Pronoia, beautiful inefficiency, and an artwork built for one

In the fall and winter of 2013, the writer Rick Moody experienced a set of events designed to change his life. His priest gave him a book, apparently written decades ago (though actually specially crafted just for him), to read with his daughter. It told the story of a secret room, and soon afterwards, Moody was led by friends to his own secret room, a disused hardware store in Brooklyn, where he encountered objects that evoked moments in his life and in the book. Music he encountered in the secret room reoccurred, when the artists orchestrating these events picked Moody up in New York City, flew him to Regina and drove him to an isolated prairie, where he sat in a pavilion made of hay bales and a cellist performed the composition he had previously heard. As the piece escalated, hundreds of performers followed Moody moved through New York, dancing on subway platforms and surrounding him as costumed fools in Brooklyn’s Metrotech Commons. A photo of Moody surrounded by his hundred fools suggests a moment of transcendent bliss.

Moody was the “participant” in a performance titled “When I Left the House It Was Still Dark”, created by Odyssey Works, which “makes large scale, durational, interdisciplinary performances customized for one-person audiences.” The company has been making work since 2002, but as less than two dozen people have served as the audiences for these works, it’s not surprising you may not have heard of them. Writing about the company’s work in 2012, Chris Colin wrote about the “beautiful inefficiency” of this method of working, the absurd and beautiful idea of an immense effort deployed to create an emotional response in a single person.

Odyssey Works is not alone in crafting experiences designed for a single person. Colin offers some reference points for contextualizing works like “When I Left the House It Was Still Dark”: the immersive theatre experiences of Punchdrunk, the producers of “Sleep No More“; works like “You Me Bum Bum Train” that puts a single audience member at the center of a set of scenes in the work. A set of films called “Experiment Ensam” (Experiment Alone) takes experiences normally experienced in a large group – a comedy club, a karaoke bar – and recreates them for a single person. Recently, Experiment Ensam produced a Bob Dylan concert for a single fan, a brief set with Dylan and his touring band at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. The performance was filmed with eight cameras and will be released on YouTube later this month, raising questions about whether the audience was Swedish TV personality Fredrik Wikingsson, who attended the concert, or those of us who will watch it online.

These acts of personalized theatre don’t always go well. Jorge Just produced a memorable story for This American Life about Improv Everywhere, a New York City-based troupe that creates theatrical moments in everyday life. (One of their recurrent projects is the “No Pants Subway Ride”, where subways slowly fill up with passengers who are unremarkable but for the fact that they’ve forgotten their pants.) In the “mission” TAL examines, Improv Everywhere tried to give an unknown indie rock band their best gig ever, recruiting an audience to learn their songs, sing along with the performance and shout out requests for the band’s songs. After the initial elation of playing for a large crowd wore off, the members of the band felt like they had been the butt of an elaborate joke, laughed at by the Improv performers and made fun of online. The tension between Improv Everywhere’s good intentions and the damage it caused the band makes Just’s story striking and poignant. Theatre for one is hard to do well.

Odyssey Works may surprise their participants, but it certainly isn’t ambushing them. Participants are selected through a detailed application process, which begins with an online application that asks about a person’s favorite places in her city of residence and her experiences with pieces of art. The company interviews family and friends, both to recruit them into building the experience for the participant, but also to understand what she is likely to be moved or effected by. In preparing “When I Left the House It Was Still Dark”, the producers read all of Moody’s books, interviewed thirty of his family and friends, and visited him several times before designing the work.

Abraham Burickson, co-founder of Odyssey Works, explains the logic behind this process: it’s about discovering the ideal audience for a piece of art. Artists hope their work moves the audience, but it’s a frustratingly inexact process. Armed with a deep understanding of the participant, the company deploys imagery and ideas designed to evoke a more powerful response than they would in an audience as a whole. “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.”

This working method could be deeply creepy if it weren’t so carefully and lovingly done. Part of experiencing one of these artworks is realizing you’ve been under surveillance for months in advance and that hundreds of people have learned intimate details of your life in order to present this experience to you. In a sense, this is what web advertisers and other purveyors of personalization promise. In this case, it’s done poetically and beautifully. In that sense, it reminds me of Yuletide, in which thousands of authors write custom fan fiction stories carefully tailored for the recipient as an especially personal version of “secret Santa”. Because the Odyssey Works pieces are so immersive, Burickson explains that they tend to create a sense of “pronoia”, an irrational belief that the world is conspiring to do wonderful things on your behalf.

For reasons I cannot explain, the images crafted for Moody – particularly that of a cellist performing a composition in a prairie outside Regina, Saskatchewan – are some of the most moving I’ve recently encountered. They make me wonder about the mechanics of this method – am I responding to imagery that Moody and I happen to share? (I resonate with the prairie, but not the idea of the Cloister, the secret room Moody explores, which seems designed to connect with Moody’s Catholic background and doesn’t trigger a similar receptor in me, a fundamentalist Unitarian.) Or are Burickson and colleagues creating powerful images, inspired by Moody, but elegantly crafted to connect with a wide range of receptive audiences? By identifying an image that resonates profoundly for Moody, are they inadvertently creating deeply potent ideas that would resonate for anyone who encountered them?

Since reading about Odyssey Works, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with the idea. I don’t actually want to be a participant in one of these pieces – it’s overwhelming to think about accepting a gift of that magnitude. Instead, I want to understand what Odyssey Works created and what Moody experienced, to the point where I’m thinking about approaching magazine editors to pitch the story so I’d have the chance to interview Moody, Burickson and his collaborators.

It’s as if Burickson and his colleagues have created a work just for me, not a performance, but an impossibly fertile idea of making art that expands beyond the edges of the page and into every aspect of a viewer’s life. For all I know, the few articles I’ve read are part of an elaborate fiction designed to evoke a particular set of reactions in me as part of a carefully crafted artwork I did not consent to, but am enjoying nevertheless.

In 1994, when I was still pretending to be an artist, my art school roommates and I began designing an elaborate, multi-website fantasy, something that would later be described as an alternate reality game. (One of my roommates was filmmaker Jackie Goss, and we were extending a film she’d made about young women growing antlers.) We never progressed beyond sketches, in part because we never could figure out who we wanted to discover these sites and what we hoped they’d make of them. Twenty years later, there’s something lovely about discovering the same idea, done so well and towards such a beautiful goal.

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2 Responses to Pronoia, beautiful inefficiency, and an artwork built for one

  1. Terry Martin says:

    Fascinating. Brought to mind Stephenson’s The Diamond Age.

  2. Monica Sena-Boon says:

    Interesting concept, and nice to see put into words an experience just short of ethereal.

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