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experience design

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.

Ariel Abrahams on consumption and immersion

Ariel Abrahams (Photo: Abraham Burickson)

Ariel Abrahams (Photo: Abraham Burickson)

Ariel Abrahams is the Director of Public Engagement for Odyssey Works, as well as an organizer, life hacker, social programmer and ritualist. He builds durational, interactive artworks that experiment with infrastructure. He is fascinated by religion, group dynamics, and imagination. His works can be seen at www.arielabrahams.com 

ODYSSEY WORKS: HOW DO YOU UNDERSTAND IMMERSIVITY AND INTERACTIVITY? HOW DOES IT WORK AND WHAT IS THE POINT?

Ariel Abrahams: The ideal situation of a piece of art is that the viewer is consumed by it. Consumed = ingested by the piece, as food is ingested by a creature. The painting, the poem, the song eats you up. Immersive theater is an explicit attempt to consume the audience. The artwork is build around the audience. In a piece of immersive artwork there is no escape. The work is everything- the space, the role you have as audience, the sounds of the space. It is like watching a film from within the film- there is no theater to leave, or popcorn to eat, which would take you out of the experience. Everything experienced is the piece.

Interactive work is important because it asks: what does our body do when we look at art? In most forms of art consumption, our bodies are free to do as they please. This means that they are free, also, to continue in their habits, which may include checking phones, getting distracted by worries... etc. In an interactive performance the audience is kept busy- the audience is put to work. This is amazing- it allows for the audience to take ownership over the art, and makes the experience that much more meaningful. I like to see interactive work because I know that I will be challenged and that my body will not be treated as a brain-in-a-meat-lump. My whole self is given permission to partake.

"Moonwalk", 2014 performed in Philadelphia in association with Night Kitchen.

"Moonwalk", 2014 performed in Philadelphia in association with Night Kitchen.

OW: WHY CREATE EXPERIENCES?

AA: It is important to make experiences that are resonant in hyper-local ways. I mean, it is important that we experience things that shake us personally and as small communities. The national experience is not enough. It is not accurate enough. Experiences are always being created by the architecture we inhabit, by political forces, by city planning. The routes that we walk, the food that we have access too, our culture and religious traditions- these all contribute to the greater experience that we have. By making creative happenings for small, specific audiences, we give great gifts. 

The best birthday presents are those that are sincere and made just for you. To give a great gift you must know your audience. What does it take to know your audience?

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

AA: In my personal creative work I open up space where participants can be different with each other. I have made all night walks, show and tells, high-density situations, sleepovers and month-long residencies. In all of these participants are asked to be with each other- sometimes strangers- for long periods of time and in intimate ways. We make up games and cook together. As a facilitator I try to push us to make activities beyond those prescribed by our workday habits. I wonder: what can we do when we sit down and ask each other "what do we want to do?", then make some lists, make a schedule, and do it all. Taking free time seriously makes for interesting situations.

The Invisible Wind I:   An all night hike/ show and tell on Long Island, NY

The Invisible Wind I: An all night hike/ show and tell on Long Island, NY

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

AA: The collaboration between artwork and audience must be thought out beforehand. I make work that is not interactive as well. There is something very special about the artwork of solitude. My drawings are self-reflections, not participatory games. Interactive work, for me, is decided first as interactive. The stakes are different, because I do not start with expectations, just a loose plan. The best interactions I have in my work are the surprises. Planning for surprises means not planning too much. Underplanning, maybe. Underplanning as a tool for great surprises.

In interactive pieces, the artwork is in the remains. The documentation, the stories and memories. I try to plan these out before hand by hiring photographers or making a tight plan where documentation will emerge. Reverse engineering is sometimes useful.

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

AA: My favorite materials are those which are naturally full of wonder. The nighttime, for example, is such a beautiful resource. Staying up all night to observe the depth of the night feelings is inherently special. Planning just a few activities in that temporal setting naturally leads itself to wonder and discovery. I am drawn to long night walks, large bodies of water, long car rides, and travel experiences. These all have magical qualities to them. And also: being outside of comfort zones. It is very simple to put an audience outside of their comfort zones. Finding the balance of a safe yet uncomfortable situation is beautiful. From here, wonderful things emerge.

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


AA: Gregory Marcopoulous made an 80 hour film which is screened in ten hour segments every four years in his hometown in a mountainous region of Greece. I attended the third installation of screenings in 2012. A select group of maybe 200 people traveled 8 hours from Athens to the town. We camped out for three days. All daytime was spent lounging, eating, and swimming. As the sun went down we gathered in a field where a film projector was set up. Each night, for three nights, we watched about three hours of footage. The footage is completely abstract. Mostly black and white flashes. It is hypnotic. We lay on beanbags outdoors. Between reels cigarettes are rolled and smoked. I am certain that everyone fell asleep at some point. This experience pushed the limits for me. What is more beautiful than to travel for a full day to the mountains to watch flashes of film under the stars?

The Music Tapes performed a lullaby tour. This consisted of three musical performances a night, across the contiguous USA, moving through residential spaces. In 2011 my roommate signed up for the band to play at our apartment. They transformed our living room into a circus. We played games and listened to music about childhood in the wintertime. I am still taken aback by the experience: they transformed an intimate and sacred space (all living rooms are sacred) into a playground for magical, sonic adventures. To name a few: a television sang to us. A pillow turned alive and showed us the dreams stored inside it. A band of mice played holiday music very quietly.  

Sun Ra destroys the distinction between imagination and reality for over political reasons. He says that if he cannot be a full citizen of this country- as an African American- then he chooses not to be from this country. Instead he is from Saturn. His style of dress, his dedication to the ideal, and transformation of politics into abstract space sounds is nothing short of wild. His band still plays. African American men in their 80s making crazy noise with horns and electronic machines, all in sparkle regalia, with more dignity than anyone can manage. Sun Ra says: we make ourselves legends. We make ourselves kings. We do this with costumes, by rewriting our own histories as a community, and by dreaming as large as we can, beyond the boundaries of earth's atmosphere. We move way into the stars.

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.