Thursday, June 9, 2011

On Participation

I was at a Symposium this week where some of the talk was about the need for our work to become more participatory. The idea is that everyone is an artist now and so everyone needs to create, not just sit and watch and so we, as arts organizations need to create opportunities for people to create. Here’s what I say to that: No we don’t.

Our responsibility is to provide the opportunity to see something beautiful and transcendent and life-changing. Something not everyone can do. If everyone can do it, I don’t want to see it. I create stuff. I write on this blog and I presented earlier this week at Pecha Kucha and I make ceramics and I LOVE to sing (but I wouldn’t subject anyone to it, nor would I make a you tube video of myself doing it). I don’t consider myself an artist with something to say that is so far above the fray that I should be presented in the Museum of Contemporary Art or on the stage of the Goodman. Maybe someday, you never know, but certainly not now.

I depend on the MCA and the Goodman and all of you to nurture and experiment and continue to search for and find those voices that carry expressions of the soul in a profound and moving way.

I love public and community art projects that draw people in to something that is larger than them, that results in a creation that asserts our humanity. And I think places where creativity is encouraged are magical – places like Lill Street where I make my pots and Old Town School of Folk Music.

We are not those places, we are the places where we hear the voice of another, where we set aside our own need to be heard and listen and are uplifted and fortified because we have seen something that truly had something to say – something that spoke to us like nothing else before.



A Filmer said...

Rock on sister.

Audiences participate by listening and paying attention.

I go to the theater so I do NOT have to participate for once. I can actually give my attention to something outside of myself. And witness something universal. Silently sharing with others in the dark.

That is why audiences sit in the dark and the light is on the stage.

Can we please just refuse to jump on the bandwagon that is "participation" and focus on our art and what we do best: reflect our troubled and beautiful human condition through engaging stories.

Unknown said...

I know we don't live in L.A. but what about an organization like Cornerstone Theater. Does that mean there's no room for a company like that in Chicago?

merissa said...

When it comes to arts participation, I don't think art should have to be all or nothing, can't we agree that there is value in both. I want to go to see great theater that I'm not expected to create, but I also want opportunities to contribute and collaborate as well. I think David is right that we shouldn't all jump on the bandwagon just because it's a popular idea, but I also think we should be questioning our practice. If we ask ourselves "would the audience have a richer experience if they could participate in the art making?" and the answer is "yes" than we should strive to make opportunities available. But for many organizations the answer is possibly "no" and they should continue doing what they are doing; making great art.

My Name is Dustin said...

"Audiences participate by listening and paying attention." I think this thought of David's needs to be expanded upon.

The active attention of an audience member is participatory. It is alive and contributive and certainly not passive. I think this is the great difference between live performance-based art (theatre/dance/music concerts/dare I say improv...) and recorded performance-based art (film/television/music recordings). In a live venue the attentive audience is half of the performance. How many times has an actor walked off the stage only to say to herself, "Man, the audience was dead tonight"? An entire performance can be shaped by the laughs, gasps, silences, and yawns of an audience member. And it should be!

That being said I don't think there is enough appreciation for the training of audience members themselves. Film and television have gotten audiences used to the idea that actions and words will at most effect the other members of the audience. The idea that a loud conversation, a ringing phone, or a run to the bathroom in the middle of a stage show could somehow change the very nature of the show that is being observed seems to be such a foreign concept in our current time and place.

It is not simply about etiquette. This goes to something deeper. It is about audience members assuming their rightful places as active participants in art's creation. Performance-based art is in and of itself inherently participatory. Whether that be sitting silently in the dark or shouting a scene suggestion at the stage we should encourage our audiences to participate in the creation of the complete theatrical experience as is their right.

Deb said...

Thanks everyone for your thoughtful comments. To answer Tom's great question about Cornerstone, yes I think there is room for that kind of theatre but I think their mission is more social in nature than it is artistic. They use art to bring communities together and achieve a social mission and I think that is awesome and there should be more of it. And Merissa I think you are right too, if the question is carefully thought out and answered in service to the mission of the organization then yes.

Unknown said...

Thanks for replying to my comment, Deb. I'd push back a little bit and ask you to point to a theatrical or live performative experience that isn't at all social in nature. As a live experience, it's inherently social. Unless we're looking at something behind glass. Which, for me, calls into question the purpose of the endeavor. It's live. It's about what's happening in the room at that moment. And, by extension, how the people in the room are going to be transformed by the experience. If it were film we were talking about, I'd be more comfortable isolating the "social" nature of the work.

Believe me, I see your point. But I'm arguing that the trend toward what's being called out here as participatory is actually a reclamation of something more primal about the experience, something that dates back millenia and in fact we've lost touch with in an effort to be good and passive arts consumers. It's an attempt to heighten people's sensibilities and connect them more immediately to their community, to their environment, to their everyday experiences.

There's room for both, to be sure, but it's not black and white.