05/22/2011 02:55 pm ET | Updated Jul 22, 2011

Beyond Imagination: FIGMENT Unites Local Artists for Community Impact

What do you get when you combine art and imagination and use its power to cultivate community and impact society?

It's a provocative question, no small task and interestingly, has an answer.

A few months ago, I found myself at a dinner celebrating 'connectors' in New York City, sitting next to David Koren, founder of FIGMENT. He excitedly shared his stories about FIGMENT, an initiative he founded years in July 2007 to allow artists to create and display their work publicly -- for free -- at Governor's Island. Now in its fifth year, FIGMENT is more than David's dream, it's a reality that attracts massive level of participants, volunteers and, this year, debuts in Jackson, Mississippi, Boston and Detroit -- in addition to its traditional New York event at Governor's Island from June 10th through June 12th.

David and I caught up after the event in greater detail to chat about the story behind the story of FIGMENT, its successes to date and future vision to meaningfully scale across the global arts community.

Laura Cococcia: Who or what was the core inspiration behind FIGMENT?

David Koren: When we created FIGMENT, there were three factors, three inspirations that came together to make it happen. First, Governors Island opened to the public for the first time ever as an incredible new public place in New York City that seemed to be in search of a mission, an identity, a signature use, and we thought the arts could be important here. Second, when we started we were very aware of the fact that there was more creative energy in New York than was being properly utilized. There were so many artists in every discipline who had come to New York and who were frustrated with the difficulty of getting their work shown and with earning a living in New York. Many were considering leaving, so we thought that we could help them create a community that would welcome them and their work.

Third, most of us who started FIGMENT had met through Burning Man, and had a strong desire to bring the lessons that we had learned through Burning Man--about how to organize events, create things, make things happen, build a community of participation--home to our local communities. So these three things came together to create FIGMENT.

LC: Over the years, what are the notable ways you've seen FIGMENT evolve interms of making an impact on the community?

DK: Now we're in our fifth year on Governor's Island, and more people understand what we're all about and what we're trying to accomplish. We're really trying to spread a message of participation, that one's voice is important and needs to be heard, and that FIGMENTcan be a place where one can dive in as deeply as you want and get involved and make an impact by sharing something that you love with your community. We think that we're getting this message out there.

Now, in 2011, with new events in Detroit and Jackson, Mississippi, we're reaching out to communities that are challenged in one way or another, and spreading the same message. If we're really about creating an inclusive creative community in which everyone is encouraged to participate, we should not limit our focus geographically to just focus on big cities, or just the northeast, or just cities that have been thought of as being arts capitals. If we all have creativity inside us, if we're truly all artists, then we should find a way for voices everywhere to be heard and to plug into our community.

LC: What's one of your most memorable FIGMENT moments?

DK: I love being surprised. I love it when the unexpected happens. My favorite moments tend to be right as FIGMENT is opening, and the artists and the public and the team are all discovering it at the same time, co-creating it in real time. And before long, somebody says, "Hey, did you see the giant thing over there?" And I haven't. I think in my head, "Did I even read about that?" I then realize that I heard about it, and that we approved it, of course, but what I imagined was something a little different. You see the installed work, and it's surprising and amazing, because it's never exactly what you had imagined from reading the description. It all comes alive because it is unexpected and surprising.

And then you have works interact -- a sound piece with a sculpture, or a dance performance somewhere that is architecturally interesting, and there's magic in the interrelationship between things which wasn't intentional to anyone, not to either artists or to our team. The two works interrelate and collaborate in ways that are unexpected and truly magical, creating something that is more than the sum of its parts.

I also love the way in which FIGMENT somewhat curates itself, in the sense that we've picked all this work, selected all these artists and projects to bring what they have to offer, and have mapped it all and gotten it up on the website. But then, once you get there and we're up and running, it's a living thing, and people are interacting with projects and clear audience favorites emerge that we never would have anticipated, like the Human Weeble Wobble in 2009 or Aqua Attack in 2010. People tell their friends, a buzz develops around specific projects, and people just have to see them. And then, three days later, they're gone.

LC: I know you're expanding locations -- how can people get involved?

DK: Our challenge at the moment is scaling up intelligently. We're expanding quickly, but we're trying to expand only as fast as we can manage with the resources that we have. We're not trying to grow for the sake of growth. We're trying to grow to affect as many people as we can over time. But we're still operating at the same basic budget as we were in 2009. Our financial resources have to grow, and we have to build our shared infrastructure if we're going to be able to support the requests from groups in cities in many other locations to bring FIGMENT there. So, in terms of getting involved, we're always looking for volunteers, team members, donors, and (when our calls for art are open) artists.

Check out the more about how to get involved with FIGMENT here.

For more interviews with others who are aggressively working to make a difference, visit The Journal of Cultural Conversation here.