A Quirky Design Fair Finds a New Home: Governors Island
Most art and design fairs geared toward young people encourage them to create something to take home. The Inventgenuity Festival does that, too …
Most art and design fairs geared toward young people encourage them to create something to take home. The Inventgenuity Festival does that, too, but it emphasizes a rarer and possibly more resonant principle: creating something to leave behind.
That’s exactly what visitors will do on Saturday and Sunday during the festival’s 11th edition and its first to be held outdoors, on Governors Island. Presented by Beam Center, an educational nonprofit based in Brooklyn, the free event invites participants, ages 6 to 18, to enroll in workshops devoted to craft, technology, music, science, even sports. The central activity, however, will be to complete “Constellation,” a public-art project and sound installation by the interdisciplinary artist Ye Qin Zhu that will remain on the island at least through mid-October.
“I want to show that during the pandemic, even though we’re all separated, or we may feel that we’re separated, we’re inextricably still linked,” Zhu said during a tour of Beam Camp City, the center’s new Governors Island outpost.
That idea has fueled the design of “Constellation,” which comprises six separate treelike structures, or “stars.” Each consists of three vertical, 10-foot-tall steel rods set into a fiberglass base shaped like a body part. (One sculpture sprouts from an eye; another from a foot.) More steel tubes branch out from the top of the rods in an interlinked canopy that is hung with dozens of differently shaped and patterned ceramic bells, each with a copper clapper. When one of the sculptures sways in the breeze, or someone shakes it — yes, Zhu really wants you to do that — the vibrant bells ring. This weekend, festivalgoers are invited to cast, decorate and hang their own bells.
“Not only are we layered under the constellations, and under the constellations of experiences,” said Zhu, but the constellations themselves also have layers. He was partly inspired by asteroseismology, a scientific discipline that measures the seismic waves within stars. Researchers say that if those frequencies were translated into auditory rhythms, they would sound like ringing bells.
Inventgenuity is itself the product of myriad connections. Now a New York institution, it traces its roots to Beam Camp, a still-flourishing summer sleep-away program in Strafford, N.H., that Brian Cohen and Danny Kahn, former executives at Elektra Records, started in 2004. Beam, whose name refers variously to illumination, smiles and structural support, was established partly to respond to the so-called maker movement, a push for do-it-yourself craft and problem-solving that reminded adults of the value of creativity.
That approach aimed “to serve primarily white men who made things,” Cohen said. Although the movement has since diversified, at first it “got me very angry,” he added, “because the kinds of projects they were doing were exactly the kinds of projects that needed to be in classrooms, that needed to be in playgrounds.”
The New Hampshire Beam Camp was founded to bring that hands-on learning — invention plus ingenuity — to youth of all backgrounds, and the Inventgenuity Festival, which Cohen and Kahn established in Brooklyn in 2010, became a way to open that experience to the public. Like the summer camp, each festival revolves around collaboratively completing a major work of art and engineering. (Beam Center sends an open call to artists every year.)
Previous projects have included the kinetic sculptor Andrew Brehm’s “Mechanical Marsh,” a three-tiered stage set filled with motorized wooden birds that flapped their wings, and “FlipNYC,” animation that consisted of giant, illustrated books featuring solar-powered lighting and cranks that turned the pages. Conceived by the architect Chee-Kit Lai and the artist Ebony Bolt, those machines were exhibited in Dumbo, Brooklyn, in 2019. (Inventgenuity was not held in 2020 because of the pandemic.)
But the festival offers smaller projects, too. This weekend, for instance, in multiple sessions of its 10 workshops, attendees can make clay pendants evoking their favorite sense, build Calderesque mobiles inspired by Zhu’s sculptures and create postcards using the cyanotype process, a printing method involving sunlight. (The staff will even mail them afterward.)
The annual festival is also responsible for the founding of Beam Center itself, which, since 2012, has offered in-school and after-school public education programs in New York City. But Cohen, the center’s executive director, is especially excited about Beam Camp City, which helps make up a revitalized arts hub on Governors Island, just a brief ferry ride from Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn.
“We want to help the island broaden both where they’re known and who is coming,” said Cohen, who added that the site “puts us exactly in the place where Beam should be, which is under big trees and the sky.”
Beam Camp City, which opened in July and will become a year-round adjunct to Beam Center in September, has offered a free four-day camp program each week of the summer to high school groups, as well as free public weekend craft workshops leading up to Inventgenuity. The campers have been helping to build “Constellation” and lay the groundwork for the festival, which, on Saturday, will feature the installation’s official opening, with dance and music performances by youth. (Visitors must register online for the festival, which runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days.)
The new location has enabled Inventgenuity to be both health-conscious and more expansive. Beam staff, who will erect massive tents if it rains, plan to wear face masks and enforce social distancing at the workshops, which will include two additional sound explorations.
The first, Cicada Symphony, will translate into “a swarm of kids making cicada music,” said Kyle Luntz, an interdisciplinary artist and Beam Center project designer. They’ll discover, he added, that composing can be done with “the organic rhythms of animals and nature.”
Using a keyboard to change the pitch of recorded cicada sounds, participants will create their own works, recorded on the tiny modules found in musical greeting cards. After attaching the modules to colorful insects they’ve created from craft materials, they’ll take the bugs to a “Constellation” sculpture for a nature-inspired jam session.
Visitors can also work with Building Beats, a New York organization that teaches digital music production and D.J. skills. Using music samples or their own vocals, young people will arrange and record 16-bar audio loops. Recently trained students will offer D.J. sets, which, organizers hope, will get attendees moving.
“That’s what we teach our students to do — to make people dance,” said Phi Pham, Building Beats’ founder and executive director.
But the site’s biggest advantage may be the opportunity to get down and dirty. The Billion Oyster Project will set up Inventgenuity’s first oyster research station. And the federation behind Circle Rules Football, which uses a yoga ball and is far less combative than the N.F.L., will enlist youth in inventing an outdoor sport
Cohen’s ultimate goal is to turn Beam Camp City into a year-round, sleep-away camp and learning center. It’s the same kind of overarching vision that animates the artists and young people involved in Inventgenuity.
At each festival, he said, “You become part of the effort in creating this thing that is bigger than yourself.”
The Inventgenuity Festival
Aug. 21 and 22 in Nolan Park, Governors Island; beamcenter.org/festival.