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At 7pm one Saturday this September, I found myself in Downtown Brooklyn’s Metrotech Commons wearing a bright green frog hat and laughing heartily with a group of one hundred fellow “fools.” I was participating in a scene in “When I Left the House It Was Still Dark,” a performance by the collective Odyssey Works. While the spectacle was public, the scene and the other experiences that made up the performance were created for only one person. Once or twice a year, the directorial team behind Odyssey Works (for the most recent performance: Abraham Burickson, Ayden Grout, Jen Harmon, and Ariel Abrahams) selects a single “participant,” chosen through an extensive application process — which starts by asking questions that range from “What is your favorite color?” to “What is your biggest unlived dream in life?” to “Would you be willing to be blindfolded?” — to receive a weekend-long series of experiences engineered specifically for his or her individual tastes, history, and relationships to people and place. Employing family members and friends of the participant, a diverse group of artists, and the general public, Odyssey Works blurs the line between the “real” and the “performed” with its experimental and experiential work.
The public realm of the city is ever more frequently inhabited by professional performance, as theater, dance, and other art creation increasingly utilize plazas and streets as stages in place of traditional venues. (For more on this, read the recent Architectural League report Success Looks Different Now: Design and Cultural Vitality in Lower Manhattan.) For Odyssey Works, the city is not just a stage, but is an environment rich with significance, individual to each of us. Each performance mines these personalized landscapes to create a profound, transformative experience.
Abraham Burickson, an architect and writer, co-founded Odyssey Works in 2002. He sat down with us to discuss how experience embeds meaning in physical spaces, how the dynamism and randomness of urban life feeds his work, and why we need to design for the misuse of architecture and the ephemerality of cities. —J.T.
What is Odyssey Works and how did it come to be?
In 2002, my friend Matthew Purdon and I had a conversation about the ideal audience for art. As artists, generally speaking, we create work and hope it finds its way to an audience that understands and is moved by it. But we felt this short-changed the artist’s intent, and we wondered if we could actually target our work to the person who could best receive it. That question opened a lot of doors for us, including the idea of designing a work specifically for one person based on an understanding of their subjectivity.
Art that affects you — in any medium — is very specific to you. It’s as if you have a set of subjective protein receptors in your creative-appreciation mind, and the piece is so perfectly engineered to your subjectivity that it can break you open for meaning to flood in. We wanted to see if we could achieve that by crafting an experience that would affect someone even more deeply than a randomly arrived-at occurrence might.
What resulted from those conversations is Odyssey Works. We create durational aesthetic and narrative experiences culminating in a weekend-long piece for an audience of one person, our “participant.” Each piece is developed after extensive research into the life of the participant, and each is interdisciplinary and personal, using places and things already embedded with meaning for that person to blur the boundary between the performance and the real.
One thing we strive for is “pronoia”: the irrational belief that people are out to do good things to you.
What goes into creating these performances?
By nature and intent, the process is an ongoing exploration. Although we have our typical methods, we continually strive to evolve them as we learn new things and work with different participants, each of whom demands a different approach.
We start with a very involved application, choose three finalists, interview them, and call references to get outside points of view. Once we’ve selected somebody, we start our research. We ask for a list of 30 friends and family members and call them all. Then we start doing things particular to that participant. If they are a writer, as our most recent participant was, we read every book that they have written. We listen to the music they listen to. We visit them at home and at their workplace. We try to absorb as much about them as we possibly can.
With all this information in hand, the directorial team spends a week discussing the participant and what might affect that person. We walk out with a structure, a general vision of the arc and sets of experiences that we want the participant to have, which is our script. This is manifested in a diagram, which we fill in as we work out details. We may say that at one point in the evening we want the participant to experience a lonely, vast landscape with music, even if we don’t yet know how that will take shape.
We have actors begin to infiltrate the life of the participant with the help of his or her friends and family. The actors don’t necessarily have any agenda beyond exploring the natural relationship that emerges with the participant, which serves as further research and a way of establishing characters that can be utilized later in the performance itself. This adds a certain element of the real, which is a very important aspect of our work.
This year, we had small performances that our participant, Rick Moody, was invited to every week for two months before the main weekend, preparing him for that day when all the threads would come back together. Some he knew were happening; others he did not, and those happened around him, with or without him noticing. Things were fed into his life over time: a children’s book written for his daughter was given to him, a fake New York Times review of that book was emailed to him by a friend, pieces of music composed by Travis Weller were left playing for him in a space we called the Cloister, where we asked him to go weekly to interact with installations that we created. Then there were two major moments. At the end of August, I met him in a park and a car picked us up. He didn’t know where we were going until we arrived at LaGuardia Airport, at which point I opened the trunk and pulled out his suitcase. Inside was his passport, and upon inserting it into the ticket machine, he discovered that he was flying to Regina, Saskatchewan. There we created for him a very specific aesthetic experience with a cellist playing the same music from the Cloister in a field. That was all before the culminating weekend of experiences.
How does your background as an architect influence your performance work and vice versa?
Architecture is very much about understanding users and clients in order to visualize the life that will happen in what you design. Architecture is also an inherently collaborative process. Each of those elements manifests itself in Odyssey Works.
The way we diagram our work is fairly unique among playwrights and other artists and illustrates how we approach the creation of our performances. Traditionally when you read a script, characters enter the stage on one page and leave at the end of another. You can understand exactly what happens, but you don’t necessarily grasp how the entire work is conceptualized. A diagram, while it may lack specifics like dialogue, can show you the overall intent of the performance. Similarly, a set of plans walks you through a building, but a diagram will let you understand how the building is intended to perform.
What’s interesting and hard to express about our performances is that people’s states change over time, their modes of receptivity transform. When you first encounter a performance you want to figure out the narrative, but after three to six hours of immersion, you become more concerned with direct sensory and emotional experiences. It’s very hard to represent that with a script, but a diagram can begin to describe the way that the piece will have to change to respond to that changing inner state. I’m also very interested in mapping. It’s this Kabbalistic belief that if you overlay piles of data, suddenly a pattern — the “truth” — will emerge. That may not be true, but it is exciting.
How do the experiences and spaces in an Odyssey Works performance relate to those of “real” life?
The contrast between what is understood as designed and what is understood as simply the mundane nature of our life in the city is of particular interest to us. As we move through the city, we move between understanding it as a field in which we operate and understanding it as a having nodes of art, design, and attentiveness, which are assigned culturally and personally. The orientation of your attentiveness differs when you look at the Brooklyn Bridge — which has a known history and design — versus the Manhattan Bridge, which to many people is just a bridge. You may have a beautiful experience on the Manhattan Bridge but it’s not overlaid, necessarily, with those layers of meaning that have been assigned to it.
Experience becomes a node of meaning. It’s lived, and nothing has meaning to us unless it is really lived.
In site-specific performance, you have an opportunity to thread between the attentive, designed moment and the quotidian, practical moment. There are the times when quotidian experience builds up into a noticeable pattern that we recognize as designed and to which we give value. If you have a play on stage, it’s all designed and scripted, and you look at it purely in that sense. Contrarily, when I was growing up in New York, I didn’t pay particular attention to the graffiti that covered the subways. Years later, after they were cleaned up, I saw a photography exhibit of those murals, and I realized I had missed something. The graffiti was work that was, for most of my life, in the realm of the mundane, and moved into the attentive.
The question is, does design and art — whether inconspicuous architecture or graffiti on the subways — have an effect on you regardless of your attention to it? Surely, as architects we must believe that it does, but it’s a different effect from art imbued with cultural significance. Working with these two approaches — the passive reception of design and the active attention to it — one can create what could be felt to be real experiences in performance. Similarly, working with these two allows the architect to design more carefully the life that could happen within any piece of architecture.
How do you choose the sites across which the performance occurs, and how do the experiences you create interact with them?
We work with sites already embedded with meaning for the participant. Primarily, we look for sites with personal significance: this is the park where I got mugged, and that’s the restaurant where I had the best meal of my life, et cetera. But we also use sites embedded with meaning in a publicly acknowledged way, such as the Brooklyn Bridge or One World Trade Center, or sites that connote particular qualities, such as a particularly cold, corporate, unwelcoming space.
It’s great to work in cities because there are so many options close to one another and each site presents opportunities that we couldn’t possibly predict. There is so much dynamism in the city, and so much that’s unknown. At different times of day, different populations move through and interact with spaces. And there are all these different programs surrounding any particular site and a whole approach to and path away from it that affect what happens there. When you’re in the city, you’re constantly moving between some sort of controlled, regular choreography and disruptive events. That lack of predictability is what makes the city feel real. We need our performances to feel real for them to have as deep an impact as possible, so we use randomness to our advantage.
For the most recent performance, we visited the Brooklyn Bridge to decide on a spot where we could hold a dance performance. There was a woman selling cayenne-dusted mangos on a stick, who attracted the attention of tourists in a very curious way. We thought we might actually be able to use her to create a screen, so that when the participant approached the performance, she would distract him at first. In that way, we choreographed the piece around what is already happening in a space.
We also staged a scene in Metrotech Commons, which is neither the most beautiful public space in the world nor somewhere you would expect to see something of transcendent beauty. That surprise is powerful, because when you see something that doesn’t fit, you pay attention.
Those factors combined with what I consider to be the misuse of architecture or the misuse of the city come together to create place. This happens when a warehouse becomes an art studio, or when a park bench becomes a skateboarding ramp, or when an ugly urban park like Metrotech Commons becomes a performance site. Recently people have begun to consider our design of the city as a way to create possibilities for life to happen: in a way, designing for misuse. In this way, we can start to think about the city as a place for opportunities for unplanned activities rather than as a structured program.
What’s an example of a site being used to elicit a particular feeling in a participant?
One of our participants, Kristina Kulin, loves symmetrical, classical form. So, much of her performance, called “The Midden of Possibility,” was about guiding her from these comfortable forms to things that were more contemporary, atonal, and messy in beautiful ways. We knew that the Palace Hotel behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral was one of the best examples in New York of what she loved in architecture, and we also knew that the best example of the symmetrical, classical music that she liked was “Clair de Lune.” We created a moment where she moved through St. Patrick’s to the hotel. When she entered the hotel courtyard, we had people with radios in their pockets playing “Clair de Lune.” That was the high point of what she knew and loved, and from there we were able to move into something quite different.
Many aspects of your performances are similarly symbolic, but they are also physical experiences. How does that connection between the symbolic and the physical relate to the experience of a building or a space?
We learn from architecture that symbolism is an embodied experience. Take, for example, a traditional mosque like the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, which is loudly symbolic. You have the four walls representing the cardinal directions, the axis that points toward Mecca, the vertical axis in the middle of the dome that puts you in relationship with the divine. You can know this in your mind, but it means nothing until you stand there and live it. Its architecture embodies symbolism and brings it to life.
It’s so tempting to just say “X” equals “Y” in performance, that the rotting banana on the table represents the corruption of the bourgeoisie. It becomes an intellectual game. In our physical engagement with the city and the mixing of the real and the performative, and the explicitly meaningful and the quotidian in those spaces, anything that’s meant to be symbolically understood is embodied. We could have talked with Kristina about symmetry and asymmetry, but instead we created a symbolic, embodied moment that represented all that she knew and loved aesthetically. Over the course of the piece, she encountered other versions of “Clair de Lune” at various levels of fidelity and bearability, culminating with a final iteration, a decomposition of the piece by Travis Weller that took the five minute composition and stretched it out over eighty, at the end of which the piece had fallen apart and turned into scratching, scraping, banging soundscapes. She also encountered architecture less overtly beautiful than St. Patrick’s or the Palace Hotel. In the climax of the piece she sat, waiting for the sun to rise, in a composition of asymmetrical detritus taken from her life and assembled in a field that we called the Midden of Possibility. That experience became a node of meaning. It was lived, and nothing has meaning to us unless it is really lived.
How do you think experiencing the performance as participant or performer changes the perception of interactions in the city as designed versus real?
Our intent is to make the spaces of the city more luminous, and that happens when we create meaning. An urban space by itself, while it has certain phenomenological qualities, is only filled with meaning once we interact with it or attend to it. So one thing we strive for and that our participants often speak of experiencing is “pronoia”: the irrational belief that people are out to do good things to you. If you believe people are planting beautiful things everywhere you go, you are forced to perceive the city in terms of meaning, and in that way you create place. This is why it’s so important to allow the misuse of architecture.
Building off of that, how have the performances changed the perception of place that was previously familiar to either participants or performers?
There was a piece done for me when we were initially just experimenting with the idea of these performances for one another. I was walking down Market Street in San Francisco, not a street that I particularly like, and out of a store came a friend of mine. He just started walking with me without saying anything. On a street corner, another friend joined us. As we were walking, it just dawned on me that this was all I wanted in life, to walk with a friend. Now every time I’m on Market Street, I’m kinesthetically reminded of the possibility of friendship.
In a number of your performances, there is a shift from urban space to rural space. What is the function of that shift and does it say anything about the differing nature of the two realms?
We tend to have performances for people who live in cities, mostly because of the potential that a city has. Cities are fields of interconnected nodes of meaning with a sense of forward motion. That’s how we live: we have one experience after another and they are all somewhat interconnected in space and mind.
When we go out of the city, we generally use spaces with which the participant has no previous relationship. By moving in a jump-cut fashion — often blindfolded or by plane — from a space of meaning to an unknown space, you allow for the participant to form a self-contained relationship to the new site. In Carl’s piece, we moved him to an unfamiliar country house in a town unknown to him. We wanted him to experience a new life, and that could not happen anywhere in the city with a window. As soon as you look out, you are in relationship with other parts of the city. The beauty of moving outside the city is moving into something fresh.
How do you see architecture and performance continuing to evolve in response to user or audience experience?
I went to an experimental performance recently. There was a guy on the roof of a house giving a monologue about the road to a rich man’s house, a dance piece in a very small bathroom where not everybody could fit, a woman that let a parrot out of her shirt. There was a tension between what the performers wanted us to pay attention to and what actually drew my attention: diplomas, books, and the fact that we couldn’t fit into the bathroom.
So much of the activity of art-making is about drawing the boundary around something that we say is worth observing or will have meaning to us. If we were really interested in creating the possibility for performance or architecture to be deeply felt, we would consider the experience of our audience instead of just the object, form, or idea on display. In thinking this way, you would think about the route that a museum-goer walks to see a painting, the transportation they take to get to the museum, and what weather is ideal for experiencing the piece. This is a much more urban way of thinking about our work.
The urban sphere is a giant mess, and our life is about moving through it and drawing lines around what we will take in and what we will ignore. I think it’s the job of artists and theorists to point out things that we ought to be noticing.
By nature, an Odyssey Works performance is ephemeral. Only one person experiences it in its entirety and it’s difficult to document. Cities are fundamentally ever-changing and impermanent, spaces where things are constantly being wiped away and built upon. Do you find an importance and / or a beauty in this impermanence and ephemerality for both place and performance?
Isn’t this denial of impermanence in the face of its inevitability the great struggle of our lives? It is certainly present in architecture, where we design buildings as if they are not only going to stand forever, but also that they will always be used as we intend them to be used. Few people actually design for change. Similarly, when you go to a play, there is a sense that this is the play every night. Shakespeare is always going to be Shakespeare. There’s a deep existential issue with this. In our experience, every moment happens only one time. There’s a sense of continual loss. We decided to embrace this ephemeral quality by choosing never to repeat a performance. That terror of knowing that nothing is permanent forces us to receive what is before us. If we know this will never happen again, we have to take it in as deeply as possible.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.