Before she was one of the co-creators of Oklahoma City’s immersive art collective Factory Obscura, Laura Massenat had an uncanny ability to know what the rapidly-changing city wanted next. From bringing third wave coffee to OKC with Elemental, to co-founding a food truck night market, Laura has the acumen to bring her visions to life and make them wildly successful. The coffee shop served to stimulate coffee culture in Oklahoma City; what began as a small community block party eventually had 40,000 people in attendance every month and helped launch the city’s food truck scene. Now, Laura and the other co-founders are creating arts jobs, fueling economic development around the arts, and establishing an entirely different kind of third space for the community at large.
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Q: What is Factory Obscura?
A: Factory Obscura is a radically inclusive collective of artists, thinkers, creators, inventors and makers, as well as a B-corporation building a sustainable economic engine that pays artists as they work to create immersive projects, which are designed to bring people together to inspire wonder and exploration.
Q: What is Mixtape all about?
A: Mix-Tape is 6,000 square feet of hand-crafted immersive experience that explores the old-school art of the mix-tape through new media environments of visuals, sounds, textures, and interactivity. It is a physically manifested “playlist” of songs that speak to the artists’ journeys as individuals and as a collective and respond to the universal emotions that go into and come out of this personal art form.
Q: How did you and your co-creators come up with the idea for Factory Obscura?
A:We wanted to create an immersive, art-filled playground that would be as much fun for adults as it is for kids. We believed our city was ready to express its unique creativity in a physical space. It rapidly became a priority for us to create an economic engine that would pay artists as they work, inject money into arts education and arts organizations, and generate a return for investors.
Q: Did you have a background in art?
A: No, not at all, isn’t that funny?I have a background in supporting the arts; we have long used Elemental as gallery space for local artists and I serve on the Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition board, as well as the Ralph Ellison Foundation board. I see myself as a catalyst for the next big thing Oklahoma City wants or needs or deserves. In 2008, with Elemental, we brought third wave coffee to our city. Then I helped conceptualize and launch H&8th, a monthly food truck festival that helped grow our city’s fledgling food truck scene. It seemed obvious that that next thing was immersive art – we did not know that we were jumping in at the beginning of an emerging experience economy that includes immersive art, live action role play, immersive theater and virtual reality. We just knew that the Oklahoma City market was ready.
Q: Is it a non-profit or is it fully funded by ticket sales?
A: It is a B-Corp: a for-profit business with a social mission – a portion of profits will always go into arts education. We take investment dollars, create jobs for artists who put together ticketed experiences, events and merchandise that generate revenues to return to investors and reinject in the local art community.
Q: How many artists are employed at any given time by Factory Obscura?
A: Our team of around thirty artists includes animators, carpenters, lighting specialists, poets, actors, musicians, dancers, painters, fabricators, sculptors, photographers and filmmakers. Of these, 10 artists are on staff, and the remainder are hired on a contractual basis to complete the collaborative projects as needed. We are also proud to employ three part-time and three full-time staff to operate Mix-Tape. Although working in operations, they are all also artists in their own right. This is one of the most important parts of our mission: we’ve created full-time arts jobs. Most people trying to make art in Oklahoma are piecing together their living from commissions, gallery sales, working in arts education, or working part-time jobs that have nothing to do with art. It is very rare to find a full-time job that pays you a living wage to create art everyday.
Q: What are some of the most surprising results to come out of this endeavor?
A: For me personally, I knew our city would respond, I knew it was needed, and I knew there was a place for it. I didn’t realize how many artists and community members needed a place to fit in. Our place is a third space you get to enjoy on your own terms: stay as long as you want, interact if you want to, or just find a place to perch and watch people wander. You can even hang on our front porch and play with the boombox. I didn’t realize how much I would love simply watching how other people interact with the space.
Q: Is there one moment you can point to when you knew it would work in a city like Oklahoma City?
A: It was more like a series of moments, during those first few weeks of meetings, where everything was a yes. Yes it is possible, yes there are people who can make it happen, yes there is a place for it. The day after we returned from our trip to the City Museum in Saint Louis, local artists and arts organizers Kelsey Karper and Romy Owens said we could incubate our idea in their space, Current Studio. It became obvious there was momentum and a will to do it. This series of ‘yeses’ fueled all that came after.
Q: What advice do you have for others with wild ideas?
A: You don’t have to know how to do it yourself, and you don’t need to know in any detail what steps to take. Just start gathering people who want to do it with you. The future is collaborative – in fact anything that humans have ever achieved, created, or built has been collaborative. We set out with a big idea: a 50K square foot facility that would include immersive art, outdoor public space, workshops, classrooms, retail and food service. Along the way, we have built temporary works, tested our concept and our business model, and never lost sight of The Big One.
Q: Is there anything else you want us to know about Factory Obscura?
A: This is not the end. This is growing, living, breathing, and ever-changing, and we will always be building more.
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Planning a trip to see Factory Obscura in person? Check out this collection of other arts and culture experiences in OKC, as well as ideas for hotels, restaurants, bars, coffee and cocktails while you’re here.