Monday, November 16, 2015

OdysseyWorks: An Empathy-Based Approach to Making Art

135/365:Heart of the Labyrinth.The quest for relevance begins with knowing your audience. Who are the people with whom you want to connect? What are their dreams, their impressions, their turn-offs, their fears?

Ultimately, any approach to answering these questions is limited at some point by the size of the audience involved. When you are dealing with an audience of hundreds or thousands of people, you have to make assumptions. You have to generalize. 

But what if you only had an audience of one?

OdysseyWorks is a collective that makes immersive art experiences for one person at a time. They select their audience--by application or commission--and then they spend months getting to know that person. They spend time with them. They call references. They try to understand not just the surface of the individual's personality but the fundamental way that person sees the world. And then, based on their research, they remake the world for a weekend, twisting the person's environment with sensory experiences that explore and challenge their deepest inclinations.

When I first heard about OdysseyWorks, I thought their projects were indulgent novelties. But the more I learned, the more I appreciated their thoughtful slanted window into audience engagement.

OdysseyWorks' projects get to the heart of the fiercest debates in the arts today. Does "starting from the audience" mean pandering to narcissism and dumbing down work? Is it elitist to present art that may be dislocating or foreign? How do we honor the audience's starting point and take them somewhere new?

As artistic director Abe Burickson described their work to me, I imagined Theseus walking deeper into the labyrinth towards the Minotaur. Theseus entered the labyrinth with a string tying him to what he already knew. And then he followed that string into darkness, danger, and ultimately, triumph.

I asked Abe about how he sees the tension between the desire to start with the audience and the desire to move the audience somewhere new. He spoke of the audience as providing a challenge, a challenge like any other artistic constraint. The audience provides an offering of a certain way of looking, a challenge to see the world differently and get inside that perspective with their artwork. OdysseyWorks locates that starting point, hands the audience the string, and draws them further and deeper into mystery.

Abe told me about a performance OdysseyWorks created for a woman named Christina. Christina loved all things symmetrical and tonal. Loved baroque and rococo. Hated Jackson Pollock and John Cage. The OdysseyWorks team is not that way - they like messy and atonal - so it was an interesting challenge. Could they create a space of comfort, a world of her own, and then move her to a space of dischord where the things OdysseyWorks thought were beautiful might become beautiful to her?

Here's how Abe described the project to me:
We started the weekend in Christina's comfort zone. We started with Clair de Lune by Debussy, which she loves, and a few other structured things that worked that way. Over time, she encountered the music in multiple locations--in a symmetrical architectural space, with family. 
As the day went on, she relaxed--which is key to the process. When you engage with something, especially something new, you are often on guard, physically, socially, intellectually. You just don’t trust right away. 
When you no longer feel that people are judging you, you become much more open to new things. It's really quite amazing how much of a shift can happen. 
Once those reservations and judgments faded, we started playing other version of Clair de Lune. There are hundreds of really messed up versions of Clair de Lune. We played them just to shake it up. At one point after seven hours, and about 500 miles of travel, Christina got picked up by a train and was driven to a scene. It was about an hour drive. And in that hour, she just listened to this Clair de Lune version we composed, this 80-minute deconstruction, a slow deterioration, that started classical and ended sounding like people chewing on string. It was beautiful noise. It was the exact opposite of what she liked, and yet by that point, she found it beautiful.  
The whole experience was kind of a deconstruction of form. The experience was powerful for her. Later she said it pried her open.  
The goal was not that Christina should like John Cage. Nor is it about creating a moment of pleasure. The goal was to create work that is moving for her and a compelling artistic challenge for us. It's about creating a different engagement with life. 
To me, the biggest aha this story is the middle--the enormous role that the perception of "being judged" plays in narrowing our experience and our openness to new things. When we trust, we open up. But how often does an arts institution start working with an audience by building a trusting relationship (versus bombarding them with content)? What could we gain by starting with empathy instead of presentation?

OdysseyWorks is doing a crowd-funding campaign right now to fund a book project documenting their process. I'm learning from them, so I'm supporting them. Check out their work and consider whether they might help you through the labyrinths in your world.

If you'd like to weigh in, please leave a comment below. If you are reading this via email and wish to respond, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Women of Color Leading Essential, Activist Work in Cultural Institutions

A new poster from the National Park Service,
based on Rich Black's 2009 image.
Over the past few months, I've been doing research for a forthcoming book on relevance. One of the best parts of developing a book is learning new stories. For me, the early stage of writing a book is a treasure hunt--an excuse to seek out new examples and ideas that strengthen the story.

Here are three sources that have inspired me, from four activist women of color. Each of these women push the boundaries of cultural institutions in different ways, with digital and physical manifestations. But don't take my word for it. These women all have strong online presences, and I invite you to join me in learning from and supporting their work.

Ravon Ruffin and Amanda Figuero - Claiming Space for Brown Women in the Digital Museum Landscape

Based in Washington DC, Brown Girls Museum Blog is a new-ish site led by graduate students Ravon Ruffin and Amanda Figueroa. Ravon and Amanda are using several social media channels to explore and share museum exhibitions, programs, and projects. They are holding meetups, creating swag, and getting heard. Ravon spoke at MuseumNext last month (video here) about how communities of color claim space and power in the decentralized digital landscape. I was impressed by her expertise, and the example that Raven and Amanda are setting in strengthening their own voices as emerging leaders in this space. I can't wait to see what happens as they claim more space and power in museums, both through this project and individually in their careers.

Monica Montgomery - Building a Museum of Impact

In New York City, Monica Octavia Montgomery is pushing the boundaries of how we make relevant, powerful museum exhibits with the Museum of Impact. The Museum of Impact is a pop-up project of short-term exhibitions on urgent topics of social justice. Monica is a museum pioneer in two ways: she is using the museum medium to tackle tough social issues, and she is inventing new models for urgent, responsive, relevant programming. Monica publicly launched Museum of Impact this year with an exhibition on #blacklivesmatter, and she has projects on other themes--immigration, environment, mass incarceration--in the works. Want to know more? Check out this great interview with Monica by Elise Granata, and learn more about how you can get involved.

Betty Reid Soskin - Rewriting History in the National Parks

Yes, I DID save the best for last. Betty Reid Soskin is a nationally-renowned park ranger in Richmond, CA, and I am completely blown away by what I've learned from her in the short few weeks since I first heard her name. Betty is the oldest national park ranger in America at 94, but more importantly, Betty is an activist, a truth-seeker, and a storyteller. She speaks, writes, and fights for justice--in a federal historic site.

Betty gives tours at the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park, sharing her lived experience working there as a clerk during the war. Her blog, CBreaux Speaks, is one of the most eloquent I've ever read. She writes about race, history, parks, culture, and politics. She writes with power, and a voice unlike any I've encountered online. And she's been blogging for over 12 years.

Here's an excerpt from one of Betty Reid Soskin's earliest blog posts, from September 2003, when she was first asked to participate in the planning of the national park in which she now works. She was in the room as an elder, a civic leader, and a part of the site's history. But she immediately saw that she had an additional role to play: as a truth-teller of the full history of the site. Here's how she described it:
In the new plan before us, the planning team was taken on a bus tour of the buildings that will be restored as elements in the park. They're on scattered sites throughout the western part of the city. One of two housing complexes that has been preserved, Atchison and Nystrom Villages. They consist of modest bungalows, mostly duplexes and triplexes that were constructed "for white workers only." In many cases, the descendants of those workers still inhabit those homes. They're now historic landmarks and are on the national registry as such.  
Since we're "telling the story of America through structures," how in the world do we tell this one? And in looking around the room, I realized that it was only a question for me. It held no meaning for anyone else.

No one in the room realizes that the story of Rosie the Riveter is a white woman's story. I, and women of color will not be represented by this park as proposed. Many of the sites names in the legislation I remember as places of racial segregation -- and as such -- they may be enshrined by a generation that has forgotten that history.  
There is no way to explain the continuing presence of the 40% African American presence in this city's population without including their role in World War II. There continues to be a custodial attitude toward this segment of the population, with outsiders unaware of the miracle of those folks who dropped their hoes and picked up welding torches to help to save the world from the enemy. Even their grandchildren have lost the sense of mission and worthiness without those markers of achievement and "membership" in the effort to save the world.  
And, yes, I did tell them. And, I have no idea what they'll do with the information, but I did feel a sense of having communicated those thoughts effectively to well-meaning professionals who didn't know what in hell to do the information. 
Fortunately, Betty Reid Soskind did a heck of a lot more than participating in that 2003 planning session. She became a leader in the development, and now the interpretation, of Rosie the Riveter National Historical Park.

Spend time on Betty's blog, and get inspired by her journey as an activist and a truth-teller, a passionate advocate for what cultural institutions can do to advance truth and justice for all. Support Ravon and Amanda and Monica, and their journeys to become leaders in our field. Our cultural universe is full of stars. When we deny ourselves the full brilliance of the stories and voices in that universe, we impoverish our own experiences. We cloud the potential for truth, beauty, and justice.

Let us all be amateur astronomers of culture, huddled around the powerful telescopes of diverse experience. Let us seek truth, beauty, and justice, and amplify them, together.