March 26 2013 06:07 PM

Event will showcase the growing trend of participatory art

The Rose Petal Pool by Neal Gran, a project featured in FIGMENT New York’s 2008 and 2011 festivals

Inside Little Fish Studios, a new home for comic-book classes and workshops in Ocean Beach, co-owner and comic artist Alonso Nuñez is fighting the urge to finish his superheroes.

"It's been hard because I want to add a chest symbol here," he says, riffling through pages of rough sketches and pointing to a blank character with a big, puffed-out chest. "I've started wanting to finish these guys myself."

Nuñez's unfinished superheroes will eventually end up on a 16-by-6-foot wood panel that'll be propped up in Chicano Park from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, April 7, as part of FIGMENT San Diego, a participatory art event featuring projects that invite viewers to engage and interact. Nuñez says he and his Little Fish partner, Patrick Yurick, will be there to help people dip their paintbrushes and find supplies, but, otherwise, they'll be taking a hands-off approach and letting the community finish the work they started. 

Alonso Nuñez wants the FIGMENT San Diego
audience to finish what he started.
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

Nuñez hopes the event's immediate surroundings—the Coronado Bridge, the bright Mexican murals and the Downtown cityscape—will influence those who step up and fill in the blanks. He also has a theory that creating superheroes is a great way to delve into someone's psychology.

"I love the idea of these characters being a reflection of the people who are creating them and the times and environment they're created in," he says. "Superheroes are these receptacles for our hopes, beliefs and drives. They're just a fantastic kind of fantasy vehicle for everything that makes people great."

In a backyard in La Mesa, chickens scurry about in their coops as artist Steve "Stove" Riggs digs through his shed in search of handmade parts, which he'll piece together to form a large-scale kaleidoscope.

"Here's the base of the kaleidoscope right here," Riggs says. "It's a recycled shoe-sewing machine."

Riggs shows off his beautiful, fused-glass discs and explains that he designed the kaleidoscope's viewing mechanism large enough so someone can stick her entire face into it. He wants the kaleidoscope to be an immersive experience in which viewers spin the knobs and create endless combinations of psychedelic imagery. Riggs, whose sculptural kaleidoscopes have been on view as part of the Port of San Diego's Urban Trees public-art program, is another of the dozens of artists scheduled to appear at FIGMENT.

Alongside the superhero mural and immersive kaleidoscope, FIGMENT San Diego organizer Nicole Hickman says to expect science-fiction performance art, installations, body art, sound art and more projects that will incorporate some kind of participatory element. She and a team of volunteers have been working for months to bring FIGMENT to San Diego. So far, the response from the local arts community has been good—they got double the number of artists' submissions they expected.

FIGMENT started as a one-time art event on New York City's Governors Island but has since inspired civic- and arts-minded organizers in cities around the globe to start their own events. At last yearís FIGMENT festival in New York, those who showed up were treated to a mini-golf course with artist-designed holes, a tree house made from recycled materials, a giant Pong video game, a 1:1 scale model of the Statue of Liberty's face and other interactive art.

The FIGMENT vibe is very Burning Man-esque. The event was created as a direct response to material consumption and the commercial art world. Everything's free, no one's paid, sponsors aren't allowed and people are encouraged to step outside their comfort zones and act as wacky as they want.

"If you're looking for something to buy at FIGMENT, you're going to be disappointed," says executive producer David Koren, just before boarding a plane to Australia for yet another FIGMENT event that sprouted this year. "It is possible to come to FIGMENT and just kind of look at it, not get it and walk away; we've certainly had those responses... But if you do react, this kind of engagement, I don't think it goes away. It takes us out of our typical experience of being in a city and having purely or mostly commercial transactions. [Attendees] leave with a smile on their face if they do engage. It really is something magical."

In 2010, hundreds of people waited hours to simply sit across from and meet the steady gaze of artist Marina Abramovi at the Museum of Modern Art's retrospective exhibition, Marina Abramovi: The Artist is Present. The eagerness of that unrelenting crowd is a testament to the quick rise and eventual acceptance of participatory art, a genre that, even just 20 years ago, mostly existed at FIGMENT-like events well outside the mainstream art world. 

Participatory art breaks through the fourth wall, asking those who encounter it to react rather than simply observe. It can be as uncomfortable for some as it is exciting to others—not everyone wants to be a co-producer or even a medium in an artist's work. But if the growing acceptance of participatory art in top-tier museums like MoMA is an indication (even the San Diego Museum of Art, often considered traditional and conventional, has dabbled in participatory art in its lauded Summer Salon Series events), there'll be a continued swelling of interested venues and an audience ready to take part in the experiments.

Participatory art does have its detractors. In her book Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, art critic and historian Claire Bishop says that "quality" is elusive in participatory art. In the book's intro, she says participatory-art projects "are often more powerful as ideal than as actualized realities." In other words, when an artist involves people in their palette, the outcome is often too hard to control.

A critic who shows up at FIGMENT San Diego might turn up his nose at the finished superhero mural or call the kaleidoscope "craft," not art. But FIGMENT fans say he'd be missing the point.

"We're building community through art," Hickman says. "When you're collaborating with people you've never met to create something, you can't help but bring down your boundaries."

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See all events on Wednesday, Dec 7