May 01, 2011

Technology and its discontents in the arts — The Culturelab dust settles

My brain is still buzzing from two days of presentations, conversation, and debate at the second annual Culturelab convening at the University of Chicago. Day One was an invitational affair with a small group of philanthropic and government funders from the US, UK, and Australia. On Day Two we were joined by Chicago-area arts leaders (and some terrific grad students who will become arts leaders) for an "emerging practice" seminar. The heart of the agenda was a debate about technological layering onto arts experiences: enrichment or distraction?

I had assumed the conceptual action would be on Day One, with its big-picture agenda built around the recent supply and demand fracas in the arts (I spoke on the demand side of the equation). The topics for Day Two — technology in the morning, pricing in the afternoon — promised a more tactical discussion.

But things got interesting well before the lunchtime debate between Alan Brown, the well-known arts researcher (and founder of the Culturelab consortium), and Martha Lavey, the much-admired artistic director of Steppenwolf Theater, about whether audiences should be able to use their mobile devices during performances. Ron Evans (at left) gave a witty and eye-opening talk [pdf] about mobile interactivity and augmented reality, including a card-game app from the Tate Modern in which visitors (you have to be at the museum to play) pick artworks that they think would win in a fight if the works came to life and started brawling with each other.

You could hear the uneasy chuckles in the room: Sounds clever, but is that how we want people engaging with Art?

Evans was followed by another bright young light in the world of social tech: Devon Smith, who talked about foursquare and its current and potential uses in the arts. Among her examples: an art-treasure hunt and exhibition held last year in New York called Mission: Edition, from an art gallery interested in what it calls “psychogeography.” Not surprisingly, the Brooklyn Museum is also on Smith’s foursquare A-list.

What I began to realize, listening to Evans, Smith and others talk about technologies as simple as supertitles and as sophisticated as this amazing dance interactive, is that what’s “augmented” about these arts experiences is the social connection. There’s someone talking to you. Or you’re talking to someone. You’re not alone. ...

I know, this is not a brilliant realization. They’re called “social media” for a reason. But somehow it struck me that all these technologies — including that primitive technology known as the printed program — are ways of re-socializing the arts experience. 

For the last few centuries (since Kant, if we have to pick on somebody) the dominant tradition in aesthetics has focused on the encounter of one perceiving-and-judging subject (that’s you) with one work of art or performance (that’s Merce Cunningham’s chiseled dancers). And that’s still how most arts experiences are set up: they bring us together as an audience in order to isolate us as beholders, in the belief that connecting with the art(ist) is possible only to the extent that we’re not connecting with each other. 

Nowadays, though, that sounds like a lonely business. We want others in the experience with us. We don’t want to have to cut ourselves off in order to have those encounters with art. That doesn’t make us boors, and it doesn’t mean we’re not paying attention. It just means that we are, as columnist David Brooks reminds us in his new book, social animals.

And back in the day, weren’t arts experiences plenty social? Another Culturelab member, the facilities planner Duncan Webb, gave a terrific presentation in the afternoon on the evolution of performing arts spaces [pdf]. Citing the invaluable work of Lynne Conner on the history of audience behavior, he showed woodcuts and paintings of theaters from past centuries in which there’s more going on in the audience than polite sitting and watching. (Think of the groundlings at Shakespeare’s Globe.)

Most advocates of technology in the arts talk about it as an engagement tool, a way of enriching and extending that traditional connection between audience and art. Maybe that’s missing the point. Maybe we should think of it as a humanization tool: a way of enriching and extending the experience by connecting audience members to one or more of their fellow humans — artist, curator, director, musician, critic, sure, but also (and just as legitimately) their fellow beholders, friends who may not be present, social networks…

Which brings us to the lunch debate about “tweet seats” and other uses of mobile devices in theaters and concert halls. I’ll recap it in my next post, if my notes are up to the job. Meanwhile, please help socialize this blog by commenting below. Whether you were at Culturelab or not, what do you think about technology’s place in the arts experience?



5 Comments »
Nick Rabkin — May 03, 2011

The arts have something to learn from education about the uses of technology. Ed researchers find that a few things really make a big difference when it comes to learning experiences. First, learning is social. Students learn better by working and reflecting together than they do on their own. Second, learning is deeper when it is hands-on, not just listening to a lecture or reading a book, but involves doing or making something relevant to the subject. Third, learning is best when it is 'student-centered,' about something that matters to students, gives them some choices, respects knowledge and perspectives they already have, and connects new knowledge to old. Fourth, deep learning is 'cognitive', which means that it is about complex ideas, concepts, problems, themes and issues. (That is different from rational, incidentally. Cognition is a bundle of complex and integrated mental process that are conscious and unconscious, logical and emotional all at once.)

Look at it that way, and learning and arts experiences have a great deal more in common than we usually imagine. Stikes me that if we want arts experiences to be deeper and richer, we should think about how to make them more social, hands-on, audience-centered, and cognitive. When tech adds to those dimensions it is a good thing, when it diminishes them, it is a bad thing.

Deb Kerr — May 04, 2011

Last year I took two very reluctant young nephews to the Art Institute of Chicago. I introduced them to the art by asking them to find animals in the paintings. Is that how they should experience art? But it worked. We've always needed a hook to engage new audiences.

Social media is a reasonable hook for certain audiences. Social media is a key way young people share their experiences. So not only is it a tool for learning, as Nick says, and a tool for marketing (as marketers already know), but it's a tool for building affinity and credibility, particularly with young audiences.

The next step, of course, is for the cultural sector to use social networking as a way to drive support (funding), advocacy (write a letter to support funding arts in the federal budget) and social change (check out the North Carolina Aquarium's Beach Reach page, created by youth in their programs to engage their friends and families in taking personal action that helps beaches and oceans: www.facebook.com/youthbeachreach.)

David G Ostrow — May 05, 2011

I am only a consumer when it comes to art, but I attended the luncheon debate both because I wanted to see and hear my close friend and colleague Alan Brown, and I had just attended a Conference in SF, SexTech::2011, which concerned the use of new media for HIV/STI/unwanted pregnancy prevention for teens and wanted to see how similar the dynamics and controversies were between two totally different domains of engagement. Whatever I learned at the debate last week, was underscored by Nick Rabkin's comments here. Behavior change interventions are also totally dependent on engaging one's audience, which in my case are mostly young Black men residing on the So Side of Chicago and who are 10x as likely to become HIV infected as their White or Latino peers. And our experience, as well as that of the other health promotion researchers that I met at SexTech::2011, were the same as Nick lists above - to reach them, we have to make whatever we do fit into their social networks, to retain them in the process of behavior change we have to be "hands on" and client/patient centered, and to change their behavior in an enduring way, we have to change whatever cognitions underly the risk-taking behavior, which, we are finding out, means also changing the attitudes and beliefs and behaviors of the members of their social and risk networks.

Beth — May 13, 2011

I'm actually working on this very issue for creating museum mobile tours. My institution currently has a rather traditional format, even though we use iPods and make it available via mobile link to smart phones (object-based stop, sublevel, etc., a few videos here and there).

I think there's a fantastic amount of potential for upping the social media presence considering the technology--shareable functionality, opportunities for gameplay based on objects, ability simply to search or see related objects, adding comments or some kind of personal content... the list goes on!

I've been working on participatory strategies, informal/social learning, and such to figure out how we can start to implement them as the mobile tour goes forward. One thing I've been particularly focusing on is using social media to conduct front-end evaluations for a small family-oriented tour, the results of which will determine the content and presentation of the tour stops.

Of course it won't be everyone's cup of tea, but I think there will be plenty of people who will find this an interesting and exciting experience.

Mary Case — May 18, 2011

Your "buzzing" metaphor has me thinking of the good little how to book on social media marketing The Dragonfly Effect -- dragonflyeffect.com Continuing the metaphor, each fragile, faceted wing moves independently, carrying the body aloft, quickly, moving in any direction, even hovering when required. This is what is required of the new systems we create -- speed, flexibility, beauty, independence, and interconnectivity.

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