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Adam Robert Dickerson on Dancing Out into the Unknown

Adam Robert Dickerson. Credit Ally Lai. 

Adam Robert Dickerson. Credit Ally Lai. 

ADAM ROBERT DICKERSON is the founder and artistic director of Fooju Dance Collaborative. Fooju began in 2014 as a cerebral playground for exploring what dance is and where it can happen. Engaging multiple disciplines and all the senses, Fooju's work takes place onstage, online, in public spaces, and in private homes. It is social, experimental, playful, messy, and often accidental. Dickerson has also choreographed works for the American College Dance Festival, the Youth America Grand Prix semifinals, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, and musician RJD2. A former member of Graham 2 at the Martha Graham Dance Company, he currently dances with Amanda Selwyn Dance Theatre and Amy Marshall Dance Company. 

We want to make the chimerical intimately real.

Odyssey Works: What is Fooju? How did it originate, and what is its purpose?

Adam Robert Dickerson: The name “Fooju” was birthed out of my own clumsiness. I mixed up “feng shui" and "juju," and just blurted it out.  Immediately, I wanted the word to stick. The principle of accepting happenstance as creativity is central to my choreographic process: playful clumsiness gets refined into crafted dance. The word became an important reflection of my work.

Before officially beginning Fooju, I had worked closely for several years with my dance partner, Dolo McComb, at Colorado College. The work that we developed together as students there was the embryonic foundation for my future Fooju creations. After we graduated, Dolo moved to Minneapolis and I came to Brooklyn. Separate, yet forever choreographically tied, Dolo and I collaborated on a project we funded with Kickstarter in January 2015. Our long distance relationship fostered a new way of generating work togetherthrough the Internet.  By way of YouTube and FaceTime, we created an evening-length work, the first production under the name of Fooju Dance Collaborative. The performers, dancers and a few non-dancers, were a collection of my local friends and acquaintances, and would come to form the basis of the collaborative. We performed in a studio at the Martha Graham school, where several of us had trained, used Christmas lights as lighting, and invited audience members to drink and heckle us during the show and to donate objects to us in lieu of paying for tickets. Since then, Dolo has continued to create work in Minneapolis with with her own collective, //CATHEDRAL\\, while Fooju Dance Collaborative has grown in both size and vision under my direction in New York City.

Fooju Dance Collaborative is meant to frame the queerer qualities of existence by placing performative dance theatre outside the context of the proscenium; its purpose is to expressively and colorfully highlight the idiosyncrasies of the human experience. Fooju is the manipulation of visceral, incidental, or accidental creative impulses into dance that mimics the unconscious. We want to make the chimerical intimately real. 

 

OW: How and why did the Works in Progresso series get started? What makes your kitchen shows different from typical dance performances, and whats the point of doing things this way?

AD: Works in Progresso was borne of necessity. Producing a show in a traditional venue in New York City is prohibitively expensive for most choreographers, aside from the famous ones. More often than not, choreographers are losing money to create work, and significant profit is abnormal. So I made up my mind to make as much dance as I could manage without spending any money. The resources that were most readily available to me were my kitchen and my network of talented and willing friends.

I had long been choreographing, dancing, and filming dance videos in my kitchen, because the space was there. While looking towards developing a new full-length show last year, I had trouble finding a space. I eventually resolved to create work in my kitchen, for my kitchen. The goal was not to emulate concert dance in a kitchen, which would stretch the viewer's ability to suspend disbelief past its breaking point. Instead, my aim was to facilitate a harmonious, equal collaboration of hosts, choreographers, performers, photographers, videographers, and guests. I wanted to make the work specific to the venue, and to highlight our kitchen as the space where we make and share both meals and dances.

 

Lia Bentley and Adam Robert Dickerson dance in a kitchen. Dancer Vera Paganin and composer Wes Braver watch from "onstage;" Keenan Parry films. Credit Joe Desimone. 

Lia Bentley and Adam Robert Dickerson dance in a kitchen. Dancer Vera Paganin and composer Wes Braver watch from "onstage;" Keenan Parry films. Credit Joe Desimone. 

 

Once I decided to make a show with no budget, I began the rehearsal process at my apartment. My choreographic process was loose and quick. With most of the pieces, I gave my dancers a framework with few specifics. We embraced the chance of error. More often than not, the mistakes from a dancer’s body catalyze my choreography and lead it towards sincerity.

When we had a show ready, we invited our friends, bought a box of wine, and showed the work we had created together.  The opening piece involved asking those watching for cookie recipes, and then baking a batch of cookies on the spot. Guests used their memories, phones, and collective tastes to contribute to the experience. This reliance on audience involvement initiated open communication between the "stage" and the viewers. The smell of the cookies gradually filled the room, until the oven timer sounded ten minutes into the dancing, and we served the audience warm cookies. We named the whole experience "Works in Progresso," an homage both to our home-brewed aesthetic and to the belief that all art is always a work in progress. We also served Progresso soup, although this was less popular than the cookies. Since then, we've brought various iterations of the Works in Progresso series to kitchens and living rooms throughout New York City. 

 

Stoking collaboration results in a splattering of new ideas onto what feels like a giant drawing board of new ways for dance to exist.

 

OW: Why does Fooju involve performers and collaborators who work in disciplines other than dance? What do they bring to the table, and how do they change things?

AD: Collaboration ensures we have a varied array of talent under the Fooju umbrella, and it ties together differing modalities from each of the participating disciplines. We encourage all our artists to share their developing work with the group, and to present it at showsso we all feed off of each other, and we all benefit from the experience of working with or around different mediums. In that way, Works in Progresso provides an opportunity for the artists in Fooju Dance Collaborative to experiment and share new ideas. This aspect of the series is what most compels me to continue curating shows for large and small audiences and to keep our collective motor running.

Stoking collaboration results in a splattering of new ideas onto what feels like a giant drawing board of new ways for dance to exist. Every show is different. We always throw in new pieces and complete re-workings of old pieces. We are often still playing around with things right up until our audience arrives!   The “trial and error” mentality of Fooju amplifies our energy and makes us feel as if we are dancing out into the unknown with each new show.

Fooju not only serves as a source of mutual experimentation and inspiration for our members, but it has also become something of a support group for those of us with questions about how to navigate the performing arts world. Also, I enjoy the wider audience and increased opportunities that naturally follow a more diverse group. This has proven helpful to us in connecting with prospective collaborators and hosts.  

 

OW: Your kitchen shows take place in small, semi-private spaces amongst people who mostly know each other; the dancers and audience members intermingle. At these events, where do you draw the line between a dance party and a dance performance? Between the artists and the audience? Where is the artwork itself located?

AD: Fooju’s Works in Progresso series is an invitation for showgoers to unlearn audience etiquette, and for our performers to unlearn stage etiquette.  We are still testing and determining the boundary between the audience and the performers, but it is definitely porous. Those who keep coming back to our shows are just beginning to understand the fluidity of roles we embrace. Our performers watch the showsometimes with our guests and sometimes from within the designated performance spaceduring the pieces they are not in. Fooju performers are also encouraged to include the audience in their performances, just as a host includes their guests in conversation. 

Deciding to put dance in a kitchen generated many questions for us about the meanings of terms like "audience," "dancer," and "stage." We are constantly in the process of deciding which performance conventions we want to keep, which we want to modify, and which we want to discard. Generally, we do engage the traditions of lighting, music, and a suggested area for the dancing to take place.

Yet we do not pretend to be in a theatre. Our events are free of charge and involve food, drink, and socializing before, after, and even during the show. We do usually lose track of where the show ends and the party begins and where the party ends and the show begins. We have a running joke where whenever anyone asks when the performance is starting, we say "The show already started! This has all been the show!" Works in Progresso is, in fact, about the multi-faceted magic of the entire experience.  Dance is something we like to do among friends and new acquaintances, not something we want to present to strangers. We see it as a social gift that we will share with anyone generous enough to receive it. We work to maintain the honesty of being "at home."

However, it is important to us to still create a theatrical, heightened experience. This is more, not less, possible in a kitchen than in a theatre. Whatever we might lose from not being on a stage, we gain back tenfold from being in our own sacred spaces. Having a show in an a small, private space yields qualities of intimacy similar to a religious ritual or ceremony. I choose to highlight these qualities by asking the audience to wear party hats for unity and drink our special (alcoholic) Foojuice. We begin each show by smudging the space and annointing the performers with glitter face paint. A Fooju show is a quiet spectacle, like a dream. 

 

Adam spreads glitter on dancer Anna Zekan's face before a show in Astoria. Credit Joe Desimone.

Adam spreads glitter on dancer Anna Zekan's face before a show in Astoria. Credit Joe Desimone.

 

OW: Fooju relies heavily on technology. Earlier projects have included Photobooth Ballet and Kitschy Kitchen, both video series. All your shows are recorded, and you encourage performers and audience members to use social media during each performance for documentary and promotional purposes. What does all this mean in the context of an art form founded on liveness? 

AD: As with dancing in people's homes, lack of funds were the initial impetus for the use of technology in my work. YouTube and social media are free, and almost everyone I know has a phone with a camera on it. Technology also enables the members of Fooju to collaborate long distance and without having to always set aside time to all meet together in person. It is such an easy tool for creating and sharing work. Beyond that, when audience members post on social media, it brings Fooju beyond the boundaries of the performance space. It allows them to perpetuate the performance by putting their own creative take on what they see and experience. It's one more means of inviting the audience to collaborate with us. 

While live dance will always be the genesis of my process, I have also always been passionate about film as a way to structure and frame movement. Keenan Parry has been Fooju's resident filmmaker from the beginning, and his artistry with the camera complements my choreography well. His delightfully playful cinematography highlights new dimensions of the dancing that may not have been as apparent during the live performance. He does not document the art, but co-creates it with us. He's also an integral part of our live performances. In our more recent shows, he has dressed in a green screen suit and followed dancers around the apartment with his camera. He's not quite audience member, not quite dancer, but something of a transitional object.  

 

I trust my unconscious, so I rely on chance and circumstance to sift through choreographic choices, allowing mishaps and obstacles to make decisions for me.

 

OW: Who are your influences, and within what aesthetic and conceptual traditions do you locate your work?

 AD: My exposure to collaborative theatre groups such as Elevator Repair Service and Forced Entertainment has influenced my sense of humor and my way of using found movement and improvisation to lay a foundation for my work. Eiko & Koma have inspired my use of time and imagination to modulate my choreography. Elements of Pina Bausch often find their way into Fooju shows: large choruses of dancers, quasi-pedestrian choreography, vocalization, and seemingly disconnected vignettes. Finally, my passion for the legacy of Martha Graham was what initially brought me to New York to study at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance and dance with the Graham 2 company; this is the foundation of my dance technique and my choreography.

On the theoretical side of things, I draw from Antonin Artaud’s idea of the dream aesthetic and Richard Schechner’s insights on ceremony.  I am a romantic surrealist with hopes of physicalizing and ritualizing the queerness I experience in my dreams. I trust my unconscious, so I rely on chance and circumstance to sift through choreographic choices, allowing mishaps and obstacles to make decisions for me. If the language of dreams and the language of movement are universal, my aim is to resonate with the unconscious language of the individual. That’s you! And that’s Fooju. 

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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.

TIU DE HAAN ON ACCESSING WONDER

Tiu de Haan. Credit Neal Houghton.

Tiu de Haan. Credit Neal Houghton.

 

TIU DE HAAN is an Oxford-educated celebrant, creative facilitator, writer, and singer. She marries, buries, and names people, as well as creating experiential workshops that remind people of all ages how to see the magic in the mundane.

My measure of professional success is if I have managed to make people cry.

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

Tiu de Haan: My work is about creating experiences that connect people to the heart, to the possibility of wonder, to each other, and to their own creativity.

As a celebrant, I create non-religious ceremonies, like weddings, funerals, and baby namings, as well as other rituals of all kinds. As a facilitator, I create experiential workshops that wake up the imagination, reboot our innate playfulness, and shift our perspective to see the wonder in the world.

My measure of professional success is if I have managed to make people cry. Or at the very least, get a little shiny-eyed. And I’m only half joking when I say this.

The celebrant work I do is about creating rituals that honor the big moments, the transitions of life, love, and death that merit a moment of reflection, emotion, and celebration. As my line of work entails tackling the big subjects, namely love and death, I have this incredible privilege of co-creating the emotional heart of some of the biggest days of people’s lives. So, yes, weird as it may sound, I am trying to make people cry. Or, to put it another way, to create an experience in which everyone present will feel truly touched.

In the case of the experiential workshops, I aim for a slightly less dramatic result—tears are welcome and they have often arrived, but when I send people off on adventures that crack open their capacity for wonder, I look for shining eyes at the end, rather than out-and-out weeping. An openness, an aliveness, an awe, a joy, visible on the features.

In both cases, my aim is to create moments of real meaning and magic, unique and profound experiences where people connect to the heart as well as to each other.

 

OW: Why create experiences?

TdH: Bringing creativity to the matter of making meaningful experiences is to marry our innate imagination with the very stuff of being alive.

We all create experiences as a matter of course, whether intentionally or not. It’s just that some of us choose to use it as our artistic medium, which is when things get really interesting.

When treated as an art form, experience is like no other medium. It can encompass all sorts of other art forms and weave them into one powerful whole.  It can incorporate the written and spoken word, music, scent, flavor, light, color, movement, and the creation of a physical space that houses the experience itself. It creates a liminal field where everyone has the possibility of contributing to the experience with both their attention and their intention, even if they don’t play an obviously active role. It harnesses emotions and channels them towards a point of focus that has the power to transform. It is inclusive, nebulous, malleable, and potentially profoundly meaningful.

Candle ceremony for families. Credit Robert Davidson.

Candle ceremony for families. Credit Robert Davidson.

It spans all emotional states and needs, too—a bespoke experience can be calibrated to serve joy or grief, silence or celebration, playfulness or empowerment. It can be solitary or communal, simple or complex. It can feed body and soul as well as heart and mind. It cannot be captured and it is fleeting—and all the more beautiful for it.

 

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

TdH: In my line of work as a celebrant, the term “audience” doesn’t really cover what is going on. Similarly, with the experiential workshops, the artwork is the experience of the people who participate in it. The content is in part my contribution, but ultimately, it is the emotions, realizations, words, thoughts, and experiences of those who step into the frame. They are not merely passive receptors. They are making it what it is by being a part of it, by bringing their energy to the collaboration.

Their participation is what gives the moment the power to transform. I am there as a facilitator, a catalyst, a guide, a creator of the parameters, and the holder of the space—the frame in which we co-create the magic of the moment.

 

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

TdH: The light on my horizon, the point by which I steer in all that I do, is the possibility of wonder. To me, wonder speaks to the moments when something beautiful, astonishing, and enlivening happens and our worldview tilts on its axis and new ways of seeing open up — if only for an instant. It is the state that makes life feel like an adventure. I seek it selfishly, in how I live my own life and navigate my own waters, because it is what lights me up. In so doing, I have picked up a lot of clues along the way as to how to share my findings with others, through the myriad treasures of artists, teachers, explorers, and livers of magical lives throughout our world—as well as through the experiences I create.

There are few clearly defined maps to show us how to reconnect with that universal human experience of awe, delight, and mind-opening possibility—and I emphasize the fact that it is a possibility rather than a probability, because accessing wonder is an inexact science. It exists in the moments, in the gaps, in the tributaries and the serendipities, so you can’t guarantee its appearance. But you can create the optimum conditions that will allow it to happen all by itself.

This is where my work resides. Exploring those conditions, through non-religious experiences, and learning for myself and others how to access and prompt the possibility of that state of wonder at will, in all areas of life, including love, work, and play.

 

OW: You have a unique process for creating your work; talk about how you developed it.

TdH: There is a clear distinction between the process for my celebrant work and the process of the creation of the experiential workshops.

However, in both cases, I start with the moment of most emotive power in mind and work back from there.  The expressions on the faces, the richness of the silence, the tears in the eyes, the inaudible sound of hearts opening in unison following a moment of magic, connection, and power—these nebulous things are my guides and my goals. I keep coming back to them when logistics and practicalities start to usurp the to-do list. I navigate by the light of the heart, and it always shines through if you know to give it due attention and care.

The celebrant work is always bespoke, so that the process is about getting to know the stories of the people with whom I am collaborating. I spend as much time as possible with the people I am marrying, the families of those who have died, the parents of the baby I am naming, or the person who needs a particular ceremony to be created just for their particular needs. The questions I ask are intimate, spanning everything from divergent spiritual traditions, to dysfunctional family dynamics, to the biggest moments that have defined their lives, to the meaning of love itself. I empathize with their emotions, their hopes, and their fears. I build trust, I become their confidant, and I help them to channel their thoughts into a creative container that reflects what is truly important to them.

Marrying a couple under a 500-year-old oak tree. Credit Benjamin Thomas Wheeler.

Marrying a couple under a 500-year-old oak tree. Credit Benjamin Thomas Wheeler.

In order to be able to do my job well, I need to tune myself up to be at the top of my game, both inner and outer, so I have practices I use daily to keep myself present, healthy, and emotionally open. I choose to work from the heart, and so sometimes this means being with raw, visceral grief, as well as vast, heart-cracking love. I am configured for it. I know both love and death all too well. And I consider myself blessed to be able to be a part of such powerful experiences in the lives of others, to learn from them, and to share what tools I can with anyone who chooses to collaborate with me. It is intense, glorious, profound, and the most fulfilling work imaginable.

 

OW: How does your art practice influence your life?

TdH: I don’t know where one begins and the other ends. Since my medium is experience, the way I live my life is my art practice. Without wanting to sound preposterously pompous, the art of living a creative life blurs all boundaries between experience and the creativity with which I try to live. I mean, ok, not every day contains life-changing moments of wonder and magic. But I might argue that that’s just a failure of the imagination.

The world can be a wonderful place if only we know how to see it as such. And that is where a shift of perspective, a reinvigoration of the imagination, and a retraining of our senses can take us. That is what I see as my art practice—indistinguishable from life itself, because it’s not what we see, it’s how we see it. And in seeing the magic, I find ways to draw back the invisible curtain so that others can see, too.

 

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

So many. But in terms of experiences that move the heart, it has to be Marina Abramovic. It was the last day of her residency at the Serpentine Gallery in London, in August 2014. The exhibit consisted of only Marina and her facilitators, the public, and time. I should also say that I was in a very intense and dream-like grief. A week earlier, a huge love of mine had died.

I entered this big white space full of people in silence and stillness. About an hour after I entered the space, I approached a plinth in the middle of a room.  I stepped on and took my place in one of the concentric circles of people, and closed my eyes. It didn’t take long before I felt this enormous sense of love and gratitude cracking me open. I started to hear a kind of voice in my head, which started to list all that I was grateful for. The love I had felt and still felt for the man who had died and the love he had felt, and perhaps still felt, for me. The very fact that people could gather in such a profoundly beautiful way, without a deity or a discipline to draw them together. I became quietly euphoric, tears streaming down my cheeks. I opened my eyes to see that the plinth had now filled up, circles upon circles of people standing in silence, overflowing into the rest of the space which was now full of people also standing with eyes closed and palms open, their faces beatific, intense, smiling, crying, joyful, alive, still.  I stood there a little longer, then I decided to leave while it remained at this silent crescendo.

As I gathered up my things, I saw that there was still a huge queue outside, hoping for a glimpse of the artist. I was asked by a security guard to hang back inside. When the exhibition ended, Marina appeared. She came out to speak to the waiting crowds and the news cameras that clustered together in the rain. When she finished, the security guard told me I could leave. But she was still standing in the doorway and so I had to go right past her in order to exit. She stopped me, held me in an embrace, looked me in the eye, and asked me how I was. I simply said “I am in my heart” and smiled with the tears in my eyes. “Yes! Yes!” she replied, and gave me a huge hug. And then I walked off into the rain, heart open wide, mind still overflowing with gratitude, soul restored, grief released—forever changed.

 

 

ALBERT KONG on the empowerment of play

Albert Kong

Albert Kong

Albert Kong is an artist designing live games and experiences in the Bay Area. His work is focused on the audience as a player, and the world as an unbounded space of play: site specific installations that ask players to view the physical and social space around through the lens of a new set of rules. He has presented at various festivals including IndieCade and Come Out & Play.

I like to empower people in small, personal ways, showing how even minute intentions can affect the world.

Odyssey Works: You've worked on escape the room games, Odyssey Works (developing the Beautiful Experience Design Workshop), The Headlands Gamble, The Vespertine Circus and just about every other underground and theatrical immersive and interactive endeavor in the SF Bay Area. Through all that, how do you understand immersivity and interactivity? What is the point?

Albert Kong: What is the point? The words “immersive” and “interactive” are often used so broadly that they serve as containers for anything that is new, designed, and even slightly participatory; they feel almost empty to me when they are used to describe new work after the fact. But as an aspirational quality for works, and when audiences are excited to find work that is immersive or interactive, I think it at least partially represents some collective cultural needs: ownership and reclamation of space; empowerment to engage; permission to play, permission to explore.

Come Out & Play Festival,  credit Anna Vignet

Come Out & Play Festival, credit Anna Vignet

When I was in elementary school, we had an amazing wooden play structure that we would climb all over during our breaks. I remember feeling disappointed when we continued onto middle school, and the only available play spaces were sports fields and courts. I would keep seeking out playgrounds until a few years later when I began to practice parkour, a community that specifically encouraged the exploration of space for alternative functions. For the next decade I practiced scanning the environment around me for the techniques that they afforded rather than the limitations that they represented. A wall is not a barrier but a structure to climb, a platform to stand on, a space to walk. That perspective also revealed that we are limited by rules we implicitly set for ourselves often more than any absolutes (why not stand on that bench? why not dance across the crosswalk?).

Games and embodied play--the terms I use for “immersives” and “interactives”--are a revealing form in that same way. They give permission to the audience to step out of their seats; they reward those who explore; they invite people to be a part of a world rather than voyeuristically peering into one. The games that excite me the most--experiences like Odyssey Works, Headlands Gamble, Journey to the End of the Night--appropriate the spaces that we exist in every day, inviting us to do what we would usually avoid in order to maintain the temporary world that the game creates.

I think the point is to remind individuals that we own our bodies and our actions no matter who “owns” the land we stand on, and to empower players to continue exploring the space that they occupy. (With the usual caveats of not causing harm to others, etc.)

OW: Why create experiences?

Ambulist,  credit Danielle Pena

Ambulist, credit Danielle Pena

AK: As a game designer I often see an expectation from players for embedded narrative, for a story to be written and delivered throughout the experience of a piece, especially in realms connected with entertainment media--video games; escape rooms; alternate reality games. While I have a lot of respect for authored narratives, in designing experiences, I think there is a unique opportunity to introduce, influence, initiate personal narratives. The rules of a game can introduce a sense of uncertainty, a drama that can be more exciting than anything narrative that is written for them--sliding into the finish line in the nick of time, or suddenly realizing you’ve stepped into your opponent’s territory. The rules we follow for a game can overpower our perception of our own abilities; in Beacon, a chase street game I designed I was delighted to hear about a player who lept over a crowd, acrobatically kicking off a wall, in order to evade being caught. Playing a game can replace the rules and stories we associate with a space, a city, our lives; there are whole neighborhoods in the Bay Area that I associate with getting lost in the midst of Journey to the End of the Night, instead of as “cozy suburbs” or “boutique shopping districts.” I design experiences because I want to give people stories to tell from their own points of view.

OW: What is the role of wonder and discovery in what you do?

Climber Beta,  credit Tobin Schwaiger-Hastanan

Climber Beta, credit Tobin Schwaiger-Hastanan

AK: I like to work in small magic. There’s the grand sense of revelatory wonder that one experiences when they are surrounded by the majesty of nature, and then there’s the realization that there really are bugs crawling underneath that rock. There’s the discovery that a simple equation can explain vast swaths of the physical world, and there’s the discovery that your friend was absolutely delighted when she received your impromptu letter. I like to empower people in small, personal ways, showing how even minute intentions can affect the world.

There’s a lot of wonder in the recognition that we are capable of so much more than we think we are, that the simple act of venturing to try—see if that doorknob turns; take that unfamiliar alleyway; enter that ancient-looking junk store—can lead us to magical adventures that we could scarcely imagine.

I think that’s a kind of magic that experience design is especially good at creating; we might behold a beautiful, ornately crafted piece of architecture in awe, but it doesn’t teach us that we ourselves, ordinary human beings, are capable of creation, art-making, affecting change, the way that even the smallest interaction can.

OW: How does your art practice influence your life?

AK: Making games and experiences allows me an alternative to cynicism, my default state perhaps as a result of my upbringing. Through my practice, I allow myself time to think carefully about the systems that govern our lives, the implicit laws and expectations, the cultural norms, the institutions in place; and where the state of these things would otherwise be pretty depressing, in art, I see solutions. I see opportunities to make these rules obvious by providing new rules. I imagine someone who goes through a game, or an Odyssey, or a designed adventure returning to the “real world” and questioning why shouldn’t I take the tag off this mattress; why should I drive to work when I enjoy biking more; who’s to tell me I can’t be an artist; what’s stopping me from making a difference in the lives of the people around me? I try to embody the states of mind that I try to share with those who play my games, and it’s honestly made me much happier.

Bring Home the Beacon,  credit Lia Bualong

Bring Home the Beacon, credit Lia Bualong

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

AK: This is two questions! I’ve been incredibly inspired by the work that came out of SF0, which bills itself as a collaborative production game, where players create tasks for each other that often involve real world interactions (climb a roof; modify a sign; take a bus to the end of the route). It was where Journey to the End of the Night was conceived, as well as the Wanderer’s Union and many others. I loved how it created community and participation through play. Along those lines, I’ve also been really inspired by the Nordic larp scene, fluxus event scores, the work of Nonchalance...

But you want me to pick one, right? I never thought of myself as an artist. I didn’t study it, I didn’t consider myself capable of making art; in my college years I hardly had a framework for understanding the work that I would see in museums, in books. But in one of those years I ran into Robert Yang, now a game designer and academic, then a student who was teaching a class on outdoor games. He was leading a handful of students through a game that was taking place around campus, with players smuggling objects over imaginary borders and evading imaginary guards. I didn’t know Robert at the time, but noticing some students running around with arm bands clearly up to some shenanigans, I stopped one of the players and asked them what was going on, and they directed me toward him, and he explained what was going on. The idea that a game like this was being orchestrated in broad daylight, in the middle of campus, with most of the students around us seemingly oblivious to what was going on, that was an epiphany. I had heard of and played some other games on campus--Assassins, Fugitive, Sardines--but this was the moment that made it a genre in my mind, rather than merely a random occurrence.

OW: What is the benefit of integrating multiple disciplines and how do you go about it?

AK: From a community/scene aspect, my background is in several new disciplines that emerge without a lot of background in the arts, and the recognition that other disciplines have a lot of solutions to the problems we face (how to maintain community, how to encourage new members, how to find satisfaction in art when there isn’t a commercial industry to support the medium) has been helpful. In the Bay Area game design scene we adopted an open mic model for sharing and testing new games that has been a really powerful way to make the medium more accessible to new designers.

Meanwhile, I personally am still learning and figuring out what art means; reading up, seeing more art, dipping my toes into new practices, and befriending other artists has been a way to sort of latently integrate new influences into my practice.