REPORT: Coachella

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"Escape Velocity," 2014, Poetic Kinetic Photo: Lance Velazco
“Escape Velocity,” 2014, Poetic Kinetic Photo: Lance Velazco

It seems a bit surreal that Coachella has been around for 15 years. And it may seem odder still to go to the renowned music event to cover the art scene. As everyone knows, Coachella is about music, and the artists people are here to see are the musicians-from Pharrel to Fishbone to Broken Bells to Bryan Ferry (and from certain locations eclectic mash-ups of other unlikely combinations). Why complicate it? Quick reminder, it is called: The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, and, yes, art has been part of the act all along. However, there is no denying that in recent years, perhaps with a hint of influence of the increasing popularity of the notorious Burning Man Festival, it has become increasingly woven into the fabric of the occasion.

“It really comes alive at night,” explains Geoffrey, an annual fairgoer beating the heat in the shaded beer garden, “Everything lights up… and it just looks totally different.” A few hours later, as the sun went down, the point was well taken. Charles Gadeken’s 2squared, by day tree-like forms built of white cubes reminiscent of April Fool’s marshmallow tree hoax. As dusk crept in, the installation exploded with pulses of alternating shades of chartreuse, teal, violet, and fiery orange-red. Across the field, the brightly hued architectural, Lightweaver by Stereo-bot, similarly transformed, with pulses of light coursing through the knotted, roller coaster-style configuration.

Contrasting the hyper-frenetic energy and pulsing lights stood Phillip K. Smith III’s five-piece monumentally scaled installation, Reflection Field, commissioned by Coachella producer Goldenvoice. Smith garnered critical notice at last year’s High Desert Test Sites with Lucid Stead, an isolated cabin retrofitted with mirrored slats alternating with the much aged wood of the original structure. At night, the work lit up from within with planes of primary colors filling the door and windows. The shapes of these planes of colors ultimately became the inspiration for Reflection Field at Coachella this year, where the rectangular volumes were arranged to match the windows and door of the dilapidated cabin. “Reflection Field is not a site-specific piece, but, it is,” explains Smith, “It absorbs whatever is in the environment, and responds to the realities of the place.” Like Lucid Stead, the work changes at night from reflections of to projections into the environment. As the sky darkens, the mirrored structures change, the reflections “begin to fade away and you get these pure fields of color… moments of infinite color… in the middle of the insanity that is Coachella.”

Interactivity is a key ingredient to these multi-media installation works, whether it involves climbing on Christian Ristow’s flower loving robot, dancing under Kevin McHugh’s Disco Jaws, resting within Mike Grandaw’s Caterpillar, or avoiding being run over by the monotonous crawl of the collective Poetic Kinetic’s giant astronaut Escape Velocity. Some of the work demanded attention from across the crowded polo fields, while others seemed to wait patiently to be discovered. Covered with a skin of light-reflecting CDs, with a revolving interior “inspired by the Russian ice caves,” James Peterson’s CyroChrome was able to do both.

“So much of what I do is to tap into the inner child ‘sense of wonder,’ that simple beautiful experience,” describes James Peterson. Since exhibiting at Art Basel in Switzerland last winter, Peterson’s schedule has been virtually non-stop: showing at the Grand Rapids Art Museum in his native Michigan, then to Art Basel Miami Beach, back to Switzerland for a group show “Tilt!” at Kunst Raum Riehen, before heading out to Coachella to create the labor intensive CyroChrome. At each, Peterson describes his goal of achieving a similar response, “It’s about getting to a wider audience, and creating a communal connection versus being a spectator of art.”

And there was a lot of art yet to be seen: The DoLab Stage (a wonderland in and of itself), live painting, installations in the campgrounds and reaching into the sky. Though it would be remiss not to mention I was, at first, a bit skeptical about the notion that the art could hold its own in the Coachella environment. Case in point, perusing the Art of 2014 roster, Robert Bose’s String of Balloons was among the eyebrow-raising concerns. If only because it appeared to be… a string of balloons. But mysteriously, what began as a simple arch of balloons reminiscent of the typical used car lot sale, seemed to slowly morph throughout the day. At first appearing far beyond the stages, over time it seemed to continually grow until suddenly in the dark of night, that same string somehow stretched over the entire festival, passing overhead as the artist’s assistants fiendishly passed by, attaching miniature LED lights to each balloon so the path was visible in the night sky, dancing over the other glowing temporary works. When and how did that happen? I’m still not exactly sure, but somehow a string of balloons was doing exactly what “good art” ought to do.