Imagine walking through downtown Los Angeles toward Pershing Square as the distant pulse of house music drifts between skyscrapers. Upon entering the park, fire spurts out of a unicorn horn that's attached to a two-story stage equipped with candy-cane stripper poles, rainbow lights and a disco ball. Situated atop this pink mutant vehicle is a DJ who is bringing Pershing Square to life with funky dance beats.
Meet Charlie the Unicorn, a community-built art car that will be the centerpiece of the inaugural i3 Arts Fest and Art Car Ball happening in downtown L.A. June 2 and 3. Pershing Square, Grand Park and Grand Performances at California Plaza will be transformed into three mini-festivals featuring experiences that promise to be "interactive, immersive and innovative" — hence the name "i3."
“Our motto with Charlie is, ‘Everyone’s invited,’” says Danielle White, better known by her DJ moniker divaDanielle. “If you’ve seen the car, the whole thing is open, so about 100 people can get on. Having people on the car is as essential to us as having a crowd out in front.”
Created in 2011 by Ken Feldman, White and their so-called team of “unicorn wranglers,” Charlie the Unicorn has become one of the most popular and widely recognized art cars of Nevada’s annual Burning Man gathering. Its playful brand of infectious house music and bubble-gum aesthetics has garnered Charlie and his crew a massive cult following.
Charlie was inspired by Jason Steele’s 2005 viral video series of the same name about a disgruntled unicorn. In March 2016, Steele successfully crowdfunded a final, 30-minute episode of his "Charlie the Unicorn," which is currently in production and rumored to include cameos from both the art car and divaDanielle, the unicorn queen herself.
Starting off as a rickety labor of love funded by Kickstarter and sweat equity, Charlie the art car has evolved into a high-quality stage that features a Danley Sound Labs sound system. The 8-foot-wide, two-story behemoth is street-legal and has long since transcended its Burning Man roots, making appearances at parties all over the West Coast.
“There’s a lot of other art car groups that have a more sexy, dark and serious vibe to them,” White says. “We’re definitely all unicorns, rainbows, cotton candy, pink, playful — we want to use this silly vibe to open up people’s minds a little bit. Being able to share that with other people is a huge part of what we do outside of the music and going to Burning Man.”
White was a full-time video editor turned DJ who has always been enamored of electronic music. After dipping her toes into the European trance scene at 17, and a fortuitous moment when she caught a record hurled like a discus into the crowd by a DJ, she decided on her new path. While letting go of a stable, 13-year editing career was a difficult decision, for White it was the only decision.
Charlie the Unicorn, along with six other art cars and various art installations, are part of i3’s efforts to make the music and art of Burning Man more accessible to everyday Angelenos. White, along with fellow L.A. house DJs Marques Wyatt, Doc Martin and DJ Dan, will be performing on Charlie in Immersion Square (aka Pershing Square) on Saturday, June 3, while Low End Theory resident Gaslamp Killer will headline the Jabba Barge art car at Interaction Park (aka Grand Park) on Friday, June 2.
The i3 Arts Fest and Art Car Ball was conceived by Los Angeles–based corporate hospitality program director Xandra Myers. After attending her first Burning Man in 2014, she immediately wanted to find a way to incorporate these mind-blowing installations into Los Angeles’ cultural landscape.
“I just started thinking, why are Burning Man and festivals the only places and the only platform to see these art installations?” Myers says. “Anyone would love this. All generations will be mesmerized by some of these pieces.”
One of Myers’ first experiments in temporary art activations was in 2015, when she brought Malibu-based America’s Got Talent contestant William Close and his 700-foot tall Earth Harp to City National Plaza downtown. Despite wet conditions on a rare rainy night, onlookers were captivated, and the success of this event proved to her that there is a place for this art in Los Angeles.
"To label this art as Burning Man art or festival art is a disservice,” Myers says. “It cheats everybody because you’re saying the art only belongs [at Burning Man] and you’re not welcoming it into your own home or community. That’s what we’re changing.”
With the help of White and her partners Betty Tran and Nelson Diaz, Myers’ vision for a mini-festival in downtown is finally being realized. The past two years of Myers' life have been spent planning the i3 Arts Fest with the hopes of it growing into an annual destination festival comparable to Austin's SXSW or Miami's Art Basel. Myers believes that Los Angeles is experiencing a renaissance and that events like these will give downtown the global recognition it deserves as a hub for art.
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“My mission is to transform L.A. into a cultural wonderland,” Myers says. “Being in hospitality for seven years, I’d seen so often how underwhelming L.A. can be when people get here, because there’s this fantasy of what L.A. is. What would Los Angeles be without the imagination? This city has been built on dreams and crazy ideas, and so I think it’s totally appropriate for us to have massive alien robots and unicorns and musical skyscrapers.”
The i3 Arts Fest will be divided into three sections. Interaction Park will feature large-scale art cars and installations such as the Mechan 9 fallen robot, which after this weekend is on its way to the Smithsonian for a six-month residency. Innovation Plaza will feature Close and his Earth Harp, only this time it will surpass his record for tallest instrument in the United States, standing 900 feet tall. Immersion Square will offer hours of groovy house music and multiple art cars, including Charlie and the square's other DJ platform, the Airpusher art car.
“I would love to eventually add an educational element,” Myers says. “I would just love these activations everywhere. We have the capacity; it’s literally just coming together and doing it.”
The i3 Arts Fest comes to downtown L.A. Friday and Saturday, June 2 and 3. Admission to the "Art Car Ball" in Pershing Square is $40 general, $150 VIP; admission to all other areas is free with RSVP. More info at i3artsfest.com.