Coachella has always been uniquely dedicated to a significant visual art presence at its festivals. From the very beginning, one of its creators — the legendary musician, Lollapalooza guru, and avid art lover and collector Perry Farrell — insisted on it, once describing his vision to me as, “ushering in the era of the Art Star.” The subsequent 15 years have more than proved him right, as the art world embraces wilder ideas and the music/spectacle world makes sure to feature visual artists front and center.
Through it all, Coachella not only has maintained but dramatically expanded its arts experiences on the concourse, and 2022 was no different. This year saw about a dozen local and international artists and teams represented, hailing from the worlds of architecture, design, sculpture, painting, digital, video, sound, performance, immersive and interactive art-making. L.A. Weekly checked in with Paul Clemente (the longtime art director of the festival), the team from Do LaB (who is on its 16th Coachella), and multimedia desert-based artist Cristopher Cichocki (who is finally — finally! — on his first) to find out what it took to put it all together.
“I want people to be able to see the scale of these pieces literally from 1,000 or 1,500 feet away,” says Clemente. “There’s something everywhere you look, to completely fill your field of vision and to really create this one-of-a-kind experience in the desert, with the mountains, all of that. I mean that could be a pretty memorable, kind of moving experience for the audience, as well as for the artists.” In some cases, this will be the first time these visual artists have ever done anything on this mammoth scale. And often they don’t really have the expertise to do that. Or maybe they do, but they’re traveling here from Europe, Latin America, the UK or around the U.S., and building on site is much more doable than organizing shipping. So Coachella is helping them with all that — the engineering on the builds, sourcing materials and equipment if they need to, etc. “It’s been about six or seven years since I decided to start building the work internally,” says Clemente. “So my job is less than half a mile away from where the show is, and quite purposely so. It’s really enabled us to grow every single year.”
One of this year’s artists who has been most enthusiastic about that growth in scale, vision and capability has been Cristopher Cichocki — a desert area native and internationally acclaimed painter, sculptor, video, and sound and installation artist who has always wanted to do something for the festival — came out swinging with his Circular Dimensions x Microscape pavilion. The five-story-tall bandshell structure was built using more than 25,000 feet of PVC tubes, and plays host to an ecologically minded array of hybridized science/art experiments, such as “generating improvisational video paintings by manipulating water, salt, barnacles, and algae from the Salton Sea under microscopes…while a soundscape of field recordings and industrial rhythms resonates through the structure’s circular tunnels.” That may sound outlandish, but Cichocki’s mutant practice has long been based in fusing technology with direct sampling of elements from the natural landscapes in which industry has intervened. Cichocki has been planning Circular Dimensions x Microscape for five years.
Aside from its “psychoacoustic” array of 60 speakers inside that seem to move the sound around in the space (arhythmic found sounds and field recordings and concrete tones), when the sun sets the whole structure is illuminated by ultraviolet radiation. “Which, of course, is a reference to the bioluminescent desert,” says Cichocki. “It’s about the historic significance of water, not only in the desert but just as a transmorphic timeline of the planet. The idea is visualizing and physically manifesting something that has to do with that kind of essential interconnectedness of all the structures and patterns and cycles of the world that we inhabit.” It’s lofty lingo, but this kind of fusion between environmentalism and the search for elevated consciousness is pretty on point for the average Coachella faithful. “I don’t think the arts programming gets enough credit for how they’re navigating that.”
Other captivating examples of concourse art this year included the interactive, living gardens inside puppy-shaped sculptures in Mutts by Oana Stănescu; Dutch designer Kiki Van Eijk’s Buoyed mood-elevating soft sculptures; the ethereal, interdimensional sculptural experience of the levitating Cocoon (BKF + H300) by Buenos Aires-based Martín Huberman of Estudio Normal; the colorful stylized urban jungle gym of Playground by Architensions; the fierce but friendly benevolent chaperone sculpture La Guardiana by El Paso-Juarez’s LosDos; and return appearances by UK art and design studio NEWSUBSTANCE that creates performative, site-specific and temporal works; New York artist Robert Bosenad’s famous quarter-mile Balloon Chain; Don Kennell, the Santa Fe-based creator of beloved, enormous animal sculptures; and afterschool artists Raices Cultura from the City of Coachella.
Perhaps the best-known by Coachella regulars are the wizards at Do LaB, the Los Angeles-based band of creative and literal brothers, whose artistry extends not only to discrete works of art but to the architecting of entire stage venue environments, which they then program themselves according to what’s on everyone’s mind. This year, their Warrior One stage was in keeping with the overall ethos, devoted to, “fantastical and interactive experiences inspired by human connection, authenticity, and environmental sustainability.” As the brothers Jesse, Josh, and Dede Flemming told L.A. Weekly, “This is our 16th Coachella! It’s a huge part of our personal lives; we sort of grew up here!”
The evolution of their vision has kept pace with the growth of the festival itself. “We started out with making an art piece and we chose right away to make it interactive, not just something that you could look at, but something you could experience,” the Flemmings explain. “We brought in performers, we walked around with slices of oranges and gave them out to people, and made them comfortable and just gave a little oasis of sanctuary. And then obviously we’ve evolved into a proper stage out here, never wanting to lose the art aspect. So you know now we’re just a big artistic stage and the line is a little blurred. We’re just artists out here, but we kept the interactive element the entire time.”
Do LaB also is really excited about the support the festival offers art projects. “In the early years all the artists used to come out here and build their own stuff, like Burning Man. We were there for the entire evolution of that process. Coachella was a leader in bringing in artists and bringing in art, but no one knew what to do back in the day.” The artists would come in and they were left to kind of fend for themselves. They had to bring in everything they needed to complete their project. They’d come in with truckloads of stuff and would just plop down in the middle of the field and have to find all the resources they would need to build and create.
“We didn’t always know what we needed until we got here,” the Flemmings recall of those heady days, with a certain fondness. “And we’d have to negotiate and do side deals to get the resources we needed. The main stage crew finished their day, probably around six o’clock. Then we used to go scramble and grab all the machines, and work all night because that was the only way to get it done. Being an artist, you’re creative and you’re thrifty, and you are resourceful. And when we were stealing machines, we did it with a smile on our faces because that was part of the process. We enjoyed that and we still do. The support is absolutely welcomed and needed,” they say. “But we still like to run around and get creative just because it’s a renegade mentality.”
The first to admit that none of us are as young as we used to be, “we still come out here like we’re in our twenties, like we used to, and we just work and work and work, and we have fun,” they say. And they mean it about not slowing down — the return of Do LaB’s own iconic Lightning in a Bottle is Memorial Day weekend, bringing its undefeated mix of music, progressive learning, wellness and craft workshops, and a curated pairing of art and yoga. “It’s funny because we all look a little bit altered,” the Flemmings say, “but everybody’s still got the same youthful spirit and we’re just pushing through, still doing it together. This whole year is one big reunion for us and all of our friends. It’s been too long.”
Visit coachella.com/art to learn more.