Relational Aesthetics and Desert Kinetics
By Andrea Steedman
For years, everyone in contemporary creative culture has been debating whether “art is dead.” That question may never be answered properly, but in response to the clear concern, artists everywhere have been coming up with new forms of art that combat this issue. One of the best movements at refuting traditional ideas about what art should be is participatory art. This art, also called “social practice art” or “relational aesthetics” can be almost anything—but it is activated or completed by participants. Without anyone participating in the art, it is not actually art yet—it is akin to a blank canvas before a mark is made.
Although plenty of participatory art is in galleries and museums, the revolutionary thing about this art is it can be anywhere. One of the many places that have proved this point is the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Every year at this infamous music festival people come back with stories about the crazy experiences they have, the people they meet, and the bands they see. What not everyone mentions is the amazing art installations at this festival. Last year the highlights included the world’s largest wave generator constructed out of lighted lanterns created by Charles Gadeken, large-scale fabric gates by Sensory Sync, which shimmered as light was shone on them at night creating a psychedelic effect, and even a giant stainless steel lobster created by Christian Ristow, which emitted fire from its antennae. Some of these, like the lobster, required little spectator participation, while others were able to be walked through, under and around, light illuminating those interacting with the art as well as the art itself.
Even more in line with the participatory art idea are the Coachella Art Studios at the festival. The themes from year to year stay much the same, including “Get Felt Up,” using felt to create a variety of objects, “Button Up,” where visitors can create their own buttons, “The Chop Shop,” learning to alter t-shirts, “Zine Works,” allowing attendees to create their own zines, “The Post Chella,” where you can create a post card which is mailed for free to friends or family, and “Stranger Portraits,” testing festival-goers ability to relate to someone they’ve never met. This art takes the experience of attending the Coachella Festival from just passive to active; attendees are creators as well as audience members.
In the last few years there has been an especial push for “green” and recycling-themed art, this year the projects include “Beats Oasis,” where recycled goods are used to create musical instruments, and “The Afterlife,” where passers by are taught how to recycle a number of household goods. The push for cleanup and recycling also continues with original art created out of the trashcans that can be found around every corner at Coachella. These cans are part of the TRASHed Project which every year draws many artists of all calibers, and last year even spawned an exhibit. After the festival is over, these beautiful trashcans are donated to schools across Southern California. This is a revolutionary idea too, combining ephemeral art with eco-art and social activist art.
The clout of the Coachella name means the organizers of this festival have vast resources to draw upon to get people participating in their art projects, but the blueprints created by these art events could be used anywhere to involve people in participatory art events. However, these events aren’t just good because they’re at Coachella. They’re innovative and provocative ideas that could easily be implemented in museums and galleries across the country to encourage visitor participation.
While participatory art is hot in galleries and museums around the globe, seeing it actualized in the most unlikely of places makes the potential of this art really come alive. When festival goers participate in these art events they may not realize the effect it has on them, but they are taking part in a bigger art movement without even realizing. Furthermore, these experiences will likely stick in their heads as unique events they will relate to others, which makes the art another form of participatory art, in which participants are asked to pass on an object or idea. The ideas for this type of art are endless, and the ramifications could be quite vast as well—it is truly an understatement to say that the influence and reverberations from this art movement have hardly begun to be seen.
“Coachella Art Studios” at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, 81-800 Avenue 51, Indio, (323) 930-5700; www.coachella.com. April 12-14, 19-21.