The Art of Participatory Culture - Learning to Play WITH Our Audiences

This article was originally a speech for TEDxMichiganAve delivered by David Dombrosky on May 7, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Confucius. He said, “Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand.” This quote has become one of my touchstones because it reminds me that: life is experiential, and the most resonant experiences in my life were ones in which I was an active participant. The first time I sang a solo for a public audience. Writing and performing a solo theatrical performance in college. Learning how to tango earlier this year.

If the arts community agrees that we want audiences to have deeply resonant experiences with the arts, then the question arises, “How can artists and arts organizations go beyond telling their audiences about the work or showing the work to patrons and actually INVOLVE them in the work?”

Technological advances over the past decade have propelled us into a highly participatory culture, wherein individuals no longer simply consume culture, but they now actively produce and contribute to culture. In 2006, media scholar Henry Jenkins and his colleagues published a white paper entitled Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture in which they described five defining elements for participatory culture.

Jenkin's 5 Traits of Participatory Culture. Image from
Jenkin's 5 Traits of Participatory Culture. Image from

With this article, I would like to address the question of how artists and arts organizations can involve audiences in their work by highlighting how a number of artists and organizations exemplify the defining elements of participatory culture.

#1 – “A participatory culture has relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement.”

We see evidence of this every day. The number of free web tools and mobile apps that have been released over the past decade is astronomical. With each successive release, the barrier to artistic expression and engagement is lowered that much more.

One recently released, free tool called Broadcastr allows people to record 3-minute audio segments and pin them to specific locations on a map that is available on their website as well as through their mobile application.

30 Plays in 30 Blocks from the Neo-Futurists

Many of you may know the Neo-Futurists, a theatre performance group originally established here in Chicago. Their New York City chapter has a show called Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind which contains 30 plays performed in 60 minutes. Earlier this year, they used Broadcastr to create 30 plays in 30 blocks. So if you go to Second Avenue in Manhattan, you can walk from Houston Street to 29th Street and experience 30 location-specific, interactive pieces of audio content. Some of them direct you to do things, some of them are little songs, some of them are plays with multiple voices, and some of them reference their locations very directly.

The technology required to do this? Either a computer with speakers and a microphone OR a smartphone. That’s it.

#2 - A participatory culture has strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others

Over the past two years, choral composer Eric Whitacre has worked with singers from around the world to create “virtual choirs” for the performance of his compositions. Participating singers download a PDF version of the sheet music for their vocal part. They watch a YouTube video of Whitacre conducting the music, record their vocal tracks, then send the tracks to Whitacre for final editing. Whitacre and his producer then combine all of the vocal tracks together into a single audio composition and syncs it with a video featuring a virtual riser with the floating faces of each of the singers performing the piece.

His most recent virtual choir composition entitled “Sleep” features 2052 singers from 58 different countries. As of today, the video has been viewed nearly 500,000 times on YouTube. His 2009 virtual choir composition “Lux Aurumque” has had over 2.4 million views.

#3 - A participatory culture has some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices

One organization which exemplifies this element is the San Francisco Symphony. With their Community of Music Makers program, the symphony serves amateur adult musicians and promotes active participation in music-making and lifelong learning. Community of Music Makers includes workshops and events for amateur vocalists and instrumentalists in symphony’s performance hall, where participants are able to improve their skills. They also receive live and online coaching sessions from the symphony’s musicians and artistic staff. A chamber music convening service serves as a clearinghouse to help individual players and ensembles connect each other and identify performance opportunities in the local community.

The lesson here? Learn to love amateurs as they are likely to be a strong core from which to further develop your audience.

#4 – In a participatory culture, members believe that their contributions matter.

The Brooklyn Museum pioneered crowd-curation in 2008 with its photography exhibition Click! First launched through an open call for artists to submit photos related to the theme of “The Changing Faces of Brooklyn,” the artwork was then made available online for anyone to curate. This year, they are taking another spin on this concept with the exhibition Split Second: Indian Paintings, which invited the Brooklyn Museum’s online community to participate in a project that will result in a small installation of Indian paintings from the Museum’s permanent collection in July 2011.

The first stage of the project explores split-second reactions: in a timed trial, participants were asked to select which painting they prefer from a randomly generated pair of images. Next, participants were asked to write in their own words about a painting before rating its appeal on a scale. In the final stage, participants were asked to rate a work of art after being given unlimited time to view it alongside typical interpretive text. Each part of the exercise aims to examine how a different type of information—or a lack thereof—might affect a person's reaction to a work of art.

Once the exhibit opens in July 2011, visitors will be able to view a small selection of the paintings that generated the most controversial and dynamic responses during the evaluation process, accompanied by a visualization and analysis of the data collected.

With both of these experiments from the museum, the online participants had a clear understanding of how their contributions would matter to the overall project.

In April of this year, choreographer Jonah Boaker debuted FILTER at the Ferst Center for the Performing Arts at Georgia Tech University in Atlanta. FILTER explores how the audience can serve as a collaborative filter for the performance through the use of a mobile application.

Interview eith Jonah Bokaer about FILTER.

Boaker worked closely with students from the university’s Music Technology Program to develop MassMobile, a smartphone app that acts as an interactive platform for audience members to participate by affecting the stage in different ways. Boaker’s approach to participation actually allows the audience to co-create the artistic experience in real-time.

#5 - In a participatory culture, members feel some degree of social connection with one another

Okay, so my absolute favorite exemplar of this element is the MP3 Experiment created and hosted by Improv Everywhere in New York City. Begun in 2003, the concept is quite simple. Improv Everywhere puts an original mp3 file online (usually around 45 minutes long) that people download and transfer to their iPods. Participants then: synchronize their watches to a clock on the organization's website, venture out to the same public location, and blend in with the crowd. At the predetermined time, everyone presses play. Participants then carry out coordinated instructions delivered to their headphones via narrator “Steve,” and everyone around them tries to figure out what in the world is going on.

In 2010, over 3,000 people participated in a MP3 Experiment in Midtown Manhattan. The event started in retail stores and progressed to Bryant Park for the narrator’s surprise birthday. The event ended with a massive toilet-paper-mummy dance party.

The next Mp3 Experiment in New York is scheduled for July 16, 2011. Stay tuned to the Improv Everywhere site if you're in New York and wish to participate.

Something to consider about all of the artists and arts organizations that I’ve mentioned here is that they all invite the audience to play.

As an industry, we have spent so much of our time playing FOR the audience or playing TO the audience. In order for our sector to thrive in this participatory culture, we must now invest a significant amount of time and energy exploring ways to play WITH the audience.

Museum crowd-curation and the way we live now

Split Second

Should more museums follow the Brooklyn Museum’s lead?

Recently, I helped curate Split-Second: Indian Paintings, a show for the Brooklyn Museum.  To do so, I simply visited their website and participated in an online activity.  It took me about ten minutes, and it involved briefly looking at images, clicking on those paintings that I found most intriguing and rating other paintings on a sliding scale.

My participation in this process got me thinking not only about Indian art, but also about how my own perceptions of art in general might be shaped, and how my aesthetic tastes might compare to the sensibilities of the general public.  Even more interesting to me was that this experiment in crowd-curation felt like the inevitable extension of the movement towards a more participatory culture.

What is it?

Museum crowd-curation enables the general public to become a part of the curatorial process by helping to determine, through an online platform, the artwork to be included in a physical exhibition displayed in a museum’s gallery.

The Brooklyn Museum pioneered crowd-curation three years ago with its photography exhibition Click! . First launched through an open call for artists to submit photos related to the theme of “The Changing Faces of Brooklyn”, the artwork was then made available online for anyone to curate.   Perhaps most interestingly, the Brooklyn Museum staff took a transparent and scientific approach to the experiment, publicly sharing data and thoughtful analysis every step of the way.  Check out Brad's Technology in the Arts podcast with Shelley Bernstein from 2008 to learn more about Click!

Selection of photographs from Click! by the Brooklyn Museum
Selection of photographs from Click! by the Brooklyn Museum

Now, Bernstein and the folks at the Brooklyn Museum are offering a new spin on crowd-curation by injecting theories of connoisseurship to Split-Second: Indian Paintings. Based on ideas from the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, Split-Second seeks to explore how our first impressions might affect our perceptions of art as well as the production of a museum exhibition.  In the end, we’re left with an engaging viewer/curator experience that subtly mixes the professional with the amateur.

Why is crowd-curation so intriguing?

Increasingly, we are becoming a culture of curators, especially in the virtual world.  We spend our time organizing media according to preference, grouping our memories into online photo and video databanks, and “liking” and commenting on things that other people share.  What this means is that arts audiences are coming to the gallery with a newly emboldened sense of organizing and presenting content.  Arts organizations therefore need to play an active role by creating opportunities for meaningful engagement.

Screen shot of Split-Second's crowd-curation process by the Brooklyn Museum
Screen shot of Split-Second's crowd-curation process by the Brooklyn Museum

Organizations that are at the forefront of online audience engagement are presenting ideas that go beyond simply offering information about programming.  Instead, they are experimenting with different ways that audiences can become co-creators of content, which can then lead to a sense of ownership in the institution.  But crowd-curation should not be simply a matter of presenting art works and having a voting contest in the sense of American Idol.  Rather, arts managers need to envision a place of meaningful dialogue between their organization and their audience.

Crowd-curation is exciting because it is a clear illustration of the changing dynamics of the audience/museum relationship.  It takes creative online participation and literally translates the collective online vision into physical space.  Along the way, it can stimulate creative thinking by:

  • Getting the participant/curator to think about her own internal perceptions of art, and perhaps inspire her to dig even deeper through self-reflection. What struck me most in my experience as a curator of Split-Second was how successful the exercise was in getting me to think about not only the art in the show but also my own understanding of visual culture.
  • Creating discussion, based upon the collective decisions of the audience, about big-picture questions, like: How is artistic value determined? Is general consensus achievable in determining artist merit?

By putting the internal and collective processes together, crowd-curation has the potential to achieve multiple levels of meaningful contemplation.  Of course, arts managers may feel like they are taking a significant risk.  They may fear that the artistic content chosen by the masses will not constitute a “quality” exhibition in the traditional sense.  And, perhaps worse, if crowd-curation IS able to produce a quality exhibition, then what is the point of having all of these professionals around?  However, as sites like Wikipedia or perhaps the “comments” section of any website have shown, opening up the production of content to crowds is precisely the time when professional, articulate viewpoints are needed most.

This is not to argue that crowd-curation methods should or will replace traditional curatorial models.  In fact, it doesn’t make sense for all art museums to try it (based on a number of factors such as the nature of the audience, resources available, the nature of the exhibit, etc.)  Even so, crowd-curation is an innovative approach to breaking down the barriers between art museum and audience, and it’s a fascinating reflection of the way we live now.

We Have A Castle, Write Us An Opera!

Every good castle needs an opera company, or so the Savonlinna Opera Festival of Finland would lead you to believe.  They have been performing at St. Olaf’s Castle in Savolinna, Finland since 1912.  The festival took a 50-year Hyades between 1917 and 1967, but since its re-inception in the 60’s has been known for its cutting edge works and operatic premiers. Starting in their 2010 season they have decided to push the envelope of innovation even further. The Savolinna Opera Festival is crowdsourcing an opera for its 2012 season through a new project: Opera By You 2012

They are asking the public to write an opera from beginning to end for their 2012 season. They want the world to create everything from the story, set design and costume design to the music and libretto. Savolinna is providing the performers, the crew, and an orchestra; the public is providing the opera.

To my knowledge this has never been done before in Opera and certainly not to this extent. The Savolinna Opera Festival is taking advantage of to host their crowdsourcing forum. The site was originally set up for crowdsourcing movies, but also seems to be working well for opera. The only major problem I could find was the lack of music sharing technology on the site. It is still not clear how the composers will collaborate on the score for the opera.

Currently, members are working on the plot synopsis for the opera within the online forum. There are ideas ranging from aliens to sea monsters and insurance salesman to princesses, a true amalgamation of creativity. The opera is still in its early stages of creation and nothing has been set in stone yet.

I was a little frustrated that I could not find any information on how they are going to decide which ideas to use. It is not clear from the website if the management is making those decisions or if the public is going to vote. I am personally a fan of putting as much ownership on the collaborators and public creators as possible. The idea that an opera company would forgo control and perform whatever the public wants to see is very exciting.

Opera By You 2012 has the potential to change the world of opera and set a new benchmark for the use of technology in the ‘high arts’. This project is breaking many of the stereotypes typically associated with this art form and opening opera to a much wider audience. Opera By You 2012 is not about tradition or ‘the classics’, it is about making new art and opening up an opportunity for the masses to interact with opera.

Technology is helping this arts organization reach out to the world and break down some of the barriers that keep many people away from the classical music realm. Crowdsourcing taps the collective creativity of everyone involved and creates a product that is not only designed for an audience, but by them. This type of innovation is what keeps the arts current in our society. It will be very interesting to see how this opera materializes and the impacts that it will have on the world of opera.

Weekend Update (Don't Sue Me, SNL!)

Just had a couple notes I wanted to share before the weekend: Click! Exhibit Results Now Available

The online gallery for Brooklyn Museum's crowd-curated exhibit Click!, which I wrote about in a Technology in the Arts blog entry, is now available.

The exhibit asked users to register and adjudicate work that was accepted as part of a March 2008 open call. The submitting photographers were asked to “consider Brooklyn’s transformation over the years, its past and its present, and submit a photograph that captured the ‘changing face(s) of Brooklyn.’”'

The Click! online gallery with a very cool adjudication results feature is now available.

ICANN Relaxing URL Restrictions

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which controls domain names on the Internet, has decided to relax its policy on domain naming conventions. Web site URLs will now be able to use characters other than Latin, as well as any combination of letters and numbers up to 64 characters.

Finally, I can register, where my grandma plans to sell her handmade dolls. She's been bugging me about it for years. "Sex sells," she says. She's been watching too much TV.

Oh Grandma. You and your dirty mind.

Have a wonderful weekend!