net, accepting proposals from as many as 250 artists each year, ultimately picking only about six or seven projects. This meant potentially frustrating a number of good artists who were going through a lot of work to submit year after year without being chosen. Going forward, Clemente will make a short list with his colleagues of 15 or 16 artists, getting proposals from them, and picking from this more selective pool.
Another change this year is that the festival will be in charge of fabrication for almost all of the large-scale pieces, no small feat when “every piece this year is the biggest piece that any of these artists has ever done by far,” according to Clemente. Since January, they’ve been collaborating with local companies Rice Construction and White’s Steel to bring the artists’ visions to life, going so far as to build a temporary fabrication and carpentry shop on site. Although design, planning and fabrication can take months, they only had 11 days to install everything on the festival grounds before the gates opened. Clemente is well-suited to this kind of high-pressure production, having worked in visual effects for the film industry for 18 years, on blockbusters like "The Matrix" and "Titanic." “What were doing here is very similar to that world, in that we are building something for the first and only time, using a variety of different materials and processes, and having to do it safely,” Clemente told me.
This year’s project ranges from over-the-top festival spectacles that would fit in on the playa of Burning Man like Robert Bose’s Balloon Chain and the Cirque du Soleil-esque Lucent Dossier Experience, to work by artists who have a closer connection to the rarified world of museums and galleries. This provides a unique challenge: appealing to a crowd of thousands of revelers instead of the well-mannered, erudite clique who are most at home in the white cube.
Latvian duo Katrīna Neiburga and Andris Eglītis are recreating "Armpit," a work that was originally shown last year at the Venice Biennale, perhaps the epitome of high art exclusivity. The piece “was inspired by a sample of vernacular architecture with local character -- the Soviet era co-ops of private garages whose owners have adapted them for the hybrid use as workshops-cum-dachas,” as their website states. Inside a ramshackle building built from reclaimed materials, multiple screens will show atmospheric videos of men in their home-workshops.
“I think this work is very human,” Eglītis told me when I reached the couple via Skype. “In Venice, a lot of people who saw it, they understood everything as we meant it to be. Maybe it’s even harder with curators and art critics.”
Although they come from the fine art world, their background is not wholly antithetical to the music scene. Neiburga has designed sets for theater and opera, as well as created videos for Latvian pop groups, though she confided, “we are not festival people. When we heard Coachella wanted us to come, we were like, ‘hmmm, interesting. What is Coachella?’ We didn't know anything about this festival.”
Unlike some of the other works that are made specifically to appeal to massive throngs, admittance to the "Armpit" will be limited to 30 people at a time, “so they can experience it more freely and intimately,” said Eglītis. “It will be like an oasis of peace."
Jimenez Lai, of L.A.-based architecture and design firm Bureau Spectacular, has also designed a kind of bulding, albeit one that has to be appreciated from the outside. Titled "Tower of Twelve Stories," it is a 52-foot tall sculptural installation featuring a stack of cartoonish wooden bubbles, onto which colored lights are projected. Lai told me he was inspired by an article he had read written by superstar architect Rem Koolhaas.
“He was talking about the qualities of a typical plan, talking about flexibility and repeatability, the plan with no character,” Lai told me. “In my mind, the plan with no character is the breeding ground for individuals with no character, so a few years back I made a drawing titled "Cartoonish Metropolis," where I wanted to challenge that notion and make towers with atypical plans. I stuffed a bunch of bubbles inside of buildings, and when the opportunity came where Coachella asked for a proposal, I essentially proposed to build that drawing.”
As for whether he though the Coachella crowd would appreciate a piece of theory-based experimental architecture, Lai didn’t seem too worried.
“That's maybe the true test,” he said, “As an artform, architecture communicates. Just like any piece of literature, there are layers of communication. Maybe you're talking to an insider crowd, but perhaps there's also a different kind of reading from people who aren't insiders. I'm really looking forward to that.”
The Date Farmers are an artistic duo with deep roots in the Coachella Valley, but a complicated relationship with the festival itself. Armando Lerma and Carlos Ramirez grew up in nearby Indio and now live in the town of Coachella itself. (The actual festival is held on the Empire Polo Grounds, a couple of miles from the town.) Beginning in the late '90s, they began collaborating on paintings, sculptures and installations that drew on graffiti, mural art, and imagery from their Mexican-American heritage into a hybrid form that has found an audience with the fine art establishment.
Although the festival has brought a great deal of attention, and money, to the area, few visitors actually make it beyond the fairgrounds. This dichotomy is at the heart of their piece, "Sneaking into the Show." “It's about them being strangers in their own backyard, growing up around the Coachella Festival. Being so close, yet not being able to get here,” Clemente said.
The piece features paintings of a man and a woman with a low-rider bike on large wooden panels. The big-shouldered figures are recognizable types from their oeuvre. “I was influenced by a cousin who’s an artist, that was in a gang. It’s a gang style of artwork,” Lerma told me when I reached him by phone mid-installation on the polo fields. “These guys look out of place as far as the style of the people who are at the festival, but in Coachella City, they would be normal people. These characters are from just down the street, they’re people who live in my neighborhood.”
In addition to bringing characters from their neighborhood to the festival, Lerma hopes to bring some of the festival-goers back to his town with the Coachella Walls project. In 2014, totally separate from the festival’s art program, Lerma began inviting artists to create murals in town. This year, they’ll have 10 murals by artists from as far away as Brazil and Cambodia.
This isn’t the first year that the Date Farmers have participated in the festival’s line-up, though it is perhaps their first official contribution. “The first year [in 1999], I just came onto the field, spoke to someone and they were like, ‘yeah go do something over there,’” Lerma told me. “We did our thing, under the radar, the second year too. Then it took off and we hadn’t heard from them until recently. We've been waiting, we've been down the street this whole time.”
As for the recent turn towards a more serious and thoughtful art program at the Coachella Festival, Lerma is all for it, seeing it as a compliment to the caliber of the musical acts the festival now books. “Coachella’s been through some crazy things, butterflies and snails, some crazy shit, but it should really be art for adults. Considering the music's at a certain level, the art should be too.”