WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Posts tagged ‘engagement’

Audience Participation

December 5th, 2013

The lights dim, my pupils dilate, the curtain draws. As the anticipation builds, I’m reminded of a roller coaster: the slow clicks of the train as it ascends the first hill. Music stirs, and movement erupts. The tension in the performance rises, manifesting in angular and twisted shapes. I grow anxious. Suddenly, the dancer’s movements grow soft and supple, seemingly reacting to me. It’s as though we are connected, intertwined in our own dance of lead and follow.

Yet I am not on stage. I’m in the audience. In my seat.

When we sit in a theatre, we are not merely “passive observers.” We engage in a continual exchange: the artist on stage transmits a message; we receive and refine said message; then we remit our interpretations and reactions back to the artists, beginning the cycle all over. This relationship between performer and audience — what Erika Fischer-Lichte refers to as the “autopoietic feedback loop” — is complex, with numerous factors at play (e.g., an audience’s proximity to the stage, the quality of the performers, the use of the “fourth wall,” etc.). However, all else being equal, I think we can start to boil this notion down to a basic concept: there is a give and take between audience and performer.

The artist’s “gift” is quite clear (i.e., the performance), but what is less explicable is the audience’s role in reciprocating. While often abstract, this feedback can also manifest tangibly: a standing ovation, a yawn, or even the absence of sound. And while audiences are ostensibly aware of the many ways they offer feedback to performers, I wonder if they are as aware of the effect this feedback can have on the very performance they are viewing.

As the holidays are in full swing, and we all bustle about attending those annual productions of The NutcrackerA Christmas Carol, or perhaps a sing-a-long of Handel’s Messiah, I hope we can all take a moment and think about the role we play as audience members. Let us be reminded that observation is active and does not operate in a vacuum.

 

Kyle Marinshaw is a consultant in WolfBrown’s San Francisco office. He is currently managing a two-year impact assessment project for a regional arts organization and leading a strategic program evaluation study for one of the country’s largest presenters. Kyle danced professionally for several years before pursuing a career in arts management and cultural research.

Last Thursday, we presented the results of the 2010 Cultural Engagement Index study to a packed room of 200 arts and cultural leaders in Philadelphia. Begun in 2008, the CEI study is the second round of research on cultural engagement in the Greater Philadelphia region, the goal of which is to establish an indicator to track cultural engagement over time. The major headline from the study is that cultural engagement jumped 11 points from 2008 to 2010, with a number of participatory activities leading the charge (e.g., ‘reading poetry out loud or performing rap’ increased 24 points). What was most striking, though, was the dramatic rise in engagement for online activities: ‘listening to Internet radio’ increased 27 points, ‘downloading music’ grew by 30 points, and the two more “active” online activities – ‘remixing materials found online and sharing with others’ and ‘sharing something online that you created’ – also rose significantly (by 29 and 33 points, respectively).

This last finding around active online cultural engagement led me to a TED talk by artist Aaron Koblin recently posted on TED’s Facebook page. Aaron has created a number of collaborative art-making programs online that have involved thousands of people from around the world, and his talk introduced these projects as arguments in support of the importance of the “interface” as the new defining tool of cultural activities. One venture in particular, The Johnny Cash Project, resonated and inspired me. The Cash Project invites individuals, regardless of skill or experience, to recreate a single frame for Johnny Cash’s video of “Ain’t No Grave” using an online drawing tool. All of the frames are pieced together into one whole video, a compilation of many different views stitched into one solid vision. And that vision is continuously evolving as new contributors add their unique voices to the mix. It is a living and breathing work of art made possible by the flexibility and pervasiveness of this “interface” – the Internet.

The Cash Project is just one of many online activities through which people are given the tools and opportunity to create, share, and collaborate (YouTube anyone?). Perhaps we should view the Internet as a “Virtual World Arts and Crafts Market and Festival,” open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Now, how can arts organizations plug into this energy?

The Ultimately Portable Orchestra

February 17th, 2010

Skimming through the The New York Times online video library, I happened upon a piece about a new type of orchestra born at Stanford University, and consequently, at many other places throughout the country: the iPhone Orchestra.  Not only can one make this multi-dimensional communications device a flashlight, or replicate the visual action of drinking a pint of beer, but it can now be your own portable “anything” musical instrument. What the Stanford orchestra has done is not just create a simple app (although these have subsequently been developed and are currently available), but applied their efforts to explore and stretch the capabilities of this device so that it becomes a flute, a drum circle, wind chimes, and produce many other sounds not yet imagined. Although computer-based replication of instrumental sounds is nothing new, the iPhone as an instrument may be the device that levels the musical playing field (just as the portable and then digital camera did for fine art photography) by allowing anyone to compose and play original music at the touch of their fingertips. Ge Wang, one of the founders of the Stanford iPhone Orchestra considers the ability of anyone to take up the iPhone and create new sounds to be one of the basic principles of the iPhone Orchestra, ”It’s my philosophy that people are inherently creative.  It’s not just people who think of themselves as artists.”  Our research into cultural engagement underscores Wang’s philosophy – everyone has creativity embedded in their DNA.  Compose while waiting in long lines at the DMV, or hold an impromptu jam session with friends after dinner.  The possibilities are endless.

 

Growing Audiences

September 4th, 2009

Over the last several years, there has been increasing talk about sharing knowledge in the cultural sector so that all can benefit from the lessons learned by a few. Because so much is happening at once in our sector, sometimes it’s hard to know where to look and what to read to find good syntheses. A few issues ago, I wrote about a Wallace Foundation publication that summarized research on effective arts education programs. Now, I’d like to recommend another Wallace publication that summarizes a variety of discussions and “lessons learned” at a recent gathering of more than 50 Wallace-funded arts organizations on the topic of engaging audiences. One of the key points highlighted in the report is the close relationship between personal practice (e.g., playing an instrument) and arts attendance (buying a ticket), and derives in part from our work with several of the Wallace grantees, including the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Building more bridges between arts creation and arts attendance, the report suggests, could be a long-term strategy for audience development.

As fewer and fewer people attend conferences due to shrinking budgets, I wish more conference organizers would produce this kind of concise summary, so that the field might benefit more widely from the dialogues that too often start and end at conferences.

 

Several weeks ago I visited Catherine Bunting, head of research for Arts Council England (ACE), in her London office. We compared our research ‘wish lists’ and talked about the growing demands of public and private sector authorizers in both of our countries to produce evidence of positive outcomes. In the U.S., WolfBrown has studied impact at the microcosmic level (i.e., the impact of a live performance on an individual), and more studies along this line are in the works, both in the U.S. and the U.K. But much work remains to be done to understand impact in the macrocosm. For example, what is the cumulative benefit to an individual of a lifetime of arts participation? What is the cumulative impact of an arts institution on its community? What is the impact of the totality of a community’s arts and cultural programs on its citizenry? A new “Culture and Sport Evidence Programme” (CASE) was recently launched by Catherine and her colleagues at sister agencies under the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The three-year effort aims to elevate “the quality of evidence underpinning public policy in culture and sport.” You can read more about it here and sign up for a monthly e-mail briefing. The initiative aims to tackle fundamental questions such as “What is engagement?” and “What is value?” Once again, the Brits are way ahead of us. More of our country’s leading arts agencies and funders need to get serious about new methodologies for tracking creativity and cultural engagement over time, and expanding the base of evidence of the impact of the arts on children and adults.

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