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immersive theater

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.

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.

CONEY ON THE AUDIENCE AND PLAY

Tassos Stevens, Director of Coney

Tassos Stevens, Director of Coney

TASSOS STEVENS IS THE DIRECTOR OF CONEY (@AGENCYOFCONEY), which weaves together theatre and game design to create dynamic shows and experiences that can take place anywhere that people gather. HE’S CO-MADE WORK FOR CONEY INCLUDING ADVENTURE 1, A SMALL TOWN ANYWHERE,THE LOVELINESS PRINCIPLE, A CAT ESCAPES, AND THE BAFTA-WINNING NIGHTMARE HIGH, WEARING HATS INCLUDING DIRECTOR, WRITER, INTERACTION AND PARTICIPATION DESIGNER. he sometimes makes solo work including Jimmy Stewart and Solo Two.

 

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

Tassos Stevens: These are often misunderstood words. Immersive for me simply means that the audience is in the world of the play, somehow. Sometimes the world of the play is also the real world, with a little bit of fiction stitched in, in a piece like Adventure 1. Sometimes it is a world we’ve constructed in a theatre, but still resonant with reality, like A Small Town Anywhere.

I also like to describe the work as being where an audience can take a meaningful part, or play, if they choose. There may be actions that an audience member can take that help them make believe that they are in the world of the play. There may be actions that an audience member can make which have influence on their experience or the outcome of their experience, somehow. They may feel they have agency in this world.

Interaction hangs over all of these actions and agency, it’s less well-defined for me. The model of the work - the structures for immersion, play, action, interaction - this all carries meaning. It’s important to choose the model that resonates best with what the play is about. The point is to make work which has an impact on a playing audience, and which leaves them with a good story to tell.

OW: Why create experiences?

TS: Because it’s an ever-fascinating challenge, and because I am continually surprised and delighted by the beautiful, joyous, lovely things which playing audiences will do in response. Why not?

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

TS: Make the world a slightly better and lovelier place. Make a space where people can do sometimes extraordinary things. Work out how to keep learning, and how to stay open.

OW: We love that you say "The experience starts when you first hear about it, and only ends when you stop thinking and talking about it." What is the collaboration between artist and audience as you see it? Where is the artwork itself located?

TS: The artist is like a host to their guests, the audience. The artist builds the space - metaphorically speaking - in which the play will happen. They set as a framework some structures and guidelines for play. They may facilitate a particular culture, an ethos for engagement. They may have something they wish to say that will start a conversation with the audience. They may create a world of the play. And then they welcome the audience in, guide them to get going, and then respond to whatever they choose to do.

I don’t know that I am bothered by where the artwork is located. It’s hard to pin down, it’s everywhere - in the dialogue and play between the audience and the work itself, in the construction of the world and structures of play, in the resonance between the world of the play and the real world, in the impact on the audience immediately and their reflection afterwards, and what remains even years down the line.

The point is to make work which has an impact on a playing audience, and which leaves them with a good story to tell.

W: How does your art practice influence your life?

TS: In ways which are continually surprising and complex. They’re quite intertwined, inevitably. I’m inspired by people and ideas that I meet. I think most potently that I see the world around me and people, strangers especially, in a very different way from before when I got involved in the work around the principle of loveliness. Take the art out of it - which I am quite happy to do - and I find myself with a set of tools for helping design better experiences and potential for participation, and it’s sometimes interesting to apply those. For instance, I found myself frustrated at my own lack of agency in the recent general election in the UK and the mostly shit quality of conversations about politics I was having. So I used #agoodquestion to help facilitate better conversations about politics, and promptly found the quality of my discussions greatly improved.

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

TS: I did a doctorate in experimental psychology and I think that rubbed off into my practice, making me genuinely an experimentalist: what happens if we do this…? For a while I even called myself a theatre scientist. I was always more interested in other work that was genuinely experimental, hanging out in the scene around places in London like Battersea Arts Centre and the Shunt Vaults. I ran a venue myself for a while supporting a host of experimental artists, and mostly only had time to try out small experiments for my own practice. These endless experiments eventually helped me realize the scope of the form. And then one thing led to another, and eventually I got a phone call from Rabbit.

But then I could tell this story another way, around a lot of experience teaching young people. Or doing all different kinds of research and weird jobs meeting people in different ways. Everything you’ve done leads you to where you are now. Although I only started to be able to draw it together into a story which made sense for me a couple of years ago.

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.

Welcome to Wonder

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

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

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