Art director Scott Schaaf helps coral the work of more than 40 artists into a cohesive experience
They send me in first.
All I can think is, “Don't get lost. Don't embarrass yourself and the entire Columbus Alive staff by getting so lost in here that calls to your parents and the fire department are required.”
Art Director Scott Schaaf leads me to the entrance. His only instructions: Pick a door and have fun. Once inside, I soon realize that getting lost is a large part of the Otherworld experience.
Schaaf's parting words sum up Otherworld's mission statement. The immersive art-installation-meets-escape-room is all about encouraging people to be a part of the art. There are no security guards telling you to stand back. Get extra close. Touch everything, from the psychedelic Tree of Life that anchors the largest room to the creepy purple and green spiders in the “sewing room.” Is that a hidden tunnel inside a large fuzzy blue monster? You better crawl inside it. (Some people have even taken naps there, one Otherworld staffer told me.) Above all: Don't take it so seriously.
“Does [art] have to be completely valid and express the deepest wealth of my man pain and every aspect of pain in the world? No, it doesn't. Sometimes it can be a giant, glowy tree, and that's gonna give someone the same kind of visceral emotional feeling as everything else,” Schaaf told me a couple of days later. (I did manage to make it out of Otherworld in a timely manner.)
“We can remind people that art is fun and that you can have fun and it's OK,” he said. “It's art that actually wants you to be there.”
More than 40 artists with backgrounds that range from textiles and animation to sculpture and metalworking contributed to Otherworld, and it was Schaaf's job to corral all those artistic visions into a cohesive story. Another part of his job is explaining what Otherworld is, which isn't easy, seeing as it's the first of its kind in Columbus.
“I think my mom still thinks I work for a haunted house,” Schaaf said, only half joking.
He described the narrative of Otherworld as, “There's this tech startup that discovered a way into a different dimension through dreams. You as the user are the beta tester for this new kind of experience, but as you get there you can already tell something went completely wrong. So as you're walking through, it's almost like the dream world started taking over the facility, and then you see these clues of these different characters trying to work out where they are or what they want to do with this kind of technology.”
This trippy, “when worlds collide” storyline connects the space's many disparate rooms. Mysterious symbols that resemble an alien language pop up in several locations. Old computer screens display nothing but neon colors, giving you the impression that the system is crashing. A seemingly innocent child's bedroom is made slightly sinister with the addition of imposing fuzzy monsters. Plants that look like science experiments gone wrong pop up throughout. Then there are what I've dubbed the infinity rooms. One features nothing but mirrors, another mirrors and skinny, multi-colored LED lights. Turn around a couple times in either room and you'll start to feel lost in another dimension.
“My goal is to make sure that [in] each space you can still sense internal logic. It's not just throwing a bunch of things into a room,” Schaaf said. “Everything that's put in the room is there to tell the story of the room and serve a purpose either narratively or aesthetically.”