Jordan Renda started crafting haunted houses in high school in his parents’ basement. When escape rooms got big, he saw an opening.
“It was a lot more interesting because you’re not just walking through a space and giving people a flight-or-fight response, you’re telling a story and you can build off of it,” Renda says.
More than a year ago, Renda started developing an even more ambitious project: An art installation turned choose-your-own adventure. Instead of a locked room, visitors would enter the offices of Otherworld Industries, a futuristic tech company specializing in “alternate-realm tourism.”
Except when you enter Otherworld, you’re left to wander the desolate research facilities alone.
“And the bank didn’t laugh us out,” he says.
Since June, Otherworld Industries has been headquartered in a Reynoldsburg strip mall – well, former strip mall might be more accurate. Everything here is empty: Target, Office Max, hobby store, Sports Authority.
At the moment, it’s not very impressive from the outside. Fabrication director Leland Drexler-Russell thinks that works to their advantage.
“Our abandoned, sci-fi research facility lends itself really well to this abandoned strip mall that we’re in,” Drexler-Russell says.
“A Tendency To Get Creepy”
Inside the construction site, artists and contractors work at a hurried pace. Otherworld aims to open its 40,000 square-foot exhibit by the end of March.
Each room offers its own universe, with a distinct concept or theme. As a visitor to Otherworld Industries, you’re left alone to wander, discover and build the story yourself.
There’s no linear story, Renda says, so visitors may have to return two or three times before they fully understand what’s going on.
“We want to give the people of Columbus that they’ve never had before,” says art director Scott Schaaf.
Most of the spaces are still empty or half-finished. Schaffe walks us through an arch of baby doll heads and an eerie church to reach the center of the maze: The Tree of Life, an imposing structure with branches of glowing orbs. Nearby is the Watcher, a 19-eyed interdimensional creature whose video-projected pupils follow you across the floor.
It’s not the only strange monster hiding around here.
“We’ve entered what we call the fuzzy things room,” Schaaf says.
In this claustrophobic space, we’re dwarfed by a 10-foot-tall blue monster – sort of like a cross between Cookie Monster and a sperm whale.
“Definitely a Jim Henson on steroids situation,” Schaaf jokes.
This is the brainchild of textile design lead Hollie Hermes.
“A lot of things in here have a tendency to get creepy,” Hermes says. “I really wanted to keep this room pure.”
Hermes, who Drexler-Russell recruited in August, is one of dozens of artists from multiple mediums collaborating on Otherworld. Her authority extends to everything from fabric to faux-fur, including a horde of neon green spiders and a red velvet hallway.
For the fuzzy things room, she wanted to evoke a child’s vibrant imagination, where you can climb or sit on every surface. When I visited again in January, pink surfboard-shaped monsters covered the walls.
“I just wanted it so cheesy that it got so cheesy it became art again,” Hermes says.
“Kind Of Crazy”
Renda went to Ohio State, while Schaaf went to school at the Columbus College of Art and Design. Both recruited more local artists to join the crew.
Drexler-Russell, on the other hand, hails from the Austin art collective Future TBD. He’s worked in public interactive art for seven years, and came onto the project early in its life.
He first met Renda in St. Louis, where Renda first revealed his concept. For the next four months, they talked on the phone almost every other day, developing the rooms and storylines.
In the fall of 2017, Renda brought his pitch to banks and secured $2 million in funding. Soon after, Drexler-Russell moved to Columbus to work full-time on Otherworld.
“I always knew this project was gonna become real,” Drexler-Russell says. “Some of my friends thought I was kind of crazy, but I had confidence in it.”
Some 50 people are now rushing to meet their deadline, including two build teams, a textiles team, metal team, tech team, digital designers, and finish painters.
“Right now we’re kind of in the final punch list,” Drexler-Russell says. “Everything has been figured out what we’re doing. Now it’s just getting it up and getting it ready to open.”
Reynoldsburg may seem an auspicious location for something this, frankly, weird. But for the immensity of the production, this strip mall (and its unused parking lot) fit their needs perfectly.
“When you pull up, we don’t necessarily have the most curb appeal out here,” Renda says. “But when you’re looking for a 40,000-plus square foot building, those don’t really exist inside the city.”
Renda hopes Otherworld will help make Central Ohio an international art destination in its own right.
“Even Disney doesn’t have things that are that interactive on that large of a scale,” he says.