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SPRINGBOARD COLLECTIVE ON FUN AND TOGETHERNESS

Sarah Dahlinger, Danny Crump, Micah Snyder, and Stephanie Wadman of Springboard Collective. Credit Danny Crump.   

Sarah Dahlinger, Danny Crump, Micah Snyder, and Stephanie Wadman of Springboard Collective. Credit Danny Crump.

 

Springboard Collective produces collaborative, site­-specific, interactive, and immersive sculptural environments. Utilizing experimental and imaginative approaches to everyday materials, their installations focus on transforming the physical and psychological aspects of fun through socially engaged events. Their works include Good Humor (an ice cream-making extravaganza), Total Limbo (a fanciful fort), and Soft Surplus and Soft Surplus+ (inclusive playlands). Springboard Collective is directed by Danny Crump, Micah Snyder, and Sarah Dahlinger, and is also comprised of Stephanie Wadman and Barry O’Keefe. Contributing artists include Todd Irwin, Siavash Tohidi, Matt Hannon, Juniper Nova, and Ryan Davis. 

It’s not about me or you, it’s about us.

 

Odyssey Works: What led you to your current approach to art-making? How did you start breaking traditional molds?

Springboard Collective: Springboard Collective started in graduate school at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Danny had done a residency at Flux Factory in 2014, and got inspired by all the collaborative work happening there; it dawned on him that you could get a lot more stuff done faster and be more improvisational with other people. So he proposed starting a kind of band where we would make collaborative art shows. We were all a bit disillusioned with the isolation of the grad school grind, and we wanted to experiment without the pressure of individual authorship. We wanted to let ourselves be really playful with materials and with ideas without overthinking them beforehand. So we began making these ambitious spectacles with a little bit of painting, a little bit of sculpture, and some kind of social interstice all coming together.

 

Good Humor , 2015. Credit Danny Crump.

Good Humor, 2015. Credit Danny Crump.

 

OW: Tell us about your process.

SC: We all bring different skill sets to the table and we are continually pushing and pulling and learning from one another. There are specific things that one of us will get obsessed with doing, like individual videos, but part of the process of working collaboratively is to surrender ownership, and to share credit and responsibility. It’s not about me or you, it’s about us. We tend to work on tight timelines, so it’s a really intensive work period. We might plan a project for three weeks. We usually have a big brainstorm on a big piece of paper, and we just write down every idea that anybody comes up with. And then we figure out how we’re going to fit it all together. We mock up the bigger structural elements, sketching things out in real space. We often have only a few days to build the whole entire thing. So there’s a lot of thinking, then a lot of work, and little sleep. And that’s liberating because it's gestural and fast and we don’t have to nitpick all the little details. We follow the impulse, follow the imagery, follow the materials, and just let those lead us wherever they go.

 

We aim to be impish.

 

OW: “Fun” is a word you frequently use to describe your work. What does this mean to you?

SC: We aim to be impish. Our pieces give people permission to act a little crazy and be a little weird, which ends up facilitating fun and togetherness. We are creating a new sort of environment that’s a land of escape from actual reality, and the levity of it is refreshing. The things we reference, like ice cream, bouncy castles, and mazes, are all very playful and childlike. One reason we have for working together is wanting get back to a childlike sense of making, and being really open and fearless. It helps people get out of the day-to-day. A lot of times when you go to shows and museums, you’re still contained in yourself, you’re still reserved. But if you have box of costumes, and you put on a wig, and you get thrown into this tiny area where there are 20 people jumping and everything’s going crazy, it facilitates this experience of breaking free and letting loose for a minute. Another thing about a lot of our work is that the pace of people moving through the space is totally different from a typical art-viewing experience. When you walk into an art space, you typically slow down, but all of our shows have this buzz to them. People are really moving around, getting comfortable, getting immersed.

 

Good Humor,  2015. Credit Matt Hannon

Good Humor, 2015. Credit Matt Hannon

 

OW: Can you speak more to immersivity and interactivity? What do those words mean to you and why are those elements that you want to include in your work?

SC: The installation format is nice, because you’re not dealing with one material or one medium. Everything all has to work together. In all of our pieces, we’re making something that is interactive because we want to give ownership to the people that are coming to become a part of it. We set up this template for them to inject their own creativity into. They’re churning the ice cream that they’re going to taste, they’re making the sculptures that they’re going to take home. It’s an extension of the process of making to the audience. And it’s a really awesome kind of leveling of different hierarchies of people. Our environments are something that you come and interact freely with. There are no rules. And immersion is necessary because it’s a break from reality. We all need to have moments of escape from whatever pressures we experience, so we provide a space that you can step into and, at least momentarily, be liberated. It’s an offering of a space to be together and work together, and that’s a genuine gesture on our part. If you look at the headlines recently, our type of fun, cheeky event might be just the type of thing that we need right now. In our work, nothing’s too serious.

 

We’ve learned that you can make art out of anything if you just put enough effort into it and belief behind it.

 

OW: In interactive environments, where do you locate the art?

SC: All of it is the art. And we don’t keep track of any individual’s physical input into a piece. That’s the beauty of it, that it all sort of melts together.

 

OW: Why create experiences?

SC: We do have relics from our pieces: the objects produced as part of the event. Those have spread out—some people have taken them home—and they do carry a little bit of the energy from the show. But it’s hard to describe all the stuff that happened in any one of our pieces. You really had to be there. We’ve learned that you can make art out of anything if you just put enough effort into it and belief behind it. We start from kind of silly ideas, but then take them to a level where there are much more interesting questions being opened. And the overall experience of the event is where that magic happens.

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Interview by Ana Freeman. 

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. 

Tom Pearson On Dream Logic

Tom Pearson. Credit Christopher Duggan.

Tom Pearson. Credit Christopher Duggan.

TOM PEARSON is one of the artistic directors of Third Rail Projects, along with Zach Morris and Jennine Willett. Hailed as one of the foremost companies creating site-specific, immersive, and experiential dance theatre in the United States, Third Rail Projects is dedicated to re-envisioning how audiences can engage with contemporary performance. They are the creators of the long-running immersive theatre hit Then She Fell and the new immersive sensation The Grand Paradise, which is playing in New York through May 29, 2016. More information can be found at thirdrailprojects.com.

 

Immersive theatre lets you create the world from the ground up.

 

Odyssey Works: What are you seeking to accomplish with your work? 

Tom Pearson: In all of my work, I am hoping to give audiences intimate and transformative experiences by making room for them in the work and making the work about them. I hope each piece becomes a Rorschach blot for their own reflective experiences and takes them on a heightened symbolic journey.  At the end of the day, I hope they see and examine something of themselves in everything I make and that they walk away having perhaps discovered something they didn’t know before.

 

Joshua Reaver and Tara O'Con in  The Grand Paradise . Credit Third Rail Projects.

Joshua Reaver and Tara O'Con in The Grand Paradise. Credit Third Rail Projects.

 

OW: You create work that is both immersive and site-specific. Can you explain the relationship between these two qualities? 

TP: They relate in that they provoke similar approaches to creating work. Many of our public site works focus on the discovery of the narratives that are bricked into the architecture of a place.  In site-specific work, there is a rigorous engagement with real-world architecture and a deep sense of place.  I think that’s true for immersive work as well, but often it involves creating the place ourselves rather than excavating the meanings of pre-existing space. Immersive theatre lets you create the world from the ground up.

 

The artwork itself exists in that sharp turn when a scene moves from an obvious read into the deeper recesses of possibility.
 

 

OW: How would you characterize the exchange you facilitate between artist and audience? Where is the artwork itself located? 

TP: My work is about creating scenarios that keep the audience in mind from the outset—so they are necessary to the work, and each scene is built with that exchange in mind.  I think I am trying to achieve intimacy, but also to challenge audience members' expectations, bypass their rational minds, put them in places with smells and tastes and textures that trigger emotional or physical responses and put them into a place of strong receptivityand then turn a corner to go into deeper, more symbolic, meaningful places. The artwork itself exists in that sharp turn when a scene moves from an obvious read into the deeper recesses of possibility.

 

Roxanne Kidd in  Then She Fell . Credit Darial Sneed. 

Roxanne Kidd in Then She Fell. Credit Darial Sneed. 

 

OW: Unlike some other experiential art, Third Rail’s pieces seem to have a strong narrative focus, yet they are also clearly structured differently from traditional theatre. Can you talk about the role of narrative in your work?

TP: Our narratives are always fragmented, which is the nature of immersive work, and what is most effective about it.  Audiences seem to need to hook themselves onto some sort of narrative to navigate the worlds, which is why the writings of Lewis Carroll offer so much to Then She Fell; audiences have some cultural and literary signifiers that are easy to understand, so they can relax a little more into the figurative and fragmented and symbolic aspects of the work. They can go deeper into the dream logic because they have an anchor in the narrative images. It’s harder with something like The Grand Paradise, where we are hooking the audience’s attention onto broader cultural signifiers...like the idea of "paradise," a status quo family from Middle America on vacation, a coming of age, a midlife crisis, the collective cultural fantasies of the late 1970s, and the Fountain of Youth.  These are anchor points too, but much looser ones.

 

OW:  Immersive theatre is often compared to video games or other interactive virtual experiences. Why do you choose to create embodied experiences? What does liveness mean to you? 

TP: I think immersive theatre is just a more obvious form of liveness than other theatre, maybe because audience members feel some agency and control in it, but also because it allows them a more personal, tactile, intimate encounter with art.  And I think video games and the last 20 years of digital living have made us all crave liveness, while also preparing us to navigate these real worlds that follow video game logic. Like a video game, immersive theatre trains you, sets you loose to unlock possibilities, and then levels you through based on your choices; there are boons along the way, and a sense of discovery as you put the structure together for yourself through your own experience of it.

 

How can audiences and characters be given the same offerings and have synonymous experiences in a safe space?

 

OW: Tell us about your process for creating a piece. 

TP: It can start and finish in a myriad of ways. Often, it begins with a movement idea that becomes an organizing principle, or a narrative fragment, such as a sense of duality, or a yearning for the Fountain of Youth. Then She Fell began with the idea of a personality torn in two directions, towards two separate agendas, with both halves operating on either side of a real-life event. The Grand Paradise was inspired by archetypal psychology, by the idea of characters representing different aspects of a single psyche. I envisioned that psyche being that of a place, a sentient place that gives birth to a pantheon of archetypal characters who promise to fulfill audience desires. From those kinds of starting places, the choreography, writing, and scenarios spin out around the idea of audience inclusion and what that could mean. How can audiences and characters be given the same offerings and have synonymous experiences in a safe space?

 

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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.