How the Massive Artworks at Music Festivals Are Created
Art is often the unsung hero of music festival season. Less attention-grabbing than the headliners and less click-baity than the fashion trends, the horizon-breaking installations, colorful murals, and kinetic sculptures that dot concert landscapes tend to play a backseat role. But as anyone who has been to a music festival knows, it is the art that transforms a patch of dirt and grass into a place that feels light years away from a nearby parking lot or a surrounding city.
Artists have much to gain from realizing these massive endeavors. For one, the reach that a festival artwork can have is phenomenal. In 2015, Nielsen reported that 32 million people attend a music festival in the United States each year. In 2017, Austin City Limits saw 450,000 attendees; that same year, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival attracted over 750,000 attendees across two weekends.
“It is an amazing canvas to work on,” said Patrick Shearn, artist and creative director for Poetic Kinetics, a Los Angeles–based studio that specializes in large-scale art installations, and has created a number of pieces for festivals. “It is an incredible opportunity to have someone pay you to build something that big, with that kind of exposure and response from the audience.”
Installation view of Spectra Pavilion. Photo by Miles George. Courtesy of NEWSUBSTANCE.
Shearn and his team are best known for their giant roving sculptures that mechanically drift over, around, and through concert crowds. One of their most memorable works was unveiled at Coachella in 2014: a hulking, 36-foot-tall astronaut that used cameras to project festival-goers’ faces onto the spaceman’s helmet. But what exactly goes into mounting an artwork like this?
The process for creating music festival art is unique. Selected artists may be commissioned directly by festival organizers, who then work with them on their vision and design. Often, though, artists must go through an application process, which includes submitting ideas and mock-ups. From there, contracts are negotiated and timelines established.
When it comes to the payment that artists receive, there’s a sliding scale, which can stretch into the six-figure range. In the case of Poetic Kinetics, Shearn noted that every project is different, depending on the complexity of a piece and the size of the festival. For a piece that would require a team of 15 staff to work for four months, plus the cost of qualified fabricators, builders, and materials, “you are into the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands,” he said.
“We generally are on the high end of things, I think, on what festivals are willing to pay,” Shearn added, noting that he feels fortunate that Poetic Kinetics has been able to work with top-tier festivals like Coachella and Electric Daisy Carnival. “They took a real gamble with us, and I think they were pleased at the response. It always depends, though, and is a negotiation, for sure,” he added.
The creation process for a given work often begins after festival season (around October) and stretches up until just before the festival is due to open; the timeline could be years long, depending on an artist’s cooperation with the festival organizers, but it could be as little as four months. These tight timelines often finish with a rushed on-site installation, so sculptural pieces and structures are made with the ability to be built up and broken down efficiently.
The festival environment requires artists to consider a number of other aspects they wouldn’t in other scenarios, such as an artwork’s ability to provide shade, transition from day to night, and endure harsh weather. With such massive crowds and little control, safety is also a chief concern, and depending on the size and purpose of the structure, artists and crews might have to adhere to building codes.
“You get very different crowds in different countries, and very different weather, as well,” explained Patrick O’Mahony, creative director of Newsubstance, a U.K.-based studio that focuses on performance art and aerial pieces, as well as large-scale sculpture and design. The studio has worked on pieces for U.K. festivals like Bestival and Download, but this year, it made its Coachella debut with Spectra (2018). A seven-floor spiral pavilion, it was inspired by the intense sunrises and sunsets that pour over the festival, and was intended to give visitors a serene experience of changing light and color as they passed through it. The piece was unique in that it took over three years to design and execute, and it was commissioned by Coachella.
“The key thing is just the robustness of the piece, because all of a sudden, you can have 50,000-plus people coming through in a condensed period of time,” O’Mahony explained.
Installation view of Poetic Kinetics, Reflection Rising, at Canal Convergence 2018, Scottsdale Public Art. Photo by Brian Passey. Courtesy of Poetic Kinetics.
When it comes to materials, Newsubstance tends to lean towards steel, acrylics, glass fiber, and wood for this kind of work. But O’Mahony stressed that this all varies. “Every job needs a different approach,” he said. “One day, we will be using steel; another day, it will be foam. Over the years, we have learnt what works and what doesn’t in different environments. What might be viable for one show will be totally wrong for another.”
Artists must also consider the inevitable chaos that will surround the piece; music festivals mean loud sounds, inebriated attendees, and elevated moods. “You just have to assume people will climb on it, over it, through it, so we have to design everything with a massive tolerance on it,” O’Mahony said.
Poetic Kinetics and Newsubstance use large crews of their in-house staff, plus fabricators, to execute the building process of their pieces. “I have a staff of 10 people running the studio, and we hire as many as 50 people, depending on the complexity of the project, particularly when they have a performance aspect,” Shearn said of Poetic Kinetics. Artists produce the works in the studio’s 7,000-square-foot space in downtown Los Angeles.
Once a piece is built, it hits the road and is assembled at the festival. The on-site crew is given anywhere from a few weeks to a few days to put it all together and make sure everything is perfect. “We bring our entire shop with us in trucks to festivals,” Shearn said. This includes materials and tools for metalworking and welding, as well as everything from drill presses to sewing machines, duct tape, and bubble gum.
Most creators have a team running shifts during the festival, to take care of any small fixes and make sure everyone is safe. In the case of Poetic Kinetics, the on-site staff may also be operating, controlling, or driving the art; with Newsubstance, on-site artists may also be participating in a performance. These are the lucky few that get the added bonus of riding high above crowds of thousands, or overhearing attendees chat about the piece.
Indeed, O’Mahony noted that seeing the genuine reaction of the audience is what he most enjoys about working on festival pieces. “When we do a project at the theater, it’s all on stage or on TV, you never get those close-quarters interactions,” he said of Newsubstance’s performance works. “But when you do a festival piece, for better or for worse, you get to see that physical reaction, you get to move amongst them and see people interacting with the piece and hear what people say. It is that that we can only get from a festival environment.”
Shearn echoed this sentiment. “My biggest reward is being anonymous and listening to people react,” he said, noting that he likes to blend in with the crowd and walk up to the work with people who are seeing it for the first time. “Hearing them discover the layers of detail that we put into things as we get closer and closer, it continues to surprise and continues to have more narrative information and life in the piece, and that is really rewarding to overhear that.”
Ultimately, though, for all the work that goes into it, festival art is fleeting. It’s not necessarily engineered for the long term, and it isn’t typically shown in exhibitions or outside the festival environment. After a few days or a week (depending on the festival), everything is broken down. In most cases, the pieces either travel home with the artists or organizers. With any luck, they might have another showing in the next year’s festival season.
In a way, the evanescence of music festival art contributes to its magic. While they’re well-documented in Instagram posts and video clips, these artworks, like the musical performances they surround, are meant to be witnessed firsthand—and that experience lives on only in the minds of festival-goers. In a way, these artworks have become inextricable from the festival itself: visual icons that can conjure a special moment in time, like a warm summer night, surrounded by fans and friends, bathed LED glow and roaring music.
“For me, it kind of goes back to when we were going to shows when we were kids,” O’Mahony said. “It’s such an amazing three days that people can go to; it’s like a different world.”