February 21, 2011

Flash-mob arts performances where you least expect them

Are you one of the millions of people who've watched videos of the surprise arts performances that the Knight Foundation has been sneaking into grocery stores, malls, and office lobbies in eight US cities? If not, you're missing something that's both a kick and a revelation. The program, called Random Acts of Culture, pulls the arts off their pedestal and sets them, literally, in the marketplace.

These guerilla interventions into daily life have been met with delighted surprise, bemused attention, joyful laughter, lots of cell phone picture- and video-taking, even some moist eyes. The biggest Random Act so far (Knight is hoping to fund 1,000 of them by the end of 2013) was a Hallelujah Chorus at the Philadelphia Macy's in which 650 of the holiday "shoppers" (actually professional singers organized by the Opera Company of Philadelphia) burst into song, accompanied by the store's legendary organ. The video has drawn more than 7 million hits on YouTube and thousands of comments. In three months.

What struck me most forcefully, watching videos of Random Acts of dance, poetry, classical music, and opera from around the country, was that the bystanders (well, they start as bystanders but soon become an audience) are obviously experiencing a range of real, pleasurable human emotions. That’s something you can't usually see on the faces of arts audiences sitting in concert halls and auditoriums.

Why is that? Not just because they're not expecting an arts attack and are thrown off balance, although clearly that's part of the fun. I think it has to do with the fact that, in these Random Acts, the performers and the audience are in every sense on the same level. The performers are dressed like you and me. They're in our midst, not on a stage. We're together in this crazy business (opera, life).

And they have to compete for our attention. They can't presume it — they have to earn it by being terrific. (Historically, that was the norm rather than the exception. Think of Shakespeare's actors quieting the groundlings at the Globe by sheer presence, or a keyboard solo that makes people put down their drinks and pay attention at a jazz club.) So it feels more like an honest, spontaneous transaction: you be amazing, and I'll stop what I'm doing and watch with a grin on my face. ...

It's as if the arts have suddenly been reframed, shifted from the temple-of-transcendence frame to the everyday-life frame. I've written here before about classical musicians on a mission to reach new audiences by, for instance, playing Bach in bowling alleys and supermarkets, or holding cello Tweet-ups in public spaces. But the Random Acts program is more ambitious and, from the looks of it, more dramatically subversive. It almost makes you think the arts have been in hiding all these years, playing it safe in their own cultural caves instead of venturing out to where life is really going on. Hence the feeling of celebration surrounding these performances: the arts are coming out of the closet, redefining themselves as things regular people do, in regular places -- no longer "hallowed" experiences set apart from daily life.

To be sure, one of the Knight Foundation's goals is to remind people that the arts are wonderful so they'll attend in more conventional ways. Here’s part of the project's mission statement:

In these days of shrinking audiences, we also hope that these random acts will encourage people to attend traditional performances. We can’t promise it. But it’s hard to watch what unfolds during a Random Act of Culture, and not be inspired to see and hear more.

I like that hedge ("We can't promise"), because I don't think it's realistic to expect many people to start attending the opera or ballet because of what they saw (and felt) during one of these interventions. Nor is that how the success of the program should be judged. (It's a parallel rather than a gateway offering.)

But there is a subtle chipping-away effect. You can see the bystanders' identities being challenged by their own reactions to the performance: "I'm not a dance (or classical music, or poetry, or opera) person. But wait a second. This is fun!" With enough time and repetition, I suppose that effect could reshape perceptions of the category we call "the arts," converting it to something enjoyable and communal and everyday.

And that, more than any direct boost to ticket sales, is what the Knight Foundation seems to be shooting for. This is an experiment in urban social vitality. Because of these performances, says the Knight statement, "people going along in their everyday lives are part of a shared, communal experience that makes their community a more vibrant place to live."

Note the instrumentality of this argument, which for once feels heartfelt coming from a foundation. The arts, in themselves, aren't really the point: they're a tool for something larger. I think that's the real freedom that sets this project dancing.

I do have a caveat or two (you won't be surprised to hear). When I first read the name of the initiative, that word "culture" struck me as a little tone-deaf. Don't random acts of culture go on all the time? Isn't that guitarist on the subway platform doing a version? Aren't architecture, television, fashion, and the kabobs from that street vendor forms of culture? Listen to Slate magazine's Culture Gabfest online and you won't hear about art museums or symphony premieres (okay, so this week is an exception). What the Knight program's name really means is Random Acts of the Traditionally-Defined Fine Arts, and privileging that corner of the cultural landscape as if it were inherently superior just seems naive these days. Something to be careful about.

And despite its freshness, the program does stick to the familiar arts model in some fundamental ways. It's not participatory, co-created culture; the professionals do the performing and the bystanders do the watching (although I'm sure some of the real shoppers at Macy's began singing along with the Handel). The repertoire is mostly familiar — "the classics," according to the Knight statement.

But who cares, when the results are this much fun? Random Acts of Culture is getting artists of all kinds “out into the community,” at a time when everyone else (e.g., the Detroit Symphony) is talking about the importance of doing just that but lacking a compelling picture of what it would look like, other than dutiful visits to schools and nursing homes. Well, that picture is now playing at a public space near you.



2 Comments »
Eileen Bevis — February 24, 2011

These "random" acts are definitely exciting and accessible: two important features not always associated with traditional arts organizations. But as engaged and interested as one might be in the midst of a flash-mob, it's still a long series of decisions to get that paid seat in the regular venue. So it's heartening to hear that the Knight Foundation is more focused on the experiential aspects, both communal and cultural.

Katie Campbell — February 28, 2011

"It's not participatory, co-created culture; the professionals do the performing and the bystanders do the watching."
This comment made me think of Improv Everywhere, and ponder what the possibilities of this model would be if the arts were tied into it. What if hundreds of strangers showed up with sidewalk chalk somewhere to create a mural in an unexpected place?
Much of the appeal of Improv Everywhere is that it is (to a certain extent) open to anyone who wants to participate. It would seem that a similar setup could make opportunities for "co-creating" culture and would still have all of the positive outcomes of Knight Foundation's random acts of culture. Great post.

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