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SEXTANTWORKS AND THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN HOSPITALITY & TRANSGRESSION

Ida C. Benedetto and N.D. Austin of Sextantworks

Ida C. Benedetto and N.D. Austin of Sextantworks

SEXTANTWORKS PRACTICES TRANSGRESSIVE PLACEMAKING AND EXPERIENTIAL GIFT DESIGN THROUGH GENEROSITY, LOCATION AND INTIMACY. IDA C. BENEDETTO AND N.D. AUSTIN FOUNDED SEXTANTWORKS IN 2012. THEIR EXPLOITS HAVE INCLUDED A PHOTO SAFARI IN THE DECOMMISSIONED BROOKLYN DOMINO SUGAR REFINERY, AN INTIMATE JOURNEY THROUGH A SÃO PAULO LOVE MOTEL, AND THE NIGHT HERON SPEAKEASY, A BAR BUILT INSIDE AN ABANDONED WATER TOWER.


 

Odyssey Works: ONE THING WE CONSTANTLY STRUGGLE WITH IS HOW TO CLASSIFY OR CATEGORIZE THE WORK WE DO AT ODYSSEY WORKS. IT FEELS BOTH LIMITING AND NECESSARY. HOW DO YOU CATEGORIZE YOUR WORK? IS IT BY YOUR METHOD, DISCIPLINE, MATERIAL, PROCESS, GENRE OF AFFECT?

Sextantworks: We classify our work as experience design. We see ourselves as designers first and foremost. We respond to place constraints and human needs. We don’t pay much attention to the art market or art contexts.  Experience design can be defined as the creation of experiences for the purposes of entertainment, persuasion, recreation, or human enrichment where the emotional journey of the individual is the focus. We apply experience design to under-loved places and to the enrichment of connection between people.
 

OWs: Why is it important to create experiences (as opposed to things)?

Sextantworks: We care about human emotions and relationships. Things are stuff, and stuff does not awaken our love the way your eyes looking into my eyes triggers a moment of feeling present.
 

OW: What are you trying to do with your work?

Sextantworks: We believe in orchestrating moments of being present, primarily through increasing general awareness about the magnificence of gin.
 

OW: WHAT IS THE ROLE OF WONDER AND DISCOVERY IN YOUR WORK?

Sextantworks: Wonder and discovery are what inspire us to explore and connect with people, so that’s what we try to offer to our guests. We use the emotional arc of : 

Curiosity -> Surprise -> Suspense = Engagement
 

OW: What is the collaboration between artist and audience as you see it? Where is the artwork itself located?

Sextantworks: We require people to commit to vulnerability. That’s where our “artwork” is located. But to claim other people’s vulnerability as our own art is vulgar. Let’s assume you’re speaking to this question of authorship. If you want to know where we claim authorship, we claim it as instigators. But what people experience after the instigation, that’s an open playing field. We don’t think of it in terms of authorship in the sense of ownership. We think of it as responsibility. We are responsible to the people who opt into vulnerability because of our instigations.

Theater is built on performance and spectatorship. Theme parks are about amusement and throughput. Hospitality is about comfort and generosity. We use hospitality as a safety net that allows for transgression. Hospitality is the thing that will catch you when you fall, which is why you risk the high wire in the first place. We need people to stay with us as they test boundaries and open themselves up to vulnerability. Our job is simply to instigate and care.
 

OW: Who are your influences? Can you describe an experience in which art changed you?

Sextantworks: Thomas Merton rocked ‘The Street Is For Celebration’, art critic Dave Hickey reminded us not to court spectators, designer Mike Monteiro advises: get a suit, and the New York State Penal Code helpfully informed us that possession of a taximeter acceleration device is a crime. “Art” that has changed us includes: Jeff Stark’s Drive Ins, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Myst, and the Madagascar Institute.

JEFF HULL: "EXPERIENCES ARE THE ONLY THING OF VALUE"

Jeff Hull, Creative Director of Nonchalance

Jeff Hull, Creative Director of Nonchalance

JEFF HULL HULL IS THE CREATIVE DIRECTOR OF NONCHALANCE, AN INDEPENDENT SITUATIONAL DESIGN STUDIO IN SAN FRANCISCO WHOSE MISSION IS TO PROVOKE DISCOVERY THROUGH VISCERAL EXPERIENCES AND PERVASIVE PLAY.  THEIR GROUNDBREAKING IMMERSIVE NARRATIVE PROJECT THE JEJUNE INSTITUTE BECAME THE SUBJECT OF A FEATURE DOCUMENTARY FILM CALLED THE INSTITUTE.  IT IS RUMORED THAT NONCHALANCE HAS RECENTLY RELEASED AN INVITATION-ONLY EXPERIENCE, CALLED THE LATITUDE SOCIETY.

 

Odyssey Works: WHY CREATE EXPERIENCES?

Jeff Hull: Experiences are the only thing of value, at the end of the day. When we look at our entire reality and our beliefs about it, they are constructed of countless experiences, both tremendous and infinitesimal.  Many of us are dissatisfied with components of our reality, whether they be personal, societal, economic, political, etc. (ridiculously, my dissatisfaction is aesthetic).  And so, we can begin to create new experiences for each other, and begin to tell a new story. Starting small, then allowing that story to grow.

OW: How do you understand immersivity and interactivity? How does it work and what is the point?

JH: True "immersivity", for me, is an experience that is not bound by any time/space limitations, which means it can present itself or reappear at any given place or time.  

For example, when you buy a ticket for an event, the expectations are immediately set that "I will experience product 'x' between the hours of 8 and 10pm at the following address".  How engaged with an experience can you truly be, already knowing it's limits?  Even something like Burning Man ends when you leave the playa.

That's why it's so difficult to package nonchalance.  We never want to sell a ticket, or have any kind of turnstile to entry.  The very act implies that the world we created has an end to it.

OW: What are you trying to do with your work?

JH:  I'd like to offer intrigue and mystique to people's lives.  Life does not have to be mundane. On the surface level, it's very much about play and fun and adventure. Beneath that layer, though, I am trying to challenge people, and ask them to take small meaningful risks in their lives. I am a Situational Designer.  I produce immersive narrative adventures that take place in the real world. It is "game like", in that life is game like.  Just please don't call it an "ARG" (alternate reality game). 

OW: What led you to your current approach to art-making? (What led you to start breaking traditional molds?)

JH: Honestly, I think it is delusions of grandeur; this notion that I could curate people's reality.  Even if just for a moment.  It's audacious, but that's in my blood.  I'm fifth generation Californian... I come from the Bay Area tradition of "innovation culture". (Not to be confused with the tech industry, which doesn't really reflect the values of its forefathers.)

As I grew up in Oakland I kind of swam in the milieu of pseudo-revolutionary movements, the human potential scene, new age visionaries, street lunatics, various youth subcultures and scenes.  These crackpot utopian ideals still inform my work, to a degree.

handoffalt.jpg

OW: Who are your influences? Can you describe an experience in which art changed you?

JH: Equal parts Werner Earhart, Walt Disney, and RammEllZee.  (Ramm was one of the early New York graff artists, a contemporary of Basquiat and Haring, who were all doing very literate work in public space.  He has this entire thesis about the power of syntax called "Gothic Futurism", and his work evolved from painting on trains to making albums, garbage sculpture, and surreal costumes. His entire existence was like a performance; he had the personae of a Demi-God from an alternate dimension who was ready to battle you for the fate of the Universe).  

I was on a pilgrimage to New York, and I got to hang with Ramm at his "battle station".  After several hours of collaborating on a sculpture, I woke up on his floor, totally disoriented.  He was passed out too, but before the vodka and fumes hit us (to his ultimate demise, this was how he worked) he had granted me profound knowledge on the nature of reality building.  He had also given me the only copy of a VHS document called "The Evolution Griller".  It is one of my most treasured possessions.

That experience changed me.  Was it art?  It was art-making. And it was life. As much as possible I try not to separate art from life.  

ANT HAMPTON DISCUSSES AUTOTEATRO

ANT HAMPTON is a writer, director, and theater-maker who founded ROTOZAZA IN 1998. Since then he has collaborated with many artists to produce 'autoteatro' shows FOCUSed ON THE USE OF INSTRUCTIONS GIVEN TO UNREHEARSED 'GUEST' PERFORMERS, BOTH ON STAGE AND IN PUBLIC SETTINGS. HIS WORK HAS BEEN PRODUCED IN OVER 48 DIFFERENT LANGUAGES. HIS MOST recent PIECE THE EXTRA PEOPLE just premiered in Philadelphia and opened in New york this past weekend.

Odyssey Works: Why create experiences?

Ant Hampton: It's a good question, seeing as we cannot avoid having experiences, as humans, pretty much all the time! But therein probably lies the answer. Following the dictum that art should be a whetstone against which the mind is kept sharp, I like to think of the experiences I make (or more accurately, envisage) are something more like tools for navigating our own lived experiences and realities, interior or exterior.

OW: What are you trying to do with your work?

AH: I can't answer that question meaningfully without going on for too long - it's so wide open. I'd need to address particular works, and there are too many now.  But perhaps what I write above and below will go some way towards a hint of an answer.

OW: What is the collaboration between artist and audience as you see it? Where is the artwork itself located?

AH: A lot of my recent work I've put under the umbrella 'Autoteatro' which basically means ‘self theater’: performances which are embodied by the audience itself. There are two key elements - on one hand, an automatic structure. There are no actors or anyone doing things for you once it has started. The performances are prerecorded structures as text, audio or video. The other element is that there is nobody really involved with you who isn’t sharing the experience or, especially, the risk. Nobody just watching who isn’t also in that state of not-knowing about what’s coming next. That is important for me because I think the awkwardness, or horror, of participatory theatre comes from situations when, for example, you get invited on stage and there are actors who know what’s “supposed to happen” and a big audience of spectators safely uninvolved and watching from the dark.

The Extra People, photo by Britt Hatzius

The Extra People, photo by Britt Hatzius

So behind Autoteatro there's a kind of contract, based on what I hope is a good understanding of what it means to be at risk in a performance situation. This also comes from the 8 years of work I did in / as Rotozaza - shows like Bloke (1999), Ooff (2003), Doublethink (2004) - where the performers were different every time and agreed to follow instructions in front of an audience. The idea is usually not for the performer to be clever or inventive in the vein of improvisation or actor games, but rather willingly exposed or disarmingly honest. As Tim Etchells puts it, "When we see performers making live decisions we get to see them revealed, we get to see them 'truthfully' in some way that is at the very edges and the very heart of theatre."  In my work, the audience is usually discovering everything at the same time as the performer.

There is nobody really involved with you who isn’t sharing the experience or, especially, the risk.

Where is the artwork located? This is interesting to me because a lot of my recent work is pre-recorded - you could say it's located on the iPod, or the hard drive - but of course that misses the point that the audio is just a trigger for a live event, which is embodied by the participants and taken away as memory. In that (final) sense, I don't see much difference with other forms of theatre or performance. Yes, this kind of work asks people to interact, but if it doesn't tap and expand the possibilities of liveness which we know from any number of theatre and performance practices, then the inter-acting audience won't have anything to go away with. I suppose what I mean is, it's about the quality of interaction and participation - they do not in themselves offer new forms.

The same could go for the term 'immersiveness'. In my experience 'immersive theatre' can often be simply an extreme version of conventional, representational theatre. I don't mind representation as such - but if I'm interested in the experience of being 'taken away', it's usually as something to build up in order at some point to break down. I'm fascinated in what happens when the strings are cut and we find the image falling away, and ourselves perhaps with it, back to earth, or back into the room, into the now.

The Extra People by Britt Hatzius

The Extra People by Britt Hatzius

So disregarding these words for the most part, and in a belated attempt to say something more to your question... I'm usually trying to create something where the focus is on the event: what happens, and how it unfolds, not necessarily what's said or told to us. This is what narrative means to me. Dramaturgy rather than anything to do with storytelling: and above all, I'm looking to structure an experience which NEEDS the particularities of live experience and bodily presence.

OW: What is the role of wonder and discovery in your work?

AH: I used those words more in my 20's than I do now, as you'll see if you peruse www.rotozaza.co.uk, but I think probably they're both still very important - I've just learnt to be a little less romantic.

OW: Who are your influences? Can you describe an experience in which art changed you?

AH: Forced Entertainment's 'Pleasure', and before that, a tiny production of Peter Handke's Kaspar at Avignon by Cie de Sablier. Both made me feel extremely uncomfortable for a while during the actual experience, but in a very urgent and somehow necessary way. The concerns behind both works were also beautifully expressed in different ways outside of the actual work, in Forced Entertainment's case by Tim Etchells thoughts in the program, and for Kaspar by an unforgettable public street intervention / experiment exploring the same issues as the play - the manipulation of the individual by the masses, language as a physical power / inertia. 

LEA REDMOND ON DESIGNING DELIGHT INTO DAILY LIFE

Lea Redmond

Lea Redmond

Lea Redmond is always looking for the poem hiding inside things: a salt shaker, a clothes tag, a hand gesture, a cloud. She is infinitely intrigued by the way experiences can slip from the ordinary to the extraordinary, and she endeavors to make things that hold this possibility. Lea crafts objects, writes books, and plays with ideas. See what she’s making at her online shop LeafcutterDesigns.com.
 

Odyssey Works: Why create experiences?

Lea Redmond: All of us are always already creating experiences, artists and non-artists alike. It’s not really a choice. Works of art (or bowls of soup at home) never exist in a vacuum; there is always a larger field:  a museum, a park, a town, a farm, the amount of sunshine that day, a lifetime of memories, a mood, a dining room table, what we think to ourselves or say to each other in the moment of encounter. We can acknowledge this fact—listen to it, work with it, play with it—or we can neglect it. When we’re blind to the always experiential nature of everything we make and do, we eclipse possibility and our work is impoverished. We might still make something interesting, even wonderful, but we will have stopped short. I believe the world—and each of us in all our particularity—longs for artful experiences. We need them to help us become the best, most beautiful versions of ourselves that we can be. We cannot afford to stop short. It’s too sad.

OW: WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO DO WITH YOUR WORK?

LR: The heart of my work is to explore and offer new ways of being in the world, ones that I believe in and can get behind with all my heart. Specifically, this means cultivating playfulness, creativity, non-violence, and radical thoughtfulness. I do it for myself, and I welcome anyone who wants to join me. I hope to reveal that which is always right under our nose, seemingly out of reach, yet concretely accessible if we pay close attention: gorgeous clouds, ants on the sidewalk, a kindness from a friend or stranger. I’m pretty sure that any experience that changes us involves a particular kind of intimacy, one in which we are so close to something strange that we are prompted to make sense of it and thus expand our sense of what we can think, feel, do and be.

Knit the Sky

Knit the Sky

My devotion to experience design is coupled with my lifelong love of tangibility—of the marvelous materiality of life. So, in a way, I do indeed focus on objects, but always as nodes in a larger web of relations. It’s always object plus activity, object plus human being, object plus ecology. I offer a few examples.

For my Knit The Sky project, hundreds of people around the world are making the “sky scarf” knitting pattern that I designed and released as a free download on my website. The obvious object-ness of this is of course the yarn and needles, but the true world of the experience includes clouds, windows, eyes, 365 days of observation. It even includes the storytelling that happens after the scarf is done and the knitter is wearing it around town.

With A Pencil In My Pocket

With A Pencil In My Pocket

With A Pencil In My Pocket was a participatory adventure in which 150 people each received one colored pencil per month for 20 months. Each pencil had a unique hue and an unusual name, such as mahogany or fortune cookies. Each month, we all set out to have some sort of small adventure inspired by our color, which we wrote about in a journal (in the corresponding color of course). I scanned these entries and posted them online for us all to enjoy. 

Saltwork

Saltwork

My last example goes with the image to the left. I perform “tangibles” for one guest at a time, oftentimes involving small, everyday objects. Tangibles are sort of what you get if you combine the aesthetic of a magic trick with the intention of a poem. In one of these, entitled Saltwork, grains of salt become stars and piles of salt become an opportunity to contemplate the scale of the universe. I compose Braille phrases with grains of salt. My guest gets to hold a single grain on her fingertip while thinking about our Sun. We gaze through a saltshaker cap as if it were a tiny planetarium. The experience is hopefully a fascinating delight. But even more than that, I hope that it resonates deeply enough with my guest that they might never encounter salt the same way again. This connection to the future—to thoughtfully following things out—is essential.

"I never set out to avoid the art world, but I just barely dip my toes into it. I prefer to find my audience on the street, in cafés, in knitting shops, in my online shop, in the folks who buy my books in bookstores."

OW: How do you understand your audience?

LR: I always assume that my audience is anyone and everyone. I acknowledge that there is an important place for more esoteric forms of art and inquiry. I think we need it all. But my favorite way to work is making things that are accessible to pretty much anyone because the only prerequisite is that he or she is a human being. Since my focus is on everyday life and infusing it with creativity and thoughtfulness, it’s potentially relevant for anyone who cares to connect with me. I never set out to avoid the art world, but I just barely dip my toes into it. I prefer to find my audience on the street, in cafés, in knitting shops, in my online shop, in the folks who buy my books in bookstores.

Lea operating The World's Smallest Post Service

Lea operating The World's Smallest Post Service

OW: What led you to your current approach to art-making? (What led you to start breaking traditional molds?)

LR: I didn’t go to art school. And I didn’t major in art. At my little liberal arts college I studied continental philosophy, cultural theory and environmental studies. I wanted to learn about the world, how things work, why we do what we do. So combine that with the love of making that I cultivated since I was a wee one, and it only made perfect sense that my college copies of Discipline and Punish and Walden had art ideas scribbled in the margins. For both better and worse, I am not good at compartmentalization. So my love for making and my love of ideas inevitably collapsed into one love.

OW: Who are your influences? Can you describe an experience in which art changed you?

LR: My grandmother was a collector—of teacups, tiny ceramic sheep, Asian cabinets and Eames furniture. She taught me to knit when I was seven, essentially showing me that it is a joy to make beautiful things and give them to others.

Lea as a young girl

Lea as a young girl

As a child, my family spent weekends wandering beaches and snorkeling through towers of kelp in the Channel Islands off of the southern California coast. My father would scuba dive, drawing up natural treasures from the sea floor. He would surface and hand me a beautiful sea urchin shell, wordlessly, before having a chance to remove his mouthpiece. This silently said: “Isn’t this beautiful world worth caring for?”

OW: We often struggle with categorizing our work. It can feel at once limiting and necessary in order to help others understand what we do. How do you categorize yourself? Is it within a new genre, or do you locate it within a particular tradition?

LR: To help others understand what I do—and so they can decide if they want to participate—I typically toss out a bunch of accessible terms referring to familiar things. For my “tangibles,” I say it’s like a magic trick plus a tea party plus a poem plus a teeny tiny ballet with saltshakers and seashells instead of ballerinas. For my Knit The Sky project, I talk about combining knitting with adventure, or journaling with knitting needles. I use categories less like buckets and more like tags, lightly tossing them around however seems helpful. In terms of categorizing myself, I feel no need. When people ask me, “What do you do?” I typically say something like: “I love to make things that invite people to be playful, creative, and thoughtful in their daily lives.”

ODYSSEY WORKS CO-FOUNDER MATTHEW PURDON ON BEING AND PRESENCE

Matthew Purdon explores the boundary between artist and audience through installation, painting and performance art.  His work invites space into the creative process through physical participation and spiritual connection. He has an BA in theatre and creative writing from Northwestern University and an MFA in Studio Art from JFK University's Arts & Consciousness program.  He was the co-founder of Odyssey works, has exhibited as a professional painter and is a member of Actor's Equity.  Matthew is a student of the Ridhwan School Diamond Approach.  

Matthew Purdon

Matthew Purdon

Odyssey Works: How do you understand immersivity and interactivity? How does it work and what is the point?

Matthew Purdon: Immersivity is usually understood as surrounding the visual and aural fields of the viewer.  By surrounding them with vision and sound, they become aware of their bodies in space and begin to have a deeper experience.  I approach immersivity as the total capacity to involve all of the senses as well as the social and cultural landscapes of the viewer.  In this way, the viewer becomes an active participant in the space and their total Being becomes enveloped in the work.  In the deepest immersions, the boundaries between the participant and the surrounding work dissolves and a direct experience arises.

Interactivity is the capacity for an artwork to receive input from the audience and respond.  The input can be structured or spontaneous, trivial or deep, short or long.  Interactivity creates space for the presence of the audience to become a participant in completing the artwork.  Most forms of interactivity keep the participation within a limited framework in which the resulting outcome of the participation was already anticipated by the structure.  I am interested in using interactivity to contact the audience in a direct experience where the resulting outcome is unknown by the artist or audience until the end of their full participation.

OW: Why create experiences?

MP: I am compelled to create experiences because I perceive and understand my Self and the World through the totality of my direct experience.  As the creative source unfolds within me, it arises as a totality of a lived experience for others to explore and have their own direct experience. 

OW: What are you trying to do with your work?

MP: At the deepest level, I pursue my work to awaken others and myself in relationship to each other by experiencing ourselves as Presence.  People are aware that the proliferation of always-on digital interactions and media spectacle is often a barrier to direct experience. The more aware they are of this, the more participation they seek in artistic experiences.  My work invites viewers to transform into participants first through a physical invitation.  Once grounded in the body, the participants can enter the experience and discover something real.

OW: What is the collaboration between artist and audience as you see it? Where is the artwork itself located?

MP: The artist initiates the collaboration by creating a space for participation.  The presence of the artist is conveyed through the experiential aesthetics.  This presence grounds the quality and depth of possibility in the space and the level of willingness for the audience to engage in participation.  The final artwork is located in the inter-subjective experience of the participants.

OW: You have worked in many different disciplines- painting, theater, interaction design, performance- does this seem to you to be different interests or are the different disciplines linked in some way?

MP: Each artistic discipline informs the other, revealing different facets of a central aesthetic inquiry around participation.  They are all grounded in the body and explore the dynamism of creative energy through different experiences of space.  Each medium requires a different understanding of form. The aesthetic parameters of each medium are the crucible in which the creative dynamism can work upon the artist.  The consciousness of the artistic intent is the catalyst for a transformation in which the artist becomes transparent and the aesthetics become the window that transmits the Presence of the creative action to act upon and awaken the Participant.

OW: How does your art practice influence your life?

MP: The practice is the life.  By engaging in the dynamic unfoldment of the creative process, I gain insight into my life as a living process.  It is all a journey into the mystery of Being.

CHRISTINE JONES ON THE GIFT AND RECIPROCITY

Christine Jones.

Christine Jones.

CHRISTINE JONES is a Tony-winning set designer and the artistic director of the critically acclaimed Theatre for One, a portable private performing arts space for one performer and one audience member. Most recently, she directed the sensational immersive nightclub dining experience Queen of the Night, which New York Magazine has called the “hottest nightlife experience in town”.

Odyssey Works: How do you understand immersivity and interactivity? How do they work and what is the point?

Christine Jones: I guess the most straightforward response is to say that immersive experiences operate with no fourth wall, and sometimes no walls at all. There are many degrees of interactivity, but at the core, interactive work doesn't pretend that no one is watching. The watcher and the watched are aware of and responsive to each other. There is an acute awareness of their dependence on each other. If there is no audience, there is no performer, and vice versa. I find that when this interdependence is made a primary part of the experience there is an added depth. I believe this is true of non-theatrical experiences as well, in which there is a giver and a receiver but no performance. When people interact in ways that are fully present in the moment, be it theatrical or magical, their experience can become more transcendent.

 

OW: Why create experiences? 

CJ: As a parent, I am aware of creating a world where Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy exist for my kids. When they die, it's our job to make other kinds of magic. I love what Charlie Todd of Improv Everywhere said. He said he wanted to live in a world where anything can happen at any moment. His work makes our world just such a world...I think everyone has a desire to be surprised, delighted, moved, and transported. If we don't do this for each other, no one else will. Our parents will make magic for us when we are young; when we are older, we have to make it for ourselves and each other.

Theatre for One in Times Square.

Theatre for One in Times Square.

OW: What are you trying to do with your work? 

CJ: This probably sounds horribly pretentious, but lately I have been thinking of myself as an artist who uses intimacy the way a painter uses paint. My intention with all of my work is to enhance a feeling of connection and presence that makes people feel seen, and sometimes, especially with Theatre for One, loved. It is always amazing to me how simple acts of kindness and generosity are so deeply appreciated. We very rarely slow down enough to feel truly with other people. I am trying to create fruitful circumstances for a gift exchange between audience and performer. Whether it be a big Broadway show, or an immersive dinner theatre experience, or Theatre for One, I am hoping to create a space and relationships within the space that allow the audience to feel that they are receiving a beautiful experience, and in return they are giving the performers or creators the gift of their full presence and attention.

 

OW: What is the collaboration between artist and audience as you see it? Where is the artwork itself located? 

CJ: When we worked on Queen of the Night, we did a workshop for the actors with a dominatrix. She described creating a reciprocal energy loop between herself and her clients. I think this is where the artwork is located, if you can create that loop. In the best circumstances the collaboration happens in the contract the artist and the audience make to engage in these roles. "I will perform," "I will watch," or "I will create," "I will receive." Sometimes this is unwritten and happens spur of the moment in a pop-up performance, sometimes it happens with a ticket purchase, or an application process as with Odyssey Works, but there is a moment where artist and audience commit to a relationship, and from there the artwork flows in the energies they exchange and how they are exchanged. Is it an energy loop, or a game of tennis, or two groups on either side of an invisible wall. I love how immersive and interactive work makes us much more aware of our roles as participants.

Queen of the Night .

Queen of the Night.

 

OW: What is the role of wonder and discovery in your work?

CJ: I once heard someone describe themselves as a serial epiphanist. I think it is a great way to express the desire to be filled with wonder that I think we all have. I visited an installation called The Infinity Room by David Wheeler at a gallery in Chelsea a few years ago. I was struck by how being inside a space that truly did feel infinite felt like what I imagined death might feel like, and I was also struck by how much it felt like being engulfed by love. When we never stop feeling wonder and never stop making discoveries, then it means we live in an infinite world with no end of imagination and generosity. It means that at least while we live, anything is possible and at any moment something you never imagined was possible might happen to you. And how much more beautiful life is when we as mortals and fellow travelers make these experiences come alive for each other.

 

OW: Who are your influences? Can you describe an experience in which art changed you?

CJ: I remember the first experience that blew my mind was seeing Fuerza Bruta in Montreal at an International Theatre Festival when I was maybe twenty and just finishing school studying theatre design. The electricity that coursed through my veins to have performers running past me and an apocalyptic universe coming to life all around the space was an eye-opener as to what an event could look and feel like. Later on, having a magician perform a magic trick for me and me alone at a wedding made magic feel like the most beautiful intimate gift one could receive. It was an intoxicating feeling that made me hungry to experience other work in private settings. Lewis Hyde's book The Gift helped me understand what I was trying to do in creating an artistic process of gift exchange. Improv Everywhere, Odyssey Works, Wanderlust (now Sextantworks), have all been extremely influential and inspiring. I feel fortunate to be engaged in so many different but related forms of theatre and experiential work that is both personal and commercial and sometimes even illegal, but all in service of reminding us that the barriers we experience in space and in our relationships can be dissolved.  

CHARLIE TODD TALKS ABOUT CHAOS AND PUBLIC SPACE

Charlie Todd, founder of Improv Everywhere. All rights reserved. 

Charlie Todd, founder of Improv Everywhere. All rights reserved. 

 

Charlie Todd is the founder of Improv Everywhere, producing, directing, performing, and documenting the group's work since 2001. Charlie is the author of Causing a Scene, published by Harper Collins. Based in New York, Improv Everywhere causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places and has executed over 100 missions involving thousands of undercover agents including the legendary Grand Central Freeze and the infamous No Pants Subway Ride. The group's videos have received over 400 million views online.

 
 

Odyssey Works: How do you understand immersivity and interactivity? How does it work and what is the point?

Charlie Todd: To me they are just projects that involve the audience in a meaningful way.  Something that breaks the typical role of audience members and involves them in a manner outside of passive viewing.  It's making the audience part of the experience rather than simply an observer.  The point for me, is that bringing in interactivity adds an unknown element.  A good interactive performance should be unpredictable.  The audience may change the course of what was planned.  The performers may need to adapt and approach things differently based on how the audience is responding (or not responding).

OW: Why create experiences?

CT: I think people crave unique experiences.  With advances in technology our culture has become so interactive.  Everything has been gamified.  Simply sitting and watching a film or a play in a crowd of people is still lovely, but being able to *be* the performance is so much more exciting.

The MP3 experiment. 

The MP3 experiment. 

OW: What are you trying to do with your work?

CT: Improv Everywhere causes scenes of chaos and joy in public spaces.  The goal is to create a unique, positive experience for unsuspecting strangers. As a byproduct of that goal we also give a unique experience to our performers, who are often strangers we've never met who were recruited via our email list.

OW: What is the collaboration between artist and audience as you see it? Where is the artwork itself located?

CT: For Improv Everywhere the interaction between the performers and the audience, whether or not they realize they are an audience, is the artwork.  If our performance happened in a vacuum with no one to witness it live, it would lose all meaning.

OW: How does your art practice influence your life?

CT: I suppose it makes me more aware of the potential for the extraordinary.  Right now I'm typing this at LAX airport and a 4-year-old boy just started dancing in the center of the terminal.  He's just a kid, but it's fun to imagine that maybe he's not.  It's possible that everyone around me is an undercover performer and they'll start dancing soon.  Rather than being paranoid that everyone is out to get me, I'm excited about the idea that everyone could be out to amaze me.  It mostly just comes from me looking for the next idea I might want to do.

The No Pants Subway Ride.

The No Pants Subway Ride.

OW: Who are your influences? Can you describe an experience in which art changed you?

CT: My influences when I started Improv Everywhere were Andy Kaufman and The Flaming Lips.  I read a book about Kaufman that detailed all of the pranks he would stage with his writing partner out in public places like diners and coffee shops.  They were a little mean spirited, but I was really taken by the concept: two people entering a space separately and acting like they don't know each other.  What a great set up for an infinite number of undercover performances.  Early Improv Everywhere projects often followed this model, largely because I usually only had one friend who was willing to do it with me.  The Flaming Lips' live performances in the late 90s and early 2000s were also very inspirational.  They actively involved the crowd in participatory ways.  I went to a show in Prospect Park where they probably had 100 giant balloons flying around the audience.  It was so joyful.  I went to another at Hammerstein Ballroom where the entire crowd was given laser pointers on the way in.  The lead singer held up a giant mirror and we all aimed our lasers at it.  It was incredibly cool looking, and so much fun to be an active part of it.

Welcome to Wonder

Image from  When I Left the House it Was Still Dark , Saskatchewan, Canada. Score by Travis Weller. Photo by Ayden LeRoux.

Image from When I Left the House it Was Still Dark, Saskatchewan, Canada. Score by Travis Weller. Photo by Ayden LeRoux.

Exciting news: we are launching a blog to give you insight into what making immersive work from a place of empathy can look like. In the coming weeks we will be publishing interviews with some of our most respected colleagues, collaborators, and participants. Stay tuned!