Sculpting a Great Notion with Phish Festival Artist Lars Fisk (Relix Revisited)
Here’s an interview originally slated to appear in the Sunday edition of the Coventry Courier, the newspaper we created for Phish’s festival in August 2004. For Trey Anastasio’s more recent conversation with Lars on the Super Ball IX site, click here.
From half-buried Big Boy to interactive rock gardens, the living-art environment that Lars Fisk creates has been an essential element of every Phish festival, defining them from each other and from all other live music events. Only Phish's IT festival had a Sunken City. Only Phish's Great Went had an "Elephant Walk." And only Coventry has a Back Forty.
For months before each festival, Fisk works with a team of co-creators in building the interactive art installations and thematic visual decorations that make your weekend here complete. In other words, they've built the cities that have become all of our playgrounds for one weekend each year. And their intent is all for our delight.
Benjy: Can I get you to introduce yourself and explain your role in these festivals?
Lars: I am a sculptor and originally hitched up with the band in about 1996 when their management company moved their offices across the street from where my sculptor shop was. So just out of neighborly-ness they invited me to take part in their first big outdoor show. That was the Clifford Ball. And from there my role just became sort of an art director position where I became the fellow that would oversee all of the visual design elements. So, that's my story.
Benjy: Were you familiar with Phish’s music before then?
Lars: Oh sure, yeah. I'm a Vermonter, and going to college at UVM, they were definitely on the radar. I'd go down and see the band at the local Burlington bars. So yeah, I was a fan before I was an employee.
Benjy: Each festival has a central theme or themes laced throughout. Can you talk about the process of coming up with them?
Lars: It most always has to do with sight. It is sight-specific thematics, I'd say. We find a location and we go there and we get the vibe of the place and we see what the site is all about as far as what sort of people live there, what they do, what the land seems to say about itself and we go from there, typically.
Benjy: I’ve heard people have deep and meaningful conversations about some of the past themes and then I’ve also heard people take it on a silly or whimsical level. Do you delve into that dichotomy or discuss it at all?
Lars: Yeah, absolutely. But a lot of it is sort of symbolism that comes from the whimsical. It starts first with the ridiculous and the absurd. And then around that we create icons out of these whimsies. Basically we're inventing our own symbolism usually, as we go. So if one person comes up with a notion to disguise a giant water tank, then the next person might say, Well, one way to disguise it would be to put a giant pair of Groucho Marx glasses on it.' I mean, that's just a typically known 50 cent disguise that everybody's seen before. From there we kind of riff from that point and build it up to become a symbol. By the time you build it, at sixty feet across, it becomes serious. You can't help but to revere it as a serious symbol. But then again, in the wider look of things, it's really just the site that determines the scene and it all winds around that.
Benjy: What were some themes that got discussed for the past festival but never happened?
Lars: Oh everything always happens.
Benjy: What was the most challenging thing that you had to implement?
Lars: The elephant at the Lemonwheel has become almost a signifier now, where if somebody says a project is going to become an elephant we all know what they mean by that because that was the most challenging to make basically a robotic puppet out of a forklift with functionality, like the attachments of the fire truck and fireworks, just added up to a hell of a challenge.
Benjy: Did Phish’s break-up announcement impact the designs for Coventry?
Lars: It did. And at the same time, that subject is really hard to know how to take on. It affected us but not in such a conscious way. The symbol of the fence which is big in this part of the farm country where land is fenced in and people are retained and together or livestock is all kept together in one happy family and then having this notion of this all breaking up the idea of using fencing a lot as a visual design element took on a whole new significance after the band made that announcement. So, the fence whole new meaning now.
Benjy: The installation area is called the Back Forty. Can you talk about what that name references?
Lars: Yeah, well it's funny because we always called….the Back Forty is just slang for the backyard or the land out back where most of the people are not. We always referred to the back forty as the place where the artsy stuff goes on, where the artistic visual installations go on. And it seems appropriate that after using that as a term for all these years, that we'd use it as the actual term, as the formal term for this area, because it's kind of rural slang to say back forty' to refer to the back area of the land that is less populated.
Benjy: Where there any challenges this year compared with previous years, maybe because of the new site?
Lars: Oh absolutely. We've been kind of spoiled up there at Loring, having all the space and all the facilities that are present already in a giant air force base and that we haven't had here. But we made do and we're really working out of a working farm right now. Our visual design department is actually set up in the midst of a working farm, so it's been kind of great because we find little scraps of this and that, and we just toss them in the mix. So it's been a blessing also, to have to change.
Benjy: Can you talk about Russ Bennett and can you give an example of the back and forth that maybe goes on between the two of you?
Lars: We're not exactly right or left-brain opposites or anything like that because we both have design that we put into it. I come from a background of sculpture where he comes from a background of building construction. But there are design issues with both so we put those two together and we make architecturally scaled sculpture out of that.
Benjy: Looking back on all of these festivals, is there one thing you’re most proud of?
Lars: We were talking about this the other day. We all seem to remember Lemonwheel being a pinnacle of our design. It's hard to compare each to each other, but Lemonwheel I think was the best job that we've done with the flat nothingness of Loring Air Force Base. To actually get into landscaping and building hills into the landscape that was once flat, I think that all the landscaping we did there and thematically, just the scope of it, with the elephant and everything, that just really stands out to everybody.
Benjy: Do you think you’re going to continue to do festival work beyond Phish’s final festival?
Lars: I don't think so. I think this is it for me. While Russ is getting more involved with Bonnaroo, but myself, I'm actually in the midst of a graduate program at Columbia University. I've got one more year of that and then I'm probably going to go back to my own independent sculpture.
Benjy: Well, you’re going to be missed. You definitely are a huge part of the whole Phish festival experience.
Lars: Thank you very much.