Technology in Art and Arts Organizations: Interview with Fifth House Ensemble

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Integrating technology, on any level, can be daunting for arts organizations. There are valid trepidations concerning cost and time commitments, and generally a change resistance culture. You won’t find that attitude with Melissa Snoza and the staff of Fifth House Ensemble. Fifth House is an innovative Chicago-based Chamber music group, and has embraced modern technology throughout the organization. Google Apps has streamlined their internal communication, and social media is utilized in their artistic endeavor In Transit. In Transit, their 5th annual Signature Series, is probably best explained through the Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, and hashtags that collectively tell the story of each performance. The lives of these characters are revealed through their posts, the, and the interaction of the audience during live performances.

I got to chat with Snoza, Fifth House’s Executive Director, about In Transit and Fifth House’s approach to technology on an organizational level.

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RW: We’re at a point where a lot of organizations have a social media page because they feel that they have to, or they don’t use it as well as they should. I’m really fascinated by your embrace of social media with “In Transit”. Where did the impetus to create these virtual characters come from?

MS: Fundamentally, all of our Signature Series shows are about storytelling. We've used graphic novels and fairy tales before, but we wanted to choose a medium that allowed us to involve our audience in the process, both through seeing stories of characters they can imagine knowing, and through interacting with them live. So many of us tell our stories through social media these days, and we were really excited to see Facebook's Timeline come out as we were developing scripts for the show. You can really look back at someone's history and see what they were up to, who they were connected to, and what they chose to share about how they were feeling at the time. Of course, you don't see the thoughts that remain offline, or those that a person thought about writing but thought better of it, but that's part of the fun that we get to explore with In Transit. You'll see characters entering text into blogs or social media sites, then making copious use of the delete button on second thought. We all do it!

RW: A lot of attention is put behind the online presence or brand of an organization. This isn’t just your brand, its new identities. What were some of the considerations in creating them?

MS: We really wanted them to be authentic. It's interesting - when we were first talking about this project, we had some pushback on the social media idea. Some folks thought it was a little gimmicky, and we definitely got some feedback from people who find social media to be somewhat scary in terms of the dangers associated with it. Funny enough, though, one of the most vocal objectors in our network came to the first show and offered a really interesting take. While he was really concerned originally with the use of social media as the basis for a series, he came away from the performance thinking that this wasn't a show about social media - it's a show about the human experience that just happens to be expressed through social media. That means we did our job - we wanted people to have a look at transformative experiences (overcoming a schoolyard bully, falling in love, and the like), and it seemed perfect to tell these tales the same way we would if it were us going through it.

RW: Why was social media the best (or perhaps only) way to do this project?

MS: It just makes sense. So many of us go online to explore things we're interested in via forums, date online, report on events, and share our daily experiences these days, so it really isn't a stretch to explore art that reflects that reality.

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In Transit: #thisrocks@tanyaramirez90

RW: What were some of the challenges associated with doing this project?

MS: Most of them were technical, and involved finding and making the best use of screen capture software that would let our audience see what our characters would be seeing online, and creating short videos documenting each short interaction. We also had the opportunity to work with some great companies, including Twitter and Ok Cupid as we were building the shows in order to get permission to use their sites. Finally, in live performances, we have the Hope Cadenza in which the audience tweets or texts responses to a prompt to be displayed on a screen. Both require a good wireless and cell signal, and that's not always built in to every space we perform!

RW: I have to assume, taking on a project like this, that you’re very interested in Millennials (tech-saavy twenty-somethings). Are they a demographic you're interested in? How else does 5HE engage this group?

MS: Absolutely. When we did our audience study last year, we found that our core audience is 25-35 year-old culturally curious young professionals who don't necessarily have a history of engaging with classical music, but who are always up for trying something new. When we are creating a show, we don't just look at it as programming, we look at it as experience design. I'm still within that age demographic, and even being a professional classical musician I wouldn't always pick the standard concert hall as my ideal environment for a Friday or Saturday night. We like experiences that stretch us intellectually, that are entertaining, and that are casual and high quality at the same time. And, it never hurts if you can eat and drink while you're there! All of these things impact where we choose to perform, what kind of sponsorships/partnerships we look for.

RW: Providing so many of these performances free of charge, that’s very in keeping with the spirit of social media. Was there any debate or discussion behind that decision?

MS: Sure - we talked about it a lot amongst our musicians, staff, and board, and we really wanted to find a way to make what we do available to all. It's not just that the concerts are free - we're also taking them to neighborhood venues throughout the city via the Chicago Park District in addition to our work at the Chicago Cultural Center. We're bringing music to where people are instead of expecting them to come to us, and the point of that is to make it really easy for them to check out something new.

RW: I want to shift gears a little- you have a marvelous video blog about tech usage for 5HE - let’s say definitively: What is the one technology an arts organization absolutely should be utilizing (but probably is not)?

MS: Google Apps and everything that goes with it. It allows you to use not just the Google-based applications (Docs, Mail, Calendar, Chat, Voice, Sites, etc.), but also a ton of other apps that integrate seamlessly with one login. Manymoon has been a total game-changer for us in terms of staying on task, and it syncs up nicely with Mail and Docs so everything stays organized. Organized is the operative word here - we're artists, and sometimes that's not the #1 priority, but it really should be.

RW: In that vblog, you mention that most of your staff are musicians. Who drives technology decisions in your organization?

MS: I think we all do to some degree. Our bassist, Eric, is always on the hunt for new apps and software, and Adam, our pianist, is a total Apple junkie. I'm always interested in how to run things more efficiently, so a lot of times it starts with needing to solve a time resource problem.

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Fifth House Ensemble

RW: What’s the process in trying to decide whether or not to use a new technology? How do you review whether or not using a particular technology is successful?

MS: We're usually looking to find an application that helps us stay organized, lets us do something faster, or creates a better experience for our audience. Really, we look at whether the tech tool in question is really going to make things more streamlined or just complicate things - even if it's free, new apps take time to learn, which is definitely a non-renewable resource. We're also looking for apps that let us keep a record of what we've done, or create a template for a particular system, so we don't have to reinvent the wheel every time. Really, the assessment comes in how well it functions. If I get a lot of complaints about using something because it's cumbersome or doesn't get the job done, we look at switching. We don't use tech for the sake of doing so - we do it because it really works for us, so we have to constantly look at whether it does.

RW: In the video, you speak a little about the increase of efficiency at 5HE thanks to centralizing information on Google docs. Can you speak a little more as to how technology (whether Google products or Manymoon) has streamlined 5HE? Has this led to an increase in artistic ouput?

MS: It's really allowed us to stay organized and on task. As an example, before Manymoon came into the picture, we were constantly sending hundreds of emails to one another for info or material requests during the spring grant season. That's a time where we're actively designing programs for the next season, as well as seeking resources to fund them, so there's quite a lot going on with a lot of communication both externally and internally. With Manymoon (I'm going to sound like a commercial here), we keep all of this communication in one place. There are projects set up for every grant application and performance, and we're able to create templates that we can replicate as there are similar tasks for each of these. Each task under each project gets assigned to someone with a due date so it doesn't get lost, and we're able to post Google Docs or other files to those tasks so you don't have to dig around in your poorly organized hard drive to find the file you need to complete it. We can then communicate via comments, which get posted to each task and sent to each member of the project via email, so the receipt of the info is immediate, but the conversation is all tracked in one place. That helps us not to lose things, and it also lets us look back to last year's work to see what it is that we did for a particular proposal or performance. If we're spending less time searching through our email inboxes for things we've lost, we're able to spend more time designing great shows and brainstorming with our collaborators - and that's the whole point.

RW: What are technologies you'd like to utilize in the future of 5HE?

Moving forward, I'd like to use more tech tools in the classroom for our educational work, whether it's hardware (iPads and the like for composition), software, or online resources that let students interact with the music while we're there and in between our visits. We want to make it easy for them to play with and access, so they don't run into bumps in the road as they're designing their projects, and also so that they can dig into the creative process as quickly as possible.

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In Transit is just a small piece of how Fifth House Ensemble uses technology to create truly unique performances. They’ve read music off iPads, released an app that works in conjunction with their Black Violet show, and used iPhones to create music (and used that as a teaching tool!)

I hope Fifth House’s awesome approach to technology will inspire you to rethink how your arts organization or works of art could incorporate some of the tools of the modern world.

Fifth House Ensemble will be performing In Transit: #thisrocks tonight, at 8:30 (central) at the Grace United Methodist Church in Naperville, Illinois – and you can check out their full performance schedule online.