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The Figment festival of interactive art makes its Pittsburgh debut

Weekend-long fest brings local artists to Allegheny Commons

Dancers Torey Bocast (left) and Anna Bender are among the performers at Figment.
Dancers Torey Bocast (left) and Anna Bender are among the performers at Figment.

Andy Warhol never got his wish to have the word "figment" carved on his gravestone, so he might be happy to see an arts festival inspired by the request come to Pittsburgh. Since starting out on New York's Governors Island, in 2007, Figment has become a national phenomenon, with events in Boston, Detroit and Washington, D.C. It makes its Pittsburgh debut this weekend.

The nonprofit collaborative will transform a section of Allegheny Commons park into a "fantasy land" — featuring interactive sculptures, installations, performers, costumes and music — and then decamp, leaving no trace. 

Local organizer Tom Prigg explains the festival's genesis: "It comes from Burning Man's Black Rock City. That's a city that only exists for a week. ... The founder, David Koren, saw the installations in the Nevada desert and decided more people should be able to see and experience this type of art." 

Unlike Burning Man or its regional spinoffs, Figment festivals are located in urban centers and emphasize local involvement, particularly by children. "The idea is to give kids a new way to think about art and make it interesting again," Prigg says. "This isn't gluing dried noodles to a page — art can be something much bigger and more complicated." 

Past Figments have included mini-golf courses, rose-petal pools and other large-scale interactive sculptures. Pittsburgh's version includes a literary stage where poet Crystal Hoffman will write personalized poems for guests. Meanwhile, attendees are invited to help create many of the works. "People activate more areas of their brain when they're interacting with an artwork," Prigg explains. "It takes a lot more thought than just passively looking at a painting." 

Prigg, a neurobiologist, exemplifies the diversity of those involved with Figment. The organization's principles hinge on a radical inclusiveness, as well as a commitment to sustainability and decommodification. Corporate sponsorship is not accepted.

Anyone can submit artwork, volunteer or otherwise participate in Pittsburgh Figment, though some planned attractions suggest you might not have a choice. A series of tongue-in-cheek "traps" will dot the park — "Hipster Traps," "Yinzer Traps," "Biker Traps," etc. — with the preferred bait of each stereotype within their metal jaws. Silly perhaps, but whether you bring your children to this weekend's festivities or not, you should gain a playful new perspective on art.

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