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Odyssey Works

ON THE ART OF CONNECTION

by Ana Freeman

It is through the possibility of intimacy that the experience of art can be truly transformative.

 

"The desire for connection and the impossibility of it,” said Jim Findlay in our latest interview, “pretty much sum up the whole of human experience, from the criminal to the holy.” Since taking over the editorship of this interview series last January, I’ve spoken with more than a dozen artists. They’ve all had very insightful things to say, but none have stuck with me more than this particular comment. I’m inclined to think it’s true that a desire for connection is at the root of, well, everything. However, I don’t quite agree with Jim that connection is ultimately impossible. I would say that it is rare, but still possible. While we can perhaps never fully know or be known by another person, we can at least feel glimmers of what Marina Keegan called “the opposite of loneliness.” There are many means we have for reaching towards those glimmers. I have recently been working on withholding judgments on the myriad ways people have found to feel whole in the world: to use Jim’s terms, one person’s "criminal" is another person’s "holy." 

I moved to New York City about two years ago. It is a cliché to talk about feeling alone in a crowded city, but I have noticed that many people I know do seem to feel disconnected, despite most of us interacting with many people on a daily basis. There are multiple possible explanations: the rise of technologies that enable communicating in impersonal ways; alienation resulting from an urban, capitalist, and competitive environment; rising rates of clinical depression; and the recent inauguration in the United States of a particularly oppressive administration. The extreme political polarization of our country and the violence in our world seem evidence enough that disconnection is not a problem unique to New York. It’s also possible that it has become more popular to talk of a perceived lack of community in recent years because increasing numbers of people have the resources to protect themselves from more pressing practical worries. Nevertheless, we are living in a time where the seeming impossibility of connection is especially potent.

I’ve always believed that art is perhaps more particularly positioned to address the universal human need for connection than most other experiences. But then, where’s the human connection in an abstract painting? There is some message being passed from artist to viewer, of course, but it may be more of an aesthetic or conceptual message than a heartfelt one—more akin to receiving a text than to gazing into someone’s eyes. So though all art is communicative, some of these communications are more intimate than others. It is through the possibility of intimacy that the experience of art can be truly transformative.

Odyssey Works’ first principle is to begin with empathy. For us, this means that we begin the process of creating an Odyssey by extensively researching and interviewing our participant, in order to get to know them as much as possible and gain an understanding of what life in their skin might feel like. It also means that the first intention of the work is that it be designed from the point of view of the participant’s experience, rather than our own. This is the only way for us to make an experience that is truly for and about one person. 

I was the production manager for Pilgrimage, the Odyssey we created last November for Ayden LeRoux, our assistant director. Early into the process, I found myself Google-stalking Ayden and constantly thinking about her and how she might react to various pieces of the experience we were planning. For example, when writing couplets that Ayden would find hidden in the New York Picture Library, I adhered not to my own poetic sensibilities, but to what I knew of Ayden’s tastes and history. 

The Odyssey centered around Ayden’s knowledge that she carried a gene that put her at high risk for breast cancer. This was not an experience I shared, though I have had medical problems of my own and could relate to the sense of being betrayed by my body. During the planning for the Odyssey, I thought a lot about how it would feel to be in this situation. 

When watching a movie or play, there’s a certain process that occurs by which, for the length of the piece, you become the protagonist. The character becomes your avatar for navigating the fictional world, and you share their emotional, intellectual (and sometimes physical, in the case of immersive or VR work) experience. In Pilgrimage, Ayden was the audience member, and I was one of the creators of the work, yet I found myself seeing through her perspective in a similar way, both when planning the Odyssey and during it. Since we spent months creating the piece, this was an experience of prolonged and deep empathy unlike anything else. 

 

Ayden is carried through Brooklyn Bridge Park during her Odyssey. Credit Katy McCarthy.

Ayden is carried through Brooklyn Bridge Park during her Odyssey. Credit Katy McCarthy.

 

The fact that Ayden was a real person was also key to this. Imagined characters and situations are often complex and potent, but they can only go so far. Sharing in a character’s experience can be very moving, but I do not believe a relationship with an artwork can compare to a human relationship—unless that artwork itself constitutes a genuine human relationship. 

It is for this reason that Odyssey Works strives to create real, rather than make-believe, experiences. Just as an Odyssey is based on a participant’s life, so the Odyssey comes to exist within the real world. Though an Odyssey is composed of scenes, those scenes are not populated by actors, but rather by real people interacting with the participant.

In one scene during Pilgrimage, I gave Ayden a talismanic necklace as she walked across a bridge leading to her final destination, the site of her pilgrimage. As she walked towards me, there was a moment of recognition between us. I recognized her, of course, because I’d been waiting for her, and all my energy was focused on her imminent arrival. But she also recognized me—I was someone she already knew, and she knew I had a role in creating her Odyssey. So I both saw her approaching and saw her realizing that it was me standing there once she got close enough. 

I’ve found that acting in front of people I know can be awkward, because they recognize me in spite of the character I’m playing, and this can feel like it threatens the performance. The mutual recognition I felt with Ayden did not threaten the experience, but actually enabled it. Looking back at that moment, I feel that I shared a piece of Ayden’s real journey, not that I played a part in an immersive play created about her journey. 

Ayden and I have never sat down and had a long conversation, but I still feel close to her, and protective of her, and like I gave her something that I am proud of giving. I felt privileged to be allowed such deep knowledge of someone. I dove into and explored her experience not because I am her close friend or family member or lover, but simply as in end in itself. In some way it’s the arbitrariness of it that made it so powerful. To partake in someone’s Odyssey is to know that we are all connected, or at least that we can be, if we work at it.  

In the spirit of connection, we decided to start this blog in August 2015 to interview artists with similar intentions to our own. Last year, Princeton Architectural Press released a book about our theory and practice called Odyssey Works: Transformative Experiences for an Audience of One, by Abraham Burickson and Ayden LeRoux. If the digitization of communication is one cause of alienation, it also has the power to connect people all over the world, and through the book and this blog we’ve hoped to begin an inclusive conversation. Over the last couple of years, we’ve spoken to conceptual artists, experience designers, performance artists, experimental musicians, game designers, theatre-makers, and culture-creators of all stripes. Via email, phone, and fountain-side conversation, these artists have told us about their ideas, inspirations, and processes. Though we would love to continue the series forever, it is time for us to bring it to a close for the time being. We’ve found a significant sense of solidarity through engaging with like-minded artists, and every one of our interviewees had something new and enlightening to add to the dialogue. With that in mind, I’d like to highlight just a few of the interviews that particularly contributed to our understanding of intimacy in art. 

Our interview with Olive Bieringa offered us a stunning view of what making art that stems from empathy can look like. As co-director of the Body Cartography Project with Otto Ramstad, Olive has created several one-on-one dance projects. In her words, this kind of work is a way to “practice being present with another person.” Through movement, artist and audience member give and receive their perspectives and come to a place of mutual understanding. This performance structure facilitates an exciting reciprocal dialogue that disrupts traditional notions of the roles of dancers and audience members. 

 

Kendra Dennard performing with the Body Cartography Project. Credit Sean Smuda.

Kendra Dennard performing with the Body Cartography Project. Credit Sean Smuda.

 

Christine Jones’ work demonstrates a similar kind of mutuality. Her Theatre for One series consisted of private performances shared between one performer and one audience member. In this model, theatre is not a spectacle or a transaction, but a genuine exchange between two people who share a particular slice of time with one another. She is “an artist who uses intimacy the way a painter uses paint…to make people feel seen, and sometimes…loved.” 

Intimacy can go even further when the narrative and symbolic material of the art comes from real life. Tiu de Haan is a beautiful example of this. As a celebrant, she designs experiences for people around major life events, such as deaths and marriages. By using events that are already significant to people as her starting point, she can make experiences that are profoundly meaningful. In detailing her process of working with her participants, she said: “I empathize with their…hopes, and their fears. I build trust, I become their confidant, and I help them to channel their thoughts into a creative container that reflects what is truly important to them.” Her practice is thus founded on authentic listening, which engenders wonder through connectedness. 

 

The connection found through art is something that is captured rather than invented.

 

Emma Sulkowicz also relentlessly pursues truth in her art. Her most famous piece, Mattress Performance, was inspired by sexual trauma that happened in her real life. In her later performances, she has gone even further in working with reality. For example, in Self-Portrait, she answered audience members' questions, but passed along the over-asked ones she no longer wished to answer to a robot version of herself. Reflecting on the performance, she said “I wasn’t changing the way I acted because I was in a gallery. Other people assumed that I would be, because most people really believe in this distinction between art and life, but I’m trying to break down that distinction.” For a more recent piece, The Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center, Emma took on the role of a psychiatrist. My experience of the work was the same as my experience of Emma as a person. In other words, though the work had a specific framework, Emma wasn’t acting. She does not have a medical degree, but she was still her real self in a fictional situation. In a later conversation, she referenced the stereotype that performing artists are performing all the time, even in their real lives. She tries to do the opposite, which is to live her real life even when she’s performing. 

It is paradoxical to suggest that the truest intimacy, which is both real and mutual, can be found through art, a medium traditionally thought to be both fictional and unidirectional. I think this paradox rings true because art simply provides a container—a time and space in which we can be with each other—which we don’t often have time to do in the superficial hustle and bustle of our daily lives. The connection found through art is something that is captured rather than invented. As Todd Shalom said to us about his work with Elastic City, “We already have everything that we need, so it’s just a question of reframing.” 

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ANA FREEMAN was Odyssey Works' 2016-2017 intern, editor of the artists' interview series, and the production manager of Pilgrimage. She also writes for Theatre is Easy and performs with Fooju Dance Collaborative.

 

 

JIM FINDLAY ON THE DESIRE FOR CONNECTION AND THE DEXTERITY OF ART

Jim Findlay. Credit Pavol Liska.

Jim Findlay. Credit Pavol Liska.

JIM FINDLAY works across boundaries as a theatre artist, visual artist, and filmmaker. His recent work includes Vine of the Dead (2015), Dream of the Red Chamber (2014), and Botanica (2012). His video installation Meditation, created in collaboration with Ralph Lemon, was acquired by the Walker Art Center for its permanent collection in 2011. Findlay is a founding member of artists' group Collapsable Giraffe and performance space The Collapsable Hole. His work has been seen at BAM, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Arena Stage, A.R.T., and over 50 cities worldwide, including Berlin, Istanbul, London, Moscow, and Paris.

 

We’re all here. Alone and together.

 

Odyssey Works: What are you trying to achieve with your art?

Jim Findlay: I’m just trying to achieve some art with my art. I’m pretty satisfied when I feel like I’ve done that. 

Thinking of the work I make in terms of other senses of "achievement" feels like trying to change a tire with a poem—which sounds like a good way to make art, even though it’s a stupid way to change a tire.

I’m basically down with the idea that what makes art unique is its uselessness. If its use is immediately apparent, then it’s hard for it to be interesting. You have to look at a wrench for a really long time to see the poetry in it, because it’s hard to stop seeing the wrench. But if you can make something that's interesting and also quite apparently useless, then I feel like that’s something that fires up the curiosity neurons. 

 

Vine of the Dead . Credit Paula Court. 

Vine of the Dead. Credit Paula Court. 

 

OW: Why integrate multiple disciplines? What is the best way to approach this?

JF:  Approach it by just diving in and using it, whatever it is. Use it wrong, use it stupidly, use it as incorrectly as possible. Don’t fall into the trap of having to understand it before you try it. It’s not about mastering something, it’s about bending it to its own special state of uselessness.

Humans are omnivores, utter generalists, pansexual, and inherently curious. We are probably one of the least specialized species on the planet. Why would we be wildly dextrous and flexible in every other aspect of our existence, but not in our art-making?

I find words and speech much more foreign than the physics of electrons and photons or the elaborate syntax of contemporary digital language. We’re living in a time of widespread visual and sonic literacy. Lay people are incredibly sophisticated about the language of the jump cut and the slow fade. Using multiple disciplines feels quite organic. I don’t think about it much. I just do it.

 

I think the desire for connection and the impossibility of it pretty much sum up the whole of human experience, from the criminal to the holy.

 

OW: Speaking of combining forms, your work frequently combines recorded and live performance. What is the reason behind this? 

 JF: It’s so much more mixed up than anyone can imagine! A lot of the media work I do is predicated on live performers using the technological medium, sometimes swimming in it. Integration of media for me means that it’s integrated into the bodies and actions of the performers. For example, in Dream of the Red Chamber, there is constant video presence in a truly epic way. But a deceptively large portion of that video is live. The technology’s main function in the world of the piece isn’t its content. Rather, its most essential function is that it occupies the performers' actions. I enjoy watching people struggle to do something difficult; using technology in performance in a rigorous way is difficult, especially when it’s largely controlled by the performers themselves. 

 

OW: A lot of your work has an epic quality. Yet it has also been described as "intimate." This seems counterintuitive, as we usually associate intimacy in art with a more minimalist aesthetic. How can a vast scope be intimate?

JF: Creating dichotomies, tensions, and seemingly incongruous feelings is something that is very conscious in my work. And I think that we never feel more intimate to ourselves than when we feel ourselves small inside the vastness of life and the universe. There’s something about loneliness that’s not on the surface often, but that nonetheless is a strong undercurrent to everything I am. I think the desire for connection and the impossibility of it pretty much sum up the whole of human experience, from the criminal to the holy.  

 

Dream of the Red Chamber . Credit Paula Court. 

Dream of the Red Chamber. Credit Paula Court. 

 

When I make worlds—and to me, making a piece is like making a world because it has its own set of functions and rules and features—I always want my worlds to have their own integrity. They don’t have to be realistic, or operate on the same principles as our experience, but they have to make sense on their own terms. I think that epic feeling in my work may come from my desire for a piece to have its own special autonomous feeling. I feel like the intimacy element is even more essential, and that comes from my real desire to just be there with everyone. The performers and I are not going to pretend to be other people, at least not in ways that aren’t utterly transparent, and you don’t have to pretend you’re not here either. We’re all here. Alone and together.

 

OW: In your performance Dream of the Red Chamber, the audience is encouraged to experience the work while drifting in and out of sleep. How does this enhance the experience? What is the connection between dreams and art?

JF: The piece makes a simple proposition: What happens when we disrupt the usual transaction between the audience and the performer? What if the audience doesn’t have to pay attention and the performer is released from their duty to entertain? Everything in the piece is in service of this proposition in some way.

 

Did I make that? Did she make that? Did it happen? Does it matter?

 

I also admit that I have a lot of firsthand experience of sleeping in theaters. And I always find the haze of liminal states between being asleep and awake very pleasant. So when formulating the piece, I had a pretty good idea of the experience I was proposing to the audience. 

The other aspect of this that became important for me on an aesthetic development level was that it forced me to relinquish control of the experience. A friend at the show fell asleep, and in her dream the show continued, but there was a large curtain near where she was sleeping. The performers made a big show of opening this curtain, and behind it was this very large beloved painting she had done 20 years ago that she thought had been lost forever. It was still lost in real life, but was returned in the dream. She woke up at the show crying because we had returned her painting to her, and it took her five to ten minutes to sort out what the reality was and what had been in her dream. Did I make that? Did she make that? Did it happen? Does it matter? That’s a pretty good demonstration of the connection between dreams and art, I think.
 

OW: Who are your influences?

JF: Captain Beefheart, La Monte Young, Elizabeth LeCompte, Reza Abdoh, Derek Jarman, Mark Twain, Kathy Acker, Werner Schroeter, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ralph Lemon, Amy Huggans, Iver Findlay, Radiohole.

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Interview by Ana Freeman. 

 

Aaron Landsman on Participation And Process

Aaron Landsman. Credit Mallory Catlett.

Aaron Landsman. Credit Mallory Catlett.

Aaron Landsman is a theatre artist in New York City who works with theatrical and found spaces and texts. He is a Princeton Arts Fellow, a playwright-in-residence at Abrons Arts Center, and the Gammage Residency Artist at ASU Gammage in Tempe, AZ. He collaborates regularly with director Mallory Catlett and designer/performer Jim Findlay; the three created the participatory performance City Council Meeting in five US cities between 2011 and 2014. The performance consisted of audience members enacting transcripts of local government meetings from around the country; each city had a unique ending in which real-life political adversaries performed a scripted scene that had been written in response to a hot-button local issue. Landsman is currently developing several new projects, including Perfect City, commissioned by Crossing The Line and created with Lower East Side young adults.

We want to to place you in the gap between the world you live in and the world we make.

Odyssey Works: What are you trying to do with your work? 

Aaron Landsman: I don't know that I have a clear mission, except to create a space that illuminates the value of misfits and the nascent creativity of cities. I don't know that I start out making any given project in order to do that, but that's so often where things lead—whether it's a play, or something more conceptual like City Council Meeting—that I'm going to stick with it. Or it's going to stick with me. 

OW: What led you to your current approach? Who are your influences, and within what traditions do you locate your work?  

AL: Beyond the artists I love and the collaborators I work with, I'd say that Erving Goffman and Jacques Rancière have been huge influences. I read Goffman's The Presentation Of Self In Everyday Life when I was in high school, and it satisfied a certain adolescent cynicism then. When we started working on City Council Meeting, I went back to it and found it really rewarding in a whole different way. If we are always performing ourselves, whether we know it or not, then everything we do is theatrical to some degree. Everything is fodder for art. And Rancière really articulates something about the gap that exists between a teacher and student, a work of art and its viewer, a political reality and the agents of change trying to move that reality somewhere different. Those two writers are who I go back to all the time when I'm trying to make something new. 

On a more pedestrian level, Mallory Catlett once said something when we started working together to the effect that she is more interested in communication than representation, and that's been super helpful to me as we have continued to collaborate. 

Swearing in during a  City Council Meeting  at LaGuardia Community College in New York City, May 2013. Credit David Brown and dabfoto creative.

Swearing in during a City Council Meeting at LaGuardia Community College in New York City, May 2013. Credit David Brown and dabfoto creative.

I feel really influenced by a whole host of artists in New York and elsewhere right now. Elevator Repair Service's process is really delightful, even if an endurance test sometimes. Ant Hampton is thinking about the political meaning of form in exciting ways. Daniel Alexander Jones is an artist with a phenomenal range of avant-garde approaches at his disposal. Jim Findlay is generally always the smartest guy in the room, so I always want to be around him, because it makes me look and feel good. Rimini Protokol is exciting in the range of their work and their idea of their subjects as "experts". Ron Vawter was a touchstone for acting seemingly tiny moments in an epic way, and the Wooster Group's idea of "putting a frame around the actors' lives" resonates with me in my own work. So—ensembles, sociologists, and expert misfits.

OW: What does it mean for you to call City Council Meeting “participatory”? Is this different from being “immersive” or “interactive”?

AL: I like this question. Mallory Catlett (the director/dramaturg who co-created City Council Meeting with me) and I thought a lot about this. First, we think you're "participating" in the piece even if you choose to simply watch. Meaning, seeing a show is participatory, to us, even if it's not interactive. Some nights I go to the theatre and I don't want to interact, I want to watch and participate imaginatively rather than verbally, or physically, for instance. This piece is about how you participate.

It also asks each audience member to reckon with a choice she makes at the beginning of the show, when we ask viewers to choose a way to engage with the piece: as Councilors, who take a very active role; as Speakers, who get a piece of testimony they may or may not be called on to speak in the piece; as Supporters, who get simple physical instructions; and as Bystanders, who simply watch. Sometimes the payoff of the piece is surprising for viewers. They think a lot about why they made a particular choice, and what the consequences of that have been.

We don't call it immersive because we don't want you to get too caught up in some kind of traditional-but-3D theatrical suspension of disbelief. The mental, imaginative gaps we want you to fill should always be present—between you and the person whose words you're reading, between your choice and the choices of the people next to you, between your city and the city whose transcripts we're hearing. I think of immersive work as sort of sweeping you away in its world, and we want to place you in the gap between the world you live in and the world we make.

And we don't say "interactive" because it's not quite accurate. Everything in the piece is pretty tightly scripted—you're reading the actual language of another person. Another viewer may read someone else's words back to you, but you're not really interacting in an improvisational way.

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

AL: I think the sweet spot is the decision a piece of art provokes you to make. And those decisions, for me, can just be decisions about how it made you feel. I am not so convinced that art is a great way to make social change on any sort of massive level, but I do think it can provoke feelings that lead you to think about your life differently, and perhaps then do something different out of that revelation. Some work is kind of blinding and insistent—it pounds a decision out of you (I'm thinking of the punk music I listened to a lot growing up). Other stuff creeps up on you weeks later. I think the art is located in the space between what the artist's efforts illuminate and the conception of yourself you came in with.

Giving testimony at a  City Council Meeting  at Redfern Arts Center in Keene, NH, October 2014. Credit Aaron Landsman.

Giving testimony at a City Council Meeting at Redfern Arts Center in Keene, NH, October 2014. Credit Aaron Landsman.

OW: What, for you, is the relationship between performance and reality? What is the role of theatre in effecting real-life change, and to what degree is politics already theatrical?

AL: I guess I think we're only not performing when we're asleep, or for flickers during meditation, or maybe during real intimacy, physical or emotional. So a performance of politics, a performance of theatre, a performance of a date, a performance of a job—those things are on a continuum. We might not rehearse our council meeting testimony or our promotion interview day-to-day, but we do prepare. And as an actor, I know that the best way to think about preparation is that it gets you closer to something truthful, rather than something canned or insincere. So acknowledging the levels on which we are very often performing ourselves in "real life" and on stage is not cynical for me. 

The process of making art is what can have the most political impact.

When we were making City Council Meeting, we pretty quickly got past any thoughts we had that this would be some kind of inspirational piece that would get people to take specific actions in their towns. Once we honed in on the act and investigation of participation itself, and the historical ideas of democracy (from Plato on up) that we were playing with, we found something more open-ended and less agitprop. We found that when we allowed people to "testify" about something they wanted to speak on—say, an issue that they cared a lot about—it wasn't very interesting. 

The corollary benefit of the piece turned out to be that a couple people in different cities decided to run for local offices after being part of our working group. That felt like a real-life political victory, because both of them represent marginalized communities to greater or lesser degrees.

I don't actually think theatre can predict its outcome on any broad level. I think you can have a really politically astute piece of work and it still won't necessarily change people's minds. I think if you help people imagine their world differently, and they walk out the door of your show and then see possibilities they hadn't seen before, that is both immeasurable and profound. 

I'm working on a new project now called Perfect City, and I'm trying to infuse it with the idea that the process of making art is what can have the most political impact. I'm working with young adults on the Lower East Side to make something about the way cities evolve. I want them to leave the process (which will take a couple years) with the sense that they have the language of access and power with which to enact change. If the piece we make is fanciful, obtuse, or even unsuccessful on some level, but my collaborators walk away feeling like they have more agency, I think that is more important than whether the piece reflects my own political desires—as long as the work is at least somewhat truthful and beautiful.

OW: What is your artistic process? What are the similarities and differences between the process of creating theatre and the political process?

AL: I just saw a student production of Elektra at Princeton, where I'm working now, and one of the things they got really right was the sense that Greek drama can be seen as a court case for its characters, with audience as jury. There's a tie-in to political life that Greek drama often carries with it. There is a sense that politics is performative, and that that is not always bad. Meaning, I think most of us associate politicians with phoniness and pretense. But in fact, how else are you going to craft an argument that is going to reach many people? You perform the part of yourself you think will connect with others, and convince them to come over to your side, to let you represent them.

And, ideally, that's what making theatre is, on a good day. You strip away everything but what's essential, until you get to a message or a feeling that is burnished enough that it's impossible to ignore.

But also, really? The artistic process, at least when making performances, is basically a series of failures combined with a series of deadlines. And the discoveries get made by embracing the tension between those two things. 

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Interview by Ana Freeman

TIU DE HAAN ON ACCESSING WONDER

Tiu de Haan. Credit Neal Houghton.

Tiu de Haan. Credit Neal Houghton.

 

TIU DE HAAN is an Oxford-educated celebrant, creative facilitator, writer, and singer. She marries, buries, and names people, as well as creating experiential workshops that remind people of all ages how to see the magic in the mundane.

My measure of professional success is if I have managed to make people cry.

Odyssey Works: What are you trying to do with your work?

Tiu de Haan: My work is about creating experiences that connect people to the heart, to the possibility of wonder, to each other, and to their own creativity.

As a celebrant, I create non-religious ceremonies, like weddings, funerals, and baby namings, as well as other rituals of all kinds. As a facilitator, I create experiential workshops that wake up the imagination, reboot our innate playfulness, and shift our perspective to see the wonder in the world.

My measure of professional success is if I have managed to make people cry. Or at the very least, get a little shiny-eyed. And I’m only half joking when I say this.

The celebrant work I do is about creating rituals that honor the big moments, the transitions of life, love, and death that merit a moment of reflection, emotion, and celebration. As my line of work entails tackling the big subjects, namely love and death, I have this incredible privilege of co-creating the emotional heart of some of the biggest days of people’s lives. So, yes, weird as it may sound, I am trying to make people cry. Or, to put it another way, to create an experience in which everyone present will feel truly touched.

In the case of the experiential workshops, I aim for a slightly less dramatic result—tears are welcome and they have often arrived, but when I send people off on adventures that crack open their capacity for wonder, I look for shining eyes at the end, rather than out-and-out weeping. An openness, an aliveness, an awe, a joy, visible on the features.

In both cases, my aim is to create moments of real meaning and magic, unique and profound experiences where people connect to the heart as well as to each other.

 

OW: Why create experiences?

TdH: Bringing creativity to the matter of making meaningful experiences is to marry our innate imagination with the very stuff of being alive.

We all create experiences as a matter of course, whether intentionally or not. It’s just that some of us choose to use it as our artistic medium, which is when things get really interesting.

When treated as an art form, experience is like no other medium. It can encompass all sorts of other art forms and weave them into one powerful whole.  It can incorporate the written and spoken word, music, scent, flavor, light, color, movement, and the creation of a physical space that houses the experience itself. It creates a liminal field where everyone has the possibility of contributing to the experience with both their attention and their intention, even if they don’t play an obviously active role. It harnesses emotions and channels them towards a point of focus that has the power to transform. It is inclusive, nebulous, malleable, and potentially profoundly meaningful.

Candle ceremony for families. Credit Robert Davidson.

Candle ceremony for families. Credit Robert Davidson.

It spans all emotional states and needs, too—a bespoke experience can be calibrated to serve joy or grief, silence or celebration, playfulness or empowerment. It can be solitary or communal, simple or complex. It can feed body and soul as well as heart and mind. It cannot be captured and it is fleeting—and all the more beautiful for it.

 

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

TdH: In my line of work as a celebrant, the term “audience” doesn’t really cover what is going on. Similarly, with the experiential workshops, the artwork is the experience of the people who participate in it. The content is in part my contribution, but ultimately, it is the emotions, realizations, words, thoughts, and experiences of those who step into the frame. They are not merely passive receptors. They are making it what it is by being a part of it, by bringing their energy to the collaboration.

Their participation is what gives the moment the power to transform. I am there as a facilitator, a catalyst, a guide, a creator of the parameters, and the holder of the space—the frame in which we co-create the magic of the moment.

 

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

TdH: The light on my horizon, the point by which I steer in all that I do, is the possibility of wonder. To me, wonder speaks to the moments when something beautiful, astonishing, and enlivening happens and our worldview tilts on its axis and new ways of seeing open up — if only for an instant. It is the state that makes life feel like an adventure. I seek it selfishly, in how I live my own life and navigate my own waters, because it is what lights me up. In so doing, I have picked up a lot of clues along the way as to how to share my findings with others, through the myriad treasures of artists, teachers, explorers, and livers of magical lives throughout our world—as well as through the experiences I create.

There are few clearly defined maps to show us how to reconnect with that universal human experience of awe, delight, and mind-opening possibility—and I emphasize the fact that it is a possibility rather than a probability, because accessing wonder is an inexact science. It exists in the moments, in the gaps, in the tributaries and the serendipities, so you can’t guarantee its appearance. But you can create the optimum conditions that will allow it to happen all by itself.

This is where my work resides. Exploring those conditions, through non-religious experiences, and learning for myself and others how to access and prompt the possibility of that state of wonder at will, in all areas of life, including love, work, and play.

 

OW: You have a unique process for creating your work; talk about how you developed it.

TdH: There is a clear distinction between the process for my celebrant work and the process of the creation of the experiential workshops.

However, in both cases, I start with the moment of most emotive power in mind and work back from there.  The expressions on the faces, the richness of the silence, the tears in the eyes, the inaudible sound of hearts opening in unison following a moment of magic, connection, and power—these nebulous things are my guides and my goals. I keep coming back to them when logistics and practicalities start to usurp the to-do list. I navigate by the light of the heart, and it always shines through if you know to give it due attention and care.

The celebrant work is always bespoke, so that the process is about getting to know the stories of the people with whom I am collaborating. I spend as much time as possible with the people I am marrying, the families of those who have died, the parents of the baby I am naming, or the person who needs a particular ceremony to be created just for their particular needs. The questions I ask are intimate, spanning everything from divergent spiritual traditions, to dysfunctional family dynamics, to the biggest moments that have defined their lives, to the meaning of love itself. I empathize with their emotions, their hopes, and their fears. I build trust, I become their confidant, and I help them to channel their thoughts into a creative container that reflects what is truly important to them.

Marrying a couple under a 500-year-old oak tree. Credit Benjamin Thomas Wheeler.

Marrying a couple under a 500-year-old oak tree. Credit Benjamin Thomas Wheeler.

In order to be able to do my job well, I need to tune myself up to be at the top of my game, both inner and outer, so I have practices I use daily to keep myself present, healthy, and emotionally open. I choose to work from the heart, and so sometimes this means being with raw, visceral grief, as well as vast, heart-cracking love. I am configured for it. I know both love and death all too well. And I consider myself blessed to be able to be a part of such powerful experiences in the lives of others, to learn from them, and to share what tools I can with anyone who chooses to collaborate with me. It is intense, glorious, profound, and the most fulfilling work imaginable.

 

OW: How does your art practice influence your life?

TdH: I don’t know where one begins and the other ends. Since my medium is experience, the way I live my life is my art practice. Without wanting to sound preposterously pompous, the art of living a creative life blurs all boundaries between experience and the creativity with which I try to live. I mean, ok, not every day contains life-changing moments of wonder and magic. But I might argue that that’s just a failure of the imagination.

The world can be a wonderful place if only we know how to see it as such. And that is where a shift of perspective, a reinvigoration of the imagination, and a retraining of our senses can take us. That is what I see as my art practice—indistinguishable from life itself, because it’s not what we see, it’s how we see it. And in seeing the magic, I find ways to draw back the invisible curtain so that others can see, too.

 

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

So many. But in terms of experiences that move the heart, it has to be Marina Abramovic. It was the last day of her residency at the Serpentine Gallery in London, in August 2014. The exhibit consisted of only Marina and her facilitators, the public, and time. I should also say that I was in a very intense and dream-like grief. A week earlier, a huge love of mine had died.

I entered this big white space full of people in silence and stillness. About an hour after I entered the space, I approached a plinth in the middle of a room.  I stepped on and took my place in one of the concentric circles of people, and closed my eyes. It didn’t take long before I felt this enormous sense of love and gratitude cracking me open. I started to hear a kind of voice in my head, which started to list all that I was grateful for. The love I had felt and still felt for the man who had died and the love he had felt, and perhaps still felt, for me. The very fact that people could gather in such a profoundly beautiful way, without a deity or a discipline to draw them together. I became quietly euphoric, tears streaming down my cheeks. I opened my eyes to see that the plinth had now filled up, circles upon circles of people standing in silence, overflowing into the rest of the space which was now full of people also standing with eyes closed and palms open, their faces beatific, intense, smiling, crying, joyful, alive, still.  I stood there a little longer, then I decided to leave while it remained at this silent crescendo.

As I gathered up my things, I saw that there was still a huge queue outside, hoping for a glimpse of the artist. I was asked by a security guard to hang back inside. When the exhibition ended, Marina appeared. She came out to speak to the waiting crowds and the news cameras that clustered together in the rain. When she finished, the security guard told me I could leave. But she was still standing in the doorway and so I had to go right past her in order to exit. She stopped me, held me in an embrace, looked me in the eye, and asked me how I was. I simply said “I am in my heart” and smiled with the tears in my eyes. “Yes! Yes!” she replied, and gave me a huge hug. And then I walked off into the rain, heart open wide, mind still overflowing with gratitude, soul restored, grief released—forever changed.

 

 

ALBERT KONG on the empowerment of play

Albert Kong

Albert Kong

Albert Kong is an artist designing live games and experiences in the Bay Area. His work is focused on the audience as a player, and the world as an unbounded space of play: site specific installations that ask players to view the physical and social space around through the lens of a new set of rules. He has presented at various festivals including IndieCade and Come Out & Play.

I like to empower people in small, personal ways, showing how even minute intentions can affect the world.

Odyssey Works: You've worked on escape the room games, Odyssey Works (developing the Beautiful Experience Design Workshop), The Headlands Gamble, The Vespertine Circus and just about every other underground and theatrical immersive and interactive endeavor in the SF Bay Area. Through all that, how do you understand immersivity and interactivity? What is the point?

Albert Kong: What is the point? The words “immersive” and “interactive” are often used so broadly that they serve as containers for anything that is new, designed, and even slightly participatory; they feel almost empty to me when they are used to describe new work after the fact. But as an aspirational quality for works, and when audiences are excited to find work that is immersive or interactive, I think it at least partially represents some collective cultural needs: ownership and reclamation of space; empowerment to engage; permission to play, permission to explore.

Come Out & Play Festival,  credit Anna Vignet

Come Out & Play Festival, credit Anna Vignet

When I was in elementary school, we had an amazing wooden play structure that we would climb all over during our breaks. I remember feeling disappointed when we continued onto middle school, and the only available play spaces were sports fields and courts. I would keep seeking out playgrounds until a few years later when I began to practice parkour, a community that specifically encouraged the exploration of space for alternative functions. For the next decade I practiced scanning the environment around me for the techniques that they afforded rather than the limitations that they represented. A wall is not a barrier but a structure to climb, a platform to stand on, a space to walk. That perspective also revealed that we are limited by rules we implicitly set for ourselves often more than any absolutes (why not stand on that bench? why not dance across the crosswalk?).

Games and embodied play--the terms I use for “immersives” and “interactives”--are a revealing form in that same way. They give permission to the audience to step out of their seats; they reward those who explore; they invite people to be a part of a world rather than voyeuristically peering into one. The games that excite me the most--experiences like Odyssey Works, Headlands Gamble, Journey to the End of the Night--appropriate the spaces that we exist in every day, inviting us to do what we would usually avoid in order to maintain the temporary world that the game creates.

I think the point is to remind individuals that we own our bodies and our actions no matter who “owns” the land we stand on, and to empower players to continue exploring the space that they occupy. (With the usual caveats of not causing harm to others, etc.)

OW: Why create experiences?

Ambulist,  credit Danielle Pena

Ambulist, credit Danielle Pena

AK: As a game designer I often see an expectation from players for embedded narrative, for a story to be written and delivered throughout the experience of a piece, especially in realms connected with entertainment media--video games; escape rooms; alternate reality games. While I have a lot of respect for authored narratives, in designing experiences, I think there is a unique opportunity to introduce, influence, initiate personal narratives. The rules of a game can introduce a sense of uncertainty, a drama that can be more exciting than anything narrative that is written for them--sliding into the finish line in the nick of time, or suddenly realizing you’ve stepped into your opponent’s territory. The rules we follow for a game can overpower our perception of our own abilities; in Beacon, a chase street game I designed I was delighted to hear about a player who lept over a crowd, acrobatically kicking off a wall, in order to evade being caught. Playing a game can replace the rules and stories we associate with a space, a city, our lives; there are whole neighborhoods in the Bay Area that I associate with getting lost in the midst of Journey to the End of the Night, instead of as “cozy suburbs” or “boutique shopping districts.” I design experiences because I want to give people stories to tell from their own points of view.

OW: What is the role of wonder and discovery in what you do?

Climber Beta,  credit Tobin Schwaiger-Hastanan

Climber Beta, credit Tobin Schwaiger-Hastanan

AK: I like to work in small magic. There’s the grand sense of revelatory wonder that one experiences when they are surrounded by the majesty of nature, and then there’s the realization that there really are bugs crawling underneath that rock. There’s the discovery that a simple equation can explain vast swaths of the physical world, and there’s the discovery that your friend was absolutely delighted when she received your impromptu letter. I like to empower people in small, personal ways, showing how even minute intentions can affect the world.

There’s a lot of wonder in the recognition that we are capable of so much more than we think we are, that the simple act of venturing to try—see if that doorknob turns; take that unfamiliar alleyway; enter that ancient-looking junk store—can lead us to magical adventures that we could scarcely imagine.

I think that’s a kind of magic that experience design is especially good at creating; we might behold a beautiful, ornately crafted piece of architecture in awe, but it doesn’t teach us that we ourselves, ordinary human beings, are capable of creation, art-making, affecting change, the way that even the smallest interaction can.

OW: How does your art practice influence your life?

AK: Making games and experiences allows me an alternative to cynicism, my default state perhaps as a result of my upbringing. Through my practice, I allow myself time to think carefully about the systems that govern our lives, the implicit laws and expectations, the cultural norms, the institutions in place; and where the state of these things would otherwise be pretty depressing, in art, I see solutions. I see opportunities to make these rules obvious by providing new rules. I imagine someone who goes through a game, or an Odyssey, or a designed adventure returning to the “real world” and questioning why shouldn’t I take the tag off this mattress; why should I drive to work when I enjoy biking more; who’s to tell me I can’t be an artist; what’s stopping me from making a difference in the lives of the people around me? I try to embody the states of mind that I try to share with those who play my games, and it’s honestly made me much happier.

Bring Home the Beacon,  credit Lia Bualong

Bring Home the Beacon, credit Lia Bualong

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

AK: This is two questions! I’ve been incredibly inspired by the work that came out of SF0, which bills itself as a collaborative production game, where players create tasks for each other that often involve real world interactions (climb a roof; modify a sign; take a bus to the end of the route). It was where Journey to the End of the Night was conceived, as well as the Wanderer’s Union and many others. I loved how it created community and participation through play. Along those lines, I’ve also been really inspired by the Nordic larp scene, fluxus event scores, the work of Nonchalance...

But you want me to pick one, right? I never thought of myself as an artist. I didn’t study it, I didn’t consider myself capable of making art; in my college years I hardly had a framework for understanding the work that I would see in museums, in books. But in one of those years I ran into Robert Yang, now a game designer and academic, then a student who was teaching a class on outdoor games. He was leading a handful of students through a game that was taking place around campus, with players smuggling objects over imaginary borders and evading imaginary guards. I didn’t know Robert at the time, but noticing some students running around with arm bands clearly up to some shenanigans, I stopped one of the players and asked them what was going on, and they directed me toward him, and he explained what was going on. The idea that a game like this was being orchestrated in broad daylight, in the middle of campus, with most of the students around us seemingly oblivious to what was going on, that was an epiphany. I had heard of and played some other games on campus--Assassins, Fugitive, Sardines--but this was the moment that made it a genre in my mind, rather than merely a random occurrence.

OW: What is the benefit of integrating multiple disciplines and how do you go about it?

AK: From a community/scene aspect, my background is in several new disciplines that emerge without a lot of background in the arts, and the recognition that other disciplines have a lot of solutions to the problems we face (how to maintain community, how to encourage new members, how to find satisfaction in art when there isn’t a commercial industry to support the medium) has been helpful. In the Bay Area game design scene we adopted an open mic model for sharing and testing new games that has been a really powerful way to make the medium more accessible to new designers.

Meanwhile, I personally am still learning and figuring out what art means; reading up, seeing more art, dipping my toes into new practices, and befriending other artists has been a way to sort of latently integrate new influences into my practice.

Stacy Muszinsky on the effects of an Odyssey

Stacy Muszinsky

Stacy Muszinsky

 

This week we interviewed Stacy Muszinsky, who was a participant in the Odyssey Works 2007 production The Moveable Feast in Austin, TX.

 

Odyssey Works: What was it like to bleed the boundaries of your real life with that of the performance?

Stacy Muszinsky: Surreal and moving and rather frightening and ecstatic and cathartic and unforgettable.

OW: HOW WAS YOUR LIFE CHANGED AFTER YOUR ODYSSEY? HOW DID THE ODYSSEY AFFECT YOUR LIFE?

SM: The Odyssey itself was a wild and strange catalyst, bleeding between performance and reality. I remember having to focus on breathing sometimes, looking at my hands, to calm myself, to ground myself, to feel private and not blown apart, wide open for the world. That said, the whole of it was exhilarating and unhinging. I was dazed for some time immediately after Odyssey, unsure what was real and what was performance, as if the piece continued into life. I felt alternately giddy and sad. Odyssey injected a sense of serious play in my life. I birthed a child three years ago; the experience isn't unlike my Odyssey -- a cosmic joke -- a strange and surreal experience guided by what I can't say toward what end I'm not exactly sure. Same wild, scary, beautiful ride that I am one thankful mother to be on.

The Odyssey inhabited me utterly....I felt an intricate fabric in the weave of the entire experience while, in the same instant, feeling as if I were unraveling...

OW: Most performances ask that you sit and watch. Odyssey Works requires you to engage fully. How did that requirement change your experience of the performance and did it continue to affect you afterward?

SM: The Odyssey inhabited me utterly. I had no idea from moment to moment what to expect, would happen, how I would behave. Everything was of the moment. I felt safe and unsafe in the same instant. I felt an intricate fabric in the weave of the entire experience while, in the same instant, feeling as if I were unraveling, unraveled, naked.

Perhaps I said something good and useful in the recap video after the performance when I was sitting next to Doug. I remember getting weepy again when I talked about it. 

When the climax of the performance hit, I fell completely apart -- or together. I mean, I cry at any good climax -- story or sex -- but this one... I was wracked by the connection, the letting go, the release. I could not stop crying. Weeping, actually. Not the same style of weeping I did when I learned my mother unexpectedly died, but the weeping I expect I'll do when I meet her again at the end of my life. It was a catharsis so deep, so mind-body-spirit connected, I felt intercellularly stoned for weeks. I felt integrated, and I felt connected to every damn thing and every damn one. So right now.

I felt absolutely yes. Clear. Unafraid. Real.

OW: THIS ODYSSEY ENTAILED A GREAT DEAL OF RESEARCH INTO YOUR LIFE. HOW DID IT FEEL TO BE SEEN IN THIS INTIMATE WAY?

SM: Amazing and scary and open and real.

OW: What was most meaningful thing for you during your Odyssey?

SM: Years ago I may have said the most important thing about my Odyssey was sharing it with the others who were on the Odyssey with me.  I would have added: Feeling myself breaking down and re-integrating throughout the experience. I would have said experiencing the catharsis of the finale. Being given my life and identity back upon the death of my imposter, all the imposters -- feeling the grace and honesty and weight of that moment, that truth. Feeling, then, at one with everything stitched into that moment -- the sun in sky, the dark-haired actor running up the crushed stone pathway in his flowing white pants and shirt, the cello music, the loved ones gathered around us in that tiny gazebo in the middle of nowhere.

Today, I'd say all that. And: that it happened at all.That it happens at all. It was a gift. It is a gift.

Did I mention painful? It was so beautiful it hurt. Or it hurt so much it was beautiful. I can't parse or separate the two really. It all just really undid me.  

OW: Based on this experience, what would you say is the benefit of mixing reality and performance?

SM: Art. Life. Art. Life. It's so impossibly weird and, let me stop crying for a second... so terribly good. Thank you.

Dare Turner on Art, Presence, and Gratitude

An image from OW 2014: The Dariad. Photo by Sasha Wizansky

An image from OW 2014: The Dariad. Photo by Sasha Wizansky

What’s the longest time you have ever spent with a single piece of art?

When I visit museums, I often find myself spending an hour or more with just one piece of art. In my experience, it takes that long to really see it.

Looking at an artwork is a time-based experience; at first glance, it might come off as unassuming and quiet. After ten minutes, you start to notice things you didn’t before—new textures emerge, details become sharper, and colors become more vibrant. By thirty minutes, a piece has started to break through your shell and share its world with you. After an hour, you aren’t looking at the piece anymore; it is looking at you.

Being present, with an artwork no less, is a challenging feat in our modern world. But this is what artworks invite; this is the space they make in our lives, a space for presence. I am incredibly grateful for this.

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, I find myself reflecting on the many things that I am thankful for this year. 2015 has been a truly transformative year, due in no small part to my work with Odyssey Works. The group’s long-duration artworks have changed my perspective on the potential of art. Now I see so many possibilities that weren’t apparent to me before.

 At the end of 2014, I received an incredible gift from the Odyssey Work crew: a surprise Odyssey. “The Dariad,” coordinated by Abraham Burickson and my dear friends in San Francisco, offered me the perfect avenue to explore ideas about art that I had been toying with for several years.

Outside of Odyssey Works, I'm a Medievalist, which means that I've spent the past several years studying centuries-old art and ways of seeing that art. The medieval way of seeing is both astounding and incredibly relevant even today. The Middle Ages have gotten a bad rap, going down in history as some sort of backwards-era that offers us nothing more than ugly pictures of baby Jesus. But the art of the period was about so much more than that.

Art from the Middle Ages is all about being present. You can’t see or experience the artwork if you aren’t really there. Medieval art requires patience, longing, and the viewer’s full-bodied participation.

In this way, medieval art theory speaks to and reveals new facets of modern performance artworks, such as that of Odyssey Works.

During the climactic scene of the Dariad, I met a group of around fifty wearing black outside of the De Young Museum in San Francisco. They had gathered for an unconventional tour of the museum, in which we would only view three pieces of art, but spend anywhere from 15-30 minutes with each individual piece.

As we stood in front of a modern-take on an aboriginal sculpture, and a large video installation by David Hockney, I was struck by the medieval-ness of the gathering. By standing in front of a single piece of art for a rather uncomfortable length of time, we had to honestly confront our feelings about a piece, and learn patience.

By engaging with the artworks for minutes, instead of mere seconds, we gave them the chance to look back at us.

During the Dariad, the final artwork that we viewed together as a group was Cornelia Parker’s Anti-Mass. This massive mobile-like piece consists of fragments of a former Baptist Church that had been destroyed by arsonists. The shards of wood are suspended in mid-air, offering a vision of extreme violence and a venue for quiet meditation in the same breath.

Standing in front of this artwork with fifty some people for thirty minutes was a surreal experience. I walked up close to the piece, sat on the bench in front of it, stood at the back of the gallery and waited for the piece to penetrate through my shell—the buffer that protects me, but also separates me from the rest of the world.

Minute by minute, I felt that protective layer dissolve. As every second wore on, I became more present.Anti-Mass crept deeper into my subconscious and altered my understanding of the world. Eventually, I watched my “self” melt away—I became a part of a collective consciousness in that room, communing with art.

Believe it or not, this communal experience is very medieval in its nature. The idea of the “I” emerged with the Renaissance, but the Middle Ages, on the other hand, demanded that egocentric I be subordinated to the collective we. This way of thinking about things may have been mostly lost to time, but in front of Cornelia Parker's work it was entirely accessible. This is the power of art. It transcends time and place; its message can permeate generations and outlast the lifespan of the artist who created it.

It is impossible to experience this and not be grateful.

The Dariad was just one transformative event that Odyssey Works offered me in the last year. Throughout 2015, I have been the acting Public Image Engineer for the group, which has allowed me to explore my creativity on a deeper level and be a key player in running the Kickstarter.

2015 has brought many blessings to the group, most important of which is the incredible outpouring of support that has come through our Kickstarter campaign. Even after months of planning and promoting, I find myself surprised by the fact that over 350 people have donated to the campaign, and that we met our goal after only 15 days!

Both of these wonderful gifts—the Dariad and the success of our Kickstarter—have demanded something important of me: to be present. To actually see the world and not take it for granted. To savor every moment with (or without) art. And to offer gratitude to a world that has blessed me so.

This Thanksgiving, I give thanks to all of you—the Odyssey Works supporters and volunteers that have worked to transform my life and the lives of other art enthusiasts for the better. Though our work might be small in scale, it’s monumental in its effects.

Thank you for making the world a more beautiful place.

Sasha Wizansky on what it's like to receive an Odyssey

Have you ever wondered what it's like to be a participant in an odyssey works piece? This week we're pleased to introduce you to Sasha Wizansky, the recipient of an Odyssey in 2009. Since then we have had the great fortune to work with her as a designer on many an Odyssey Works project, including our Borges & Calvino forgeries, not to mention the design concepts for our forthcoming book. 

Sasha Wizansky

Sasha Wizansky

Sasha Wizansky is an art director, graphic designer, and bookbinder, and holds an MFA in sculpture. Sasha co-founded Meatpaper, an award-winning, internationally distributed quarterly journal of art and ideas about meat, in 2007, and was Editor-in-chief and Art Director until the last issue came out in fall, 2013. Meatpaper’s mission was to create a non-dogmatic forum in which to explore the ethics, aesthetics, and cultural significance of meat. 

 

Odyssey Works: What was it like to bleed the boundaries of your real life with that of the performance?

Sasha Wizansky: In August, 2009, I was having a glass of wine with two friends at a home in Brooklyn when a stranger in an overcoat appeared in front of me and handed me a small box full of sage leaves. It was a full week before I thought the Odyssey would begin in San Francisco. He turned and walked away, as quickly as he’d come. My companions refused to acknowledge that anyone had been in the apartment. This was a true surprise, and well-played by my friends. Their silence showed me that this was an experience for me alone and that nobody else would be able to experience as I would. It felt big, special, mysterious, enchanted. My heart was pounding. After that point, I experienced my life in a heightened way. My senses were sharpened. It felt that anything could be a sign, or could be art. Any human interaction could be significant.

OW: This Odyssey entailed a great deal of research into your life. How did it feel to be seen in this intimate way?

SW: Something about the experience of filling out the application questionnaire in very personal terms opened me up for the intimacy of the Odyssey. I willingly engaged with Odyssey Works intimately with my answers to the questions. And Odyssey Works, in turn, continued the conversation before, during, and after the Odyssey. They are still asking me personal questions, and I am still answering them. I don’t think my Odyssey would have been as meaningful if it hadn’t been built upon such a personal dialogue.

A scene from Sasha Wizansky's Odyssey in 2009.

A scene from Sasha Wizansky's Odyssey in 2009.

OW: How was your life changed after your Odyssey? How did the Odyssey affect your life?

SW: This is a bit difficult to pinpoint as the change was subtle and changed over time. I think the Odyssey made me realize how lucky I am. To be gifted an experience of such richness and magnitude is truly remarkable. Very few people have experienced a gift like this. I learned that anything can be art, can be mesmerizing, and can be transformative if properly framed and granted sufficient attention. After the Odyssey I felt cracked open, vulnerable and accessible, open to experience and human connection. I found that telling the story of my Odyssey to friends and acquaintances taught them about the capacity people have to care for one another and inspire one another. The feelings I had weren’t akin to those I feel after seeing a great film or a great play; I had a deeper sense of having experienced something large. As if I’d climbed a mountain, or as if I’d produced the play or a film.

After the Odyssey I felt cracked open, vulnerable and accessible, open to experience and human connection.

OW: Most performances ask that you sit and watch. Odyssey Works requires you to engage fully. How did that requirement change your experience of the performance and did it continue to affect you afterward?

SW: I have never felt so alert or so present as I did on the day of my Odyssey. That day, my car and purse and phone and keys and everything else were taken away from me one possession at a time. At one point I was cast into the city with nothing but an index card and bus fare. There was something profound about having only my body, the clothes on my back, and my perception to guide me. There was nothing to distract me, nothing to hide behind. I was part of the fabric of the city, permeable to everything happening around me, ready to engage with anything, ready to be taken by surprise. During the Odyssey I never felt like an audience member. With nothing to mediate my experience — no cell phone or camera or even pen and paper, I became more engaged with the world and with my senses. I should do this every week. We should all send our friends and family members on small odysseys weekly to inspire them to commune with their unmediated, mindful selves.

A scene from Sasha Wizansky's Odyssey in 2009

A scene from Sasha Wizansky's Odyssey in 2009

OW: What was most meaningful thing for you during your Odyssey?

SW: Throughout the day, there were many astonishingly beautiful moments. When I entered the San Francisco Main Library and saw that it had been subtly transformed into a scene from the ’80s film, “Wings of Desire,” with actors in overcoats on every floor, I am pretty sure I gasped with wonder. But another moment touched me quite deeply. The angel with the feathery wings who had been guiding me greeted me by the tent where I was to sleep that night. She hadn’t spoken all day, but this time she told me aloud that she would be in the field, just on the other side of the fence from my tent, all night, in case I needed her. It was remarkable to feel watched over, not just because she had wings. I suddenly understood that the whole Odyssey experience wasn’t just aesthetic or intellectual — it was also personal. It was about love. There was an angel in a field outside my tent making sure I was ok in the night. It is a fundamental need of humans to feel safe, to feel cared for. Though this might have been a simple element in the narrative of the weekend, it affected me deeply and added warmth to the way I thought about the whole experience.

OW: Based on this experience, what would you say is the benefit of mixing reality and performance?

SW: All around me I see people stuck in cycles of habitual behavior. After walking down the same street every day, we cease to see it. After speaking to the same people every day, we cease to regard them in all their dimensions. After engaging in the same tasks every day, we lose awareness of what we are doing. I think the epidemic of smartphone addiction has exacerbated the human tendency to tune out. When we enter a designated performance space, we similarly approach the experience in our habitual performance-attending mode. But when reality and performance are mixed, our definitions of art are widened and cycles of habit are broken. New pathways of sensory and intellectual experience can be found. I think most people could benefit from questioning their habits of perception. Relationships can be deepened, senses can be heightened, experiences can be made richer. Just answering these questions has provided a well-needed reminder to slow down and pay attention.

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.