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I’m inside a circular facade with three people pulling hard on a flight suit and rubber mask to set me up to enter a makeshift control room on the Coachella field, where I’ll play a very frustrating version of Simon Says while fest-goers gawk from the field. It’s one of the oddest (and most confounding) gigs on the Coachella field: I’m a hippo in an eight-story art sculpture known as H.i.P.O., which looks like a space shuttle strapped together with tape and not much else.

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(Photos: Marshall Vanderhoof) 

The massive installation stands apart from the rest of Coachella’s huge art structures in one major way: It’s the only project staffed with humans (dressed as hippos, natch), which makes it sort of a massive, interactive performance space masquerading as a static art piece.

On the inside, however, it’s clear that this is no haphazard operation. The structure is built to code — no worries about it capsizing — and each of the eight performance spaces (decked out to look like everything from experiment centers to mission control areas) has a stage manager to ensure both absurdity (in one room, plastic fruit flows through a hose at random intervals) and safety (there’s tons of safety protocol in place, including cool-air intake and emergency glass).

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The art collective Dedo Vabo is behind the piece, and the hippo motif is familiar to longtime Coachella goers: One of the fest’s most iconic installations was a faux office building helmed by the river-faring creatures a few years ago. But the shuttle is their most ambitious project yet, with over 200 people, from Disney Imagineer designers to Hollywood costume designers responsible for making sure it’s staffed with inanity and insanity throughout the fest. Hippos do everything with abandon, from feasting on receipt paper to attempting to figure out launch sequences. The designers intentionally don’t explain how the stuff works — all the better for ridiculousness from the performers.

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Above: Our fearless reporter in action (Photo: Jeff Miller)

But on the inside of the mask, some things become clear: these people are WORKING. It’s hot, it’s uncomfortable, and the little window you’ve got through the mouth makes it hard to see much of anything. Eventually, I give up, exiting the decked-out room into the all-business interior, opting to return into the scene in civilian clothes as a man on “safari.” But as my mask is being lifted off, the stage manager asks, “Did you have fun?”

“Of course,” I reply honestly. After all, I’m reminded of what the costumer told me as he was fitting me for my flight suit. “Once you become a hippo, nothing looks the same again.”

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