Asher Young of Challenge Your Imagination Studio: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist
You create your own luck. “Luck” is multifaceted, you’ve got to keep putting yourself out there and presenting work; keep creating! It sounds simple but can be hard. Trust your instincts and just keep going, keep iterating. Don’t wait for anyone to give you a break. Do your best but keep pushing yourself. For example, over the pandemic when all the projects stopped I just started emailing and pitching everyone I could and out of the hundreds of ideas and conversations, one or two things started to happen.
As a part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist” I had the pleasure of interviewing Asher Young.
Creative director and designer Asher Young has driven 1,000 guests and 60 performers across London in a parade of vehicles that included a pink firetruck and a stretch limo police car; inflated a 75-foot octopus in the middle of the ocean; put A$AP Rocky through physical and psychological tests on the sales floor of Sotheby’s; enclosed DJ Michael Brun in a video sculpture based on mathematical formulas; developed a 3-D hologram for his own production of Peter Pan; made a man disappear into a puff of feathers; united disparate methodologies for a projection festival at a rare book and manuscript library; re-imagined a circus, from the tickets to the toilet paper; filled a Sotheby’s gallery with a metric ton of sand and two human lizards; and woven 33,000 milliwatts of light through a garden of trees to represent mycorrhizal networks. He holds a degree in Computing and the Arts from Yale University and is the founder of Challenge Your Imagination (CYI) Studio.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born and raised in New York City. My dad is Chinese and my mom is white but my mom grew up in Japan and my dad grew up in the US, so I was raised around so many different types of people. I was incredibly fortunate that my parents supported my strange hobbies from a young age. I started doing magic as a kid and also created theatrical haunted houses instead of trick or treating. What parents take their kid to Home Depot to figure out how to make it rain inside?
In high school I started working on crews for theater and concerts during the summers and on the weekends, and found my love for theater and design. Working alongside professionals gave me an incredible education — working 48 hours straight at Roseland Ballroom was incredible, especially for an overeager kid. I went to Yale for college where I studied Computing and the Arts, a major that combines computer science, art, music, and theater. In addition to designing and creating shows throughout college, I worked at design firms and theater companies, ultimately moving back to NYC to work for a producer creating new immersive shows before starting my own studio a few years ago.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
It probably all started with magic. When I was around six years old, my parents took me to Las Vegas where we saw a magic show and I got completely obsessed. I remember buying a levitating card trick at a magic stand in the airport terminal on the way home. From that moment magic took up most of my free time. I watched videos, read books, and practiced. My mother found an old vaudeville magician, Roy Dexter, who offered magic lessons. His home was stacked floor to ceiling with tricks, posters, and oddities — it felt like you were stepping into a living museum or magical archive. I was still super young, only 7 or 8, and he made me show up in a suit and tie to every lesson. He had no dexterity anymore but was an incredible showman. That was what he taught me, the ability to talk to people and tell them a story so that the magic would work. Years after Roy Dexter’s lessons, I started getting interested in theater and installations, and the education in drawing in an audience and creating a show for them deeply influenced how I think about my practice. And practically my love for magic still finds its way into my work today (there is a moment in the show I am doing currently where a chair moves by itself and is summoned back by the performer).
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
- Interesting moments can happen at any stage of the creative process and can be about content, the response from the audience, or the piece itself.
- A project that comes to mind where the initial research was interesting was while I worked for my old boss, I was asked to create an experience alongside A$AP Rocky for the release of his album TESTING. The idea was to put Rocky through real psychological and physical tests on the sales floor of Sotheby’s to mirror the emotional journey that it took to produce the album. We researched psychological experiments (like Stanley Milgrim) and physical feats (like breath holding) to tell A$AP Rocky’s story using the language of scientific experiments and acts of physical endurance presented in the context of performance art. It was exciting to see how it all converged.
- Another project that comes to mind is Inferno, a show I created years ago. Inferno was an immersive club show based on Dante’s work that was set in a private mansion, where guests experienced the various levels of hell and had the option to repent. It was full of curated drinks, food, choreography, magic, and each audience member experienced one on one scenes with performers. It is interesting how to this day people want to talk to me about that show whether they attended or just heard about it. I am constantly surprised and fascinated by how something that only lasted two weekends years ago created a distinct memory in people’s minds, almost as if it has become a myth.
- Sometimes the interesting moments happen during the process. As part of the development of a piece commissioned for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, we worked with this lovely guy based in Colorado, Chad, to test lasers. The piece used a laser that bounced between trees to reveal unseen connections within the gardens, specifically mycorrhizal resource-sharing networks that connect plants. I flew out to meet him and drove several hours into the wilderness with no cell service. Chad powered up the laser off a generator in the darkness and the light bounced through the trees and then there was silence. It caught me off guard and helped us put further attention on the importance of feeling completely in and held by nature, not only observing it.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
The studio has a range of projects in development, both internally and for clients. We just opened a worldwide concert tour that we directed and designed for Korean music collective DPR, and this fall we are curating and creative producing an exhibition at Yale University. Internally, we are developing a hotel concept, several art installations, a film, and a two-person immersive show called Bedtime Stories.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
Outside of the public figures/artists I would say a shibari specialist, ornithologist, chef, third generation circus family, body paint artists, and spiegeltent builder…to name a few. Every single person is different but being able to collaborate with experts in their practice is always a joy. Each story and situation is specific, whether that is asking a chef about how to represent two lovers and he comes back with an idea about fusing two pieces of fish together to symbolize their love or talking with an ornithologist about identifying local birds with specific social characteristics. Whether for a specific project or just to get to know each other, it is always exciting to watch someone else’s practice and build a shared vocabulary together.
Where do you draw inspiration from? Can you share a story about that?
I draw inspiration from other disciplines — architecture, literature, fashion, technology, science, nature. I need inputs to have artistic outputs. The inputs could be as simple as walking outside noticing a bird in a tree or as extensive as taking a two hour train ride from Paris to Nantes to see Les Machines de l’Île by Royal de Luxe, a puppet company I have followed for years that makes giant creatures from wood and steel (elephants, dragons, etc.) that walk through the city. Sometimes inspiration is an artifact that illuminates what is important. For example, while I was writing a theatrical version of Peter Pan set in a greenhouse that explored memory and loss, my partner took me on my birthday to the Beinecke Library to look at some of J.M. Barrie’s source material. To my surprise, Barrie’s personal key to Kensington Gardens, which I had been reading about for years, was there. Seeing the key in person sent my mind running to ask questions like — what should the entrance to the show be like given that this key is so incredibly heavy? What does it mean that Barrie preserved this item? What does it say about Barrie’s connection with objects and memory?
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Success for me means many people get to experience our work and I hope the benefit the audience gets is a kind of goodness brought to the world. We never try to dictate what an audience will experience emotionally, but hopefully as clichéd as it sounds, their experience with our work will have a positive effect, whether through joy, catharsis, moments of reflection, challenges to their views, or simply entertainment. What does that mean practically? They experience a show that confronts new representations of memories, are prompted to pass notes to strangers to build new relationships with people (friends, lovers and mentors), witness a story of free love, watch acrobats flip over their table, or just enjoy a new experience with friends.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- You create your own luck. “Luck” is multifaceted, you’ve got to keep putting yourself out there and presenting work; keep creating! It sounds simple but can be hard. Trust your instincts and just keep going, keep iterating. Don’t wait for anyone to give you a break. Do your best but keep pushing yourself. For example, over the pandemic when all the projects stopped I just started emailing and pitching everyone I could and out of the hundreds of ideas and conversations, one or two things started to happen.
- Creative exhaustion is natural! Finding the good ideas takes time and practice, and it can be fun, infuriating, messy, and easy; it depends on the day, moment, weather, or what you ate for lunch. It’s ok when the tank feels empty, so don’t be afraid to recharge it or switch focus to let inspiration and ideas percolate. People have different ways of handling that feeling. Once a year I usually go completely off the grid to recharge.
- It’s about the people as much as the work. The work is only good if people believe in you and what you’re doing. Building long relationships is critical. Being fair and good to people, even when things go sideways, is important. Investing in good people with a shared vision of what matters is essential. For most of our shows or projects we write thank you cards to all team members — a small gesture to recognize their work and to build goodwill.
- Longevity means surviving. The one thing you cannot control is the rate at which time moves forward. It takes time to meet people, establish your work, and be able to articulate your vision. Do the gig that’s not 100% perfect so you can pay your bills and keep doing the art you love. You never know who will reach out — we had to do a whole variety of projects to survive long enough as a studio to get the call for a commission years after I’d met the client.
- Clarity of artistic vision and intention are critical. Personal artistic goals change and you evolve constantly, so it is vital to keep in touch with your own perspective about your work. Other people will always have their opinions, especially since art and commerce are so closely tied these days. If an art/theater practice is the goal, working hard to continually find your center even as you try things out is important to stay focused on what matters. For me that is making sure no matter the medium that the audience is the protagonist.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I hope I become someone of specific influence. In terms of personal practice beyond creating art and entertainment, I think that listening is a movement that would provide lots of good to the world. I don’t mean the basic call and response in conversation and understanding the factual content of communication; instead I am talking about all the other signals and information people communicate, everything they are not saying or expressing without words (joy, discomfort, reflections, insecurities, excitement). I am always trying to get better at listening, and hope others will listen more deeply to themselves and others.
We have been blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this.
In college I went to a talk where TV & film producer Brian Grazer said that every month or week (I can’t remember) he tries to get lunch with someone in a completely different field than him and that always stuck with me. So I have been always trying to seek out people outside my world to keep learning.
If I could go back in time I would love to meet Orson Welles when he started using radio as a medium to capture the imagination of the audience to believe that “War of the Worlds” was actually happening. Olafur Eliasson is a living artist I would love to have a meal with, as beyond the art itself his work changed many people’s relationship to art and started to make the audience an integral piece of the work. I would love to hear his perceptions of how the expectation of the viewer has or hasn’t changed over his career.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Studio website: www.cyi.studio
Personal Website: www.asheryoung.com
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Asher Young of Challenge Your Imagination Studio: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.