The Rumpus Interview with Abraham Burickson

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Odyssey Works is a San Francisco-based theater company (though any prolonged investigation of their project calls into question taxonomic designation, and so, already, I am failing to describe them accurately if the word I’m using is “theater”) whose works are designed for an audience of one. That is, the pieces are specifically designed for a very particular audience, and are generally site specific, locating themselves inside the life of the intended audience member, adhering to the daily rounds of this audience member, until life and theatrical experience become indistinguishable. However, the other distinction that almost immediately collapses, it seems to me, in the Odyssey Works theatrical space, is the difference between performer and audience. (Frequently, the audience performs and the performers watch.) The result of this prolonged investigation, for the audience member, is a sudden, often overwhelming, and totally reflexive tendency to look at life as though life merits prolonged and intensive observation (just as we might look at any other work of dramatic art), as though it has meaning and symbolic heft. In the beholding, the audience member, ideally, becomes aware of the tone and material of life, how chance functions in life, and so on. What was background becomes foreground.

I am able to offer these ruminations on the Odyssey Works project, because I was the audience member for summer 2013, which theatrical odyssey mostly took place in New York City, and which lasted, in one form or another from June through September of that year. Yes, that is, it lasted on and off for nearly three months. During the course of my odyssey, I was kidnapped to Saskatchewan for two days (and worked over at the border by the Canadian authorities, because I had no Canadian contact, no idea of my plans, and no luggage), where I heard a solo cello piece designed especially for me in an adobe architectural structure in the middle of nowhere; had lunch with a strange guy in New York who had once allegedly met me at Burning Man; watched a dance performance on a beautiful afternoon in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge; spent a great many hours alone in a very ominous former hardware store, and got trained to be a clown along with about a hundred other people in MetroPark, downtown Brooklyn. The odyssey ended with me reunited with my daughter and my wife near Prospect Park, in a manner that frankly recalled the ordeal of one Odysseus.

My experience was numinous, strange, important, depressing, intense, annihilating, powerful, hard on my relationship, and frequently very, very moving. The whole featured dozens upon dozens of performers, some of them known to me, but others unknown and working for free, and it was mainly the highly intensive collaboration of the Odyssey Works structure team, as they call themselves, which includes not only artistic director Abraham Burickson, who is an architect, a published poet, and a former whirling dervish, but also four others, all of whom I got to know intimately, if not always well (they shimmered somewhere between actual people and figments of the piece): Ayden Grout (photo documentarian whom I first saw crouched in a wheat field in Saskatchewan), Jen Harmon (clown trainer extraordinaire), Ariel Abrahams (personnel trouble-shooter and behind the scenes mensch), and composer Travis Weller, who made the open-ended musical compositions for my piece, which seemed to turn up at the strangest moments in the experience, like personally designed Wagnerian motifs for my life. The interview below is mainly about the role of Abraham Burickson, Artistic Director of Odyssey Works, with whom I spoke by email in the months after my piece was finally concluded, but it implies the other principal architects of Odyssey Works, too. The whole is an excerpt from a longer oral reconstruction of my piece with the other creators, to appear in a book Odyssey Works are publishing entitled Odyssey Works: Transformative Experiences for an Audience of One, released earlier this month by Princeton Architectural Press.

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The Rumpus: So as I understand it, this production of Odyssey Works (the one featuring myself as “audience”) was logistically among the most complex yet mounted. True or untrue? Why so complex? And did that need to expand represent an organizational wish? Did you want to get bigger?

Abraham Burickson: Certainly this was true, and it did represent an organizational wish, not specifically to get bigger, necessarily, but to put into action certain things that we’d been thinking about and working toward. Mainly these all emerge from a wish to have a piece that is more dynamic and dialogical. In the past, we would have actors infiltrate the participant’s life, and we would work toward a single weekend of performance. Like yours, these were pieces developed from our research, but unlike yours, these pieces were more or less planned in advance and then executed as planned. We wanted to set up a structure where the general intent of the piece was set, but the content and the thematic direction of the piece changed with every interaction; it was very uncertain for you—you had times and (sometimes) locations known in advance, but content was a mystery. We wanted to bring ourselves a little closer to that uncertainty, to have to respond to your interactions with the piece, and, as we were investigating themes and narratives in your life also to be investigating them in our own. In the past, this happened naturally but somewhat by the way; in this production we made investigating our own relationship to the ideas and the things you were going through central to the process. We did a great deal of writing and thinking about the themes, and we collected our writings. We also went through the same fool training that you went through with Jen, as did many of the fools from the scene at MetroTech Plaza. We wanted to focus on you, to have you at the center of the piece, but to have the investigation reach each one of us at a level approaching what we hoped for you.

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There is some sense of “keeping it real” in this, because if we are investigating an idea, a theme, and thinking only of you there is the risk of remaining detached or clinical. If we are included, always, it becomes consequential; it renders the border between the theoretical and the practical, or the performative and the real, somewhat more porous. This is why, for the most part, all the narrative material we bring about ourselves is real. Certainly there is enough material in all of our lives to get at whatever narrative we are working toward—Mateo’s mean grandmother, Xandra’s search for a home in Brooklyn [two performers in my piece, and the themes of my dialogues with them, which were apparently true—ed.], my stories of the music I heard in the Amazon…

The durational is key here. Maybe it is because we are trained to consider an experience of approximately two hours as appropriately escapist, but there is something that changes after four or five hours. It is no longer possible to consider an experience as entirely separate from our lives. What would the difference have been if that trip to Saskatchewan had taken thirty minutes instead of two days? Likewise, we wanted the performance not to be this crazy thing that happened to you one weekend but a part of your life for a while, long enough that its artifice faded before its relentlessness.

Rumpus: This gets at it from a theoretical angle, which I admire, but I want to bear down a little bit on what “inclusion” means to the cast, to the performers and the producers. It seems to me more than just that there is “real material” in the drama, but more like the drama is transferential as well as transformative. That is, it seems to me like Odyssey doesn’t work like theater in the following way: it’s not about a simulation of human life; it is human life, just a counter-narrative version of what that might mean. I felt that way about my interactions with Jen, for example, that Jen was willing to accept the truth of my condition and work with it, instead of dealing with me as if I were an interchangeable member of the Odyssey Works audience. Does that distinction seem meaningful to you, or am I thinking this way simply because I was the audience member?

Burickson: The distinction is very meaningful, and it is central to the endeavor. We want our work to be human life, and a central difference between performance and life is that in performance—even in improv—nothing for the performer is really left to chance and nothing for the performer is at risk. I, the performer, create something I have structured or scripted, and you, the audience, sit and receive it. If it is interactive performance, I do something to you and you trust that I won’t mess with you too much. You go out on a limb; I am mostly planned. Audiences like interactive performance because it feels alive to them—they are at risk. What we’re trying to do here is to put audience and performer—you and Jen—in that position. Yes, Jen had a plan for your interactions, but they were predicated on an assumption about how you would come to those interactions. When that changed, the entire interaction had to change. This is how we lead our lives, more or less, whereas if you were just an interchangeable audience member, Jen’s structured performance wouldn’t have changed.

Much of the exploration, too, is about the nature of artifice and attentiveness in our lives. There is some idea that real life, the everyday, is non-reflective, that it is the time when we passively receive the impressions that later we understand to have meaning, and that the really real, the heightened moments, are the times when we actively receive those impressions, actively work with the narrative around us, understand the sensory, the emotional, the rhythmic elements of our lives as full of meaning and warranting active attention because they are consequential. These are the moments when we are shocked, we wake up, we take in everything that surrounds us because we have a sense that there is a design, and we wish to attend to it. At these times, things can change, our narratives are mutable and what matters to us functions at a much finer level of sensitivity. There is a parallel here between a kind of passive art and a kind of performance that requires something of the audience and the performer. When I watch TV I am fairly passive, fitting the impression into something predetermined, living it out in my mind. When I am live, in front of you, uncertain about the outcomes, something is more active. To continue to pursue such an interaction in a way that does not allow for the performer to be as affected, as changeable, as the audience (you, in this case, not knowing what might happen to you) would be a disservice to all the work that it took to create that possibility.

Rumpus: So given that that is the case, that it’s not theater, in the traditional sense, not scripted, not improvised, not even performed (because mostly true), does it make sense to even talk about what you’re doing here as though it fits into a rubric of theater? I keep thinking of you as architect and feeling like, at least in this piece, where downtown Brooklyn was so central to the piece, that it’s more architecture than theater in some ways, more a referendum about how people are in space than an idea about what performance is, and this seems especially to the point when you consider that I spent a large portion of the piece alone in an abandoned hardware store, which had some very interesting spatial characteristics…

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Burickson: I believe you said it had “an annihilating quality.” When I mentioned it to your brother he said: “Rick chooses words very carefully; if he used the word ‘quality’ it must have really piqued his interest.” Certainly, I know, it was difficult for you there, and that really gets at what we’re interested in there—a spatial quality such as annihilating, rather than a spatial quality such as tall. Rather than the formal qualities of the space, we’re interested in the nature of the relationship you have to that particular space and to what we did with it. This is really where we started with the composition of that part of the piece—with what we wanted that experience to be in that space. This was before we had Sid’s and before we had a lot of the specifics of the piece.

This is architectural, sure, and it is what I like about architecture, really, that thought process, how we can think about a building or a cityscape not in terms of the forms themselves—the walls and the concrete and the elevators and the stop signs—but in terms of how it performs, what life it is possible to live there. This gets at why categorizing the work is so tricky, not because we are so interdisciplinary but because the scenes are designed beginning with the desired audience experience—to create a sense of loneliness, for instance, or to give a sense of crescendo, or to move to an aesthetically exalting space—rather than the ultimate form. When we are at our best we work this way completely—composing desired experiences and then creating the forms to provide them. Calling the work theater privileges the forms of theater, including the forms of experimental theater, site-specific theater, etc., and misleads in a certain way. Other categorizations—relational aesthetics, experience design, architecture, experimental performance—privilege their own forms over content. If it happens in a theater we call it a theater, regardless if it is Urinetown or A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Likewise, the Garden State Mall and the Guggenheim are both architecture. But if we were categorizing in terms of audience experience, we might, for instance, group The Guggenheim during that recent Turrell show together with that moment in The Thin Red Line in which the main character lifts his gun and is killed together with Gorecki’s Third Symphony. For me they go with one another, maybe in the “exalting” category. For you, probably, it would be a little different.

That all said, of course, it is architectural, it is theatrical. It is also just an elaborate performance of Travis Weller’s scores. You could view it through all these lenses. Certainly my architectural training has had a lot to do with the way these projects manifest. We work for a specific “client,” but consider a vast number of other users. We work with sites and structures and use them to inspire ideas. We also, most importantly, think about the experiences we are creating in a diagrammatic way, based on a structural vision. As when designing a building, we work with a kind of massing model of the piece, understanding the major moves and the general sensory and narrative relationships before working our way down to the details, which are elaborated by our larger team. Often we engage outside artists—subcontractors, or consultants in this analogy—to do parts of the production that we can’t do ourselves. The wooden keys and cellphone and wallet you got on the bridge in exchange for your real keys, wallet, and cellphone were and example of this.

Rumpus: There are sort of two narrative paths we could go down now, and I personally am more interested in the one that doesn’t have that much to do with “my” piece, but I think maybe it’s worth at least asking a few more questions about what happened in this particular case, and then maybe I can mop up with the general questions at the end. So: how did Sid’s Hardware (a disused commercial space in downtown Brooklyn that often served as a meditation space for me, the audience member, during the performance in question) come to be part of the piece? How did you find it? And what was attractive about the space, specifically, that made it useful to your idea of this piece?

Burickson: We came out of the retreat wanting to create what we called “The Cloister,” which was represented and foreshadowed by The Secret Room—the children’s book your cousin Jack gave you for you to read to your daughter. The idea was to seed all the elements of the piece somewhere very private before allowing them into the public realm—hence the story being there, and the music, and the mulch, all the various props. Whereas in the past we would involve objects and narratives that we knew to be meaningful already to the participant, here we wanted to create a situation where your relationship with those things could develop, or be dropped, over a period of time during which we would be able to respond and revise our piece in a kind of conversation. It was meant to be a very private thing, and to be a dialogue between you and us, mediated by the music, the story that grew in the diary, the images, the objects.

We considered a number of very different environments, including one that was a tiny little studio apartment, and settled on Sid’s because of the spatial possibility it offered and because of how it seemed so small, easy to ignore, even, on the outside, and then so huge inside. It offered us the opportunity to expand, to build a procession over the weeks from the back of the main space, to the back of the closed-off rooms upstairs, into the elevator and eventually downstairs and into the front as well. There was an intensity to it as well, what you referred to as an annihilating quality, that signaled the possibility of a set of experiences that were not as sentimentalized as another place might be.

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We got the place through the festival, which had partnerships with various community groups and companies. This one was with a big developer who didn’t really get what it was we were trying to do. I kept meeting with them in their monochromatic offices upstairs in the same building. They didn’t seem to understand how we would be having a series of performances with no audiences. I had to tell them they were more like photo shoots than performances, with artistic installations. An interesting exercise in translation, to be sure.

I did meet some interesting folks there; my main contact used to do Jay Z’s nails. “Yeah, he’s ugly,” she said several times, “but his mind is really attractive.” She and I spent a lot of time standing around and waiting for paperwork.

Rumpus: Wait, what was the retreat? You mean you had a retreat for Odyssey Works generally? Or in order to prepare for this particular piece? Is that a normal approach to generating the work? Do you always generate the work in the community of performers? Or do you do some of it yourself?

Burickson: We have a retreat for each of the pieces we do. We spend five to seven days all together immersing ourselves in the material and brainstorming, speculating, going swimming, etc. I don’t know that we would be able to fully get to a place where the structure makes sense in bits and pieces, with the distractions of the city, or when not cooking together. We use a lot of paper, and we make a lot of diagrams and listen to a lot of music and watch some movies and work alone and then come back together. The durational is as important for our creative process as it is for the performance itself. Sometimes it is torturous; sometime it is the whole reason to work on a project like this. We call the group that does this the structure team, in this case, and in many cases, Jen, Ayden, Ariel, and me. We create the overall structure together, more or less by consensus, and then break out parts of it to own and develop with other artists and actors.

It’s not just that four minds are better than one, it is that we want a critical mass of people immersed in the same thought process—enough to create a center of gravity for the piece so that we can carry others along with us—others who have not gone on the retreat but who are part of the production. We want to avoid the situation where people just come and do their job without getting at least somewhat into the material in a personal way.

There have been others on the structural team over the years—a group in San Francisco—and people like Leanne Zacharias, the Canadian cellist, when we were in Texas, and Travis Weller, the composer, a couple of times.

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Rumpus: Where does this retreat take place? And did you pick the structure team yourself? You’re evading, lightly, describing your own role in all of this, which is consonant with my experience of you, but maybe I can pry a little more. Did Odyssey Works come to you in a blinding flash, or is the entire endeavor collaborative in way that the Structure Team is? And was my production “torturous” or “tortuous”? And what does it mean for you personally when it it’s “torturous”?

Burickson: Your production was not torturous—but the intensity of collaboration, when we find ourselves stuck in a room and stuck at an idea, can be sometimes torturous, sometimes brilliant. We sometimes sit there for hours saying, I don’t know. Hours. Sometimes it is like we are reading each others’ minds. It is a winding process, but I wouldn’t call it tortuous—sometimes we just dive straight ahead, and sometimes we just wait for an idea to surface.

I’m the artistic director, which means that I organize the overall structure of our collaboration and do my best to make a space within which a collaboration can thrive. There are times when a decision has to be made and I make it, but the best in every piece is generally sourced from the larger group. Everybody, of course, brings their particular interests and talents, and generally we settle out into those areas when it comes time to develop and execute ideas. In the case of your production, Jen was really focused on the acting and the trainings and the choreography, Ayden on the installation and production of objects like books and photographs, Ariel on working with the public, me with the written items and the overall arcs of the various scenes. Others specialize—Danielle Baskin does design, Travis Weller composition, etc. Things are a bit more fluid than that. I spend a lot of time working on all of these aspects, making sure that they fit into the overall vision for the piece.

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The idea came in a long slow flash. I started the project in 2001 with my friend Matthew Purdon. We had already collaborated on a few projects but we hadn’t yet arrived at the vision we were seeking. Then we were in retreat in Big Sur, taking a hike in Molera State Park and having a conversation about the problem of the ideal audience. We kept coming back to a frustration with the randomness of the endeavor (the art-making and presenting endeavor) and to the idea that if we knew our audience well enough we might be able to have a deeper impact on them—not just to customize the work to their liking but to fit it into their subjectivity, like a key, so that we would bypass the resistances and plug into the openness. This would necessitate finding an audience member whose receptivity presented opportunities for the work we already did to be better received. It seemed a nice idea, but an essentially abstracted one.

Then it was his birthday and he asked me if I would arrange something other than a party for him. I went for a walk with a mutual friend and we ended up in the museum—the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco—and walked into a fairly lame recreation of the Bauhaus metal party—basically just a room full of metallic Mylar sheets. That’s really when the idea hit; the room was so placeless, we tried to imagine waking up in this space, disoriented and digging through the Mylar for clues. What struck us was how strong the simple impressions would be, how the experience would, hopefully, create a sort of narrative blank slate upon which we could build his day. That day was only eight hours long, but it was exhilarating. It ended with him being buried alive at the beach, then slowly digging his way out and tearing off his clothes and running into the ocean. The ocean is very cold in October in San Francisco.

So those first several years involved Matthew and me as the structure team. Eventually I went off to grad school and he had a kid and started making wine and I began to work with other people. There was one piece with ten people in the structure team—that was a bit… unwieldy. Eventually, we settled on three to six as an ideal range. We’ve done pieces in New York, San Francisco, Austin, and Seattle, and travel and being able to take the time to do a piece means that the team fluctuates. Ariel, Ayden, and Jen have all been involved in three recent productions. Matt and I talk about all the pieces—sometimes he comes on board in various capacities.

Rumpus: So why is it that my episode of Odyssey Works was so Homeric? I assume you are going to say that this is a reflection of what you understood about me, but what I think is that this episode was metafictional in a way, since it is also a commentary about what Odyssey Works is? Usually that kind of meta-commentary is an end stage of a sort. As if you have gone as far as you could go in a particular direction. True, or untrue? My idea, which I was happy to give to you gratis, as usual, is that you should go MUCH BIGGER, though much bigger would perhaps require a lot of heavy lifting. But if not that, what is the next direction, if in fact a next direction is required?

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Burickson: To tell you the truth, the Homeric angle on the piece was pretty much an accident. We structured the piece around a building performative intensity followed by a more quiet, meditative moment, compressing the general structure of July and August into a single weekend. I’m simplifying here, but the performativity of the fool scene in MetroTech Plaza was meant to lead to a kind of breaking off of performance and slow reintegration of the elements of the Odyssey into your regular life. Hence, the experience you had in Canada found as its parallel the time we spent on the beach (and would have found a parallel in the time spent on the boats, were the winds not so non-cooperative.) The return flight and the relay return of your Sunday were parallel as well. In many ways, the summer leading up to the weekend of the performance was a kind of training for the performance itself. The training with Jen being the most obvious, but the music, the getting to know the actors, the dancers, the introduction of themes in the children’s book and the fake New York Times book review, all served to present the structures to you so that when you encountered them on the day of the performance they would be already partially understood by you. This also allowed us to change the details of the performance based on how you seemed to be understanding aspects of it beforehand. For instance, the decision to have John in Sid’s Hardware, the Cloister, to open the piece, came late in the process. Also, the decision to have Xandra’s housewarming as the scene of the social gathering (instead of your house) came towards the end. By that point, the Homeric structure had started to reveal itself, and it did influence us to have Laurel and Hazel occupy the last spot, but even that decision was more influenced by the idea that emerged only in August, really, that the piece should be about returning home.

Bigger? Oy vey! What would you do to make it bigger?

Rumpus: Hmm, rent a 747, airdrop someone into a destabilized regime, film the entire thing with a Hollywood film crew, use an entire town as extras, make it so that there is really no difference between the site of the piece and the piece itself. Make it last for an entire lifetime for one participant. (You! Maybe that piece is already happening and the audience for that piece is you!) Send the entire company to a planet where there is only Odyssey Works, and the economy of the planet involves Odyssey Works, and there is no outside of Odyssey Works, ever, and there’s even threatened punitive action for people who try to have a life outside of Odyssey Works, and if they have children, even the children become part of Odyssey Works. Or how about this: you have a piece in which there is no audience, because everyone is the audience, and then you have, of course, your own postal system. And your own police force, and your own paramilitary organization, which has to deal drugs in order to finance Odyssey Works, or set Odyssey Works up as a Multi-National Entertainment Provider with a kind of theme park, sort of like Dolly Parton’s theme park, or that one that is going to have Noah’s Ark in it.

I think when we spoke last you said that you were trying to think about what might be next and how whatever is next might be different. Do you care to speak to these issues? About what might be next and how it might be different?

Burickson: You know, we were on our way to just that very scenario when Edward Snowden went and started undermining the surveillance regime that we’d spent so many years convincing the NSA to set up for us. A real bummer. You don’t see the New York Times covering that particular casualty of this whole situation…

So that leaves us with a somewhat smaller zone of potential operations. We’ve been talking for some time about an Odyssey that went on for a year and didn’t involve a big weekend, and one that had two people at the core—siblings, probably, so that the relationship would provide a lot of the material. I wouldn’t want to do it for a couple so much because romantic relationships are already so deeply analyzed by the participants. I’ve also begun planning for a piece that would examine and develop more deeply two aspects of the performance: the work with the actors and the work with site. The infiltrations, as we call them, are really interesting and challenging—the actors are asked not to act, just to arrive with a small lie about why they are meeting you, and to see what emerges from their interactions with you. We workshop those interactions, and those sides of the actors that are emergent, and then the actors inhabit those sides of themselves more intentionally the next time they see you, and in the performance. It can be very powerful—if a participant sees an actor as a lonely person the actor must inhabit the lonely side of herself. If he sees her as wildly successful, she must be that side of herself (as opposed to being a character with those characteristics, possibly developed with reference to personal experience). There is a consequentiality to this, as the actor is not hiding behind a mask.

Jen and I are talking about a project I’m currently calling Purgatory, which would begin with the actors inhabiting one side of themselves—say the fastidious side—and would place them in an environment that is built out to support that. The person and the set would be united in this quality, and the audience—in this case not just one person but up to four at a time—would come and spend time with the actor. There is a lot more to it—every audience member would be interviewed and their information would be entered into a database that would send their information to the actors beforehand to jumpstart the relationship. The audience members would interface with the performance for up to a month, visiting up to seven of the sites—non-street level apartments that the actors will be living in—and there would be a structural narrative that would tie it all together. I could go on about it for a while, but the core connection to what we’ve been doing is the extrapolation of these two aspects of our work—the acting and the development of a relationship with a site.

We have developed this format—the durational performance for the one-person audience—but it is not, to my mind, what Odyssey Works is entirely about. Much more essential are the lines of inquiry that we’ve been following, all of them developed from the question: what is the greatest impact that our art can have? At the core of this is the audience-centric approach to our work and the idea of relationality—that the piece is a medium for communication with the audience—communication both as in a message and as in a disease. The format we’ve been working with has been really fruitful for this inquiry, but there will be plenty of others, I hope.

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Rumpus: How do you fund Odyssey Works?

Burickson: Mainly we work on commission. Your piece was funded by the Brooklyn Emerging Artists in Theater festival. Others have been funded by Cornell University, by grants, by fundraising. Individuals sometimes come to us to commission works for themselves or others. This is an interesting model that we’re looking to get into more. The work thrives, however, when it is received as a gift. The material question is a big one for us, as it is for most artists who have no product to sell.

A lot of the sites and the objects, the cars, etc. that we use are donated by people who appreciate the work and who don’t mind donating a site for a single day, or a boat, or their talents. If it weren’t for that we wouldn’t be able to do a fraction of what we do.

Occasionally we do Odysseys for one another with no funding, just with a couple hundred dollars at most out of our pockets. These lack the production values of the bigger pieces, but they are powerful ways for us to relate to our own work. I intend to do one or two of those this year instead of a larger, funded production. There are so many on our team who have never had a performance made for them; there’s some catching up to do.

Rumpus: What does all of this have to do with Sufi spinning?

Burickson: Certainly there is a relationship between the two. I was drawn to the Whirling Dervishes because the whirling, also known as Sema, is a practice wherein an aesthetic experience is curated for transcendence. Sema (literally “audition”) is best known as the whirling dance, but it, in fact, connotes a whole range of practices. Some Semas are all about poetry, others music, others different types of dance (though usually of a whirling sort). The aesthetic experience is curated in every aspect—the arrival is formalized, the prayers that one says before witnessing the Sema, the time of the year, the day of the week, the room, built for the activity, etc. Nowadays you can see the Whirling Dervishes on tour, at St. John the Divine Cathedral near Columbia for instance, and it is powerful, but the lack of context is devastating—it seems to be very much just a dance performance of sacred provenance. To really appreciate the whirling, one must be in the Sufi tekke, must have been praying (or practicing zikr, the ritual repetition of the names of god) for hours beforehand, must have the same longing as the whirlers, must have heard the call to prayer five times a day for years. I, of course, did not make it all the way to a full preparation for Sema, but I did in my months there go quite a bit deeper than I had when seeing the Whirling Dervishes at St. John’s. I was on the verge of joining the order, I was practicing the whirling, I was having experiences I couldn’t explain, and was realizing that the compartmentalized and discretely packaged way that we consume art was profoundly limiting how deeply that art could be felt. I had gone to Turkey after reading about the Sufi idea that an aesthetic experience can transport one past the seven veils and right to Allah’s doorstep. It was an idea that struck a chord, because I was always suspicious of the strict divide between the religious idea of transcendence and the secular, artistic idea of transcendence. It seemed that religions feared the wildness of aesthetic expression and artists feared the wrestling match with meaning implicit in considering their work in religious terms. The Whirlers, more than any other group that I had ever encountered, promised to overcome this issue.

According to the dervishes, aesthetic experience—dance, poetry, music—transports you from this plane to another. Isn’t this what we strive for in a great experience of art? To be transported? And that transportation, when it is most powerful, is from a known place to an unknown place, to somewhere new. This is the fundamental striving for Odyssey Works, that transportation, that encounter with the unknown.

I practiced the whirling for two years, spending a great deal of time trying to get the spin right—to have my axis meet the gravitational axis—to experience what they talked about in all those texts, with all that poetry. Then one day it happened. I was transported. It was unlike anything else I had ever experienced. I tried to understand it but I couldn’t, so I tried again and it happened again. It was astounding and inexplicable, and I had no way of understanding it, or of relating to it. So I stopped and never whirled again.

On the Internet somewhere a college student interviewed you and he asked you if your writing was a religious activity, and you said, I think, “That’s the idea.” It is the idea with Odyssey Works as well. The fundamental difference between how the whirling worked and how Odyssey Works works is that the whirling starts with a transcendent form into which you, the whirler, attempt to enter, and with Odyssey Works we start with the profane and attempt to allow the transcendent in.

That’s a pretty abstracted way of thinking about the work, but it has precise implications. My experience with the dervishes, and elsewhere, is that the interface between the transcendent and the profane is in one’s attention, in attentiveness. Attention expands and contracts, and in our most powerful moments it is vast and strong. Our work in the past decade has been largely about composing states of attention and trying to understand how attention ebbs and flows when one is inside a performance. We fail, we succeed, but we do keep learning.

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This interview is excerpted with permission from Odyssey Works: Transformative Experiences for an Audience of One, released earlier this month by Princeton Architectural Press.

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Photographs © Ayden L.M. Grout. Diagram mapping the arc of experience for Rick’s odyssey designed by Danielle Baskin and Abraham Burickson.


Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →