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experiential art

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.

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.

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

Jeff Hull, Creative Director of Nonchalance

Jeff Hull, Creative Director of Nonchalance

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

 

Odyssey Works: WHY CREATE EXPERIENCES?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

handoffalt.jpg

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

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

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

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

LEA REDMOND ON DESIGNING DELIGHT INTO DAILY LIFE

Lea Redmond

Lea Redmond

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

Odyssey Works: Why create experiences?

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

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

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

Knit the Sky

Knit the Sky

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

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

With A Pencil In My Pocket

With A Pencil In My Pocket

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

Saltwork

Saltwork

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

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

OW: How do you understand your audience?

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

Lea operating The World's Smallest Post Service

Lea operating The World's Smallest Post Service

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

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

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

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

Lea as a young girl

Lea as a young girl

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

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

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

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.