“What is it like to know a person so well that you could know how they receive an impression?”—Abraham Burickson

Abraham Burickson + Ariel Abrahams + Ayden G.M. Grout: Odyssey Works / Long Island City NY

“what is it like to know a person so well that you could know how they receive an impression?”—abraham burickson

What are the origins of the collaboration?
Abraham: The Odyssey Works (OW) project has been running since 2002. With such a long history, the personnel has turned over a few times. The project began when I was on a writers and artists retreat in Big Sur with my co-founder, Matthew Purdon. We were going for a hike and discussing the problem of the ideal audience. We shared the common frustration that our work would be made for a very particular effect. Matthew might paint a painting that, to him, was meant to embody a feeling of joy and longing, or I might write a poem about sadness and loneliness, and then the work would be cast out into the world. Some people would get it, some might find the work funny or political or depressing; there was no way of knowing exactly how a person would receive the work. We celebrated this in the past—the adventure of creating something that would have its own life in the world—but that celebration began to feel like an excuse after a while. If I write a poem of sadness, I want people to feel it, not laugh. If I had wanted them to laugh, I would have written a limerick. We had this ideal reader/viewer/audience, but we didn’t know who it was.

When we got to the end of the hike, we stopped to have lunch on the beach. Matt finished his orange juice box, crumpled it up, and left it in the sand. We looked at it. “Is it beautiful?” I said to him.

“Yes,” he said.

“I find it ugly,” I said.

We started to talk about it. Why? He loved the colors against the beige of the sand. I disliked the commercial quality of it. As we continued to look, the experience morphed, and soon we were asking: What is it like to know a person so well that you could know how they receive an impression? To know what sort of associations they would have with a particular color, a particular shape, a particular idea. To know whether they were comfortable standing in a gallery looking at a painting, or whether they were comfortable seeing that painting in their bathroom, in the back of their car, or held up by a stranger on the bus. What if you knew this person’s stories, what was already symbolic for them? How much more direct could your writing be? There would be no need to try to find symbolic structures that might or might not mean something to the person, because you could just write with the structures you know the person is already open to. This idea took root in us—what is the deepest impact our art could possibly have? Could our art change just one life, and wouldn’t that be worth it? As artists, the idea was exciting. Unintended consequences awaited us, some of which would challenge our understandings of ourselves as artists, and others that would make it clear that this idea would be a gateway to a field of other ideas that would demand exploration. It started with the two of us. But it grew from there, through the interest of our friends and other artists in what we were doing, until it arrived at where it is now.

Planning Carl’s Performance

photo: ayden l.m. grout, courtesy of ow

What is the Odyssey Works collaborative process of generating An Audience of One performance?
Abraham: We have an extensive application process that helps us choose and get to know our participant. This involves filling out a long questionnaire, which takes between three and ten hours. Then we call references and conduct live, videotaped interviews with our finalists. This work is split between the members of the Structure Team, which is a three to six–member group that designs the overall vision of the piece. After we select our participant, we ask a few more questions, solicit a list of friends and family to contact, and interview all of them. We take interview notes and share them in a Google Doc. Our objective is to fully understand the participant. We have watched their favorite movies, listened to their favorite (or least favorite) music, etc. We gather a list of significant places in the city, and our team scouts them for their performative and symbolic potential.

Once all of this basic research is done, the team retreats somewhere outside of the city for four to seven days. We spend the time thinking, talking, diagramming, experimenting, and conceptualizing the experience we wish to create. We walk out of the retreat with an overall structure that has been created collaboratively. The purpose is to arrive at a group flow of ideas by being so deeply immersed in the question at hand, that there is no other option. Sometimes this means spending all day in the shed of a farmhouse, brainstorming. Sometimes this means going swimming, bowling, or hiking. The days are roughly structured, but anyone on the team can restructure them at any time. At the end of the retreat period, we have an overall structure composed of an arc of experiences for the participant. For instance, we might create a scene where the participant is given a gift by a friend, that will be loved by his daughter, and will provide narrative material for him as he reads it to her. This will then be filled in by different artists under the direction of one of the Structure Team members. We have an extensive network of writers, designers, composers, musicians, and actors, to collaborate at this level. Our most recent production went on for several months, and by design, required a great deal of on-the-fly response. One major aspect included an installation in a 20,000 ft² retail space that had once been a hardware store in downtown Brooklyn. The participant visited the space weekly, and on a weekly basis we changed the installation in response to how he connected with and responded to what he found there. It was a supremely dialogical process, and very intense. Ayden worked closely with me to recreate the installation every week. The acting is dynamic and dialogical, as we work with actors who enter the participant’s life to develop relationships with him or her, and use what they learn from those relationships to develop their story and their character. This was bottom-lined by Jen in collaboration with me. My job as Artistic Director is to provide the final word on everything and facilitate the process of collaboration. This is the ramp-up to the final day.

Carl’s Abduction

photo: ayden l.m. grout, courtesy of ow

The final day requires less artistic changes on the fly, and more emergency-solving. It requires us to have a structure of people responsible for various parts, with a single communication hub, and a director who can make calls on-the-fly when there are issues. Ayden and I usually take turns as director, which also explains our interchangeable collaborative dynamic. Our roles shift over time, and project by project. It is very important that the projects stay fresh, and that the process is always evolving, so that our collaborative dynamic remains dynamic.

What is the makeup of the group?
Abraham: The first generation of Odyssey Workers is out of the picture now—they have gone on to other careers and families. OW is an intense commitment and can take a lot of time away from competing life goals. We’re on our third generation of Odyssey Workers. Many people come to the team as extras, participants, or friends of participants. These people are affected by the work and understand it in a way that goes beyond theoretical. If people are talented and hardworking, there is room on the production team for lots of help. A few of these people eventually rise to the core team, which is about a dozen or so. The decision process is informal, but depends on a deep creative and collaborative fit, plus dependability. I can’t stress the latter enough; a person can be incredibly inspiring and a great collaborator, but if they cannot hold up their end, it destroys the dynamic. Each production is touched by up to 100 pairs of hands in the end.

How do the various skill sets complement each other?
Ayden: We all come from different backgrounds and disciplines. I was trained as a visual artist and writer, Abraham is an architect and writer, Ariel is a participatory artist and educator, and Jen is a choreographer and actor. Each of us have a shared vision for how art can impact the audience, but we employ our own unique skills to make this happen. We cover a lot of disciplinary ground on our core team, and we also work with psychoanalysts, composers, dancers, designers, storytellers, and computer geeks. When everyone goes on retreat to plan a piece, we eat, breathe, and sleep in the participant’s world that we have chosen. We share a love for the individual, but we each see it through different lenses of disciplines, processes, and histories.

The best example of this is the diagram that we make for each piece. In making such large-scale and ephemeral work, it has become a really crucial part of the process to create a diagram that delineates all the strata of a ±48 hour performance. Abraham thinks about the arc of the experience for our participant, and as an architect, he really likes to make a graphic map to chart the many layers of each Odyssey experience. It’s really fun. My first year on the OW team, I worked on the diagram with Abraham and Bjorn (our Production Assistant that year). I learned how to combine intense research based on studying an individual’s life for months with symbolic and performative actions. I was drawn to conveying information visually. For the second piece I worked on, Bjorn and I tried to make the diagram with less direction from Abraham, and it was a mess. I made the most hideous Venn diagram with something flowing out of the bottom and tangling together. It was awful. It was ugly and meaningless. I realized that as a visual artist, I don’t need to convey concrete information in the way that Abraham has practiced as an architect. He has finessed craft, whereas I fumble through. I learned that there are realms where each of us have expertise. It’s a joke for Abraham and me now, because I refuse to touch diagrams. He does an awesome of job coming up with a new map of the piece each time. Each piece has different sets of information so it’s not like there’s a template to work from. I am incapable of thinking in a way that can convey tangible information visually.

Do you have to invent to fill in non-researchable gaps of someone’s life?
Abraham: We all see our fellow humans through a polarized lens, and we need different perspectives to get a larger view. A group is essential to that process. When we get together, we circle our participant and try to see them in three dimensions. Each of us draws a picture and presents it to the group. It’s our way of saying, “Look. This is what I see. Can you see it too?” When we collaborate, it’s like we have six pairs of eyes—inner and outer—in each of our heads. The collaboration multiplies us, expands our understanding of what is possible, reminds us of the narrowness of our own world views, and the magnificence of what can be seen.

What are some challenges about working in a live collaborative performance?
Ariel: One of the greatest challenges is planning a multi-part journey for our participant, and trusting that it will all work without a formal rehearsal. We can plan a scene with 50 volunteers, do the groundwork by reaching out to our network, find the volunteers, and train them before the performance, but if they don’t show up on that day, then we need to deal with that fast. Or it might rain. Or it might be too windy for the boat we had reserved to make it to its destination. There are so many variables in a large-scale live performance, that no matter how much we plan, everything is up in the air on the day of. It’s a miracle that the performances are so close to our scripts.

We gather a lot of information on our participant, but not every collaborator can read through that information—it’s too personal and takes too long. That’s why we have many meetings throughout the course of production in order to get everyone on board and acquainted with our participant. For example, in creating the piece for the author Rick Moody, we all did a lot of free writing to get into the mode of thinking like a writer. Even the most distant collaborators were instructed to partake in writing assignments.

Gerchunoff Letters

writing: abraham burickson, courtesy of ow

How is Odyssey Works an interdisciplinary exercise?
Ariel: We are not afraid to mix dance, theater, visual art, and music together. The preparation for each performance is an amazing journey, and we attract all kinds of people who want to help. In our latest production, we had a magician volunteer his talents. In previous performances, we have worked with musicians to produce original music specifically for our participant. Odyssey Works is special because it is large-scale in its ambition and small within its local community. Even with such a large network of supporters and potential collaborators, the crew is tight, and each artist’s unique talents come into play. It’s never just about creating a piece of music for our participant—it’s what our composer, Travis, feels in relation to our participant through our research on him. It’s not just about doing a flashy magic trick; it’s about the collaborative relationship of the magician to our participant.

How do see collaboration in the arts and design changing?
Ayden: There is more of a demand for collaboration in contemporary art. I’m not sure exactly why this is happening, but I have noticed the trend. I see fewer and fewer artists sticking to one craft, or a single medium. Collaboration has been a gateway to interdisciplinarity. Not only that, but it has been an invitation to expand the scope of our vision. Think of Christo and Jean-Claude and what massive, beautiful works they have created as a pair. I think a lot about scale as it relates to collaboration, and what we can make as individuals as opposed to groups. We talk about how our Odyssey Works are sometimes like short stories or novellas, but then last year we made a piece that was three months long. It was like a novel. I never could have made a performance that happened over a quarter of a year single-handedly.

Sound Bath for Laura

photo: frederic grasset, courtesy of ow

For me, collaboration has been beneficial in many ways and a necessary antidote to the loneliness of being an artist. We learn from one another when we approach projects through different lenses because we have to find a meeting ground for all of our visions. Collaboration is all about accountability, about having people there to always give feedback, and to build upon what we believe to be possible. By working together, we hold each other to deadlines, a certain level of craftsmanship, and we exceed the sum of our parts. It also advances my individual practice—if I give a certain amount of time to my collaborators, I am aware that I need to allot a certain amount of time to myself in my studio.