Odyssey Works Favorite 



Sep 10 2012

IT all looked so normal: a dozen diners chatting over coffee and hash browns at an outdoor cafe near the waterfront here on an August morning. The cook flipped eggs, a dog sniffed for scraps, and the young woman in the black sweater suspected nothing of the spies and confederates sprinkled throughout. They’d been studying her life for four months and were finally preparing to pull it through the looking glass they’d constructed. Within 36 hours there would be confusion, euphoria, tears, even an abduction.

It was all in the service of art. For more than a decade a loose-knit, multidisciplinary collective called Odyssey Works has been quietly inverting art’s longstanding arrangement with its audience. Rather than a single artist creating for a general population, it directs many artists at a deeply researched population of one. The intricate creations that converge in the group members’ weekend-long performances — sound installations, films, performance art and more — exist only for their chosen subject, whom they’ve come to know very well. Then it all vanishes. The idea is a beautiful inefficiency: a tiny but infinitely more affected audience.

“The goal is to find the deepest possible effect of art and the full breadth of emotional experience in the world,” said Abraham Burickson, the kindly and ruminative co-founder and director of Odyssey Works. “We get to know them so well, we don’t have to use guesswork to find how to make that happen. We’re ‘Amazon recommends,’ for art.”

The beneficiary of all this activity that weekend was Laura Espino, 26, a volunteer coordinator originally from Argentina. Having heard about the group from a friend, she’d filled out a monstrously elaborate application to be its next audience. She was chosen from roughly 100 applicants, asked to leave a certain weekend open and to do no further research. Already it had begun to research her.

In Ms. Espino the group had found a guarded personality. In that guardedness Mr. Burickson saw something to be mined.

“She holds her cards close to her chest,” he said. “There’s a crafting of stories she does, in part to make people around her feel comfortable. The ways she uses narrative in her life felt significant. So we wanted to be the ones controlling the narrative, and ultimately eroding it.”

Over time six members infiltrated her life in various guises to get to know her and plant seeds for the artistic themes they’d be exploring. The process was meticulous; the creative, emotional and logistical challenges of site-specific art, you might suspect, pale against those of audience-specific art.

On the eve of their recent performance, group members convened for one last logistical review. When, exactly, would Ms. Espino arrive at the Best Buy? From which direction would she approach the bookstore? A handful of group members sat around a kitchen table, each with a 26-page packet of diagrams, schedules, maps and detailed instructions for the coming weekend. Ms. Espino would, seemingly by chance, find herself in a series of subtle but increasingly disorienting scenes, each of which had to unfold naturally and plausibly; narrative themes sprinkled in faintly at first would recur and build. The task at hand was not just to ensure that they braided just so, but also to cloak every movement and interaction in apparent serendipity. An Odyssey Works production doesn’t scream “art” so much as whisper it into the subconscious retroactively.

The artistic material generated in the preceding months was as tailored as it was vast. Having identified Ms. Espino’s interest in Argentine literature, Mr. Burickson and several others composed an entire novel, ostensibly written by the author Alberto Gerchunoff many decades ago and overlooked by history. They had the paper professionally aged at a lab in New York, then found a way of getting it into her hands. (Reviews were written and Wikipedia entries adjusted as needed, for realism’s sake.) Another artist infiltrated Ms. Espino’s life in the character of Gerchunoff’s granddaughter.

Writing was only part of the literary undertaking. The novel was to be erased too. A confederate sneaked into Ms. Espino’s bag and replaced her book with a copy that was mysteriously missing some text. Later this copy was swapped for an even sparser version, as though the story had simply decomposed — a thematic echo of her own protective stories breaking down.

Ms. Espino would be “abducted” on Saturday. That night she would take a bath under an intricate, weblike speaker installation chiming noises distilled from the narrative strands of the weekend. Then she’d be blindfolded and driven 90 minutes north to a secluded spot in the Sebastopol hills. A tent and dinner would await, then a ride back the next day for the final scene.

In previous projects an audience member was buried in sand, another left overnight in a field of butterflies. In New York a subject awoke to a talk show composed just for him, delivered via a clock radio that had been smuggled into his bedroom.

Mr. Burickson, 37, a poet, professor and former architect, concedes the obvious drama of these scenes. But they always serve a larger and more nuanced aim, he said. He spent years searching for a way to amplify art’s transformative power, to have it affect people more deeply. In 2001 he and Matthew Purdon, the other founder, were hiking when they had something of an entrepreneurial epiphany: Art’s limits are rooted not in the product but in the beholder — specifically the number of beholders. With an audience of one the artists could tailor their work to a specific emotional and intellectual landscape.

“Think about love poems, which are based on knowing their audience intimately: what her references are, what her vocabulary is, how long her attention span is, etc.,” he said. “Why couldn’t we approach art that way?”

Like the Curies sampling their own radium, Mr. Purdon submitted himself to what would become the first performance in the fall of 2001. There have been 13 performances since — mostly in San Francisco but also in New York, all free to audiences and paid for mostly by grants and donations. (Members and conspirators are unpaid.) The next project is likely to be in New York this summer; a call for applications will go up on the Web site.)

The performance and video artist Mike Smith first learned about Odyssey Works a few years back. “I was very intrigued,” he said. “You could look at it like performance art, and it drew to an extent from theater too. And yet it’s for one person.”

The writer and artist Ted Purves, author of “What We Want Is Free: Generosity and Exchange in Recent Art,” called the group “a little street situationist, with elements of a rave, and a little flash mob.”

Odyssey Works tends to invite all manner of glancing comparisons: artists like Vito Acconci, Marina Abramovic and Aaron Landsman; the interactive Punchdrunk play “Sleep No More”; the notion of relational aesthetics; and the largely European trend of performing theater for one person at a time. The Michael Douglas film “The Game” invariably gets invoked too. Still, it’s Videogames Adventure Services that comes up the most. That group puts its quarry through extreme situations, generally involving kidnapping. Mr. Burickson sees their high-octane stunts as generic adventures for high-dollar customers, more akin to live movies than art.

Nell Waters, a member of Odyssey Works, said one former audience member reported that he reflects every day on the 2003 performance that intersected with his life.

“People always end up asking, ‘Why can’t we be like this with each other all the time?’ ” Ms. Waters said. “Having these long-lasting moments of wonder — the closest thing I can think of is living during the Renaissance.”

Given the group’s emotional impact, one might conclude that it’s walking some razor’s edge between art and therapy. Mr. Burickson is quick to disabuse that. “We’re not trying to fix people,” he said.

Back in the Bay Area, the scenes were ratcheting up. After her night in Sebastopol Ms. Espino ended up at a speakeasy-type space in the Mission District of San Francisco. Waiting for her at a table was her mother, who’d been brought in for this final scene.

When she spotted her mother, an already apparent unsteadiness in Ms. Espino doubled. They talked, and gradually their conversation became engulfed in a cacophony of odd noises. All 40 or so patrons were plants, prepped to generate certain thematically appropriate sounds at the right time. A discordant crescendo rose, and Mr. Burickson eventually ended things with a heartfelt send-off. Ms. Espino left visibly shaken, some mix of euphoric and overwhelmed. Over the following week she barely socialized, she said — too much to process. The next Saturday she reconvened with Odyssey Works for a debriefing and subsequently sat down with a reporter to sift through all that had happened. She still seemed rattled by how deeply the group had come to grasp and tweak the themes of her life, from family to exile to home.

“I was expecting a performance: theater, puppets, papier-mâché. Instead I was deep in a Ray Bradbury story, neither surreal nor real,” she said. “It was impossible not to be deeply moved. They’d removed things from my life, rearranged them and then put them in front of me.”

New York Times
Oct 4, 2012

A version of this article appears in print on October 7, 2012, on Page AR19 of the New York edition with the headline: A Waking Dream Made Just for You

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