Were it not for the photographic evidence, Figment could have been a hallucination. The annual Chicano Park festival is how American families everywhere would be spending their Sunday afternoons if Jello Biafra had been elected president. It had everything: hula hoops, karate demos, noise jams, art installations, cardboard-box forts, indigenous dances, graffiti, a tattoo van — all set up by local volunteers aiming to create an atmosphere of interaction.
“Figment calls out to everyone to participate in making art — people of all ages and community backgrounds,” says Nicole Hickman, who coproduced the premiere installment of the event with Brady Mahaney.
“By encouraging inclusive participation on the part of everyone, Figment helps people step outside the boundaries of sometimes insular communities and come out and play and build a larger community through art.”
It may sound like idealist whimsy, but the moment I got to the park at around 11 on an early-April morning, I knew it wasn’t just wishful thinking. An impromptu parade marched around tooting on clown balloons attached to paper-towel rolls and banging on homemade drums. The parade snaked through the park, honking and blurping like a patch of wild mushrooms that had been brought to life by a cartoon wizard with a penchant for deconstructed polka.
Meanwhile, local sound pioneer M.J. Stevens (of 100-string guitar notoriety) beat on a crash cymbal affixed with a few springs, some beads, and a guitar pickup. The noise issuing from his amp alternated between haunting, metallic tintinnabulations and guitar-like wails, providing a villainous counterpoint to the colorful superheroes being painted at a nearby Little Fish Comic Book Studio installation.
Not far away, real-life superheroes gave passersby free flying yoga lessons as kids across the path sorted through a near-endless spread of cardboard-box forts. Between the pretty princess decoration station, theological musings strung across a clothesline, interpretive poetry videos with the Media Arts Center, and a giant box containing 75 feet of spelunking, there was no lack of creative diversion, but I kept coming back to the noise tent, where local “outsider art and music” collective Stay Strange had set up an array of circuit-bent toys, sound generators, and exotic instruments for an open, all-day jam.
“My original proposal was for Stay Strange to bring noise music for children to experiment with,” said founder Sam Lopez (Zsa Zsa Gabor, San Diego Experimental Guitar Show), who arrived before sunrise and manned the booth alongside his wife Misty and peers such as Scott Nielsen, Meyer Hirsch, Sean Conway, and Stevens.
“My thought was that by offering unusual instruments, it would open their minds to the unlimited possibilities of sound,” continued Lopez. “However, it turned out that not only did the children find these instruments interesting, but that their parents did, too. In some cases, the adults looked like they were having more fun than their children. I met so many people who wanted to be part of the experimental music movement, who either were afraid to step out or who had been out of the scene. But this event made them want to come out and be a participator. That is the power Figment.”
It certainly was something to see. Park regulars woke from afternoon naps to wail on Lopez’s brutally overdriven guitar and twist noise knobs while kids explored melodies on a pipe xylophone belonging to free-jazz composer Nathan Hubbard. Yet, beneath the chaos lurked a fundamental harmony, which Lopez describes thusly:
“The Figment Project brought together all of these great artists who knew absolutely zero about each other and created this insane lumbering monster bent on creation and construction.”■
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