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Mixed Reality Performance: In Conversation with Yehuda Duenyas

The Contemporary Performance Think Tank is organized by Contemporary Performance Network. Each year the Think Tank focuses on a set of topics concerning the fields of Theater and Contemporary Performance and conducts research and interviews to produce a paper as a resource for practitioners. This year’s topic is contemporary performing artists and companies redefining relationships with audience and pushing the formal relationships of architecture, artist, and audience. For this paper the Think Tank chose five areas on the forefront of this research to explore; Contemporary Choreography, Mixed Reality Performance, Performance Cabaret, Immersive Theatre, and Social Engaged Art. Each section of this paper includes an introduction to the specific practice, a conversation with an artist, and a list of artists working in and around the specific practice. “What is Mixed Reality Performance?” is part of a series of posts. Check back daily to see the next posts.

In Conversation with Yehuda Duenyas
Interviewed by Rachel Karp

Rachel Karp: I thought we could start with you talking about your background and the many different things you’ve done, and how you got to do the more immersive experience design that you’re focused on now.

Yehuda Duenyas: How far back do you want to go?

RK: I’d love to go back to NTUSA days. Did you have a more theater-oriented background?

YD: I’ve always been involved in theater in some way, for a long time. I went to Skidmore College and studied theater and directing there. And during that time I lived in Prague with a performance company that we started out of school. This was, 90s, mid-90s—so we were really influenced by Reza Abdoh and Robert Wilson—that kind of American avant-garde. Wooster Group and Richard Foreman.

Then I moved to New York and tried to be an actor. I auditioned for a Richard Foreman play and got into a Richard Foreman play and toured with him, with Pearls for Pigs for maybe nine months or a year. And then I was in a Rich Maxwell show called House. We toured that for maybe two and a half, three years, on and off.

And then I was coming back from those experiences and I was looking for things that I wanted to perform in. I really wanted to come to the city and be in Dar a Luz, in Reza Abdoh’s company. But he died before I graduated. [Reza Abdoh] was the most inspiring thing that had happened to me at the time, so I was really looking for that. Where is that most inspiring thing that I can be part of. So I decided to start directing my own stuff and I applied to the American Living Room Series at HERE and I made my own piece with Jesse Hawley and James Stanley and that’s the core of what eventually became the NTUSA. The three of us worked together for maybe four years before NTUSA started. And I was the director. But I was also a performer and I missed performing and it was problematic with me just being a director and a writer. I like those early experiments that we did, but the voice was coming from one place, which was me, and it was a much more interesting collaboration when the voice started coming from everyone. So eventually James wrote a show that he wanted me and this guy Ryan to be in, so we just decided that we would all direct it together and all be in it and sort of do everything. And at the same time, in parallel to this, Dar a Luz became chashama.

They did this really cool show right after Reza died called Junior Black’s Office. It all took place on a second-floor building and they got this huge transmitter and they pirated a radio station. And you came to the thing with radios, and you would tune into the radio station so everyone was holding radios, listening to it outside. And then watching all these scenes happening in the windows. It was beautiful.

So chashama was just starting. Anita [Durst] got a row of storefronts on 42nd Street, which is now the Bank of America building. And around the same time I became the technical director of those spaces and started cleaning them out. She would get them one by one but we cleaned them out and then we would repurpose them and make them artist studios or dance studios or theater spaces. Also when a space would open up I would sort of get first dibs on it.

Anita had just gotten the keys to the Henry Miller Theatre, which is where Urinetown—it’s on 43rd Street. And it had been the Xenon night club through the 70s. It was built in 1922 or something like that. It was a Vaudeville house. And it hadn’t been opened in 10 years. And she kind of threw me the keys and was like, Go to the Henry Miller Theatre and see what’s in there that we can salvage. This was one of the most amazing theater moments of my life, prying open this door that hadn’t been open in a long time. We salvaged a lot.

There was a lot of discovering all this territory that was in plain sight in New York—it was this real estate that you don’t see from the outside but we had this really cool vision of it from the inside.

And I was really, kind of not demoralized but there was something about that, to do a show in New York you had to apply to like HERE or PS122 or Ontological. You would apply to these things and someone would tell you, you can or you can’t do your art. And that always really bugged me. And I loved Anita’s whole ethos which was: everyone can be an artist if they want to. They just need the space and a little bit of resources to carve out a space for themselves to do it.

In the Henry Miller Theatre, we started rehearsing in there because there was this really cool upstairs space behind the balcony. The show was that show that James wrote for me and Ryan for NTUSA—we started rehearsing it there and we were actually gonna do it there. But then Urinetown happens, and they gave the contract to Urinetown and then we were out of that place. And so Anita was like: we have this tiny little basement of this other space and you can use that space. And we were like, Oh man we’re being relegated from the Henry Miller Theatre to the basement? So we were like, Alright, let’s bring the Henry Miller here. So we built a scale model of the Henry Miller Theatre into the basement, and that was this show called Episode 23. And we charged people nickels and dimes to see it. And that was one of those beautiful moments. When we made that show we started the National Theater of the United States of America.

We toured a little bit. We did another show called Placebo Sunrise in a different storefront. And then we did What’s That on My Head!?! in Dumbo, which was a ride.

And then space started drying up. And so we started trying to figure out what to do next and that’s when we came up with Chautauqua! It was sort of an easy idea. We won the Spalding Gray Award through PS122, and with that money, and a couple other grants, we built Chautauqua!. We wanted to build a travelling show that would use local talent. We traveled with a small company, a small amount of set pieces, and we would use local people and fill out the program. And that was a super fun project. We got to meet so many amazing people all over the country, everywhere that we performed. It was really cool to be inside of these different communities and really kind of pull out all the diversity and find out what was happening in all these communities and incorporate them into our show.

And around that time, theater just became a rewardless experience for me. It was so much work and so little money. The incredible rewards that we had had in our late twenties and early thirties, building spaces all night and creating these really gorgeous, bespoke experiences for audiences to come in. We really looked at them as gifts, that your $20 ticket price was nowhere near the cost of what it actually takes to make any of this stuff. So we really would try to go completely overboard and make the most amazing experience that we possibly could and not leave any detail unturned.

And then in 2008 the economy crashed and the election and it was just a crazy mess, and I started trying to figure out what to do next. My friend Jeff Stark—wonderful person and an amazing connector—he called me and he’s like, Dude I’m in this grad program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. They’re paying me to be here and I can work on whatever I want. And I get access to their resources and technology. So, I applied and I went there for two years and that was a big life-changer for me as well. Moved out of New York, which was hard to break the New York seal, but then once I did it was the most rewarding, eye-opening thing.

I started making work there and really all I had to do was learn about new media techniques and electronic arts, interactive technology, and start applying these new media techniques to the work I already did. I was really thinking, what should I be getting into? I didn’t know. So I just started taking engineering classes and video game classes and sensor classes and the electronic art core curriculum that they had there. And I had this moment. I made a video game that you experience while you’re hanging in a harness, and you’re wearing this pre-virtual reality headset, and you flip, do somersaults, and that’s how you fly through this environment. And so we were asked by Johannes [Goebel], who is the artistic director of EMPAC. EMPAC is this incredible facility, and what was so unique about it was their attitude toward networking. It’s not a very new concept now but it was to me in 2009 when I got there—oh you can use the light board to control sound in a different theater. The whole place was networked in a way that you can start to think about how you control things and how they respond to you and react to you and how you can also control elements in a completely different way than I’d ever thought of before.

So Johannes asked us if we could recreate this video game that we made but instead of have it be the digital content that’s moving, that you’re actually moving, because they had this new 4D rigging system they had just installed and no one had used it yet. And so I was like—yeah. One of my jobs in New York was as a stage rigger, so I really understood fly systems and just rigging in general. So we got to work with an automated rigging system, and we started getting user control to an automated rigging system. Whereas someone would be sitting behind the computer board and doing the cues of what the rigging would be, I was trying to get it so that you could control yourself flying around the room.

RK: Did that become The Ascent?

YD: That’s what became The Ascent. We got an iPhone to control it so you’re holding an iPhone. But it still feels like a video game—I just want to think it. So then we started researching brain interfaces, and hooked up a brain interface to the rigging system, and I had an undergrad student who was working as my assistant and so we strapped her in and we put the EEG headset on her and she closed her eyes and started levitating up to the ceiling. And it was a beautiful moment. It was a life-changing moment.

So that whole thing really sent me on this different trajectory. Also around that time, I had been trying to figure out what to do after school. I had started pre-interviewing for Disney Imagineering while I was at school. But then, RPI was trying to do a partnership with Disney Imagineering. So, completely unrelated they brought five Imagineers to Rensselaer, and they laid out 10 or 15 things around campus, and The Ascent was one of the things that they laid out for them to see. So they got to come and try it. And then they invited me to interview. So then I went to Burbank and eventually was able to work at Disney Imagineering for a year.

At the same time I was trying to build my own company based around The Ascent. We did The Ascent in Brooklyn in 2012 and are still trying to get that put up and run it like a ride somewhere. When we built that in 2011 and were trying to explain it to people, people were like: What? What are you talking about? What do you mean there’s a sensor on you and what do you mean it reads your brainwaves and what do you mean it’s a ride and what do you mean it’s also a game? It was such a hybrid of so many different elements. It really wasn’t until Fitbit came out that people started to be like, Oh, right. You wear something on your hand that you can attach to a computer.

RK: That seems so silly that Fitbit would have been what changed things for people.

YD: Yeah but really that was a huge turning point. Some game show friends came to see The Ascent and said, Let’s make a game show out of this. So I went to LA and we wrote a mind-controlled game show. And we’re pitching it around and everyone is like, What are you talking about? What do you mean? But there was a real turning point.

We did pitch it to the Mark Burnett Company. And one woman there, Wendy, took it to Mark, and Mark was like, This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I need to meet this person immediately. So I took this whole demo to his house in Malibu and set him and his wife up and played mind-control games with them. And he basically bought the concept and we signed with them to get it done. And we kept pitching it to production companies and to networks, and it wasn’t until that moment when Fitbit came out and it was a thing that people were like, Oh right, because I wear my Fitbit. It was a real turning point culturally.

I actually find myself in that position fairly often where we’re pushing new technologies and redefining what experience could be or what theater could be or what performance could be, and it’s almost too early for people to want to understand what it is. You know, Sleep No More happened in 2009—it’s when it really opened and kind of blew up. But for probably 14 years before that, GAil GAtes started in Dumbo and they were kind of an immersive theater—it was called site-specific then, immersive wasn’t really a word—but they were site-specific, making stuff out of their space in Dumbo. Our company was making things in alternative spaces in New York. We’re certainly not the first people to be doing alternative things. Annie Hamburger and En Garde Arts and even Reza used cool, different types of spaces. But I feel like that, 15 years beforehand, started planting new cultural seeds for those things to really take root. Which doesn’t take away—Arthur and Jonathan, and Punchdrunk, did an incredible thing building this nexus of really fun nightlife theatrical entertainment. But these things come and they build on top of each other.

So I find myself a lot in the early stages of that where no one understands it yet. But I’m like, This is gonna be a thing. When the first Oculus Rift came out and I got one and was taking it around to industry people. I’m like, This is gonna be entertainment. And they’re like, Uh, ok it’s cool but I don’t—it’s still really early for that type of thing.

RK: So was CVRTAIN a hard sell?

YD: No. CVRTAIN came about because PS122 has always had a really interesting digital angle on the work that they do, and even have a program called PS122 Digital. So they did a piece with Ryan Holsopple a couple years ago [dataPurge]—there was online participation, stuff like that. They had applied for a grant from the Doris Duke Foundation, which was building demand in the arts, and for them it was among millennials. So they asked me to be the artist attached to that grant. They asked me to make the first work and then this year and next year I’ll be curating two other artists and working with them and applying tools of new media. And by new media I mean just the way that people communicate now: social tools, even just something as simple as using the internet to enable your performance in some way and reach more people.

I’ll back up a little bit, because there are a few different trajectories happening at the same time in here. In 2014, one of my old high school friends who has been in [advertising]—I’ve gone in and consulted with people and given ideas. The word “experiential” started creeping into the advertising space. And again I started seeing “experiential” stuff in the 90s. There was kind of a slow build in terms of this idea of experiential stuff in the ad space.

I think it was in 2014, I was contacted to create this piece for Audi. We made this six-hour live stream in a hangar in the Santa Monica airport, where artists would come in, make work, and people would tweet at them and that would modify their work in some way. It wasn’t the most solid concept but it was interesting. It was people on Twitter communicating with the artists, and shaping the work, and watching it all kind of in a feedback loop, a livestream happening in real time, with a Twitter feed the whole time. It was the first time that had been done, particularly in that advertising space. People had certainly, especially at RPI, used Twitter to do all sorts of controlling stuff.

I’m really interested in that type of thing. The way we communicate now is so radically different than it was ten years ago. Less. In order to reach the amount of people that you should be reaching as an artist, I felt like, through this PS122 grant, that that’s what I wanted to leverage.

And after we made “Love Has No Labels,” which reached, first day, 50 million people. That was amazing to watch. It spread like wildfire on the internet. So seeing that you could make something that’s a fairly simple idea, and execute it, and, with the power that basically you have in your pocket, with your phone, you can reach the world.

Another reason I felt like I wanted to leave theater in New York was that it’s such a small community. It’s like 5,000 people that are all just speaking to each other, and once I left New York, oh my god. There are so many ecosystems of thought and people doing things and social activations and pockets of interest. It’s such a big world in so many ways, as small as it feels, it’s very big, too. I felt like the artists in New York, and how hard you work on a show, for years, a year and a half on a show that’s gonna perform for a week.

RK: Hopefully.

YD: Right. And you put your whole soul and all your money and all of your time into this thing that is so meaningful to you and it’s only seen by a house with 60 people in it, six times. So 400 people are gonna see your show. Given how we can now communicate in the world, that seemed really, very. Theater has always been accused of being a very slow-moving art form because it is live and it’s all happening in real time in a way. So the way that the art form communicates, the way that it mutates happens much more slowly because it has to transpire in real time. You have to go to a show, you have to see it, an artist has to work on a show for another 6-8 months, or a year, and then you see that show, and you get little pieces and you see echoes of people’s work in other things. This sort of language evolves. But because the community is so insular in a way it really only goes so far.

There are so many ways to communicate and there are so many people to communicate with and there are so many things to say and that people want to hear, and ways to communicate and connect with people. So that’s what I really wanted to bring to the PS122 thing.

So CVRTAIN was an idea. And also to make a VR piece; it was my second VR piece. The first one is a flying experience [Airflow].

RK: This is a negative way of putting it, but do you not have faith in more traditional theater?

YD: What I have faith in is people. The artists. What I’m worried about is: the barrier to entry, the outreach, the lack of people wanting to use new technology. There’s something that feels stuck or old about it to me. The only reason why that bothers me is that people are not gonna see your work and they should see your work. I feel like the whole world should be able to see a Radiohole show or a Big Art Group show or your show. Why not? There’s no reason why not. And the tools are there, it’s so easy to do now. The tools exist. The tools exist that people in other countries can even participate in your show. They can be in your show, from another part of the world. It requires a different type of thinking.

When we were at the Doris Duke, we went to a convening for them. I was kind of silent the whole time until technology came up and someone was like, I don’t believe in this social media thing. And I was like, you don’t have to believe in it, but you can’t ignore it, because it exists. And if you wanna not believe in it then make a point of having people take off their shoes and drop their phone into a bag before they get there. Make it a thing, instead of just not liking it and being blind to it and not seeing that it’s a really powerful feature, for better or for worse. I’m really agnostic about all technology. I think that it’s not good or bad. I think that it’s what we do with it and how we want to use it. I do think it’s changed the way that we communicate, and that could be good or bad, but I feel like that’s up to us, and what we’re gonna do with it, and what we’re gonna make with it.

So no I’m not unhopeful. Oh but, another thing people were talking about was, We just want a better lighting grid in our space. When I go to theater now and I sit down in one chair and look in one direction the whole time, this seems so outdated to me. I keep telling PS122, I think the best thing that happened to them was their building got into construction. I think that the decentralizing—it’s hard for them, but it’s just that one space. And then everyone’s like, well what are we gonna do with that space, how are we gonna make that space different. And that was the only thing I ever asked myself, at PS122 or HERE or Ontological, because you’d seen so many things there, and all the spaces have such intense personalities already because they’re not clean voids. There’s a pillar in the middle of one of them, and a subway that rumbles underneath every seven minutes. I always used the personalities of all the spaces to inform the work that we were doing. I remember on the first show we did with the American Living Room Series in that space in HERE with that pillar in the middle of it, and I was like, we should go see a show there the week before, just to see the theater. And we got there, and holy fuck there’s a big pillar in it. I’d never seen it before. And so that last week we changed the whole thing to be about the pillar, and that was great because it felt like we used the space and that was built.

RK: In CVRTAIN it felt like you really built a space. But Airflow, does that have the same sort of built space or is it all virtual?

YD: It’s got an apparatus that you strap into and step into but, no, it’s more about the virtual space. Virtual reality is really boring to watch people in it.

RK: Not in CVRTAIN, though.

YD: Right, exactly, but in general a lot of the VR stuff that you see is just someone with a headset on waving their arms around. I find those behaviors actually hysterically funny. Because people are behaving in a way that is completely divorced from our reality. And when you start to look at it as, they’re in a different reality, in a virtual reality, then for me—if you can tap into that philosophical feeling, that’s when it becomes really interesting. Because someone is existing on one plane of our reality but they’re experiencing something completely different so their behavior does not match with what we expect to see in our normal everyday life. So I wanted to highlight that in CVRTAIN. And so that’s why you’re on stage—you’re on double stage. You’re on stage in real life and then you’re on stage in virtual reality.

RK: When I went to CVRTAIN, I went the earliest possible slot in the day, so—

YD: So there was no one else there—

RK: I didn’t know that was an element, and so I did the experience but then I watched my friend do it and then other people do it and it just blew things open.

YD: It was kind of joyous.

RK: Yeah.

YD: I love being in there and watching everyone doing it. And other people standing around laughing. I just thought it was a joyous, fun experience.

RK: And it was amazing to see how people took the challenge on, because some were really comfortable with it and some, like me, were somewhat less so.

YD: Right.

RK: And this dual audience was just fascinating.

YD: And that’s something I’ve always been interested in, messing with the audience-performer relationship. And so, one of the early pieces I did at chashama, they had a storefront window, and so I built a theater in the window and then brought the audience in through the back way. They didn’t exactly know where they were going. And then you go sit in the window and the curtain is closed, and then as the curtain opens you realize that you’re actually on the street, looking out of a window, and then everyone on the street stops and looks at you, so there are two audiences suddenly happening at once. A lot of other things happened as well, but I’ve always been really interested in that. As an audience member, don’t you just want to be completely transported, and taken out of your mind.

RK: Are there any new things you’re working on now that you can talk about?

YD: I’m working on touring CVRTAIN right now and setting up that infrastructure. We’ll be at the Virtual Reality Conference in LA in April and then in Chicago and then in Australia. And. After the election, I suddenly just felt different about everything.

RK: How so?

YD: After November, I’m working on my advertising stuff and that’s bill-paying. They’re great jobs because I get to use all the weird skills that I have and be creative. But they’re not my artwork. So in terms of my own artwork, I have a few ideas right now but I’m really trying to figure out what the best thing to do is right now. “Love Has No Labels” was such a binding, connecting thing. I feel like it brought so many people together. It happened in a year when SCOTUS made marriage equality legal. It felt like it was part of a real zeitgeist of forward thinking. And since the election, I feel like a lot of the harsher elements of culture were always there, but now we’re actually seeing them come out. So I’m really trying to think about what else we can do to unite people, to create more common ground between people.

[Edited for length and clarity.]

Further Reading:
10 Mixed Reality Artists To Know: 1. Blast Theory (UK)

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