Coachella festival doubles down on art

INDIO, Calif. — Under Friday night’s crescent moon, a giant iridescent snail slowly made its way among thousands of concert revelers at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, causing bafflement and awe in equal measures. Nearly 30 feet tall and stretching out to some 80 feet in length, the silver-skinned creature was in fact a slow-moving sculpture titled “Helix Poeticus” that was custom-commissioned for the festival by its promoter, Goldenvoice.

“I don’t know if I want to run away screaming or if I want to hug it,” said Silvia Ay, 23, of Los Angeles, contemplating the sculpture’s eerily rotating illuminated eyes. “The thing is pretty trippy. I came here expecting to hear some cool bands, but not this.”

In a year that Coachella signed a deal to extend its festival run in Indio through 2030, organizers have doubled down on the amount of high-concept art installations on display at the Empire Polo Club. The collection included a Tyrannosaurus rex made of recycled materials, twin Tesla coil towers shooting sprays of electricity into the night sky and a gleaming white edifice that recalls mid-century Palm Springs architecture, showcasing an 18,000-pound boulder and three palm trees imported for the fest.

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Lest anyone forget Coachella’s full billing is as a festival of arts as well as music, its goal this year is to provide its estimated 180,000 attendees an immersive arts experience at least as viscerally jolting as the bombastic beats and washes of electric guitar reverb coming off Coachella’s performance stages. Paul Clemente, who has served as the festival’s art director for the last eight years, has dedicated himself to turning what was once an incidental part of the Coachella vibe — background scenery to the alt-music pupu platter on offer every year — into an integral part of the festival’s appeal.


“In the past, people rented more off-the-shelf artwork, but now we’re making an effort to commission all-new pieces specially built for the show,” Clemente said. “We definitely want to push the limits.”

Although unwilling to reveal the precise cost of 2013’s artwork, Clemente described the fest’s arts budget as “substantially more” than previous years’ allotments.

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Seven out of eight artworks on the main grounds were site-specific pieces never viewed publicly before this year’s festival. The largest installation, a trance music and cool-down enclosure called the Do Lab, spans nearly an acre. On Saturday its slanted shade sails and mist-emitting water guns kept ecstatic revelers cool in the 95-degree heat. A “Transformers"-like installation called “PK-107 Mantis” resembles a fierce robotic insect and reaches 125 feet into the air.

Even in Coachella’s camping site, situated a short walk from the concert grounds, the number of art installations increased from two in 2012 to seven pieces this year, making a total of 15 specially commissioned artworks. Selected by Goldenvoice chief Paul Tollett from a pool of 300 applicants, the art offerings — which will be featured at both back-to-back weekends of shows this month — make Coachella singular among major summer music festivals.

“We’re always trying to improve, to make it a better experience for everyone,” Tollett said.

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Chalk up the expanded art on offer to Coachella’s overall expansion gambit, which after a recent vote by Indio’s City Council includes the leeway to host up to five music festivals a year at the Empire Polo Club. Goldenvoice has acquired large tracts of land on streets neighboring the concert grounds, allowing for rapid construction of artwork that would have been impossible in previous editions of the fest.

According to Indio police spokesman Benjamin Guitron, this year’s festival has gone relatively smoothly so far. Of the 33 arrests made Friday, most were alcohol-related incidents; only one was on suspicion of assault.

“We’re pretty happy with that outcome,” Guitron said.

Over the first two days of the festival, five performance artists wearing hippopotamus masks and white lab technician coats goofed and danced before a bank of computer monitors inside a fenced-off temporary structure festooned with fake smokestacks called “Coachella Power Station.”

By nightfall Friday, “Mirage,” a 100-foot-long, 40-foot-tall installation designed by Clemente came to life courtesy of 3-D computer projections. Resembling a ‘60s-style Modernist mansion — in homage to nearby Palm Springs’ most celebrated architectural movement — the angular white artwork features a virtual swimming pool with two women splashing in turquoise-blue water on a continuous film loop.

“It’s mesmerizing,” said Deborah Rosen of Los Angeles. “It feels like a suspended reality.”

According to Clemente, the best may be yet to come. He said future festivals almost certainly will include even larger and more elaborate art installations.

“We’re not going backwards,” Clemente said. Gesturing at a passel of tattooed Coachella goers dancing to an electronic groove nearby, he added: “These dudes want more. We’re going to give it to them.”


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