Interviewing Sean Rogg: The Artist behind the Waldorf Project

The work of Sean Rogg deliberately blurs the line between discomfort and vision. His signature body of work, the ongoing Waldorf Project, builds complex environments, where participants navigate the unknown, knowingly, forced by the circumstance to (sometimes literally) ingest their surroundings. The Culture Trip speaks to Rogg about being a guest at your own party, making scent ingestible and the metric of experience.

When the Waldorf Project first launched in 2012 with Chapter 1, titled MUSKMELON, Rogg gave life to what was then a still-burgeoning concept of an immersive experience – one that his guests could take in with all their senses. In the end, Chapter 1’s familiar, restaurant-style set-up prevented Rogg and his guests from that ideal state of immersion. In Chapter 2, COLOUR, he set out to counteract this by creating an unfamiliar space composed of separate rooms, each an individual and personal environment addressing all five senses for each participant. Chapter 3, FUTURO, will take place in early 2016, with experimental research laboratories having happened in 2015.

SR: For the second half of the show, we built this huge environment that was a four-metre by four-metre cube, made up of 64 smaller cubes – like a giant jenga – and the room was reconfigured three times, to create three different emotional states. You interacted with the environment three times, ate three times and drank three times. But, when you have really intense monochromatic lighting and only white furniture, then, depending on what colour you’re wearing, you change colour. So if we were in a red environment, most people in the red spectrum would become red, so suddenly, the people became tools to heighten the experience.

On arrival you were given a colour. If you were purple you went into the purple room, if you were blue you went there, and then you switched and switched and switched. The purple room was about physical interaction with the space – quite playful – the dancers end up sliding people across the floor and they ate and drank a cube. So by the time you ate your purple cube you’re meant to feel kind of like a kid. The cubes were in the middle – that was your food, it’s always cubes. They were supposed to architecturally mimic the shape of the room. Everything was thought through to the umpteenth degree, even the smell of these cubes – we scented them. And as you rotated them the smell was released.

“people became tools to heighten the experience”

TCT: In Chapter 1, people sat opposite each other at tables. How did you pick the pairs? How did you handle people who knew each other?

SR: Initially, I said you could only buy one ticket at one time, deliberately, as I didn’t want people coming as couples or friends. But that didn’t work.

So then, in Chapter 2, somebody would literally grab your hand, sit you over there, and grab that guy, and put him over there. We actually had an arrival area for guests – their names were checked off, and they were given their little arrival pack, which was an object that determined which group they would be divided up into, a set of rules and a napkin that they used later. Then we could wait until the last person arrived … I had seven of my crew, who were pretending to be guests, who were just walking around going ‘right, the girl with the black hair in the black skirt, and the dude with the pink shirt – they’re together – those two guys in the suit – they’re together’ – and then they came back and told me. So, as you came in, we would walk in and somebody would just take you, and move you away. And so we just broke up everyone.

TCT: You are moving away from the concept of food, which initially drove your work.

SR: My vision of what I wanted this to be when I started has changed dramatically between Chapters 1 and 2. I really like certain aspects of what’s happening in the world of gastronomy – certain chefs are being called artists – but the more I experienced it, what was supposed to be art, it ended up being either not art or disappointing. So I thought maybe I could do better… and that kind of led to Chapter 1. If you looked at documentation of the event, you could think you were in a restaurant… a crazy restaurant. We threw all that out the window for Chapter 2; no tables, no sitting opposite each other, no knives, forks – nothing like that.

“we can actually create a soundscape

that will have a physical effect on the gastronomy”

TCT: What’s going to happen in the next chapter?

SR: I have six chapters planned, although it’s growing and mutating from chapter to chapter. The next one is called Futuro and we’re exploring my interpretation of what was going on in the period from the early 1960s to the early 70s – prior to the computer being invented, and the landing on the moon, and pre-dystopia visions about where we were going – over-population, eating insects and all of that… If you look at the architecture and the literature and the cinema – it was all about pleasure. All flying cars and pushing buttons and everything – everything was just perfect. As with all of it, it’s just a metaphor for the experience. I’m just distilling down that emotion. Guests will be told to come dressed in black this time, and they will be taken through five stages of emotional, pleasurable states – some unnerving, some euphoric.

TCT: So you’re putting together all these elements to create an immersive experience?

SR: The term ‘immersive’ has been used so much now – but it’s usually for theatre that you walk around in. In those kinds of shows you’re invisible – you just watch – whereas in my show you consume. It’s more than immersive, because you’re ingesting it. Everything is there to go into you, somehow. I think that what you put in your mouth is as important as what you put in your ears.

This is a good example: Imagine I had the choice of a glass of wine in the most beautiful crystal champagne glass that just gave me pleasure before I even drank the wine. I’d see the bubbles, I’d feel the glass – the temperature of the glass – everything – and then finally I’d taste the wine. This, versus getting it in a takeaway cup… clearly the takeaway cup is a shittier experience. It would taste different and feel different… and it is much less interesting. So what I’m doing is I’m taking all of the various elements that would be in the glass and I’m putting them around the room.
“the experience of it – that’s the artwork”

TCT: How does the process look in practice – do you test it yourself?

SR: Everyone has to make me feel something – I’m the test case. It’s like a bicycle – if you imagine I’m in the middle of it, and everything is sort of going up and down through me. I’m trying to get sound to be able to change the physical state of a liquid – to release scent and almost make it ingestible. The prototype speakers that we’re building are now in the sound studio, so that we can actually create a soundscape that will have a physical effect on the gastronomy.

TCT: On the night itself, how are you present to your guests?

SR: I’m there as a guest. I have to be there – I’m sort of conducting it if you like – the light cues, the sounds cues, various choreography cues are happening from me. So there is a lot of backstage stuff – but it’s on stage.
TCT: How do you want your guests to experience your shows?

SR: The one big leap that I did was between Chapters 1 and 2. If you look at the concept for Chapter 1, it’s very deep and esoteric. But because it’s such an emotional experience, a lot of people didn’t get it – they just wanted to experience something. And so people who hadn’t read the website suffered – they missed out on a section of the experience because they just didn’t know it was there, saying ‘I feel like I missed something’. And that broke my heart.

So what I developed is a sort of formula to create a non-linear, abstract journey. But everyone now has a unique experience. Everyone feels that they’ve got it – as opposed to some getting it and some missing it. For Chapter 2 I had mothers coming up to me saying ‘I understand motherhood now’, I had lawyers who wanted to become artists. I had people telling me that they wanted to shift their whole perception of how they thought about their lives. All totally different experiences – and everyone related to it.

That’s why I think it’s unique – I think that I am stumbling across a new way of experiencing art. Well, not a way of experiencing art, but a new art form insomuch as that is the art – the experience is the art. I see Chapter 2 as a limited edition of 333 – the people that came. So they have the memory of it, they had the experience of it – that’s the artwork.

“I think that I am stumbling across a new way of experiencing art”

TCT: So you emphasize the experience. Is that why Chapter 3 is moving into pleasure?

SR: Not pleasure per se. In order for you to just experience something and emotionally connect to it, in my opinion you can’t be told anything. I’m not so crazy about work that doesn’t make sense unless I’m told something. Because then it means that the artwork is incomplete unless the accompanying text is there. And that means that if you don’t get it you could somehow feel like you’re inferior, or superior if you do get it – and I don’t like that. I want it to be available to everyone. So for me that means no text, no dialogue, no menu – nothing is explained. If you look at the menu for Chapter 2 all that’s being said is ‘blue’, ‘purple’…

TCT: Did people actually agree with you that something they tasted was ‘blue’?

SR: Yeah, not just some people. I mean, a lot of people had a problem with it; they almost forced us to tell them what they were eating. There were people who gave me their hand and came with me, and were like, ‘ok we’re ready, do what you want to us’ – but there were other people who were like ‘what am I eating?’, ‘what is all this?’, ‘I’m not going to put this in my mouth unless I know what it is’.

TCT: Did you tell them what it was?

SR: Yes. I said: ‘Ok, you want the ingredients? There are 743 of them. You ready?’ And they go ‘give it to me’. And you go ‘ok, then – bam, bam, bam, bam….’ and after a while they say ‘ok, stop’.

TCT: It seems as if, even if people don’t quite want to give themselves up to the experience at first, there is an element of transformation?

SR: There’s transformation inasmuch as you’re giving up what we’re all programmed to do; from the dawn of time we’ve known what we put in our mouths. When was the last time you ate anything anywhere without being told what it was? Even something you can identify.

TCT: I read in one of your interviews that your work has dealt with manipulation of the guest – is that what manipulation is for you?

SR: No, manipulation is a negative word; but manipulation in as much as I change the way you feel. You come in normal and you leave ‘manipulated’ – I’ve done things to you that you didn’t know were being done to you. For example, being spied on when you arrive so that you’re broken up. Your whole journey seemingly random but is carefully thought-out.

“I need you to get drunk a little – so you that give yourself up to the experience.”

TCT: How would you describe the project to someone who has never heard about it before?

SR: I was describing it as art in which you ingest art through all of your senses… but now I think its even more than that. Now I think that they collectively combine to give you a new experience – a new emotional experience. So you’ve got your five senses, but there could be a sixth one if they are connected. If somebody actually manipulates them, it is possible create a sixth sense of emotion. from there, there are endless possibilities. That’s why I think we’ve just started.

It is also about inebriation. I need you to get drunk a little bit – so you that give yourself up to the experience. So by the end room you’d have relaxed. The performers change each time – they knew that if you ended in that room you’d probably just want to chill. If you’d started in it, it was more playful.

TCT: How did you end it?

SR: We had this 60s Warhol kind of ‘happening’, if you like. People would be mentally drained, and I wanted people to just chill out. We didn’t end the show, we just brought in a piece of music and people could go when they wanted to. And people stayed there for 2 hours, because they couldn’t leave. In our first chapter people were so moved that when we threw them out into the rain it was a shock – so I wanted people to just decompress at their own speed. And little by little the room got thinner… The few people that were left at the end – we played with them a little bit – we improvised a lot. But I must stress that, as much as I sound like I’m just trying to give people a wild ride, there is creativity – it might seem like it’s a lot of fun, and it’s supposed to be, but people do come out of there having a story that they can’t quite describe.

TCT: Would you rather the guests thought about what’s coming or just get completely immersed in what they are doing in the present?
SR: I think the best way is not to know anything and not to know what’s around the corner. It’s like a trip at Disneyland, really.
By Ewa Bianka Zubek

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