Radical Empathy: A Manifesto for the 21st Century

Abraham Burickson and Ayden LeRoux
Odyssey Works: Transformative Experiences for an Audience of One
(Princeton Architectural Press, 2016)

Art as transformative encounter: in just about every field of art discourse, much is made of this exalted claim. And for good reason. For what is a genuine aesthetic experience if not an arousal from ordinary consciousness and a jolt into elsewhere—a mode of awareness more vivid, more perceptive, more intensely alive, resonating in a world suddenly laden with meaning? And yet, for all the talk of art and transcendence, how often do we really have this experience? How many times have we come away from a work of art having not just been moved but actually altered, so that life afterward was, however subtly and indescribably, different from before? 

Author Rick Moody. Photo: LM Grout.

If we’re honest, those occasions have likely been few—but perhaps through no fault of the works we engage. Their creators, after all, know nothing about us, and even if they did, has it ever been their job to speak to us personally? The inner life being a resolutely private affair, what moves one artist to make a painting may mean absolutely nothing to anyone else.

This perennial problem of the rift between artist and audience is what laid the seeds for Odyssey Works, both the title of this wonderfully original and deeply affecting book and the name of the interdisciplinary performance group whose work it presents. The group—made up of writers, painters, actors, dancers, and artists from a number of other disciplines—creates experimental performances with a most unusual premise. Its explicit goal is simple enough: to create works that will have the most powerful possible impact on the audience. In this case, however, the word might be “audient.” For in order to achieve a truly relational exchange between maker and recipient, the group’s founders conceived of a radically new approach: creating elaborately crafted performances for an audience of one. Since its inception in 2001, the group has selected one audience member per year through a call for applications and spent months composing a piece exclusively for her.

It’s a provocative idea, and one that challenges some of our most cherished assumptions about art and its purpose. (What, you may object, about art as self-exploration? And should artists really be so concerned with other people’s responses?) It’s also one that presents something of a problem to the group’s range of reception; with so few audience members, the project remains largely unknown. 

Odyssey Works, the book, is intended as a corrective. Written by the team’s co-founder and artistic director, Abraham Burickson, and assistant director Ayden LeRoux, the volume is not a compilation of the group’s performances (the latter being ephemeral, such would be impossible) but rather a manifesto of sorts laying out the core principles, values, and mission of the group. A work of art in itself—the pages are replete with photographs, diagrams, and a color-coding system that will mortify your own standards for attention to detail—the volume is a self-described “inspirational handbook” for anyone longing to “create a more beautiful world.” Written with a passion and sincerity rare in today’s art world, six essays—or “proposals”—explore the group’s tenets, drawing on a wide range of cultural sources. Woven throughout are recollections and “ephemera” from past performances that provide rich glimpses into the experiences of those who’ve participated (including, notably, the artists themselves). Foremost among them is the writer Rick Moody, whose 2013 performance was the group’s longest and most complex project to date. Moody’s presence in the book looms large (the text includes an extensive interview he conducted with the team), and what we learn of his experience gives us much insight into the larger Odyssey Works project.

But how, you may be wondering, does a “performance for one” work? The amount of preparation involved is astounding. After an applicant has been selected (itself an intensive process involving lengthy questionnaires and phone calls to intimates of the candidates), the Odyssey Workers undertake the daunting task of learning everything they can about their new “participant” (their preferred term to “audience”). In Moody’s case, this involved reading every one of his eleven books in addition to the deep dive into his personal life. After months of immersion, a theme is established, and an “arc of experience” is painstakingly orchestrated. While the performances usually take place over a single weekend, Moody’s extended for four months, but like the others took place not in some artificial space but within his real life. Throughout, Odyssey Works actors infiltrated his days, sometimes appearing as a friend of a friend, sometimes passing as stranger on the street, always leaving some image, object, or trace carefully chosen to evoke personal associations. 

The feats of ingenuity alone are impressive. Moody’s piece included a fake New York Times book review concocted by the team, which looked exactly like a real one, but which, as Moody soon realized, contained eerie references to what was happening in his Odyssey. And as the piece’s dramatic climax, he was abducted to Saskatchewan, where he spent two hours in a wheat field while a cellist played a piece composed just for him. For each performance, every scene is meticulously crafted so that the boundary between art and life dissolves, and the participant can no longer distinguish between “real events” and those that have been manufactured for his experience.

But as inspiring as the crafting of these Odysseys is, it is the depth of humanity behind the mission that’s most striking. Not only is the generosity of spirit evident in the premise, but every aspect of the process is suffused with what the group refers to as “radical empathy”—which might just be another way of saying love. (Indeed, so deep is the team’s immersion in each participant’s life that they liken the process to falling in love.) The language in the book is rife with words like intimacy, attentiveness, compassion, understanding. But perhaps even more notable is its unapologetic embrace of “the spiritual” and “the sublime,” those two most contaminated of terms in contemporary art discourse. For Odyssey Works, a transformative experience is by definition a spiritual experience, since it is an emphatic address to our deepest sense of meaning. (Significantly, Burickson was for a time a practicing Sufi for whom the experience of their spinning ritual was a formative influence.) In an art world still mired in the chilly skepticism of postmodernism—where even the word “meaning” was considered suspect—the turn toward something more soul-satisfying is deeply refreshing.

But does it work? Do the Odysseys prove to be genuinely transformative? Moody describes his experience with words such as “numinous,” “ intense,” and “powerful,” and confirms that it was “frequently very, very moving.” (He also indicates that all these years later, he’s still processing what happened.) In the months following her performance, another participant broke up with her boyfriend, moved to a new city, and reconfigured her relationship to her job. But the most lasting transformation may lie in what is perhaps the greatest gift of an Odyssey Works performance: when art and life become indistinguishable, everything acquires meaning. If you’ve had an experience in which every mundane sight, sound, and smell is potentially charged with significance, just out there waiting for a mind primed to receive it, you might ask yourself: What if life could be like this? And if you found that experience beautiful and exhilarating, you might be inclined to pursue the question.

“What if” questions such as this pervade this book, and the urgency of their persistence is a powerful reminder that life could be otherwise. Indeed, what’s so singular about this project is that it’s not experimental art for the sake of new art but new art in the service of life itself. The resounding message—sorely needed at a time when art is being condemned as irrelevant—is that not only can we live more deeply meaningful lives, but that art can have a potent role in this transformation. Today’s cynicism, egoism, and commercialism may have denuded art of its real value, but the onus is on artists to reclaim what’s been lost. And while the interdisciplinarity of Odyssey Works provides an inspiring example, artists in all media might benefit from its central insight: above and beyond being makers of objects, we are, all of us, shapers of experience. “If philosophers are scientists of meaning,” the authors beautifully suggest, “then perhaps artists are the engineers of its transmission.” With an empathetic turn toward the inner life of its audience, perhaps art can undergo a transformation of its own—and, in so doing, come home to itself. 

Contributor

Taney Roniger

TANEY RONIGER is a visual artist and writer based in Long Island City and the Catskills. She holds an MFA from Yale University, where she studied philosophy and East Asian religions in conjunction with painting, and a BFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York.

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