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.

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