Ariel Abrahams is the Director of Public Engagement for Odyssey Works, as well as an organizer, life hacker, social programmer and ritualist. He builds durational, interactive artworks that experiment with infrastructure. He is fascinated by religion, group dynamics, and imagination. His works can be seen at www.arielabrahams.com
ODYSSEY WORKS: HOW DO YOU UNDERSTAND IMMERSIVITY AND INTERACTIVITY? HOW DOES IT WORK AND WHAT IS THE POINT?
Ariel Abrahams: The ideal situation of a piece of art is that the viewer is consumed by it. Consumed = ingested by the piece, as food is ingested by a creature. The painting, the poem, the song eats you up. Immersive theater is an explicit attempt to consume the audience. The artwork is build around the audience. In a piece of immersive artwork there is no escape. The work is everything- the space, the role you have as audience, the sounds of the space. It is like watching a film from within the film- there is no theater to leave, or popcorn to eat, which would take you out of the experience. Everything experienced is the piece.
Interactive work is important because it asks: what does our body do when we look at art? In most forms of art consumption, our bodies are free to do as they please. This means that they are free, also, to continue in their habits, which may include checking phones, getting distracted by worries... etc. In an interactive performance the audience is kept busy- the audience is put to work. This is amazing- it allows for the audience to take ownership over the art, and makes the experience that much more meaningful. I like to see interactive work because I know that I will be challenged and that my body will not be treated as a brain-in-a-meat-lump. My whole self is given permission to partake.
OW: WHY CREATE EXPERIENCES?
AA: It is important to make experiences that are resonant in hyper-local ways. I mean, it is important that we experience things that shake us personally and as small communities. The national experience is not enough. It is not accurate enough. Experiences are always being created by the architecture we inhabit, by political forces, by city planning. The routes that we walk, the food that we have access too, our culture and religious traditions- these all contribute to the greater experience that we have. By making creative happenings for small, specific audiences, we give great gifts.
The best birthday presents are those that are sincere and made just for you. To give a great gift you must know your audience. What does it take to know your audience?
OW: WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO DO WITH YOUR WORK?
AA: In my personal creative work I open up space where participants can be different with each other. I have made all night walks, show and tells, high-density situations, sleepovers and month-long residencies. In all of these participants are asked to be with each other- sometimes strangers- for long periods of time and in intimate ways. We make up games and cook together. As a facilitator I try to push us to make activities beyond those prescribed by our workday habits. I wonder: what can we do when we sit down and ask each other "what do we want to do?", then make some lists, make a schedule, and do it all. Taking free time seriously makes for interesting situations.
OW: What is the collaboration between artist and audience as you see it? Where is the artwork itself located?
AA: The collaboration between artwork and audience must be thought out beforehand. I make work that is not interactive as well. There is something very special about the artwork of solitude. My drawings are self-reflections, not participatory games. Interactive work, for me, is decided first as interactive. The stakes are different, because I do not start with expectations, just a loose plan. The best interactions I have in my work are the surprises. Planning for surprises means not planning too much. Underplanning, maybe. Underplanning as a tool for great surprises.
In interactive pieces, the artwork is in the remains. The documentation, the stories and memories. I try to plan these out before hand by hiring photographers or making a tight plan where documentation will emerge. Reverse engineering is sometimes useful.
OW: What is the role of wonder and discovery in your work?
AA: My favorite materials are those which are naturally full of wonder. The nighttime, for example, is such a beautiful resource. Staying up all night to observe the depth of the night feelings is inherently special. Planning just a few activities in that temporal setting naturally leads itself to wonder and discovery. I am drawn to long night walks, large bodies of water, long car rides, and travel experiences. These all have magical qualities to them. And also: being outside of comfort zones. It is very simple to put an audience outside of their comfort zones. Finding the balance of a safe yet uncomfortable situation is beautiful. From here, wonderful things emerge.
OW: Who are your influences? Can you describe an experience in which art changed you?
AA: Gregory Marcopoulous made an 80 hour film which is screened in ten hour segments every four years in his hometown in a mountainous region of Greece. I attended the third installation of screenings in 2012. A select group of maybe 200 people traveled 8 hours from Athens to the town. We camped out for three days. All daytime was spent lounging, eating, and swimming. As the sun went down we gathered in a field where a film projector was set up. Each night, for three nights, we watched about three hours of footage. The footage is completely abstract. Mostly black and white flashes. It is hypnotic. We lay on beanbags outdoors. Between reels cigarettes are rolled and smoked. I am certain that everyone fell asleep at some point. This experience pushed the limits for me. What is more beautiful than to travel for a full day to the mountains to watch flashes of film under the stars?
The Music Tapes performed a lullaby tour. This consisted of three musical performances a night, across the contiguous USA, moving through residential spaces. In 2011 my roommate signed up for the band to play at our apartment. They transformed our living room into a circus. We played games and listened to music about childhood in the wintertime. I am still taken aback by the experience: they transformed an intimate and sacred space (all living rooms are sacred) into a playground for magical, sonic adventures. To name a few: a television sang to us. A pillow turned alive and showed us the dreams stored inside it. A band of mice played holiday music very quietly.
Sun Ra destroys the distinction between imagination and reality for over political reasons. He says that if he cannot be a full citizen of this country- as an African American- then he chooses not to be from this country. Instead he is from Saturn. His style of dress, his dedication to the ideal, and transformation of politics into abstract space sounds is nothing short of wild. His band still plays. African American men in their 80s making crazy noise with horns and electronic machines, all in sparkle regalia, with more dignity than anyone can manage. Sun Ra says: we make ourselves legends. We make ourselves kings. We do this with costumes, by rewriting our own histories as a community, and by dreaming as large as we can, beyond the boundaries of earth's atmosphere. We move way into the stars.