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interview

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.

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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.  

CHRISTINE JONES ON THE GIFT AND RECIPROCITY

Christine Jones.

Christine Jones.

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

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

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

 

OW: Why create experiences? 

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

Theatre for One in Times Square.

Theatre for One in Times Square.

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

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

 

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

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

Queen of the Night .

Queen of the Night.

 

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

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

 

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

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

CHARLIE TODD TALKS ABOUT CHAOS AND PUBLIC SPACE

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

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

 

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

 
 

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

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

OW: Why create experiences?

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

The MP3 experiment. 

The MP3 experiment. 

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

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

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

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

OW: How does your art practice influence your life?

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

The No Pants Subway Ride.

The No Pants Subway Ride.

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

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

Welcome to Wonder

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

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

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