David Korins, Hamilton Set Designer & Immersive Van Gogh Creative Director
By John Nyman
Even over a Zoom call, our interview with Hamilton Set Designer and Immersive Van Gogh New York Creative Director David Korins oozed with the energy and tempo of NYC. Joining us from the back seat of an Uber, David spoke with passion and panache about the New York art scene, working with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the secret subconscious powers of design, and his city’s notorious beef with LA. Serendipitously, his shameless praise of making art for the common denominator was even punctuated by an errant car horn.
Nonetheless, David’s razor-sharp wit and astounding breadth of insight are more than matched by the inspiring generosity behind his work as an artist and designer. On the one hand, his approach is steeped in humility toward the work of his collaborators—including Immersive Van Gogh Creator Massimiliano Siccardi and, in a sense, Van Gogh himself—along with a profound desire to carry that work to its greatest heights of innovation and exposure. On the other, he is also keenly attentive to the hopes and fears of New Yorkers as they pursue a slow exit from the devastation of COVID-19. Taken together, David’s words offer a simultaneously practical and idealistic approach to defining post-pandemic artistic experience—an offering all the more valuable in that it comes from a global epicentre of both the tragedies of this past year and the profound creativity through which we will survive it.
How do you articulate your role as Creative Director for Immersive Van Gogh?
Compared to set design, being a Creative Director and designer is a bigger bite of the apple. There is no “director” of the show per se. I believe Massimiliano Siccardi’s title is Artistic Director: he’s created this thing, but I’m basically taking the thing and pouring gasoline all over it, to fan the flames. I think that’s what he did to Van Gogh’s work. He took Van Gogh’s work and interpreted it in an artistic way, and I’m taking his interpretation of Van Gogh’s work and filtering the entire thing through my own artistic sensibility—and creating something brand new as a result.
Massimiliano is sort of the Steven Spielberg of immersive theatre and immersive video design. For Immersive Van Gogh, I’m responsible for taking his film and then sculpting—beginning, middle, and end—the journey of the consumer or visitor. I control where they get their tickets, how they get their tickets, how they queue up in line, and everything they interact with all the way through the merch store, the lobby, and then all the way back out. So, it’s much more holistic than the set designer would be on a piece of theatre.
In addition to making all new, cool, interesting, dynamic sculptures and ways in which Massimiliano’s work will be enjoyed—things like viewing platforms and sculptures that refract light in new and interesting ways, that people can interact with and move around—I’m also creating a bunch of original pieces of IP that will help you learn more about the man, the artist, the brand, etc. We’re making installations in and amongst the merch store and lobby that I think will help make audiences’ appreciation and knowledge of the artist much deeper and richer.
As a creative in the city, what’s your sense of the current artistic atmosphere?
I think that right now, we’re all cautiously optimistic. We’re all incredibly excited and energized about being able to open in the arts in general. But I say “cautiously optimistic” because we’re also at a place we have never been in the history of live events: every single project is starting from zero and ramping up at the same time. So, I think there’s a feeling of deep and beautifully earned community, because we’ve all been through something profound together. There’s also hope that this is going to stick, that things are going to open and stay open. And there’s hope that these shows and voices will be amplified, find their own individual audiences, and maintain. Because every single project is basically vying against every other project, and that’s a really strange and interesting place to be.
I think 2021 is going to remain hopeful and wonderful, and that we’re going to see revelatory returns back to live events. Our production of Immersive Van Gogh is in a way the first and largest thing back in New York City. There have been little pockets and pop-ups, but our experience is, I think, one of the biggest live events that will open since the pandemic. In a way, this is the biggest, brightest beacon of hope we have.
I also think it is smartly created so that you can walk through this experience with your hands in your pockets. You don’t have a VR headset on your head, you don’t have to be shoulder-to-shoulder with people. So, I think it’s the perfect time, and the perfect experience.
One of the reasons I love Immersive Van Gogh so much is that there are so many on-ramps to people’s attachment to Van Gogh. If you’re a high art lover, then obviously we’re talking about one of the top five artists in the world. If you aren’t knowledgeable about art at all, these are still some beautiful, amazing, dynamic, incredible pictures. If you’re a music lover, or an art lover, or you just want a really cool experience, you can see and reinvest in these works in a way that you never have before.
The other part of it is this: Van Gogh is not a well-understood entity—as a man, as an artist, and as a brand. This resonates with the past year of people being stuck indoors, wrestling with depression and loneliness, etc. In a way, there is no more revelatory return to the limelight than someone really having their moment after all this isolation.
What do you find special about how audiences engage with visual art in New York specifically, and how have you incorporated this insight into your work on both Hamilton and Immersive Van Gogh?
I think New Yorkers are among the most intelligent, worldly, and weathered audiences in the world. As a group, we’re really well informed, well travelled, and well immersed in culture. I also think people are even smarter in a group, so we never try to dumb something down. But also, every single kind of person lives and breathes in New York City, so you’re not talking down one of these siloed-off communities. You’re talking to the greatest common denominator. I think those two things are a really interesting dichotomy: we have to balance needing to be something for everyone, and also something for very elite thinkers.
The thing about Hamilton is that I wasn’t truly in charge of how the show would be presented. Lin wrote a 27,000-word, 51-song masterpiece that spanned over the course of 30 years of American history, and my job was to figure out how to allow the audience to see and hear it—which was not easy! Now it feels inevitable, but it wasn’t that easy when we first did it. We didn’t really make it for a New York audience specifically, we just made it for an audience. So, that was about wrestling a brand new work down to the ground.
I think New Yorkers are concerned about COVID, they’re concerned about culture, and they’re concerned about new and interesting innovation. With Immersive Van Gogh, we’ve made something where the high-touch surfaces are incredibly clean and very well maintained, the art is presented in new and super-dynamic ways, and the space is 70,000 square feet. This is intentional, both so you can see and understand the profundity of the size and scale of the work, and also so you can stay safe. And that feels really specific to New York.
I was in LA recently, and while LA is obviously concerned about COVID, no two pandemics are created equally. In New York we lost our sense of humour a little bit, because when things got really bad they were building morgues in Central Park. In LA when things got really bad people were still kind of separate, and there’s just much more space there. So, really wrestling with what post-pandemic experience is, is very specific to what New York is. If it can work in New York, it’ll work anywhere, because we really went through it.
By the way, I used to have real beef between New York and LA. I was bicoastal for a long time. But I think I can solve the beef once and for all. If you compare the two cities, they will both lose. You can’t compare them. It’s not even apples to oranges; it’s like apples to pontoon boats. That said, if you take the best of both cities, they both win with flying colours. It’s not to say that LA didn’t go through a horrible pandemic, because the numbers of LA’s pandemic were worse than New York’s at both of their peaks. But there’s a different space issue. I trade in the currency of experiences through space, and in New York, we don’t have the luxury of jamming people together in a way that’s comfortable. As far as I’m concerned, there is no rivalry between New York and LA, because they’re both amazing cities. Still, how you present an experience to people who have just gone through and endured something like this pandemic needs to be accounted for.
What is one book that changed how you think about design?
There’s a book that has nothing to do with art at all: it’s called Blind Spot, by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald. It’s actually about implicit biases. I became obsessed with implicit bias about six years ago when I heard there was something called an IAT test in which you could measure people’s biases, whether they had to do with race, religion, sexual orientation, preferences, etc. I just thought: if you can measure it, you can probably solve it. If you can scientifically measure something, you can probably scientifically fix it.
I got really interested in this book specifically because of what we do as designers. We live in a world where there are architectural standards, so that doorknobs are always at the same height, light switches are at the same height, toilet bowls are at the same height, etc., so we don’t hurt ourselves. But with design, you can take implicit bias, what the mind does, and someone’s cultural impulses, and tweak them to get the right design effect. If you can do that, it’s very powerful.
What we do as designers is kind of subconsciously push people into thinking certain things. For example, we want you to feel like it’s a wide open space, or we want you to feel like it’s constricted, or we want you to feel smarter, or we want you to like this character, etc. Blind Spot helped me understand how people consciously and subconsciously think about the world around them, what we project onto things, and how we endow things with meaning—and it totally blew my mind.