Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Thought About TEDxMichigan Avenue

I was only able to stay for the morning sessions of TEDxMichiganAvenue, because my son was graduating from Illinois State that evening. But I've followed the Twitter hashtag, and read some of the blog posts about the speakers that came after me. And from what I can tell, many of the speakers seemed to touch on a similar topic: participation.

All of us seem to have soaked in the whole crowdsourcing, Clay Shirky here-comes-everyone-cognitive-surplus theme that currently dominates many discussions of how the web is changing our expectations about, well, just about everything. I have to admit, I'm sold -- I think there is a major change happening, and I think that Shirky is the one who tells the story in a way that is most relevant to the arts.

But I'm curious as to whether people in the arts are really getting it. We keep talking about using the web for marketing, using Twitter and Facebook and various apps to "strengthen the relationship with the audience," or using Twitter for a back channel conversation during a show. And all of those things are important, and could lead to some interesting experiments, but I don't think they get to the center of this revolution -- or "reformation," as Ben Cameron said in his TEDx talk about a year ago. He said that the central questions being asked were "who's entitled to practice? How are they entitled to practice? And indeed, do we need anyone to intermediate for us in order to have an experience with a spiritual divine?" There's the real crux of the matter.

There will always be spectators and performers. The question is whether the performers (and the playwrights as well) are going to continue to be separate groups. Will most artistic experiences continue to consist of an art-commodity created by artist-specialists and sold to consumers? That certainly is not the model being discussed by Shirky. Whether "lol cats" or YouTube videos or independent films created with equipment purchased with a credit card, people want to not only consume, but create as well. And the question is: will artists learn to share the stage with them, will they sit down and let amateurs stand up, will they work alongside them to create and tell stories?

In all of this discussion about "strengthening the arts" in America, I don't hear anyone asking the question "for whom?" And the reason I don't hear it, I have a feeling, is that we are all holding on real hard to strengthening the arts for the artists -- it doesn't even occur to us that the category artist-specialist may end up shrinking to make room for an enlarged artist-amateur category, as the people-formerly-known-as-the-audience demand to participate, not just observe.

Are we ready to share? Not only to share, but to facilitate and encourage?


Aaron Andersen said...

I don't think most artists (or perhaps more accurately, most arts institutions) are ready for this. Even in a collaborative form like theater, many artists are not willing to surrender control of the product. And as an arts administrator, I admit that "here comes everybody" takes over the performing arts, that means a very different employment future for me, which is kinda scary.

But I think it's going to happen whether we like it or not. I think there will always be a space for the controlled one-way presentation of artistic product, but that space is going to be smaller. It's going to be smaller if we lose audiences to Hulu and YouTube, or it's going to be smaller if we lose audiences to those performing arts organizations that actually live into this future.

Either we adapt now and thrive, or we don't adapt, and atrophy.

Gwydion Suilebhan said...

I think this is pretty much what I said in my TEDxMichiganAve talk. Or at least part of it.

I agree with Aaron: most institutions aren't ready. But ready or not... here we come.

Veronika Sawyer said...

Journalism is facing similar challenges.

ukejackson said...

Hi Scott, Just watched that video and a couple things jump out at me, as a playwright and band leader who has thought about these topics.

First, any linking of the arts to organized religion is diabolical. It will lead to the worst sort of censorship and self-censorship. It always has and always will. Organized religion is the most anti-democratic force there is.

Next, the people who aren't "getting it" and becoming obsolete, more than any other segment, are the marketing "gurus". Top down marketing is dead, especially in the arts. All this blather about how to market the arts to young folk is more than blather, it is the screams of dying dinosaurs. People want to discover things on their own and share those discoveries. The new audience members now coming of age can't and won't be told what to discover, not by artists, and certainly not by the professional bovine excrement purveors known as arts marketing specialists.

I wrote about the coming of what I call the "digital pit" in my own blog post recently:

The mushroom paradigm can still work if it adapts. Professional theater, dance, orchestras can co-exist with electronic other forms but to do so they must make room for participatory word-of-mouth and other avenues of self-expression from the audiences.

Performers will always perform and there will always be an audience for those performances. I do agree that the pro/am divide is melting away. People still recognize when something is excellent and exciting.

Recorded is not going to replace live.

In many ways, a lot of the coming change is a return to the way things used to be -- before the arts bureaucracy -- combined with the new evolving communication technologies as the new word-of-mouth.

I could go into more depth with my ideas but have probably more than used up my 64 cents worth ;-)

Scott Walters said...

I guess I'm not as anti-religion as you are, especially as an analogy. The parallels are illuminating.

I totally agree that we are going back to the future. The mass media made us passive for a while, but as Clay Shirky says, we are waking up again from our long, TV-sitcom-induced sleep.

Given that our regional theatre movement was born at the height of that sleep, there is going to be an upheaval. Thank God.

ukejackson said...

Scott, Congrats on your son's graduation! Forgot to say that in the first post.

Scott Walters said...

Thanks, Uke!

Scott Walters said...

As far a Lavey's contention that new media is "distracting, distancing, and essentially destructive of the communal experience of live theater, which is at its heart “a space for reflection.” We’re in that space, Lavey argued, to experience something together, to “just react,” and then make sense of what we’ve experienced. So it’s essential to hold our impulses inside us, to feel them and think about them while that process plays out. Tweeting from our seats would short-circuit it."

Well, I'd suggest she needs to revisit her theatre history. This sit-down-and-shut-up attitude we have toward the audience had to be trained into them, and was definitely NOT the way it was done throughout the first 2300+ years of theatre history.

I think actors and audiences need to get over this insistence on quiet -- theatre isn't the library. As far as Lavey's insistence that Steppenwolf relies on language -- well, so did Shakespeare, and he had to deal with the groundlings.

ukejackson said...