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Designing For Misuse: Odyssey Works’ Abraham Burickson On How Architecture Inspires His Art

Burickson’s collective creates epic art experiences for one individual.

In the 13 years that art collective Odyssey Works has been active, only a few dozen people have ever seen their work. They create experiences for an extremely narrow demographic–one person at a time, who they select through an extensive application process.

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Odyssey Works, which was founded by artist and architect Abraham Burickson, then launches into a full scale investigation of its subject’s life. Their goal is to find out who that person is on the deepest level possible, and in doing so, create an experience that will move them. These performances occur over the course weeks or even months, culminating with an intense, weekend-long series of events.

The results are like a surrealist version of The Truman Show. Their most recent work was made for the author Rick Moody, a long-duration performance entitled When I Left The House It Was Still Dark. In this piece, Moody had such diverse experiences as receiving a children’s book written specifically for his daughter and taking an unexpected flight to Saskatchewan, Canada, where he was driven to a desolate pasture that was foreshadowed in the book and encountered a woman playing a cello piece composed just for him. Other “scenes” involved dance, installation art and other mediums, some which Moody noticed and recognized as part of the piece, and some which blended in with the scenery of his life.

Ayden L.M. Grout

Burickson says that his approach to these projects has been heavily inspired by his work as an architect. “Because architecture requires you to think about user experience first, you’re responsible to it. It’s not just like, ‘Oh this worked or this didn’t work, at least I made what I wanted to make,” he says. “If you don’t think about the user experience you have failed.” This ideology is an affront to the individualism that most artists celebrates, and it encompasses the mission of, Odyssey Works, who strive to make every experience for their audience-of-one a meaningful and memorable one.

The collective begins this process by creating an overarching plan for the piece’s narrative. For this, Burickson, with Danielle Baskin, borrows another page out of the architectural handbook, using diagrams which function like a building’s blueprints to represent the course of the narrative instead of written scripts. “I really believe deeply in the diagram,” he says. “[By looking at it] you understand intuitively, visually, that there’s this arc that’s the idea behind the performance.”

His diagram for Rick Moody’s piece resembles the floor plan of an oddly shaped hallway, narrow in some places and jutting out in others. “When you study it you see that [the narrow section] is the mundane, the orderly life, and that anything that breaks out of that is moving towards the sublime,” he says.

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These visualizations are part of Odyssey Works’ holistic methodology, through which they expect all participants in each piece to understand how every little action or event plays into a much larger narrative and theme. “We don’t want to write the script from the beginning,” he says. “We want to write the big picture and fill it in as things develop.” Only as they get to know their subject can they fill in the smaller details, and anyway, the script is only “provisional,” and can change along with their audience’s life events. Using this big picture planning, Burickson hopes to create sweeping, awesome experiences for his audiences, affecting them in ways that no normal art piece could. Ultimately, he wants to tell these people a story about their own lives in a way that feels authentic.

Ayden L.M. Grout

Most of the Odyssey Works performances have taken place in an urban environment. This is a purposeful decision by the group who believe most suitable setting for unexpected and strange events are cities, where so many people and cultures rub against each other in a zone that’s electrified with energy. But not all cities are designed in a way that Burickson feels inspires life and art. “We design our cities to be used a certain way, and when they’re used that way, they feel dead,” he explains. “Once a part of the city starts to get used in a way it’s not intended to, you start to see the people who live there engaging with it in a human way, in the way they want to engage with it.” Elaborating on this, he asks, “Why should we use things the way the architects think we should? How would they possibly know all the myriad ways we want to use it? I think a well designed public space is a space that’s designed for misuse, that considers that people will come and engage it in whatever way they want to.”

“We’re not interested in a performance where the audience gets to sit and watch from a safe distance offstage,” Burickson tells us. “We want our performances to be live, dynamic interactions. And in order for that to happen we have to move into live dynamic space.” This ideology infuses all of his collective’s work, their intentional unsettling of a person’s routine life to make room, as Burickson would put it, for the sublime.

Odyssey works has a performance coming up in San Francisco, and you can participate. Email performances@odysseyworks.org or go here to sign up for their mailing list.

About the author

I'm a writer living in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Interests include social justice, cats, and the future.

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