Wyatt David Welles's Interactive Art
I met Wyatt David Welles in 11th grade at CITYterm, a semester-away experiential learning program in New York City. We became fast friends and since have enjoyed many a romp through NYC’s streets in search of the best brunches and the coolest performances. From the time we met, I always knew that Wyatt was destined for great things – his charm, his wit, his talent, and his drive are unmatchable. When Wyatt told me that he had decided to drop out of Sarah Lawrence College after his freshman fall in order to pursue his career full-time, I wasn’t surprised at all. Mad Generation, the theater company of which he is a co-founder and the artistic director, has produced five theatrical productions as well as an original floral installation. Yet, their most ambitious project to date, The Hugo Ball, is about to take place this Saturday night. Last week, I cozied onto my couch in Colorado for a phone call with Wyatt, ever-nostalgic for our NYC days together and ever-inspired by the brightest of futures this visionary boy is creating for himself.
Linne Halpern: Tell me about The Hugo Ball…
Wyatt David Welles: Do you want me to just ‘Wyatt’ rant as I can do? Please shut me up at any time.
WDW: The Hugo Ball is Mad Generation’s New York City debut. This is the fourth year we’ve been a company. In the past, we’ve solely done immersive, experimental theater, but theater nonetheless. We were demonstrating skills that we knew we had and proving that we knew how to do something with them. We know how to do rehearsal processes, how to cast, how to adapt a show, and all that, but The Hugo Ball is so different. In the past two years of living in New York, Ellie New (Mad Generation co-founder and managing director) and I noticed that we have this network of incredible theater and performing artists, and we also have this incredible network of visual artists. It felt like neither of these separate communities were talking to each other. I didn’t understand why, especially right now when there is so much threat to, not only the funding of arts in America, but also to the overall, cultural approach to the importance of art in America. So, essentially, the question became: what happens if we get visual artists and performing artists, not only into the same physical space, but also working in the same room?
When you have a painter and a photographer in the same room, they still feel a kinship. So it’s very odd to me that, for example, a painter and a singer don’t feel that same connection to each other. I’m really excited to extend that dialogue between different mediums.
LH: I think that is so interesting too because one of the things that was really important to us in starting Reverberations was really trying to expand the definition of what art can be in terms of resisting categorization. I think that so often criticism is relegated to very specific forms and genres and does not account for more divergent ways of realizing the arts. I’m interested in how experiences themselves can be seen as transformative and emotional artistic moments. So, I, personally, think it’s very cool that you’re trying to meld these mediums.
WDW: Yeah, I think we really just have to get everyone in the same room. So much of art is resource-based; if you’re a painter you need access to a canvas, an easel, a studio, etc. And performance artists need access to a stage, an audience, etc. Institutionally, when you’re working on your painting or you’re working on your play, you’re not housed in the same place.
Having lived in the city for the past two years now, I’ve also come to realize that art is such a social thing. We don’t want this to be a stuffy art fair or a sit-down concert. That is not a dialogue. Both the visual and performing artists are going to be presented in fully dignified, professional manners, but there’s going to be a bar! And talking! You’re watching a spoken-word artist, and while we’re switching out that artist and adjusting the mic, you’re chatting with a painter and being like, ‘oh, whoa! Wasn’t that nuts? Wouldn’t you like to do a painted response to the themes in that piece?’
LH: I’m thinking about this Art History class I took where we learned about a Post-Modern movement called Relational Aesthetics. In the 80’s, artists were really trying to create spaces that were meant to foster connection and dialogue, and they were wrestling with fitting that ideology into museum spaces. Ultimately, museum spaces weren’t created with that kind of mentality. What you’re doing feels like it’s really building off of that history without, necessarily, even realizing it.
WDW: It’s so true, and I don’t dislike museums. We don’t need to get rid of what’s there, we just need to add more variety. I’m realizing that what makes this event special is applying the ephemeralness of theater to the visual arts. When you go to a museum, especially with the whole concept of permanent collections, it’s something that you only do when you have excess time for it. Because this event is one night only, you get some of that rush of the theater. Applying that to the visual arts raises the stakes. You have to engage with what is happening right now in time and think about what is influencing your perspective. You can’t check back in on it in a few months time when another awful Trump thing happens.
In terms of the name of the event, The Hugo Ball, Ellie and I have been very inspired by the Dada Movement. There was a man named Hugo Ball who started the most exciting part of the Dada Movement, Cabaret Voltaire. It was in Zurich and only lasted five months. I believe the actual structure is still there with only a small plaque commemorating it. There was New York Dada, Paris Dada, Zurich Dada, and Berlin Dada. But, it all started in those five months at that one bar, that all these artists created. Those artists were creating art that was asking questions like: ‘what is the state of our nation? What does art mean right now?’ They weren’t saying, ‘well I’m a painter and here is my statement.’ They were saying, ‘here are my questions, and if I go to this place I’ll be with like-minded people who are also asking questions.’ It wasn’t about the medium at all, it was about being with a community that you had a place in and could ask questions together. We thought, ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if we could have our own Cabaret Voltaire in New York right now?’ In calling it The Hugo Ball, I just wanted to be upfront about who and what we are referencing.
LH: As you’re speaking—this is so nerdy and nostalgic—but, I’m reminded of this concept we used to talk about at CITYterm called Creative Collaboration. What has your experience been collaborating with other artists and why collaboration is something that feels really important to you right now?
WDW: Everything about this conversation just takes me back to CITYterm. First and foremost, creative collaboration is what started the company. We were high school kids that did a project together, liked the sense of collaboration, did it again and liked that even more. Then we did it outside of an institution, on our own, and loved it. The minute we stop collaborating is the minute we’ve lost track of where we came from. I must respect the chemistry that started it all; even though there are people who were core members of this company who I no longer talk to. It’s just part of the natural process of growing up – we started this when we were eighteen, now I’m twenty-two. It’s not that that is even a long time, it's just that those are pivotal years when you change a lot. Because Ellie and I are no longer in school and because we live together, we are really the ones running this. It’s very different from how we operated four years ago when we were a group of friends making plays together.
Additionally, to be frank, I know the extent and limits of my talents, and I just want to surround myself with people who are much more talented than myself. That is the best feeling. When I’m like, ‘oh my god, I have no idea how that person did that thing.’ I know I’m going to learn so much from them. A lot of my perspective is filtered by the fact that I did leave college and am not in an institution that is teaching me what art is or should be. I love being able to approach a young artist and be like, ‘I know you’re in class and that your teacher is telling you this, this, and this, but let me tell you that, from my perspective, you have something to show and you are already realized in so many ways.’
LH: Do you feel that part of the mission behind Mad Gen has been and will always be supporting and creating a space for young artists, especially in a moment where it may feel like institutions are reigning and opportunities for young people are rare?
WDW: Absolutely. I think we’ve always been like, ‘we want to promote young artists,’ but ok, sure, everyone says that. Nobody wants to not do that. I think that used to be a cute thing and then 2016 happened and changed everything. When I moved to New York, I started learning what my own identities mean in a bigger pond. We’re all just Kylie Jenner, we’re all just, ‘like reaaalizing things.’ (laughs.) But, it’s true. The pressure cooker was turned up the minute the Trump administration changed the tone for marginalized people. Right now, everyone just needs a community. The community that I want to be in is one of young, talented artists who I can learn something from. I think that a lot of people are feeling this way right now.
LH: How do you balance wanting to create this open space for young artists and believing in inclusivity and support, but also maintaining such a high level of quality?
WDW: It’s really tricky, especially because so much about this is creating a network. The way we’ve gone about it this time is we’re really not making offers unless we’re absolutely sure of the work and can support the person behind the work.
You also want a spectrum of work. There’s a difference in appreciation for someone who can paint a beautiful abstract and someone who can paint a beautiful photo-realistic portrait. So, I’m also making sure that the work showcased at this event will cover a wide range of skills and topics. For this event, I would rather have equal gender representation of artists, but just the way it’s worked out, it’s about 80% women. There’s been sort of a natural curation that I actually think makes for a much more organic show. We’re not being like, ‘ok, we’re doing a show on feminism. Everyone submit your work on feminism.’ It’s more like, ‘ok, what artists do we like? Cool, now, let’s look at all the work the artists have agreed to send us and see where the overlap is.’ Through just the fact that our network is mainly women, we’re like, ‘alright, cool. So gender is going to be a theme throughout this.’
LH: What do you think it was that gave you that confidence to leave school and really put everything on the line for this and for your career?
WDW: Well, I have to be upfront here with this. The risk of me dropping out of college and moving to New York City is so not the same risk for other people. I had an incredibly privileged, high school education. I trusted myself to be able to make good with that and to not just spend more money at an institution that couldn’t help me as much I would’ve hoped. I was able to recognize what I already knew, what I wanted to learn, and what was the most effective way to be able to learn it. For me, that was not to stay in college.
With all of that aside, I moved to New York and I started working for an off-Broadway theater company. I learned what the administration looks like, I learned that in a non-profit institution, a lot of the work that you do needs to be driven by your donor base. And a lot of the people, at least in New York, that are patrons of these arts programs are upper-class, white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, old people. I mean, they are old! So, because of this, the work in New York just feels a little stale. We don’t have a lot of government subsidies to pay for the weirder stuff that actually challenges the mainstream. So, we were a little bit stuck I think. For a while, Ellie and I were all about becoming a non-profit theater company. But, we’re realizing, we don’t need more theater. We have enough theater. We have enough galleries. What we don’t have is something that is both. We don’t have institutions that are run by artists and not patrons. I don’t think we’ve arrived at this at all yet; it’s going to take time. Our goal right now is to figure out how we can think outside of the box about how arts are erected and paid for in New York City. I think what we need is an arts administration renaissance.
So, The Hugo Ball, was for me, the way I was able to rationalize my part in all this, with the resources I have available to me. It’s just my two cents into the pot. Our generation has already been revolutionary for so much and technology has just moved so fast in that we are all connected.
LH: Yeah, definitely in the age of social media, it sounds like, getting everyone all together in the same physical space is something that has been really important to you…
WDW: Yes! But, we have been being very millennial about it. I’ve booked several artists through Instagram, but I’m sure that they will be there at the event on the day of, and that will no longer be Instagram. The question has been, ‘how do we use the technology to get everyone there and then once everyone is there, let’s talk and actually get to know each other.’
LH: That’s so great. I love that.
WDW: Thank you. It’s really exciting and really complicated. So many different accounts to log into (laughs.) That’s just the reality now.
LH: Moving in a different direction…I feel as though so much of your work thus far has been adapted from literature. As an English major myself, I am very interested in literature and how it can be used to inspire other art forms.
We named the site Reverberations because we’re really interested in this way that art and art criticism reverberate off of each other to create further artistic responses. A response to an art form can be a new form of art in itself. I’m intrigued by this process of continuous dialogue with other makers. How have you found the process of adaptation and the balance between inspiration and admiration?
WDW: Every show we have done in the past has been very literary. They’ve been high school reading assignments for most of us honestly…The Glass Menagerie, Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Great Gatsby, Brave New World, Virginia Woolf’s works...so it’s true. We do a lot of responses to work that we appreciate. Partly, I think because its very comfortable knowing that whatever you’re adapting already comes from a work that you greatly respect and trust to be good. When you trust the source, you trust your response. With The Hugo Ball, we’re doing that again I think. We’re responding to Cabaret Voltaire and High Dada. We’re just adapting that narrative to fit ours and that’s very comforting in so many ways. I don’t think that starting from the ground up is even possible honestly because I believe that every piece of art is incorporating responses to other works it admires.
LH: Totally. Is there anything else that feels important to you about this?
WDW: I was talking with one of our performers yesterday, and she was talking about the experience of being a young, African-American woman in Trump’s America. She’s working on an album right now and I guess everyone keeps asking about her statement on these times. She scrapped one fully recorded song because she was trying to match the tone that her family and friends expected her to have.’ She was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do an angry, politically charged song. Maybe my way to deal with it is to just write a song about love, about heartbreak.’
There’s no right way to process what circumstances you find yourself in, as long as you’re not hurting anyone. For me, that moment was like, ‘ah yes, that is why this event is happening!’ So that everyone can respond to what's going on in whatever way feels best to them. I’m excited to see how so many different responses can all exist here in the same space.
LH: Now you’ve set all of this up, and you just have to sort of let it happen…
WDW: Right. I find this event intimidating in a really motivating way because you just can’t control the tone of this thing once it happens. We can get the venue, the drinks, make sure everything is set up and ready, but the people who are going to come are going to choose how this event goes and what it feels like.
LH: I feel like that is the ultimate immersive performance.
WDW: Ya! True! Damn! I never thought about it like that. It’s the attendees’ willingness to engage in dialogue that is going to define this event. I think it’ll be good for all of us, and then it’s Pride [NYC Gay Pride Parade] the next day! That’s my goal: just make it to Pride.
LH: That is so non-stop, and that will also be such an interesting place to be in after this experience…
WDW: Yeah. Definitely. That’s the whole thing, maybe people are really going to view this as a queer art thing because Pride is on their mind. Who knows? It could go so many different ways…
LH: Depending on the goggles people are walking in with…
WDW: Yes, exactly. I’ve never been so curious about something I've made before.
The Hugo Ball is taking place on Saturday, June 24th, 7:30 pm at Brooklyn’s ACME Studio. Tickets for The Hugo Ball can be purchased here. Check here for more information about Mad Generation and their various projects.
Linne Halpern '18 is an English and American Studies double major at Wesleyan University. She is co-founder and editor of Reverberations.