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Questioning the Boundaries of What Art Can Do
Judging art in a truly objective manner is nearly impossible. We all come to art with different biases, experiences, preferences, and emotional connotations, and those factors determine how we engage with and relate to the art we are seeing, hearing, or otherwise experiencing. Very often, to love a piece of art is to relate to it so deeply that it moves you or perhaps even changes you. There is a reason that we love songs or books that feel like they are capturing little pieces of our lives and handing them back to us.
But relating to a piece of art on certain levels is different than relating to it entirely. That concept is at the heart of Odyssey Works, a collective of artists that formed back in 2001 in San Francisco. The group recognized the chief challenge that artists face is often in identifying and reaching their ideal audience. According to the New Criticism movement in literary theory, authorial intent is irrelevant to the understanding of or emotional engagement with a piece of literature. What truly matters, the followers of New Criticism proclaim, is the reader’s interpretation. This idea can be applied to all art—and it has—but where does that leave the artist? As Odyssey Works members Abraham Burickson and Ayden Leroux note in their new book—titled Odyssey Works: Transformative Experiences for an Audience of One—“When a poet writes a poem of sadness, she wants people to feel the sadness, not to laugh.” How can artists get their art into the hands of people who will appreciate it was meant to be appreciated?
These ideas of intention, appreciation, and interpretation led to the concept behind Odyssey Works: creating artistic experiences not for a broad audience, but for an audience of one. Regardless of what the New Criticism movement says, the truth is that artists create art with specific intentions or goals in mind. These intentions and goals are often misread or misinterpreted, with the odds of misinterpretation growing exponentially as the size of the audience grows. However, if an artist were to create an artistic experience for one person—based on that person’s life, outlook, preferences, hopes, fears, and past experiences—the likelihood of that art having the desired effect would increase dramatically. And the desired effect would be more than just correct interpretation, too. Indeed, the desired effect would be to change the life of the recipient for the better.
For more than a decade and a half, Odyssey Works has been taking these high-minded concepts about art and making them a reality. The group, made up of artists across a wide array of disciplines, uses a lengthy application process to select audiences of one in different geographic locations. Once they’ve selected a recipient, the Odyssey Works team delves deeply into that person’s life, reading things they’ve written, speaking to their loved ones, listening to their favorite music, and trying to understand both who they are and what moves them. The team then creates participatory artistic experiences that span days (if not months), chart multiple geographic locations, and incorporate all different types of art—from acting to music composition to writing and more. The goal is to present each participant with a deeply affecting performance—a piece of art that will open their eyes, give them newfound appreciation for life, and transform them in some way.
Odyssey Works: Transformative Experiences for an Audience of One goes into detail about how the Odyssey Works team accomplishes what it does. Using a case study of a four-month Odyssey centered around author Rick Moody—the noted writer behind books such as The Ice Storm—Odyssey Works helps readers understand why and how anyone would devote so much time and effort into creating art for a single person. It’s a weird, beguiling journey—one that will cause you to question everything you know about art and being an audience member. The book’s beautiful design—loaded with photographs, screen caps, scans, and other visual aids—helps bring the journey to life and makes the book innately readable.
Odyssey Works has been running for 16 years now, which means that the team behind it must be doing something right. In the press release for Odyssey Works: Transformative Experiences for an Audience of One, it’s noted that, “of the last five Odyssey Works recipients,” four of them changed jobs and all five re-evaluated their personal romantic relationships and moved to new places. There is evidence, in other words, that an artistic experience created specifically for you—one that you could relate to entirely instead of just relating to it on certain levels—could change your life. That fact alone won’t make everyone want to engage in an Odyssey Works experience, and this book won’t change that fact. At times, reading Odyssey Works and trying to put yourself in the shoes of an audience member feels like waking up in The Matrix, where someone else is playing god with your life. It’s odd and more than a little unsettling. But Odyssey Works: Transformative Experiences for an Audience of One is so unique in subject matter and approach that it can’t help but offer new insights on art and the facets of art that can transform lives. Even if you find the core concept downright creepy, you will still find something in these pages that will make you think—about how you approach art, about how you create art, or both.
You can purchase Odyssey Works: Transformative Experiences for an Audience of One from Amazon.comor directly from Princeton Architectural Press.
Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for IndependentPublisher.com, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at email@example.com.