A review of museum pioneer Nina Simon's new book, The Art of Relevance.
Wonder. It’s something we long for, isn’t it? I do, at least. That’s why when I saw the ad for the Wonder exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in DC, I had to go. What an audacious and somewhat unimaginative title: Wonder. What kind of a curatorial tour de force could justify such a choice?
SEXTANTWORKS PRACTICES TRANSGRESSIVE PLACEMAKING AND EXPERIENTIAL GIFT DESIGN THROUGH GENEROSITY, LOCATION AND INTIMACY. IDA C. BENEDETTO AND N.D. AUSTIN FOUNDED SEXTANTWORKS IN 2012. THEIR EXPLOITS HAVE INCLUDED A PHOTO SAFARI IN THE DECOMMISSIONED BROOKLYN DOMINO SUGAR REFINERY, AN INTIMATE JOURNEY THROUGH A SÃO PAULO LOVE MOTEL, AND THE NIGHT HERON SPEAKEASY, A BAR BUILT INSIDE AN ABANDONED WATER TOWER.
Odyssey Works: ONE THING WE CONSTANTLY STRUGGLE WITH IS HOW TO CLASSIFY OR CATEGORIZE THE WORK WE DO AT ODYSSEY WORKS. IT FEELS BOTH LIMITING AND NECESSARY. HOW DO YOU CATEGORIZE YOUR WORK? IS IT BY YOUR METHOD, DISCIPLINE, MATERIAL, PROCESS, GENRE OF AFFECT?
Sextantworks: We classify our work as experience design. We see ourselves as designers first and foremost. We respond to place constraints and human needs. We don’t pay much attention to the art market or art contexts. Experience design can be defined as the creation of experiences for the purposes of entertainment, persuasion, recreation, or human enrichment where the emotional journey of the individual is the focus. We apply experience design to under-loved places and to the enrichment of connection between people.
OWs: Why is it important to create experiences (as opposed to things)?
Sextantworks: We care about human emotions and relationships. Things are stuff, and stuff does not awaken our love the way your eyes looking into my eyes triggers a moment of feeling present.
OW: What are you trying to do with your work?
Sextantworks: We believe in orchestrating moments of being present, primarily through increasing general awareness about the magnificence of gin.
OW: WHAT IS THE ROLE OF WONDER AND DISCOVERY IN YOUR WORK?
Sextantworks: Wonder and discovery are what inspire us to explore and connect with people, so that’s what we try to offer to our guests. We use the emotional arc of :
Curiosity -> Surprise -> Suspense = Engagement
OW: What is the collaboration between artist and audience as you see it? Where is the artwork itself located?
Sextantworks: We require people to commit to vulnerability. That’s where our “artwork” is located. But to claim other people’s vulnerability as our own art is vulgar. Let’s assume you’re speaking to this question of authorship. If you want to know where we claim authorship, we claim it as instigators. But what people experience after the instigation, that’s an open playing field. We don’t think of it in terms of authorship in the sense of ownership. We think of it as responsibility. We are responsible to the people who opt into vulnerability because of our instigations.
Theater is built on performance and spectatorship. Theme parks are about amusement and throughput. Hospitality is about comfort and generosity. We use hospitality as a safety net that allows for transgression. Hospitality is the thing that will catch you when you fall, which is why you risk the high wire in the first place. We need people to stay with us as they test boundaries and open themselves up to vulnerability. Our job is simply to instigate and care.
OW: Who are your influences? Can you describe an experience in which art changed you?
Sextantworks: Thomas Merton rocked ‘The Street Is For Celebration’, art critic Dave Hickey reminded us not to court spectators, designer Mike Monteiro advises: get a suit, and the New York State Penal Code helpfully informed us that possession of a taximeter acceleration device is a crime. “Art” that has changed us includes: Jeff Stark’s Drive Ins, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Myst, and the Madagascar Institute.