The Arts - Unplugged?

It’s summer, and many people are taking the opportunity to “unplug.” Some are checking into special unplugged hotel rooms (and even getting a discount if they turned in their electronic devices at the desk). Others are paying as much as $14,500 to check in to a clinic that would help them conquer their Internet addiction. Last March, GOOD and the Sabbath Manifesto promoted the National Day of Unplugging, where participants disconnected from the internet for 24 hours. All of this “unplugged” stuff got me thinking -- is the arts sector selling itself short as an “unplugged” venue?

Let me be clear -- I’m not saying that we shouldn’t plug in along with our audiences.  It’s imperative that we be able to interact with them in the same way they interact with everyone else in their life -- digitally. And technology can do amazing things in the service of art (I write about it every week). But in our rush to adopt technology as a tool for interacting with our audiences, are we forgetting that it’s not the only tool? Are we stopping to ask the right questions about how technology (especially mobile technology) affects our audience’s experience of our art, both positive and negative? When the lights go down and the curtain goes up, should cell phones be stowed away?

One of the signature aspects of art and live performance is to get lost in “flow”— being fully and actively immersed in the art. Until we started to invite audiences to keep their smartphones on during performances, the concert hall used to be one of the last bastions of a distraction-free zone.  The big question in the performing arts is, does mobile technology accessed during the performance enhance “flow” or distract from it?

Last year around this time there was an article in the New York Times about a group of scientists who went on a rafting trip to discuss (and experience) the effects of “unplugging” on the brain. After three days of an all-nature, no-tech diet, even the most skeptical of the group reported that they were all “more reflective, quieter, more focused on the surroundings.” By extension, does this mean that if we ask our audiences to “put away the gadgets,” as Martha Lavey is not afraid to insist upon, that they will be more reflective on the art in front of them, more focused on it? Of course, nature and art are two different things. Nature, as viewed by the scientists on the trip, was seen as relaxing, something to soothe the mind, to minimize distractions. We like to view our art as stimulating to the mind.

I’d guess our audiences probably experience both ends of this spectrum (and all the places in between). There are probably those who would appreciate being able to view the performance without distraction -- these are the kinds of people who liked this video from the Alamo Drafthouse (be warned, the video contains obscene language from the patron calling the Drafthouse). But then there are people who expect to be able to check their email during the show. And there are yet others who want to use their cell phones to participate in the show, be it live tweeting, voting on the next piece to be performed, or just checking in. So who do we try to please? And which way leads to the most meaningful experience?

I think that experimentation in this area would remove much of the mystery. If your company believes that your shows are more meaningful with mobile interactive technology, embrace it. See what happens, and share the results. Likewise, if your organization is convinced that mobile technology detracts from the audience experience, enforce your decision and embrace it. Maybe try giving a discount, like the hotels do. Position your shows as an escape from distractions and interruptions. See what happens and share the reactions with your colleagues. While it’s foolish to pretend this technology doesn’t exist, it’s something else entirely to reject it for a reason. But either way- make a decision, commit, enforce, evaluate. Then, possibly, revise.

What have been your experiences with mobile technology and both performing and visual arts?

*Photo Credit: Christopher Chan