What's It Like to Be a Hippo Inside Corporate Headquarters at Coachella?

The Corporate Headquarters art installation at Coachella
The Corporate Headquarters art installation at Coachella
Photo by TImothy Norris

One of the most-talked about art installations at this year's Coachella has been the Corporate Headquarters, a three-story structure smack-dab in the middle of the festival, with a helicopter perched on top. Inside the structure, actors dressed in office attire and hippo masks work furiously on... well, something. Actually, they mostly just seem to eat things and bump into one another. Occasionally, they stick Post-It notes on the windows to spell out messages, like "Hi" and "I'm the Hipo" [sic].

Just like in the real corporate world, there's a definite hierarchy. On the ground floor, mailroom workers toil away on menial tasks; on the second floor, cubicle workers try to look busy; on the top floor, a Hippo CEO lords it over everything.

The Corporate Headquarters is the creation of artists Vanessa Bonet and Derek Doublin, who first introduced hippo-themed performance art to Coachella in 2013 with a similarly ambitious installation called the Power Station. Bonet and Doublin were kind enough to invite L.A. Weekly backstage (we got a Corporate Headquarters wristband and everything), where we got to meet the Hippo CEO himself — or rather, one of the actors who plays him, Buck Down. Down — who, when he's not hippo-ing, performs as one-half of an electro-swing DJ/production duo, The Gentlemen Callers — walked us through what goes into being the head hippo of the Corporate Headquarters.

The Hippo CEO of Corporate Headquarters
The Hippo CEO of Corporate Headquarters
Photo by Chris Victorio

How did you become a Hippo?
The first time I Hippo’d was back when this was part of [Downtown] Art Walk in 2011. [yells to Bonet] What was that hotel that had the glass window? Hotel Cecil. They had a glass storefront that showed you what the inside of their hotel room[s] looked like. And it still looked like a ‘60s hotel room. So we did Hippos inside there… It was a Christmas show. It was a hotel room full of obsolete technology and Christmas decorations and the Hippos were in there destroying Christmas stuff.

Then two years ago, we did the first Hippo installation here, which was the Power Station. So I did that one. And then obviously this year, we’re doing the Corporate Headquarters. So I’ve done three iterations of this.

When you’re in there, how much of what you’re doing is scripted and how much is improvised?
It’s pretty much all improvised. There’s a certain amount of the acting that is actually dictated by the costume... because you’re looking out of a hole about the diameter of a beer can. You have no peripheral vision, so you’re constantly having to rotate your head side to side. Much like Blue Man has a physical shtick they’ll do, there’s a baseline of movement that’s largely animated by the restrictions of wearing this giant rubber thing on your head.

The other thing it forces you to do is to cock your head back so you can see out the nose. So pretty much, when you’re a Hippo, everyone wearing the Hippo suit will have the same motions, which is like this [demonstrates] so you can look around. That creates a baseline character. And then from there, there’s a super-short list of do’s and don’t’s. You don’t interact with the crowd on any level; you interact with your environment. The Hippos are completely oblivious to anything happening outside. 

So that red phone out there is a total red herring?
Yeah. It goes to a series of “Press 1” recordings. The phone does ring in there, but you can’t actually communicate with the outside world. It creates the illusion of contact. But other than that, it’s a largely physical, improvisational thing. And most of it involves shoving things into your mouth. ‘Cause you’ve got this giant receptacle in the nose. So you can just stuff things in there. And then what happens is you’ll get it all full of plastic fruit and VHS tapes and shit like that — and now you can’t see anything. So now you’re banging around into people. So that’s kind of a second phase, and the costume itself drives some of it.

So does you being the CEO have anything to do with actual seniority? Is it because you were one of the first people to play a Hippo?
It has to do with the fact that probably the most dangerous prop in this entire fucking thing is on the third floor. It’s a machine-operated chair – it’s like an office chair, but it’s got these really gnarly tank treads on it, with a joystick, that can go surprisingly fast and can launch you straight through that plexiglass if you got it up to speed. And you’re operating this with, again, no peripheral vision whatsoever.

You can probably barely even see the joystick.
You can see the joystick; it’s got a kill switch on it. But basically, you can’t really tell too much of what you’re doing. You can’t let just anybody go up there and fuck with it.

I think the other thing most people probably wonder is: Is it air-conditioned in there?
As fuck. That thing over on the side is a giant industrial air-conditioner. These are metal boxes – these are all shipping containers. So it is pretty frosty in there. I mean, as Coachellas go, this has been fairly merciful this weekend. We haven’t had those 103, 107 degree days. So yeah, it’s cold in there. It has to be, ‘cause you’re wearing a suit.

The Hippo CEO, off duty
The Hippo CEO, off duty
Photo by Andy Hermann

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And the hippo mask, which I’m sure gets hot.
Yeah, it’s a giant rubber mask. It’s hot as balls in there. I have a shtick where he’s leaning against the wall and pounding on the wall. But what I’m actually doing is shoving my schnoz into this air-conditioning duct that’s blasting cold air into the head.

How long are your shifts?
Three hours.

So you have a fair amount of time to wander around and see the rest of the festival.
Yeah. Most of us haven’t ventured out too much because this is sort of like our little oasis out in the middle of the field. I mean, we’re winning Coachella. We have shade, we have air-conditioning, we’ve got all of our friends. This is the ultimate really long way to go just to have our cool spot to hang out in the middle of the party.

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