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CHLOË BASS ON INTIMACY AND LIVING BETTER TOGETHER

Credit Chloë Bass.

Credit Chloë Bass.

 

Chloë Bass is a conceptual artist working in the co-creation of performance, situation, publication, and installation. She's recently returned to Brooklyn after a summer making work in such places as Greensboro, New Orleans, St. Louis, and rural Nebraska. Chloë is a visiting assistant professor in social practice and sculpture at Queens College, CUNY. She is sometimes a collaborator, sometimes published on Hyperallergic, and adamantly and always a New Yorker. You can learn more about her at chloebass.com. 

 

The world is something that we make together.

 

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

Chloë Bass: The world is something that we make together. (Joseph Beuys even called the world a collaborative artwork.) There are a million tiny gestures that go into the fabrication, presentation, and maintenance of art, not to mention society. We are not always equal players; equality may be rare, or even impossible. I have no problem being an authorial voice, a game-maker, an editor, a social designer, or a leader. But I think what we forget is that these positions, except in extreme fascist cases, actually require the participation of others. My work is a series of experiences for people. It exists in the moments where it’s happening, in the echoes my participants take with them, and in the ways they and I find to share some element of what occurred with those not present.

 

OW: Your work often relies on relationships or interactions between two people. How does intimacy play a role in what you create?

CB: I’m actually scaling up. I’m going gradually, so I think it’s pretty hard to tell at the moment. From 2011 to 2013 I worked at the scale of the self, and produced The Bureau of Self-Recognition, a conceptual performance and installation project designed to track the process of self-recognition and its myriad outcomes. Since the beginning of 2015, I’ve been working on The Book of Everyday Instruction, which explores on-on-one social interaction. I have some exciting ideas for the next phase after that. I don’t want to say too much at the moment, but I’m looking to work with family-sized groups, and I want to make a film.

I’m preparing myself to tackle groups of people the size of entire cities, eventually. The artist Elisabeth Smolarz came to visit me in my studio a few months ago, and she joked that the ultimate manifestation of my practice would be to become president so I could do a project with the entire country. I'm learning alongside my work. I am genuinely teaching myself about the world through these artistic actions, interventions, and experiences.

I'm not necessarily an extroverted person. I think I really thrive in the depth of the magical space that can be created between two peopleuntil one of them has to get up and go to the bathroom, and the moment breaks, and they’re back to being their regular, awkward selves in the world. I like the connection and the breakage, to be honest. I think there’s a lot of power and material in both.

It's amazing we don't have more fights , participatory performative workshop, 2016. Credit Manuel Molina Martagon and The Museum of Modern Art.

It's amazing we don't have more fights, participatory performative workshop, 2016. Credit Manuel Molina Martagon and The Museum of Modern Art.

But I want the breakage in my practice to be a conscious choice. Can we maintain the intimacy of the pair at the scale of a city? What remains, and what is lost? How can I hold people, and when is it informative to let go?

I wonder often about incorrect intimacy, and the special space it creates. I was in Cleveland for two months in 2015 spending time with strangers, joining them in their daily lives. A large part of this project turned out to be getting in the car with strangers, something we’re told not to do from the time we’re very young. There was something about beginning with an “incorrect” gesture that made my participants and I responsible to one another. Changing the usual circumstances of how and where we meet people brought us into a different kind of social and aesthetic world. Doing things wrong can hold high imaginative potential.

Recently, I was in St. Louis, where I talked to people about safety and safe places. For me, taking a stranger to a safe place and having a conversation about safety is really odd and anxiety-provoking. It’s essential to make sure that the best parts of that oddness are preserved and turned into something productive. At the same time, I have to work hard to make myself extra comfortable for the person who’s allowing for this vulnerable interaction to happen. Balancing these kinds of dynamics is a huge part of my craft.

 

OW: How do you understand immersivity and interactivity? How do they work and why do you use them?

CB: Well, those are the materials of life! Every experience that I have in my daily life is, to some extent, unavoidable. I might willingly choose to enter a situation, but what happens once I’ve entered it is just the product of being there.

That said, people can occupy the same space and have entirely different lived experiences. I feel a little bit suspicious about immersivity right now. What does it really mean to be immersed in anything other than your own subjectivity? How can we extend the bounds of the personal in order to improve our treatment of others? I am not speaking of empathy, which does the work of making us all affectively the same, but of a certain kind of non-understanding that teaches us we need to do better.

 

Form is a kind of stitching, a way of putting a temporary experience into a more permanent shell.

 

OW: How does the social component of your work relate to the material forms you create? How do you categorize your work? 

There was a time when I used to edit my artist's statement to rename myself as the type of artist I had most recently been called by others. If a review came out and said I was a performance artist, then I would call myself that. I did this not out of inherent resistance to categorization, but because I felt really new to making my own work, and was just as willing to trust others to name it as I was to trust myself.

Now I teach social practice in the art department at Queens College, and there are so many people who call me a social practice artist. From an academic and art historical perspective, I have to say that I’m not so sure they’re right. I think social practice is best described as a series of tactics that’s been culled from many fields: anthropology, sociology, psychology, community organizing, trauma studies, journalism, and, yes, art. I can only classify some of my own projects in this category. But I am an artist who works with people, that much is certain.

My current statement says that I’m a conceptual artist working in a variety of forms: situation, installation, publication. Naming myself a conceptual artist has made it ok to be making work that exists in service of a series of related ideas, rather than a series of related material practices. Form is a kind of stitching, a way of putting a temporary experience into a more permanent shell. However, the shell is really just a reminder that something has happened. 

 

Hand-stamped cocktail napkin from  Linger Longer Toast , a participatory public performance that took place in 2014. Credit Chlo ë  Bass. 

Hand-stamped cocktail napkin from Linger Longer Toast, a participatory public performance that took place in 2014. Credit Chloë Bass. 

 

OW: Who are your influences? Can you describe an experience of art that transformed you?

CB: When I was about eight, the Guggenheim had a retrospective of Rebecca Horn’s work on view. In the museum’s oculus, Horn had hung a grand piano, which “exploded” a set number of times per hour: keys and hammers appeared to fly out of the instrument, accompanied by a dramatic sound. I loved how scary it was, how funny it was, and how we couldn’t avoid it. I don’t know that Horn’s work is a visual influence on what I do, but I’ll never forget that moment, or how it’s continued to shape my social and emotional responses to artworks.

I am also hugely influenced by Adrian Piper, Andrea Fraser, Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, and Doug Ashford. And I’m a habitual eavesdropper and casual voyeur; I don’t intend to stop being inspired by these arguably creepy practices.

 

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

My goal is both incredibly simple and insanely grandiose: I want us to live better together. Every piece of work that I make is in service of this aspiration. The experiences I make are triggers for a feeling. It’s on you to figure out what to do with that feeling, and how to use it in your relationships to others. The objects I make are souvenirs, tagged with memories that you might rediscover later. The words I offer are guidelines. But making the world? That’s yours.

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Interview by Ayden LeRoux and Ana Freeman. 

 

 

 

 

 

KATY RUBIN ON REALITY AND TRANSFORMATIVE ACTION

Katy Rubin. Credit Will O'Hare.

Katy Rubin. Credit Will O'Hare.

KATY RUBIN, Executive Director of Theatre of the Oppressed New York, is a Theatre of the Oppressed facilitator, actor, and circus artist. She has facilitated and directed forum theatre workshops and performances in partnership with various communities, including LGBT homeless teens, people living with HIV/AIDS, recent immigrants, and court-involved youth and adults. Katy studied with Theatre of the Oppressed inventor Augusto Boal at the Center for Theatre of the Oppressed in Rio de Janeiro, as well as with Jana Sanskriti in India, Mind the Gap in Yorkshire, and Cardboard Citizens in London. She has trained facilitators around the U.S. and Europe and in Nicaragua.

 

 

Everyone is a spect-actor.

 

Odyssey Works: What is the mission of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC and how do you achieve it?

Katy Rubin: Theatre of the Oppressed NYC partners with communities facing discrimination to inspire transformative action through theatre, that’s our mission. We pursue that, I would say, rather than achieve it, by partnering with social service organizations, city agencies, and sometimes neighborhood groups to start ongoing popular theatre troupes—popular theatre meaning theatre of and by people, rather than necessarily professional artists. And those troupes build plays based on their shared experience of oppression and the questions that they want to ask their larger community about urgent human rights, civil rights, and community rights challenges they're facing. Each play focuses on one specific problem. They tour performances that they’ve built together to theatres, to other communities, to shelters, to clinics, to peers and strangers, to engage in creative problem solving together onstage. All our plays involve a forum, where the audience is invited onstage to try out alternatives to the problem, and then we have a critical analysis of those alternatives. Sometimes we involve policymakers in that forum, to try to take those ideas from the audience and the actors and turn them into concrete institutional change.

 

OW: In forum theatre, there are no spectators, only “spect-actors,” as you call them. So everyone in the room is in some way responsible for creating the experience. If audience members choose not to get up on stage, how do they contribute to what goes on? And in a theatrical event that is created collaboratively, where is the artwork itself located? 

KR: We don’t believe that change is made by forcing anyone into anything, so we don’t force our actors to participate, and we don’t force our audience members to participate. That said, we don’t let the whole audience sit there silently; at least some people in the audience have to take action.

There are a lot of ways to engage. First of all, people engage by choosing to come, and it’s free. That’s important, because it relates to how much you can participate. If you had to participate by paying $150, maybe you don’t want to participate further, because you gave all your resources already. Second of all, we ask the audience members to raise their hands and identify if they’ve been in a similar situation or can see how the problem onstage relates to their life, so they engage by identifying that they have some relationship to the problem. Thirdly, they engage by speaking about what they see, what they saw people try, why it might or might not work, and what changes would need to be made for it to be implemented. And then, of course, they engage by getting up and trying something, which is the riskiest form of engagement. But we’ll never have an event where we allow people not to take that risk. The whole audience is on the spot to see who from their group is going to step up. If nobody steps up, then we say, “Essentially you’re saying you want these problems to continue they way they are.” They have a choice, but they saw how oppressive the situation was.

We want to move people towards choosing to be in solidarity with their neighbors, which means that we have to allow for different levels of engagement. So just as with any kind of community action, we need people to participate in all different kinds of ways. 

Audience members voting on a policy proposal at the 2015 Legislative Theatre Festival. Credit Will O'Hare.

Audience members voting on a policy proposal at the 2015 Legislative Theatre Festival. Credit Will O'Hare.

If a play solves a problem for you, it’s not very participatory, because you don’t have to put your brain into addressing a problem. If a play leaves a problem open for you, then it's more participatory, because you have to think about what should happen to solve it. Are you going to do something about it, or are you going to wait and be complicit in not doing something about it? There are varying levels of participation, but it’s about not only what you do in the theatre, but also what the play demands of you.

In terms of where the art lies in participatory theatre, I believe that everyone is an artist, so I can’t pinpoint one place there is art and one place there isn’t art. And in our work at Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, the person onstage could have just joined that troupe that day. There’s no hierarchy of artists.             

Everyone is a spect-actor. The actors are spect-actors, because they’re watching their lives and then they’re taking action. The audience members are spect-actors, because they’re watching the play, watching their lives as they relate to the play, and then taking action. Everyone is watching, observing, thinking, analyzing, and doing. Acting is taking action, in our definition, so our definition of art is the use of an aesthetic expression to evoke feelings that move people to action. And anyone can do that—by painting a picture, by making a play, by making music, by speaking beautifully, by writing poetry. So it’s available to the audience to do that too.

 

OW: Forum theatre keeps the spect-actors at a critical distance, allowing them to think about what they're seeing and come up with ideas to try out. To the extent that this distance also limits the audience’s ability to relate to the story, how do you prevent that from hindering their motivation to become involved in making change? How do you balance the respective powers of thought and empathy as jumping off points for fighting oppression? 

KR: We believe in feelings that incite people to action. We don’t believe in feelings that just allow people a release so they can go back to their lives and not feel like they need to take action. Augusto Boal, who invented Theatre of the Oppressed, wrote about being anti-cathartic. In other words, we don’t want our audience to say “I saw a tragedy and now I feel cleansed.” We want them to say “I saw a tragedy and now I feel bothered, and now I’ll go do something about it.” Emotions are great for inspiring people to take action, and that's why we present plays and not just lectures, because plays do evoke emotions, and we want people to feel moved, upset, amused, all of those things.  

 

OW: Do you evaluate the quality of your performances entirely by their effects, or is there some measure of craft, of aesthetics, of strength of narrative through which you decide you've created something of high quality?

KR: We do try to evaluate the narrative, the craft, the funniness, the moving-ness. We’re most concerned with if the play holds together as one story. Does it have a beginning, middle, and end? Is the problem, in all its complexity, clear? Do we understand the consequences when people can’t quite get what they need, in terms of how this affects their lives and why it’s important? Do we see the other people in the ecosystem of the story? Are there allies? Are there aesthetic elements that support the narrative? Do the props support the story, does the music support the story? As in all theatre, the most important aspect of the production is that it supports the narrative, so in terms of what specific aesthetic qualities we aim for, it depends on the specific story.

That said, we do use the distancing effect you mentioned, so we allow the audience to see the lights and the costume changes, and we use cardboard props. We want to take the magic of the theatre away so that people will really think. As Boal used to say, “We want reality, not realism.” Sometimes that means we have an aesthetic element that’s not “realistic,” but actually heightens the reality, and we want that reality to hit people. And if people are alienated from their feelings by the fact that the play doesn’t look like a beautiful Broadway show, then we also want them to understand that not all art looks like a beautiful Broadway show. We want them to get over that, so that they can be present. We want to teach people that what we do is also an expression of art. It’s about access, too. Art can be what you make in half an hour, because you don’t have access to a theatre and a set and a costume designer, and we want to make our audiences aware of that.

 

Actors in  Homestead Instead: Reclaiming the Dream , a 2016 forum play. Credit Devyn Mañibo.

Actors in Homestead Instead: Reclaiming the Dream, a 2016 forum play. Credit Devyn Mañibo.

 

OW: Tell us more about the relationship between the world of a forum play and the world outside. Actors devise a play from real-life problems, but how do the solutions found in a forum then get brought back to real life?

KR: That happens through legislative theatre, a type of forum theatre where we involve policymakers in the process who bring the ideas we have back to the institutions they work in. We also do follow up to every show through email and social media to encourage people to come to protests and other actions. And we try to get them to come to more shows by keeping all of them free and accessible. But I would say that we haven’t nailed all that down yet.

We’re asking people to think about a problem and take action about it as if it’s their own, but the rest of the world is supporting them in not taking action with their neighbors. The news just sensationalizes things and creates fear but also distance, and commercials just tell us how we can lose ourselves in buying new objects. It’s really hard to keep people motivated outside of the short time that they spend with us. We do our best, but we’re just a small part of the movement that’s fighting for people to “stay woke,” as they say, in a culture that’s trying to get people to stay asleep. I don’t think that we can do it by ourselves.

With our former actors, some say that now they call their council members and their state senators and their senators. They take action in ways they didn’t know they could before. They feel connected to some of the politicians who come to our annual Legislative Theatre Festival. Some start getting more involved in the arts. Sometimes they get involved in other socially engaged arts organizations after they work with us, and that’s awesome. There are so many similar organizations out there working in all kinds of mediums.

 

To truly move people is to move people to go out and take action in the world.

 

OW: Theatre of the Oppressed NYC is an unusual theatre company in that you explicitly and directly aim for sociopolitical change. It is more common for theatre to attempt to facilitate some kind of catharsis or transcendence. What is your view of the interplay between these different modes of artistic transformation? 

KR: People can have personal transformations any time they want, but what we’re really looking for is personal transformation from you as a watcher into you as a doer. We want to change hearts and minds as much as anyone, but that’s just the beginning. To truly move people is to move people to go out and take action in the world. We want people to rehearse taking action in the theatre, and understand how individual action works, how collective action works, how sociopolitical action works, and why you need all three of them. We want to actually generate some potential solutions in the theatre. That doesn’t mean that people won’t have to change their behaviors outside the theatre—they will. We can’t solve things completely, but we want to use the space we have as a lab to explore what we will have to do once we leave. And we want to build a community out of the audience that will decide to take action together outside the theatre.

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Interview by Ana Freeman. 

 

 

 

 

EMMA SULKOWICZ ON THE PERFORMANCE OF LIFE AND THE MAGIC OF PARTICIPATION

Emma Sulkowicz. Credit Joshua Boggs.

Emma Sulkowicz. Credit Joshua Boggs.

EMMA SULKOWICZ lives and makes art in her hometown, New York City. She is best known for her senior thesis at Columbia University, Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), an endurance performance artwork in which she carried a dorm mattress everywhere she went on campus for as long as she attended the same school as the student who assaulted her. Her more recent works include Ceci N'est Pas Un Viol, an Internet-based participatory artwork, and Self-Portrait (Performance With Object), in which she made herself available to answer questions from viewers, but referred questions she was not willing to answer to Emmatron, her life-sized robotic double.

 

 

Odyssey Works: A lot of the work you do is long durational, and that’s unusual in our age of fast-paced media and fast-paced lives. However, you also heavily utilize technology. What inspires you to work in these differing forms?

Emma Sulkowicz: Well, how boring would it have been if I had carried the mattress for only one day? For that piece, it seemed like long durational performance art was the only form in which anything productive and interesting could happen, given what I was trying to work with. Two of my pieces have been long durational; however, most of my other work is not. I consider myself an artist who works in many different mediums, but for Mattress Performance and Self-Portrait, long durational performance art was the best way to convey my ideas.

All of my work falls under the umbrella of relational aesthetics, which, the way I understand it, includes not just the performance or the objects in the room, but also all the audience reactions to the performance and the objects. Framing things that way changes the way the audience engages with your work. The mattress performance was kind of a crash course in relational aesthetics when I saw how much it took off on the internet, more than it even took off on the ground. So in a way, the technology is unavoidable, because everything, at a certain point, is going to get reproduced for the internet.

 

The parameters of  Mattress Performance.  Credit Emma Sulkowicz. 

The parameters of Mattress Performance. Credit Emma Sulkowicz. 

 

OW: What influences led you to start creating these more experimental kinds of art? And what is your current process like?

ES: I would have to point to a specific moment in time when I went to the Yale Norfolk Residency.  You know, when you’re a student, you make a certain type of  work that you’re assigned to make, whereas when I went to this residency, and I was so fortunate to be able to do that at such a young age, we were encouraged to make really anything we wanted. That was my first taste of what it’s actually like to be an artist, because once you leave school, no one’s ever going to give you an assignment again. So being in the residency and having all this freedom to make whatever I wanted led me to explore new forms.

When I’m working on a project, I do research. For example, right now I’m working on a piece that would take the form of a fake doctor’s office that would be open for a month. In some respects, I started getting interested in it when I read Derrida’s writings on hospitality. From there, I figure out what I have to read next. Maybe I have to refresh my Lacan, or I have to revisit a Freud essay. One thing leads to another, and throughout my readings, I’m picking up material to use for my art.

And sometimes I find inspiration from more concrete objects or experiences. I did this one piece recently where I saw advertising on the subway for the Alberto Burri show at the Guggenheim that made me really angry, so within the same week I made a counter advertisement of my own and installed it on the subway. I didn’t need any theory for that. It just comes from an impulse. I see something, it either upsets me or gets me excited for some reason, and then I decide how to engage with it. I think that I speak most clearly through my art, so it just sort of naturally comes out as an art piece, rather than, say, an essay.

 

I was really interested in the idea that every human being is performing all the time, whether it’s to another person or for themself.

 

OW: Your recent piece in LA spoke to how you are perceived and mediated. And a lot of your other work is in public space and is very engaged with the real world. So how do you view the relationship between reality and performance? 

ES: I think that when I began Mattress Performance, I really thought there was a distinction between when you’re performing and when you’re living, and I worked really hard to delineate the two. But whenever I see some sort of binary forming, I try to break it down, so in Self-Portrait, my goal was to perform as my usual self on the platform. I was really interested in the idea that every human being is performing all the time, whether it’s to another person or for themself. I was interested in how people would—because I was on a platform in a gallery—treat me differently from how I expect they would have treated me had we met somewhere else, like at a party. They approached me differently simply because I was in a different space, in a different context—when my assignment, on the other hand, was just to act normally.

I mean, if the person I was talking to was pissing me off, I’d be very blunt with them, and if the person was being really nice and I enjoyed the conversation, I would engage with just as much excitement as I would normally. I wasn’t changing the way I acted because I was in a gallery. Other people assumed that I would be, because most people really believe in this distinction between art and life, but I’m trying to break down that distinction.

 

Self-Portrait . Credit JK Russ. 

Self-Portrait. Credit JK Russ. 

 

OW: Do think that the piece was successful? And how do you define success in your work?

ES: Yes. I learned a lot from it. I saw how some people would come in and really engage with the piece, and would leave feeling like they’d learned something, too, whereas other people would not be willing to give themselves over to the piece, and would then come away from it not having gained anything. For example, this one guy, who was a professor somewhere, came in, sat down on the platform across from me, and just decided it was his time to give me sort of an artful critique. However, he seemed to know nothing about political performance art. You know, I’m really excited to talk to people no matter how much reading they’ve done, but it’s frustrating when they’re then going to feel entitled to educate me on their beliefs, when I haven’t asked them to educate me. His combative mode of conversation was really off-putting. I explained why he was wrong, and I think he left feeling not so great about the piece. Overall, I think everyone’s reactions to the piece were so dependent on how they entered the room. This guy decided that he wanted to have an argument with me, so he left with kind of a sour taste in his mouth. But people who came in wanting to have fun or something like that tended to leave feeling happy. It was full of nuance and different for every person.

I definitely had envisioned it initially as a piece in which I’d show people that I’m human and not this robot they think I am, but as the piece evolved, I realized that actually there was something else going on. A lot of people came not because they wanted to engage with this game of “Is it Emma or Emmatron?” but because they had an agenda for something they wanted to tell me or something they wanted to give me…I can’t even tell you how many people brought gifts. A lot of people brought gifts as if they were offerings, a lot of people cried. That’s not really engaging with the artwork as I set it up, but I realized that everyone had their own agenda for coming.

 

OW: Mattress Performance was centered around an object that carried a symbolic meaning you and others put on it. Did you consider the mattress a magical object? 

ES: I certainly did not, but I think other people did. Marcel Mauss’ A General Theory of Magic is a really interesting book to me. One exercise you can do with that book is actually replacing the word “magician” with “artist” every time it comes up. I think that you can really understand why people might consider the mattress a magical object when you read that book that way.

People would come up to me and say “You know, I’ve been sitting in the middle of campus all day, waiting for you to walk by, so that I can help you carry that.” And I was so surprised. Because to me, at that point…the mattress was dirty. I had to wash my hands after I touched it, it was so gross, and all these people thought they were going to have some crazy transcendental experience touching it? In a certain sense, that does mean it was magical, because if it made people feel a certain way when they touched it, then sure, I guess it worked a kind of magic.  But from my perspective, we were really all just touching this dirty rectangle thing.

The sign of the mattress functions on two levels. There’s the purely symbolic level, which bears all this meaning, and perhaps magic, and then there’s the level at which it could have been any mattress. It’s just another object.

 

Once a large number of people believe that this magical thing happened, who’s to say that it didn’t happen?

 

OW: What do you see as the purpose of participation in your work?

ES: What I took away from Marcel Mauss’ book is that magic works because people believe in it. There’s an old example in the book, which is Moses at the rock producing water in front of the people of Israel, and Mauss says “…while Moses may have felt some doubts, Israel certainly did not.”  Once a large number of people believe that this magical thing happened, who’s to say that it didn’t happen?  So, if I didn’t have participants, there would be no magic. And if art is very similar to magic, then there would be no art.

 

OW: At Odyssey Works, we try to cultivate an inner journey for our participant. Did you feel that Mattress Performance was transformative in this way for you and for those witnessing it?

ES: It was extremely transformative for me. The final product was something entirely different from what I had planned, and it was amazing to see how it took on a life of its own. I am not sure if people were immediately transformed upon seeing the performance in person. However, if we are to believe that it transformed the discourse on sexual assault, it must have been transformative for others. At least, I hope it was.

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Interview by Ana Freeman. 

Clarinda Mac Low on Accessible Mysteries

Clarinda Mac Low. Credit Ian Douglas.

Clarinda Mac Low. Credit Ian Douglas.

 

Clarinda Mac Low was brought up in the avant-garde arts scene that flourished in NYC during the 1960s and '70s. Mac Low started out working in dance and molecular biology in the late 1980s; she now works in performance and installation, creating participatory events of all types. Mac Low is the executive director of Culture Push, a cross-disciplinary organization encouraging hands-on participation and hybrid ideas.

 

 

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

Clarinda Mac Low: In the realm of theatre and art, immersion and interaction are, to me, two very different propositions. I see immersion as a sensory bath, or flood, shifting perceptual terrain through a number of different techniques. Interaction doesn't require immersion, but they sometimes go hand in hand. Interaction can take a million different forms. It can be as simple as a conversation between strangers, and as complex as a highly responsive environment programmed to sense human presence and shift accordingly. Also, I'd bring up one other term here: participation. I see participation as an invitation to an audience to become co-creators of a situation. As with interaction, this can act on many levels, from a full collaboration to a brief contribution. When a work is participatory, this means the interaction between the originating artist(s) and those who come to the experience is what completes the work.

 

OW: Why create experiences?

CML: Everybody creates experiences. It's what humans do with each other. If by "experience" you mean a live work that moves through time with an audience instead of a more static work that's fixed in place, it's because I see experience as a common denominator. We all experience time passing, and we all have relationships to others and to our surroundings. Highlighting these states, provoking thought and action around our modes of existing, and allowing time for contemplation of these issues seem like valuable acts to me.

I create accessible mysteries designed to reach under the ribs and connect to the phantom organs of empathy and decisive action.

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

CML: I work to generate situations where the viewer and viewed mutually affect each other, and create experiences that wake up the body and mind. I explore hot subjects through a cool lens, using the scientific method to expose the ways we exist physically with each other, with technology, and with history. I create accessible mysteries designed to reach under the ribs and connect to the phantom organs of empathy and decisive action. My work deals with real-world issues, and it is hard to pin down and categorize. Some of my recent artistic experiments were “Free the Orphans,” which encouraged people online and in public to adopt orphan works (creative works whose copyright holders are impossible to identify); “The Year of Dance,” an exploration of dance performance as ethnography with data analysis; “Cyborg Nation,” where a cyborg interlocutor acted as a connection between human and machine worlds; and “River to Creek,” a roving, participatory natural history research tour of North Brooklyn. 

Participants in "River to Creek" wearing sponge shoes to replicate the experience of walking in the marshlands that once occupied North Brooklyn. C redit Carolyn Hall.

Participants in "River to Creek" wearing sponge shoes to replicate the experience of walking in the marshlands that once occupied North Brooklyn. Credit Carolyn Hall.

 

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

CML: For live art, there is always a collaboration, even if the audience is sitting still, watching a performance on a proscenium stage. Anyone who has ever performed or directed work in that context knows that the watchers profoundly change the watched. When I worked more in theatrically based performance, I always located the artwork in the electric connection between artists and audience. Now that audience members are often direct collaborators in my live artworks, the art is still in that connection, but it's also in the creation of the actual experience. We ourselves become the artwork, and our relationships are visible, tangible, and available.

 

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

CML: My work is based in somatic practice. By involving the audience in an actively physical decision-making process, I create a variety of situations and environments. I rely on a grab bag of tools that emphasize the intangible, including installation, media and technology, performance, dance and other physical action, directed wandering, unscripted conversation, and imaginative play. 

A performance of  40 Dancers do 40 Dances for the Dancers , in which 40 people interpreted instruction poems from Jackson Mac Low's  The Pronouns: A Collection of Forty Dances for the Dancers . C redit Ian Douglas.

A performance of 40 Dancers do 40 Dances for the Dancers, in which 40 people interpreted instruction poems from Jackson Mac Low's The Pronouns: A Collection of Forty Dances for the Dancers. Credit Ian Douglas.

I often reframe our relationships to architectural space and to urban public interactions. I create interventions into everyday life and infiltrations into unexpected sites in a wide variety of communities, from the streets of Lower Manhattan and the Queens Botanical Garden to an abandoned church in Pittsburgh and a park in Siberia. I try to engage audiences in the context of their real lives and ask them to interact differently with each other and with their surroundings. 

 

I saw the value of going beyond beauty, beyond expression, even beyond a certain conception of ‘human.’

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

CML: Whenever I'm given this kind of question, Robert Smithson always comes to mind. Then I feel like that's not right, because what changed me was not Smithson's art per se, but the writing he did around that art. Then I feel like it's fine, because his writing about his art was also his art, and his ideas are an artist's ideas. Smithson's work opened a world of possibility to me. After many years of existing within an avant-garde arts context, as the child of an experimental poet and composer and a visual artist, through Smithson I finally got itI connected to my legacy. I saw the value of these strange and stringent principles I'd grown up with. I saw the value of going beyond beauty, beyond expression, even beyond a certain conception of "human." I am also influenced by the intensity of physical experiences and personal relationships engendered by a long-term dance practice. Working as a professional movement artist for many years gave me access to ways of being and relating that are unusual, rare, and tremendously valuable.

Aaron Landsman on Participation And Process

Aaron Landsman. Credit Mallory Catlett.

Aaron Landsman. Credit Mallory Catlett.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

...................

Interview by Ana Freeman

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.

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.  

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.